Why gay youth tend to self-isolate


By Alexandria Clément

Shelby, who asked that we only use her first name to protect her privacy, was in Grade 4 when she learned a hard lesson about what it means to be a lesbian. A teacher at her elementary school was gay. She remembers the formative day that news got out. Students who had always loved him suddenly had a different opinion of him. “There were kids in my grade who were like, ‘If I get him, I’m dropping out,’” she says. “People were freaked out.” So, later that year, when her friends started suspecting Shelby was gay, she knew she had to deny it. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, no. No, I’m not like Mr. Miller. I’m not like that.’” Of all her school lessons, according to Shelby, learning that her sexual identity was something to hide has been a lasting one.

The experience Shelby describes is common. Many LGBTQ youth learn to hide their sexual orientation as a result of witnessing how other LGBTQ people are treated. Those negative perceptions often lead them to conceal their identities—to remain in the closet until they are much older. Shelby, who now studies fine art at the University of Guelph, became aware she was different than her peers at a young age. She remembers playing video games with her friend, a boy, in which she pretended that she had a wife. But she says she knew not to do the same thing in front of other people. After all, she knew what people said about Mr. Miller and didn’t want them to say the same sort of things about her.

While identity concealment allows LGBTQ youth to avoid the risk of negotiating hostile or uncomfortable reactions, it also can lead to social isolation. The fear of discovery can restrict their interactions with peers and limit social development. It can also lead to a feeling of distance from others, increasing the sense of not belonging, feelings that follow many throughout life. The sense of isolation described here is different from peer-exclusion. It’s self-isolation, an emotional and social state that one enacts in their own life. It arises as a form of protection, rather than escapism.

According to Statistics Canada, 1.7 per cent of the population identifies as gay or lesbian, while 1.3 per cent identify as bisexual. These figures, its studies acknowledge, are likely low, as they rely on people self-disclosing to a public agency. With legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada in 2005, societal attitudes are clearly shifting. One might expect there to be little reason for LGBTQ people to conceal their identities. And yet it happens all the time. People learn to stay in the closet to avoid risking public opprobrium. Michael Woodford, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ont., and former social worker practitioner, studies the effects of subtle heterosexist, cisgenderist micro-aggressions on LGBTQ individuals. Micro-aggressions are an indirect, subtle or unintentional form of discrimination. They occur when, for example, someone hears the phrase “that’s so gay,” meant as an insult, on a regular basis. According to an Egale Canada Human Rights Trust study, 70 per cent of students surveyed reported hearing phrases such as “that’s so gay” on a daily basis, and nearly half reported hearing remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” every day.

The negative connotations of being anything but heterosexual tend to get internalized, often at a young age. Ashley Shaw, former co-chair of The Bridge, an LGBTQ support group in Brantford, Ont., says micro-aggressions contribute to negative self-perception. “If you are finding that the messages that you’re hearing are messages of hatred, then you are more likely to internalize that and to have those thoughts for yourself.” And this, she adds, can cause people to isolate themselves. As a result, LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours and substance abuse, as well as to experience bullying and abuse from peers. And older LGBTQ individuals are more likely than straight seniors to live alone, without family. “We live in this heterosexist, cisgenderist world,” says Woodford. “So, if a young person is growing up and they feel like, ‘I’m different, and I don’t belong,’ well, that is certainly going to contribute to isolation.”

The Bridge provides community resources for LGBTQ people. But for some people in the closet, even support centres can feel intimidating or out of reach. Maddy, a 26-year-old outdoor educator in Bolton, Ont., says that, before she came out, she used the internet to ask questions and find resources because she wanted to guard her privacy (we agreed to withhold her surname also to protect her privacy). She was comforted by the fact that no one ever saw her searching for information or knew her thoughts about being gay. “Being able to remain in that private space was really key for me,” she says. “And important in me just developing my own comfort with who I am and what I learned about myself.”

That privacy, however, can be a troubling thing for an adolescent. Maddy recalls how confusing it was to see her peers start to date boys. She didn’t want to be left out but wasn’t interested in the choices available to her. “I was like, ‘Well, everyone else is kind of dating, and I would like to be, and I don’t want to feel like the leper that’s left out, who’s not participating in that,’” she says. But she didn’t understand why going out with her friends and getting involved with guys made her feel like throwing up. She worried there was something wrong with her. Shelby also experienced a delayed romantic life. She didn’t start dating until she was in the final years of university. Before that, she simply didn’t want people to find out she was gay, and so she avoided flirting and relationships.

LGBTQ youth often postpone romantic involvement, in part, because they lack social support during the years when most people become aware of their sexuality. They often end up doing all of their own questioning and finding answers. There are more LGBTQ people on television now than ever, but their portrayal is usually one-dimensional. This means that LGBTQ youth do not have the same opportunities as straight people to see themselves and their lives represented. Maddy says she relied on social media and Google in her quest to understand herself, only accepting that she was gay in her early 20s.

However, lack of familial support and social stigma can cause this delay even when people are aware of their sexuality at a young age. Katharine, a 21-year old public health student in Waterloo, Ont., knew she was gay when she was eight (we have changed her name to protect her privacy). But negative messages from peers and family lead to years of self-doubt and unhealthy relationships. She recalls her mother reading her diary and finding out that Katharine wanted to be with girls. Her mother said that she could see how Katharine could be confused, but that relationships between girls wasn’t the same as romantic involvement. “That was a very strong and clear message that what I was saying couldn’t be valid. It couldn’t be right,” says Katharine. “She said to me that what I think I’m feeling couldn’t be true.”

And when, years later, she told her parents that she had a girlfriend, they told her not to tell her grandparents. Such messages made her fear that others wouldn’t accept her sexuality—that they wouldn’t believe she was gay. So, Katharine learned to repress her identity and was encouraged to try things she didn’t want to, like dating men. Even today, she says, feeling judged by her family about her sexuality and relationships makes her distance herself from them.

Despite their struggles, Katharine, Maddy and Shelby eventually came out to family and friends. And it made a world of difference. Shelby, who began going to gay bars and Pride events with friends last year, says she’s happy to finally be having the experiences she missed out on growing up. “It changes you, because once you start having those experiences, you kind of know how to handle people a different way,” she says. “You know how to behave around people differently.”

Today, rather than making her feel alone, her identity helps her make connections with others.

This story was updated on May 19, 2018, to remove Shelby’s surname to protect her privacy.