I grew up in a relatively conservative Republican home where we regularly attended Roman Catholic Church services. I was very Catholic and served as an altar boy fro age 8 to 17 (I had just turned 18 when I started college) and went on to become a 4th Degree Knight of Columbus as I desperately tried to "pray away the gay." That said, while my religious upbringing was virulently anti-gay as was the norm back in those days - actually, it still is if one is raised Catholic - my parents were not homophobic. Indeed, it was only in later years I figured out that one of my maternal great aunts by marriage had a gay brother who was partnered for roughly 40 years. This gay couple were part of our extended family for all of my youth and first years of college. Their relationship was never discussed around us children, but was totally accepted by my parents and aunts and uncles and grand parents.
Despite this surprisingly enlightened mindset, my religious upbringing nonetheless wreaked havoc on me emotionally and psychologically. In the wake of the horrific massacre in Orlando over the past weekend, there is much speculation over the mindset of the shooter who killed 49 innocent people. The facts as known to date suggest perhaps toxic influences from ISIS propaganda were a motivation for the bloodbath, yet on the other hand, given the emerging facts about the shooter's exposure to fundamentalist Muslim beliefs and his homophobic father, some believe that internalized homophobia might also have been in play. A piece in the Washington Post looks at the damage done to LGBT individuals raised in anti-gay homes and the role that this might have played in the tragedy in Orlando. Here are excerpts:
Imagine growing up hearing from those you love and trust that certain groups of people are evil. In fact, these people are so bad, so wrong, that God himself will punish them. Imagine absorbing this hatred deep into your bones. Imagine that you then discover, at some point in your adolescence, that you are one of these people. They are the hated. You are the hated.
We don’t know the details of Omar Mateen’s sexuality. Perhaps he did not fully understand. But according to some, Mateen expressed romantic interest in men. A classmate from his 2006 police academy class told the “Palm Beach Post” that Mateen had asked him out. Sometimes, after class, Mateen would go with friends to gay nightclubs, the classmate said.
We will never understand what triggered Mateen. But there is abundant evidence that the prejudice we face is toxic. And when anti-gay prejudice comes from parents or religion, the effect is profound. According to University of Tennessee Knoxville psychology professor Dawn Szymanski, research shows that experiencing rejection from parents of your sexual identity is linked to traumatic internalized negativity – what psychologists call “internalized homonegativity” or “internalized stigma.” The same is true when a person belongs to a religion that rejects homosexuality.
One consequence of this internalized stigma is violence: Studies of same-sex couples show that internalized homophobia is significant predictor of violence within a relationship. Self-hatred also creates profound psychological distress: One meta-analysis found that higher levels of internalized anti-gay stigma were correlated with worse mental health. The psychological distress can include anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and hyperarousal – a state of increased tension that includes irritability, anger and aggression.
Anti-gay prejudice is especially pernicious because it creeps into the intimacy of one’s own family. For other forms of bias – racism, for example, or prejudice based on one’s religion — the family can be a refuge against the hatred of the outside world. But anti-gay prejudice is different. The hatred comes from not outsiders, but from loved ones. Parents’ rejection of their children is the one of the biggest reasons as many as 40 percent of homeless youths are LGBT.
Politicians will continue to use “radical Islam” as a culprit. But it’s not clear that Mateen was motivated by ideology; indeed, he claimed to support a jumble of groups with conflicting points of view. On the other hand, his ex-wife told CNN, “It doesn’t surprise me that he was leading two totally different lives and was in such deep conflict within himself.”
Imagine a young person sitting in his congregation, listening. Imagine this young person absorbing that certain people deserve to die because of who they are. Now imagine that child growing up to discover that he is gay. He, too, deserves to die. Imagine the chaos and self-hatred growing inside his heart.
The root cause, of course, of anti-gay beliefs is religion, especially Abrahamic religions. The same religions that over the centuries have lead the the deaths and stigmatization of millions of people. As I have said before, religion is a pernicious evil that needs to be eradicated.