I sat next to a friend the other day who was chatting with gay men over a social media app. My friend, who is in his late 30s and is a handsome and successful professional, sent a message to a younger guy, handsome and 19.
“You have a nice smile,” my friend said.
The younger man responded within seconds. “You are one of the ugliest humans I have ever laid eyes on. You think you are good enough to chat with me?”
This was such a brief exchange, and yet it represented to me everything that is wrong with the gay community these days (and indeed, much of the straight community). I’ve given this a lot of thought and come to some conclusions.
When my older son was 2 years old, he used to say things like “Dad, there’s the tree.” I would repeat him, “Yeah, buddy, there’s a tree.” And he would throw a holy fit. “Dad, no! I said THE tree, not A tree!” Toddlers learn the fine art of defining the need for validation, demanding it and hurting badly when it isn’t offered in the right way.
As children age in healthy environments grow, they should be learning the skills to be able to do three things: to accept validation when it is offered, to validate themselves, and to ask for validation when they need it. These lessons are reinforced in the childhood and adolescent years, and practiced often as adults. In short, we always need validation.
When we grow up in homes or environments where these skill sets aren’t emphasized, we lose the ability to do these things. We think compliments are disingenuous, we lack the ability to offer validation to ourselves, and we have no ability to ask for validation and instead simply expect it. We develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to get alternatives to validation in other regards.
LGBT people generally grow up feeling unaccepted, knowing they are different than those around them. Simply put, they learn to hide in plain sight. I learned how to pretend to be interested in girls, how to pretend I was not interested in boys, how to blend in with straight guys. With parts of myself hidden deep down inside, I had no capacity to validate myself. I threw myself into church responsibilities and only considered the most worthy members of the Mormon church as worth the greatest amounts of trust and attention. I sought higher Priesthood callings and opportunities to sacrifice in order to show myself I was a worthy person.
Many other gay men, rather than church callings, throw themselves into building the perfect physique, and only see other men who are their ideal physical type as worth their attention. Others do it in careers, or their definitions of success.
And when others don’t meet standards of self-identified perfection, many gay men (or humans in general) see them as worth less than others. We like being noticed on our terms, and we see these as healthy validations.
Yet there is a simple truth, we can’t be truly validated by others unless we can validate ourselves, and we can’t validate ourselves unless we have integrity, and we can’t have integrity when we feel broken inside, or when we treat others like they are worth less.
As a teenager, I would shame myself so badly over not being like other guys, particularly when it came to competitive sports. I would use humor and excuses to avoid these interactions, feeling miserable inside, and then I would internally blame these other men for not accepting or including me. Because I lacked the ability to validate myself, I expected these strangers to do it for me.
I’ve reached a stage in my life now that I’m confident in myself and the things I’m good at. I can compliment myself and mean it. I can take compliments from others. When I feel a lack of integrity, or when I experience shame or guilt, I’m honest with myself and I ask myself or others for what I need. I don’t expect crowds of strangers, or even my close loved ones, to know what I need when I never asked for it. I don’t let myself be shamed by those who don’t love themselves, or who don’t see me as someone of value because I don’t meet their self-standards of perfection.
In the age of social media, it is so much easier to be cruel to strangers, calling them ugly or worthless in bizarre instant messages or public comments. One I saw recently from one stranger to another: “You think you are hot, but you aren’t. Try a diet and the gym.” It is also easier for people to demand validation from strangers, as we post lengthy comments on social media sites about how we have been slighted by others. A post I saw on Facebook recently: “I went to the club and no one talked to me. Gay people are the worst.”
Validation, integrity, and authenticity are hard and painful battles to be fought. Yet the alternatives are much more painful in the long run: invalidation, feeling broken, and feeling lonely.