LGBT Suicide and the Trauma of Growing Up Gay
By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

As a mental health counselor for the past twenty years, I have listened to many painful stories by some of my lesbian and gay patients regarding growing up in a homophobic and heterosexist world. Many of my gay and lesbian patients, including a number of bisexual and transgender individuals, shared with me that as young as age five they felt different. They were unable to articulate why they felt different, and, at the same time, they were too afraid to talk about it. Many reported that they knew this feeling of being different was related to something forbidden. “It felt like keeping a tormenting secret that I could not even understand,” described one of my gay patients. Others shared with me that the feeling of differentness revealed itself in the form of gender nonconformity which could not be kept secret. Therefore, it made them more vulnerable to homophobic and transgender phobic mistreatment at school and often at home. They had to cope with a daily assault of shame and humiliation without any support.

The experience of carrying a sense of differentness as it related to some of the most taboo and despised images in our culture can leave a traumatic scar on one’s psyche. Most school age children organize his or her school experience around the notion of not coming across as queer. Any school age child’s worst nightmare is being called faggot or dyke which is commonly experienced by many children who do not flow with the mainstream. One gay high school student disclosed to me that on average he hears more than twenty homophobic remarks a day. Schools can feel like concentration camps for LGBT children or any child who gets scapegoated as queer. For the most part, LGBT kids do not get any protection from school officials, and this is a form of child abuse on a collective level. Mistreatment of LGBT youth and a lack of protection are contributing factors to the issue of LGBT teen suicide.

The feeling of differentness as it relates to being gay or lesbian is too complex for any child to process and make sense of especially when coupled with external attacks in the form of homophobic, derogatory name calling. Unlike a black child whose parents are typically also black or a Jewish child with Jewish parents and relatives, the LGBT youth typically does not have gay or lesbian parents or anyone who would mirror his or her experience. In fact many families tend to blame the mistreated LGBT youngster for not being like everyone else and make the child feel like he or she deserves this mistreatment.

When parents are either unable or unwilling to “feel and see” the world through the eyes of their child, and do not provide a reflection to their child that makes the child feel valued that child can not develop a strong sense of self. Facing with isolation, confusion, humiliation, physical violence, not being valued in the eyes of parents, and carrying a secret that the youngster connects with something terrible and unthinkable is too stressful for any child to endure. Especially when there is no empathic other to help him or her to sort it out. The youngster suffers in silence and might use dissociation to cope. In a worst case scenario, he or she could commit suicide.

Many LGBT youth who found the courage to open up about their identity issue have experienced rejection by their families and peers. Many families treat such disclosure as bringing shame on to the family and throw their kid out of the house which forces the kid to join the growing population of homeless kids on the street.

The stress of trying to come to terms with a complex matter such as same sex attraction, family’s rejection as a result of finding out about same sex attraction, and becoming victimized through verbal and physical abuse by peers due to being different are contributing factors to the trauma of growing up gay or lesbian. Such traumatic experience can explain why lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Suicide attempts by LGBT youth is their desperate attempt to escape this traumatic process of growing up queer.

Those of us who survived the trauma of growing up queer without adequate support and managed to reach adulthood can benefit from making internalized homophobia conscious. When a gay or lesbian youngster experience humiliation every school day for being different and has no one to protect him or her that child can develop internalized homophobia. Internalized homophobia is internalization of shame and hatred that gay and lesbian people were forced to experience. The seed of internalized homophobia is planted from early age, and having a psyche contaminated by the shadow of internalized homophobia can result in low self esteem and other problems later in life. Bisexual and transgender youngsters can also internalize the hatred they had to endure growing up and may develop self hatred.

Not dealing with internalized homophobia is ignoring the wreckage of the past. Psychological injuries that were inflicted on LGBT people as result of growing up in a homophobic and heterosexist world needs to be addressed. Each time a LGBT youngster was insulted or attacked for being different such attack left a scar on his or her soul. Such violent mistreatment caused many to develop feelings of inferiority.

Life after the closet needs to include coming out inside. Becoming aware of repressed or disassociated memories and feelings around homophobic mistreatment of growing up is part of coming out inside. Coming out inside is about approaching unconscious and understanding the development of internalized homophobia. Some painful experiences that contribute to the development of internalized homophobia can get split off and remain in the unconscious. Those split parts can impact how one treats himself or herself in life. Providing empathy and regard for one’s gay inner child who endured years of confusion, shame, fear, and mistreatment due to his or her identity is part of the psychological healing process.

The solution to the demon of internalized homophobia is self-knowledge and self-acceptance. As a community, learning to know ourselves can add vitality to our struggle for freedom. The LGBT liberation movement should not only include fighting for our equal rights, but also working through the injuries that were inflicted on us for growing up queer in a heterosexist world. External changes such as Marriage Equality or the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy alone cannot heal us from homophobic mistreatment and rejection we received growing up gay or lesbian. We need to open a new psychological frontier and take our struggle for freedom to a new level. Our civil rights movement is like a bird that needs two wings to fly and not just one. So far, the political wing has been the main carrier of this movement. By adding psychological healing work as the other wing, our bird of liberty can fly higher in the sky.

© This article is copyrighted by Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT Ph.D.,

a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Counselor/Psychotherapist) in private practice in West Hollywood, California.