Mask for Mask: The Gay Man's Search for Acceptance and Validation

By Nick Fink, MA, RP
Registered Psychotherapist & Founder, Mantra Psychotherapy

Date: September 22, 2023

For many of us, growing up gay was a terrifying and lonely journey. Although we may have found the courage to come out to those around us, and become relatively comfortable with who we are, many of us continue to find ourselves struggling with confidence, self-esteem, and self-love. This struggle isn't surprising, considering the harmful messages we were often exposed to as children, which labelled our identity as shameful, pathological, or unworthy of love.

It's well documented that children who endure constant bullying or rejection from their families are at greater risk of experiencing mental health issues later in life (Poteat et al., 2015). For many gay men, these traumas are all too familiar, but so are subtler forms of societal rejection, such as hearing homophobic jokes, slurs, and negative comments from those around us. As children, we may respond to these messages of disapproval by rejecting our own sexuality. But at some point, we may realize that denying this vital part of ourselves isn't an option. We come to recognize that the life we were taught to strive for is impossible to achieve without sacrificing our authenticity and conforming to heterosexual norms.

For some, hiding our true selves may be less daunting than facing the possibility of rejection by those around us. For others, pretending to be someone we're not is more painful than risking the loss of relationships with people closest to us. As children, we often weigh the costs of these choices, torn between the fear of living a life that isn’t genuine and the possibility of social rejection. While many of us may alternate between these options, a significant number ultimately decide that sacrificing who they truly are would be more isolating and lonely than facing the possibility of rejection from society and our community.

Our experiences coming out do vary but are rarely either all positive or negative. Even if we do decide to come out, we can't assume that every single person in our lives will reject us. Over time, we learn to assess which people are more likely to accept us and which may pose a greater risk of rejection. In fact, we may even be pleasantly surprised by the acceptance we receive from some of the people we've worried about coming out to. However, the opposite may be true, and and we become disconnected from the people we had hoped would have our back.

Unfortunately, even those who don't face overt rejection by the people around them often still bear the wounds from growing up in a culture that sees being gay as something to be hidden and ashamed of. When we begin to realize that aspects of ourselves aren't accepted by the society we live in, we often hide the parts that are seen as undesirable and showcase those that are admired by society as compensation. We then get the impression that people accept or even love the external persona or "mask" we portray rather than who we truly are. This feeds into the idea that the only way to survive and not face rejection is to keep the mask on. Evidently, this creates a problem, as we are never being validated for who we are and truly connecting with those around us.
‍‍
In Dr. Alan Downs’ book, The Velvet Rage, he discusses the gay man’s search for validation through the expression of things like creativity, status, and affluence. While these expressions may bring some benefit to the gay man’s life, they do not fulfill the human need of validation for who he is. Gay men often find that they burn themselves out trying to be “someone”, with the idea that the opposite of rejection is admiration or celebration of achievement, aesthetic, and success. The belief behind wearing the mask is often “if I’m not looked up upon, I will be looked down upon”. This idea often perpetuates striving for excellence and admiration in an increasingly desperate quest for validation and acceptance. However, the validation and acceptance that the individual strives for can not be fulfilled if they are to keep wearing the mask and never being authentic with others. This is because to be truly validated and affirmed for who we are, we must display our authentic selves, rather than a manufactured persona that we believe others want to see.

It can be terrifying to consider giving up something that we believe has protected us for so long. However, we must consider the possibility that this protective behaviour, like many other trauma responses, has actually kept us from healing and growing. By presenting a mask to the world rather than our true selves, we rob ourselves of the opportunity of authentic human connection. With that being said, it's understandable why many gay men experience issues with self-love and rejection of their identity, even after coming out. The belief often changes from “I am totally unacceptable, shameful, and unlovable” to “there are parts of me that are more acceptable than others, and I must present those and hide the rest”. The latter belief is then reinforced when the mask is validated, as it rewards us for presenting it, rather than our true selves.

To dismantle the belief that we aren't acceptable as we are, we must learn to connect more authentically with others. We have to show the wounded part within us that it is safe to come out from behind the mask when we are around safe people in safe spaces. While discrimination, persecution, and hate are genuine issues that LGBTQ2IA+ individuals deal with, there will always be people who love us for who we truly are. We all deserve love and validation for being ourselves and to connect with others in a meaningful way. And lastly, it’s important to remember that while we can be hurt by others, we also have the opportunity to heal when we let them in. 

In the words of the late psychiatrist Carl Jung: “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”

Author’s note: The purpose of this article is to provide education only. Each and every individual’s experiences are different and may not reflect the ideas and perspective written in this article. Healing from identity-based trauma can be a complex process that may require professional support to manage effectively. It is also important to note that not all gay men experience this type of trauma and may not struggle with living a fulfilling and authentic life.  

References:

Poteat, V. P., Mereish, E. H., Digiovanni, C. D., & Koenig, B. W. (2015). The effects of general and homophobic victimization on adolescents’ psychosocial and educational concerns: The importance of intersecting identities and parent support. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(4), 603–613.

Downs, A. (2012). The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World. Da Capo Press.