Comment: A gay man writes about anxiety and depression caused by religious homophobia

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Gary Powell shares his experience with of growing up gay in the 1980s and how encountering fundamentalist Christianity sent him on a downward spiral. 

Many readers may know that the German philosopher Nietzsche was unjustly misrepresented after the war as the philosophical father of Nazism. The reality is that it was not he, but his sister, who was the fully-fledged Nazi; and unfortunately, she had sole publishing rights to his works after he died, and was successful in the very selective spin she gave to his writings. Her brother, who was strongly opposed to militarism and to anti-Semitism, also had a particular aversion to religion, and directed a great deal of his ire towards dogmatic Christianity. In fact, far from being a proto-Nazi whose views were abhorrent and stupid, Nietzsche had a lot of important things to say. He accused Christianity of having given human sexuality poison to drink: a charge that feels valid to me, although I would regard all three Abrahamic religions in their dogmatic forms as being profoundly sexually repressive. For example, all three forbid masturbation and sex outside of heterosexual marriage: and even the nature of sex within marriage is controlled by doctrines.

One of Nietzsche’s brilliant insights sheds light on a particularly pernicious aspect of the suffering of lesbian, gay and bisexual people who are in that early phase of resistance to the reality of our sexual orientation. He wrote, “Whoever despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises.” This reflection provides an acute insight into what often seems to happen to us, usually when we are children, as we start to become aware of being LGB in a profoundly homophobic environment, where we have been taught that having homoerotic thoughts and feelings is shameful, depraved and even sinful. So many LGB children across the globe still lack the information needed to counter lies and prejudice about homosexuality, which find their most virulent manifestation in the dogmatic forms of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Neither do children have the emotional maturity to cope with such a conflict between their sexuality and their socialised guilt and horror about it, without it having the potential to cause significant trauma.

When we as LGB people feel ashamed, guilty and anxious about the raging pubescent sexuality that besieges us in our teens, it is usually the case that turning to a sympathetic adult for support and advice feels like too great a risk; and considering how some people react to such disclosures, and the way that confidential information can find itself leaking out to the wrong people, in many cases it probably is too great a risk. And so the conflicted LGB teenager ends up trying to sort out this whole scary mess on his or her own: with no-one to turn to for advice, and nowhere to turn to for information.

At this point, some readers may be scoffing, and objecting that LGB characters commonly feature in popular TV soaps these days, with much less stigma attached to being LGB, and plenty of opportunities for sympathetically-received disclosure. Yet even if that were always the case nowadays in Britain, it certainly is not in many parts of the world. And there are many children growing up in Britain today who are being raised in religious cultures that are very hostile to homosexuality: a number of whom are cocooned further by being made to attend (taxpayer-funded) fundamentalist faith schools by their parents.

When I was a teenager in the UK of the 1970s and early 1980s, having begun to realise I was gay at around age twelve, I found myself in the very isolated and conflicted situation I describe above. Although my parents were not religious believers, and were not homophobic – indeed, they had a gay friend whom they very much liked – the vicious and obsessive homophobia that poisoned the culture of my school, and ruined my schooldays, gained the upper hand in my psyche.

This brings me back again to the quotation I picked out from Nietzsche: “Whoever despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises.” Where can you go psychologically if you feel so bad about yourself? If you feel such shame and guilt about powerful feelings you have been programmed to believe you should not be feeling? What place can you shift to that will make you powerful, moral, clean, “normal” again? That place, as Nietzsche identifies, is “contempt”: contempt for one’s homoerotic feelings and, insofar as these feelings are identified with our deepest identity – which they normally are – we seek a paradoxical refuge in contempt for ourselves as people.

This is a process that was described by the psychologist George Weinberg in his influential 1972 book, “Society and the healthy homosexual,” where he argued that it was not LGB people who had the pathology, but anti-gay people and societies instead. He was the person who coined the term “homophobia”, which was described as an aversion to LGB people and homosexuality based on irrational fear. Weinberg wrote perspicaciously about how lesbian and gay people internalise the homophobia in their environment, and end up turning society’s hostility and loathing in on themselves as a result. This is where Nietzsche and Weinberg converge.

It is surely challenging enough to be a common-or-garden adolescent, dealing with body changes, hormone-related mood changes, minor identity crises, family pressures, school demands and the angst of finding some kind of security and affirmation in what can be a hostile and competitive peer environment, including attempts at teen dating if he or she is fortunate enough to have the opportunity.

My own adolescence was spent trying to avoid contact with all but the most gentle of my peers, for fear of anyone finding out about my sexuality, and because of a deep sense of being profoundly different from everyone else to the extent that I usually felt very ill-at-ease in peer company. There were one or two other reasons why I felt so different, but the consciousness of my sexuality was without doubt the most significant factor. To compound the turmoil, I had also developed a crush on a few of the boys at school, and every day I experienced the joy and excitement of seeing them, fused with a deep sense of guilt and self-loathing, and a feeling of anxiety that one of them might discern what I felt for him.

My two refuges were music, where I enjoyed at least a limited feeling of belonging and acceptance as leader of the school orchestra; and school work, where I was able to hide behind the identity of the “academic” who apparently wasn’t interested in anything but study. These are very flimsy refuges, of course, and the tsunami was on its way.

The tsunami needed an earthquake to trigger it, and that earthquake was the unmitigated disaster of an introduction to fundamentalist Christianity. I must have been around fourteen, when one of the few friendly classmates invited me to visit her church. The convenience of door-to-door minibus transport was even on offer. This was a time of unbearable loneliness and social isolation for me, and particularly given my apparently hopeless sexual orientation conflict, it was a time when I was extremely vulnerable to a welcoming human community, to the possibility of a new identity, and to the possibility of supernatural intervention to take my homosexuality away.

This was an evangelical church that cleaved to the absurdity of claiming every word in the Bible was true and infallible, because it was inspired by God. There were even books on sale by a faux-intellectual pseudo-philosopher called Francis Schaeffer, who wrote hogwash that, to a neurotically preoccupied fourteen-year-old, with its references to Aquinas, Sartre and Kierkegaard, had the superficial appearance of being very profound and learned, and making sense. I once read that Kafka described Christianity as a “chasm filled with light,” and in the case of this fundamentalist form of Christianity I had encountered, that was certainly true.

My literalistic reading of the Bible, and the teachings of the church “pastors”, revealed that homosexual “acts” were a sin, as were gay fantasies and the deliberate entertaining of any homoerotic thoughts. Not only that, but the church taught that practising homosexuals would be condemned to an eternity of being burned alive in hell fire.

Whereas I had hoped for a divine rescue response as a result of my encounter with Christianity, I ended up instead feeling a great deal more guilt and anxiety, and a great deal more despair. The tsunami was starting to contact, and I started having chest pains caused by anxiety, and agoraphobic panic attacks whenever I went outside the front door. As is so often the case, the anxiety started to look for new worries to attach to, and I used to lie in bed awake at night, wondering whether I would be evaporated in my sleep by a Russian nuclear attack.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to function any more, and I was very worried about the chest pains, thinking there was something wrong with my heart: which paradoxically increased my anxiety and made the pains worse. Eventually, unable to make my way to school, or to function in any way normally, and under pressure from my parents who were walking on eggshells, I agreed to go to see the doctor. To my relief, she confirmed the chest pains were being caused by anxiety, and I managed to persuade her to sign me off school for a few weeks. There was still no question of telling anyone I was gay.

At some point, I managed to struggle back to school, and struggle through my O-levels. The religious trauma had not ended; and by this point, I was in such turmoil that my capacity for rational thought and analysis was being overridden by synaptic messages of panic and doom conveyed by chronic and intense waves of anxiety. I became obsessed with the appalling concept of divine condemnation and being burnt alive in a lake of fire for eternity, and worried that, should I ever abandon these hard-line religious beliefs and end up having sex with men, and the beliefs turn out to be true, such grotesque everlasting torment could be my lot. Pascal’s Wager is pretty terrifying stuff when it climbs off the philosophy text page and into empirical reality.

A new kind of emotion came to join the anxiety: depression. Incapacitating clinical depression: not the kind of fairly common (albeit still often intensely painful) depression that everyone has from time to time when things go very wrong in life. This depression felt as though I had had liquid lead injected into my brain, removing the capacity to experience any emotion other than anxiety and an unbearable, heavy feeling of discomfort that defies all description. These feelings went on for months and months.

In the end, I was dysfunctional, I was only managing to make it into school for odd days, and my parents had become stressed out and dismayed at my refusal to seek any further medical help. Eventually, the pain was so unbearable that I went to see the doctor, told him about my symptoms, and told him I was gay. My recollection is that he gently said, “Ah yes, well that’s something we can sort out.” It seemed quite an extraordinary thing to say. Perhaps he thought some kind of aversion therapy would be offered, combining gay pornography with electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs. Yes, that’s what used to happen for a time. Or perhaps he had in mind a gentler solution: some counselling to help me come to terms with being gay.

I was referred to see a psychiatrist, and I was extremely fortunate. When I told him I was gay, he was very well-informed, and very supportive. He prescribed some antidepressants that soon managed to alleviate most of the anxiety and agoraphobia; treating the depression took a lot longer. There was a coincidence – which I prefer to refer to as a synchronicity, in the Jungian sense. Over the course of our consultations, the psychiatrist revealed that he was also gay …. as well as a practising Catholic. He had obviously also been through some turmoil in coming to terms with his own sexuality. Some might regard him as unprofessional for disclosing this information to a patient, but on the contrary: it was exactly what I needed.

We had lengthy discussions about the fundamentalist Christianity I had been subjected to, and the morbid terrors to which it had given rise. These concerns could only be addressed on a philosophical and theological level, and he offered information, lent me books, and sought information from his own priest, all of which successfully released me from the curse of evangelical Christianity.

He was also someone who I knew understood what I had been going through, and someone who was able to offer me sound, practical advice. Despite my strong aversion to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the behaviour of those who buy into its orthodox teachings, Dr Thomas is a reminder that there are also liberal, compassionate, intelligent and thoroughly good people of faith around as well.

This account ends with good news. I survived. With Dr Thomas’s support, and with the support of my school which allowed me to stay on for another year, and in particular with the help, guidance and friendship of my very understanding and conscientious form tutor, I managed to take my A-levels and secure a place at Brasenose College, Oxford, to study German and Philosophy. (Where, incidentally, Dr Jeffrey John – hopefully soon to be Britain’s first openly gay bishop – was the college chaplain, and where I overlapped by a year with another great figure who has championed LGBT equality – the Prime Minister, David Cameron.)

I had come to understand at the deepest possible level of experience just how destructive homophobia is to the young human psyche, and how devastatingly evil and contemptibly false are the claims of fundamentalist religion that terrify people into conformity and into sacrificing their happiness, well-being and self-respect. I put my energies into running Oxford GaySoc, today called Oxford University LGBTQ Society; into campaigning for gay rights; and into inviting regular speakers to inform members about the emerging AIDS/HIV crisis, so that we could learn how to protect ourselves.

Any religion that teaches children they risk being tortured for eternity by burning in hell for entertaining perfectly natural and joyful sexual thoughts and feelings, and for at any time in the future enjoying sexual experiences with a member of the same gender, is a religion from which children need to be protected. Any religion that teaches children that gay and lesbian people’s relationships are sinful and worthy of contempt and condemnation, is a religion from which children need to be protected.

There are children growing up across the world, including in the UK, who are commonly taught such things by their families and their religious communities. These children, and particularly LGB children, need to be protected from such abuse, and we do not protect them if we are silent, or if we buy into the current intellectually dishonest, pseudo-liberal dogma that certain religions must be beyond criticism. Whether it is fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam or fundamentalist Judaism (which does not, however, teach the doctrine of hell fire), we are dealing with belief systems that cause some degree of the kind of suffering to children that I have described in this article, and that, I am sure, a number of readers will also have experienced at first hand.

There must be no compromise with any fundamentalist form of religion that peddles such horrific contempt for LGB people and poisons the minds of the young. Until we identify and root out all the contempt we have learned to feel for ourselves, and instead uncompromisingly direct it towards the thought systems that have caused it, we will continue to collude with the vile forces that oppress us. We must always strive to respect and love other human beings as people, no matter what their creed: but we are under no obligation to respect their false, cruel and bigoted beliefs, even if those beliefs derive from an ancient book and tradition, and are, as a consequence, referred to as a “religion”. Indeed, treating cruel beliefs with “respect” will only delay their demise and demean us as LGB people in the process, as we are the detested objects of those beliefs’ violent contempt.