Choosing to Abuse: Masculinity and Identity Development



Stages of Healthy Gay Relationships

Intro To Domestic Violence

Introduction to Gay Male Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

DV Links


Domestic Violence in Gay Couples
History of Abuse

Power Differences




Gender Roles

Mental Illness

Low self-esteem and poor relationship skills may stem from a history of abuse. However, they may also develop in the absence of a traumatic childhood. Gay men may be at particular risk for problems in the development of identity and intimacy.

Colgan (1987) and Peacock (2000) use Erikson's theory of psychosocial development to discuss the development of identity and intimacy in gay males. Positive identity requires a positive sense of self as a gay man, being clear about one's full identity to others, and exposure to positive gay role models and forming of healthy relationships that validate one's positive sense of self. Intimacy is built on identity, and positive identity leads to intimacy, a sense of belonging, trust and care in others, and an ability to listen and respond to others genuinely. This leads to mutually supportive and validating gay relationships.

Kominars (1995) offers this thought:
  Any boy may be called 'gay' who is not being 'manly' enough, not assertive or aggressive enough. The fact is that any male who seems unable to make it as a 'real' man may be called 'gay' without regard for his sexual orientation. Stereotyping gestures, or speaking patterns, or voice pitch is another cause for being considered 'different,' 'sissy.' 

Kominars' point is that given that the word "gay" is used so negatively in our culture, to at some point identify oneself as "gay" means to automatically confront and struggle with these social stereotypes, sometimes unsuccessfully.

Obviously, a negative identity would entail a negative sense of self. The absence of positive gay role models, dating norms for gay teens, acceptance of normal "crushes" and infatuations, non-judgmental information regarding sexual curiosity, paternal acceptance, and expected male bonding due to homophobia can all lead to great difficulty resolving identity issues and building a positive gay identity. While the absence of forces that are expected and common for heterosexual youth is a problem, the presence of negative views of gays and lesbians (see weakens positive identity development and strengthens negative identity development. Not being clear about one's identity to others, or being "closeted," could similarly preclude validating experiences, as well opportunities to refute negative experiences.

Negative identity is likely to lead to negative intimacy. Short-term or dysfunctional relationships could reinforce a negative self-view, one in which a man sees little hope of rewarding relationships due to his unworthiness. A man might be left with little sense of his own positive identity, and as a result come to feel very dependent on others to validate him, or come to feel what Colgan calls over-attachment to others. Alternately, he may reject this dependence and become numb to his own needs and emotions, or become what Colgan calls over-separated from others. Peacock adds that in between these extremes, a man could seek intimacy though socially unaccepted channels and feel shame and guilt as a result, or could feel isolation and loneliness after finding his apparent intimacy with others was based on their misconceptions of his identity, or rejection after coming out.

Peacock notes that for many gay men who married in their youth, as this was seen as the only option available to them, whatever intimacy they have built with wives and friends often comes to feel hollow and unrewarding. However, coming out did not always change matters, as many had to go through the work of finding and joining a new community before finding a sense of belonging.

This is a basic flaw in reasoning that any Psychology 101 student should be able to explain. The problem is that a third factor, one you did not consider, could be causing both the first and the second thing.

Some would argue gay men are more susceptible to these kinds of identity and intimacy problems because they are gay, and cite these kinds of problems as "proof" that homosexuality is a disorder. That kind of reasoning relies on correlation, not causality. Two things are seen together sometimes--being gay and having problems in intimacy--and so it assumed that the first observed thing caused the second observed thing. Two things are seen together sometimes--like smoking and lung cancer, or increased stork sightings and childbirths--and so it assumed that the first observed thing caused the second observed thing.

What could be this third factor causing problems for gay men? In general, the answer is heterosexist society. Martin and Hetrick (1988) offer this:
  "Homosexual adolescents may accept that homosexuals are predatory, unsuitable for the "hard professions," unable to form mature non-erotic relationships, inimical to the survival of the race, criminal seducers, haters of the opposite sex, immature and victims of pathological development, sexually disordered, the cause of crime in the streets, the [cause of the] second World War, the [cause of the] Holocaust, [found to have] lowered SAT Scores, and perhaps most damaging in recent years, the cause of AIDS." (p. 167)  

This negative view of gays and lesbians comes up in unexpected ways and in unexpected situations. Already noted were studies indicating people rated straight violence as more serious and aggressive compared to lesbian violence, and viewed gay victims of violence more negatively compared to straight victims of violence (Wise and Bowman, 1997; Harris and Cook, 1994). Other studies have found this bias comes up in courtroom settings as well, as people rated gay men as having a lower moral character, and those who sexually assault them as having committed a less serious crime and deserving a less severe punishment (Hill, 2000). This harkens back, Potocniak and colleagues (2000) note, to the same views that gay men with AIDS "deserved what happened to them."

What does all this mean? Basically, positive identity development leads to positive intimacy development. Where society prevents positive identity in gay men, dysfunctional relationships for those men can be expected to develop. This may seem to some to be the standard "it's society's fault" effort to allay any personal responsibility or blame. However, while individual men are still responsible for their individual choices to become violent, heterosexist and sometimes simply homophobic aspects of our culture have not made it easy for gay men to experience the same range of identity and intimacy options open to them that their nonviolent, heterosexual, peers take for granted. Similarly, our culture has not made it easy for gay men to resist the negative influence of abuse, discrimination, powerlessness, and isolation compared to their heterosexual peers.