The impact of sexuality in the family
5th November, 2008
This is an article that explores the impact of diverse sexuality on the family and the self. How coming to terms with different sexual orientation can contribute to mental distress if it is not understood and given appropriate support.
SEARCHING FOR ‘SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW’. LIVING AND SURVIVING IN THE FAMILY.
The emotive searching and longing in that Judy Garland song has such a universal appeal to it that it seems to tug at somewhere very deep in most hearts and souls.
It suggests a yearning and need to belong to a place, a community somewhere where we will be understood, loved and accepted. These are basic needs that most people require in order to survive and be mentally healthy. People need to belong, have value and not to hide who they are, but to be able to acknowledge and celebrate their individuality.
However, for some lesbian, gay and bisexual adults and adolescents, growing up in a family which may have felt hostile, prejudiced and alienating, can cause a person to feel excluded and isolated. This may inevitably sow the seeds that encourage the individual to hide their real feelings, identity and sexuality. A history of family exclusion may promote future self-exclusion, a type of internalized homophobia. A pressure to hide and carry secrets may continue throughout a person’s life and may lead to an individual conforming and compromising their own feelings by marrying in order to ‘please their family’ or the wider family that we live in- society. The consequences of this can all too often be distressing for the entire family system.
Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of OZ’, the adolescent may leave or contemplate leaving the nest prematurely in order to ‘follow the yellow brick road”- searching for that place, family or community that will accept them for who they are and who they wish to become.
Yet, like for Dorothy, the road may point to a new promised land-the “gay scene” . Unfortunately what may be discovered in reality is a new land that is at times fraught with disappointment and artificial images. This may merely heighten the person’s sense of alienation.
Of course we all know that Dorothy wakes up from her journey to discover that it was all a dream. But for many people this is no fantasy, but a real journey-an emotional roller coaster that can shape a future life in many ways.
Families affect and influence how we experience the world and our relationships in it. They can promote and nurture positive feelings but can also create seeds of doubt, self-hatred and at times, due to our sense of ‘homelessness’, can foster depression and suicidal feelings.
Many of the distressed characters who Dorothy meets on her journey seem to remind us of potential damage and loss. They too are searching to find parts of themselves in order to feel complete. The cowardly lion has lost his courage and confidence to express himself. The tin man has rusted up as he has lost a sense of his feelings, and the scarecrow needs a brain to help him think. These are all basic human functions which can be affected and interrupted if we are not provided with a sense of belonging, love and self acceptance.
Having worked in various mental health and therapeutic settings for fourteen years, I have witnessed numerous young and older adults continuing this inherited family/societal pressure to hide or deny sexual and emotional feelings, which in time may contribute to their mental distress.
Our individual journeys from family to larger community, work settings and intimate relationships will of course vary from person to person, but what I believe shapes a great deal of that journey is our relationship to, and our place in, our family. As Dorothy’s story demonstrates, we all carry our ‘family’ within us wherever we go and return at different stages throughout our lives.
Some lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have been fortunate to have access to supportive and nurturing gay, lesbian and bisexual counselling services, that have provided vital support and information. Others have not and have had to make the journey alone.
This is why I feel passionately that counselling can play a vital role in working with and supporting the members of the family where an individual has experienced distress, confusion or conflict over sexual issues.
There may not be a yellow brick road over the rainbow, but I believe that there is a place for people which will listen, support and recognize the importance of family and the role that sexuality has within it.
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