If you want to make folks wildly uncomfortable, try talking about shame. Expressions can range from deer-in-the-headlights eyes with a frozen half-smile to troubled hand-wringing denial. So why mention it? Among the worried reactions, someone may feel relieved they’re not alone, and welcome the chance to unpack their shame.
My lifelong journey with shame became very public when I released a short documentary called A Doll’s Eyes. What began as a confession about how Spielberg’s Jaws traumatized me as a child, unexpectedly turned into a deeper exploration of my actual fears. I haven’t been running from a fictional shark my whole life: I’ve been running from the shame of being queer.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “gay,” but I was drawn to the performance of femininity as early as I can remember. I’d dress up in my mother’s furry purple bathrobe and vamp up and down the hallway with a Crayola crayon as a cigarette like some femme fatale. I even pretended to run a movie studio in my backyard populated by “actresses” modeled after Disney princesses.
This imaginative play was soon invaded by my father, who burst into a fit of rage upon discovering my all-female world. The message was clear: I was not being masculine, and that was deeply shameful. That moment felt like a beast rose up inside me, seized my insides, then dragged me down to the depths. It was a feeling I never wanted to feel again, so I began monitoring myself: queerness was now unsafe, so I must hide it to avoid shame.
But as a queer kid, it’s impossible to dodge shame. And because the brain experiences shame as trauma, my memories of shame are vivid. I remember going to a street fair as a nascent teenager and seeing a glass-framed poster of Madonna’s True Blue for sale. I didn’t even own the album, but I wanted Madonna hanging on the wall of my bedroom. I knew deep down she represented sexual self-expression, and it felt authentic to put that image forward.
But once again my father laid down the law: Madonna was inappropriate for boys. Shame flooded me for wanting the poster, so I ended up with two framed sports cars instead. Staring at them in my room, they looked like alien masks to me – lies purchased after a lesson from shame.
In high school, I increased the policing of my behavior around strangers, insistent I had to pass for straight in order to survive. I enrolled in speech therapy to control my lisp. I tried to objectify girls around boys, convinced I could play the part of the straight horny teenager. Ironically, when I acted in plays, it was such a relief to stop playing the role and let my guard down. The daily performance of “acting straight” was exhausting, and the anxiety eventually affected my eating. Years later, I realized I never once entered the boy’s bathroom on campus, terrified of what might happen to me in the unseen space.
When I came out of the closet in college, I assumed the shame of being queer would disappear, and that pride would destroy the monsters. But after avoiding relationships throughout most of my 20s, I had to come to terms with the reality that queer shame was still holding me back. I realized I was still terrified of being shamed by strangers. When new acquaintances would tell me they didn’t know I was gay, I wore it as a badge of pride. It’s working, I thought. Meanwhile, I wondered why I wasn’t able to sustain a relationship for more than three months, riddled with anxiety over the vulnerability intimacy requires.
Therapy was the breakthrough I needed to confront my queer shame. There I discovered the work of Brené Brown, and learned the best tool to combat shame is vulnerability. Rather than deny the feeling or stay silent about it, you name the beast to tame it. This is a precarious position for many queer people who were taught to bury their trauma and “just be proud” of who they are. Just as my “acting straight” was a mask for survival against being shamed, “being proud” can also mask shame rather than help it.
It takes courage to be vulnerable, but if you’re willing to give it a shot, it truly is the best weapon against shame. With my film, A Doll’s Eyes, I had to make a choice when I realized the film was actually about my battle with queer shame. Do I change the film’s content and share my shame with strangers around the world, or do I keep wearing the mask, pretending this film is just about my fear of sharks?
With great fear, I chose the former, even though every time I’m at a screening of it, the shame returns. But here’s the benefit of sharing my shame: afterwards, someone will approach me and have the courage to talk about their own. Together, we name our monsters, and the feeling of shame loses its power, disappearing into the depths.
We talk a lot about pride and “it gets better” in the queer community. I don’t want to deny the power of positive thinking, but invulnerability is not the antidote to shame. We need to find the courage to talk about queer shame more, thus taking power away from the “s-word.”
Shame is not a sexy or fun topic, but ignoring it can cause terrible damage. When I look at those at risk in the queer community, from queer youth to trans people to those struggling with addiction, shame is a central, unspoken problem. In its most extreme form, it leads to self-abuse and suicide. Imagine a world where queer people at risk witnessed queer role models speaking publicly about their own shame. Through vulnerability, the hidden monster is exposed, and the potential for healing begins.
While unpacking and sharing my queer shame in A Doll’s Eyes was not easy, I have no regrets about exposing my hidden shark. If sharing my shame with others helps audiences deal with their own shame, then we’re all one stroke closer to naming our monsters to tame them.
Watch an exclusive clip of A Doll's Eyes below.
A Doll's Eyes will premiere on REVRY Friday, November 3rd.
JONATHAN WYSOCKI is a writer and filmmaker of such films as A Doll's Eyes and Adjust-A-Dream.