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Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Feeling Shame About Shame

Is it shame or guilt you feel?

I remember that when I discovered that my son was gay, I felt shame. I was not ashamed of him, but I thought his orientation might cause outsiders or friends to criticize our family. I did not want our family to be seen as "different." If we were regarded as having a child, who is a member of a minority group now, I thought that this new definition could be a source of shame.

With shame, I can attest, you feel lesser, deficient or inferior as I did. Because of society's expectations that everyone should live in a binary world, I envisioned that having a gay child could be looked upon as a stigma. I didn't like the position that I was thrust into once I found out my son was gay. Shame is a painful feeling about how we appear to others and to ourselves and may not depend on having done anything. I didn't do anything! In this regard, it's different than guilt.

What's the Difference between Shame and Guilt?

Many people confuse shame with guilt, but they are distinct. According to psychiatrist Jonathan Tobkes, co-author of my book, When Your Child Is Gay, "guilt tends to be limited to an action that we have taken or not taken, whereas shame is a pervasive negative emotion about how we feel overall."

In other words, we feel guilty for what we do, but shame for what we are. Shame is the feeling of being unworthy, bad or wrong, whereas with guilt, we feel badly because we have not lived up to our own expectations.

Sometimes, shame can begat shame. You become ashamed of your feelings. If I were a good parent, why would I care? Good parents are never ashamed of their kids, right? Wrong!

Shame, A Legacy That Keeps On Giving

Dorothy (a pseudonym), now 60, felt both guilt and shame. A straight parent, Dorothy suspected that her son Kevin was gay and tried to redirect him. When he was 10, she hung Cindy Crawford posters in his room. When her son did come out, she told him not to tell his high school teammates or he would be harassed. Ashamed, Dorothy went into the closet while Kevin came out and blossomed. Dorothy was crying constantly for nine months as she couldn't change Kevin's sexual orientation. "Kevin shouldn't have been made to feel ashamed that he had caused my disappointment." A decision to improve her life lead her to PFLAG and a therapist who happened to be a lesbian.

Once ashamed of having a gay son, now Dorothy refers gay people in the community to her dental office, where she is a dental hygienist. The dentist's office is known as "the office of the gay community" because of Dorothy's support.

Stephanie Segura, now forty, is a lesbian near Salt Lake City. She grew up in a Catholic household where she heard words like queer and faggot bandied by family members. Stephanie dated her present wife for two years while working in the same office. But she felt shame about it as proof of the text to Becca that read "I am having feelings I probably should not have for you."

After Becca and Stephanie were married in 2014, Stephanie's parents didn't like to talk about issues affecting LGBT people. Whenever these issues cropped up, her parents changed the subjects. Stephanie's mother was embarrassed to introduce Becca as Stephanie's wife even though Becca and Stephanie had two kids!

To the LGBT child, being seen as different can be a source of shame.

Similarly, Jacob Thomas, originally from Northern Georgia, was ashamed of being gay. Raised in the Pentecostal church, and knowing he was attracted to boys from a young age, Jacob cried himself to sleep and prayed that this same-sex attraction would go away. It never did. Jacob was ashamed.

Feeling shame, Jacob chose a "masculine" career in the Air Force, and later married a woman. Living as a heterosexual didn't work. On June 25, 2012, he formally came out on a YouTube Video which irked his parents. "They were annoyed they didn't have more time to cover up," he said. "Gay and lesbian children should not only get the message that they are loved, but also that they are not damaged or less than."

Ways To Prevent Shame

It is this feeling of "less than" that prevents parents from casting aside their shame and substituting it with unconditional love for their child. With years of prejudice handed down from generation to generation, it takes work to overcome shame.

So, how do you resolve shame? Tobkes has these tips for resolving shame:

  • Parents should not think that having a gay child or being gay is somewhat undesirable or inferior.
  • Parents who says they don't want to embarrass others actually are projecting their own discomfort onto others.
  • The best way for you to help your child work through their own shame, peeling away years of denial and shame, is by making it clear that you yourself are not ashamed.
  • If you are worried about how others will treat you because you have a gay child, you need to reexamine the nature and strength of your relationship in the same way you would tell your child to do if one of her friends suddenly rejected her upon finding out she was gay. I have found that most people will react in a way that parallels the manner in which you share the news. If you seem uncomfortable and ashamed, then they will react awkwardly.
  • Keep in mind that your LGBT child is not an extension of yourself so people will not judge you. Parents don't cause their child to be gay so they shouldn't blame themselves. Nor can they change their child's sexual orientation.
About the Author
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Wesley C. Davidson is a journalist who researches straight parents of LGBT children. Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. is a psychiatrist in New York and supervises residents at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

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