How “Straight Jacket” set me free

Bhavik Shah
17 min readJun 19, 2019

It was over a year ago when a very close friend told me to read a book that had changed his view of being a gay man entirely, and his general prospective on the LGBTQ+ community. I could immediately tell this book had profound impact on him, and I thought I should pick it up as well to see what the excitement was all about. Yet I could not pull the trigger. I was not ready to face my fears as a Bisexual man and tackle my demons that have been festering inside of me since childhood. Then one day, this past November, I happened to go to a speaker forum discussing the lack of gay/bi role models in our present media and the impact it has for future generations. During the entire session, there was a man sitting to my right who spoke eloquently about his experiences with role models in his past and present. The lack of role models had created a gap in the LGBTQ+ community, where children had become lost sheep — wandering in the empty fields of life without any direction or steer. After an hour or so, the man’s identity was revealed to me. It was no other than Matthew Todd, the very author that created the book I was avoiding for so long. I did not think about it twice. I spoke to him directly after the session, and we both agreed this was a sign to finally give the literary piece of work a chance.

Matthew Todd’s exceptional and outstanding piece of work called “Straight Jacket” speaks about the confinement the hetero-normative society imposes on all of us, explaining the specific constraints for the LGBTQ+ community — dating back to the inception of when societies were formed. It took me approximately 5 months to read through this work of art, not because I was busy or had no time. I was scared. I have been on an emotional roller coaster ever since I read the first few pages of this book, and now want to share with all of you exactly what I have been through — to enlighten and to educate, as this story is just not mine. This is everyone’s story.

1. Shame and Internalized Trauma

Unfortunately, there are a fair amount of people who strongly believe that being gay, lesbian, bi or transgender is a choice. If the community really had a choice, why would we actively and consciously choose to be a minority? Choosing to be a minority implies that we have now decided to give up our fundamental rights that the majority receive, and are comfortable with a secondary status in society. If this was true, we would not consistently fight for our rights with our families, with our workplace, and even in some sad situations, with the law. Yes, society has moved mountains over the last few decades, yet we still live in a world where we are constantly being questioned on who we are — causing self doubt, low confidence, and shame. Why do I bring this point up? Being challenged on our identities by saying that we have a “choice” is creating a false mindset that LGBTQ+ people can actually change. This specially detrimental at a young age when many of them are forced to believe that we are fundamentally flawed — because we behave or act differently than the “normal” kids. Perhaps we are unable to throw a football like the other boys, or do not enjoy playing with barbie dolls as your traditional little girl would — effectively branching out of the stereotypical boy/girl foundations. Either way, we are told that we need to stop acting gay or do things the way the other kids do — making it seem there is only one way to behave as a child. Ultimately, this shame builds up, and carries into adulthood. Straight Jacket powerfully explains that the shame we feel as children does not disappear overnight, even if society is now forming its acceptance on our community. This internal trauma we face from constantly being told we are not good enough, causes catastrophic effects in adulthood leading to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

You may think this changes over time, as we lift ourselves out of our former situations and grow to love ourselves. But how does that actually happen? How do we tackle our fear of not being accepted amongst our peers at such a young age? Todd explains that if you take the scenario back to the animal kingdom, fear would drive two results: fight or flight. However, if the “enemy” is yourself, how do you survive in the world? How can you actually fight yourself, or escape from the reality where people are stating your core existence is not up to par as the “normal” straight society? The answer is simple. This is not possible. As a result, most of us suffer for years, battling this emotional turmoil, deflecting our true emotions and desires — acting out in ways of hurting others, or worse — hurting ourselves. We bury ourselves in a pit of shame, unable to crawl out — at a time where we should be flourishing and developing as children. Life should be innocent at that age, and our feelings and sexual desires should not be ostracized. It should be explained to us that our feelings are normal, similar to our straight friends and family members. Instead of understanding what life should be about, we begin to hate ourselves — because we strongly feel people hate us.

I remember the days being on the school yard where I was teased and bullied because I did not have the same physical abilities as the other kids. I was in constant fear that if I did not act like them, the bullying and harassment would intensify. This is the exact problem! We “choose” not to be queer by changing our behavior, attempting to assimilate according to the norm, yet slowly realize we cannot actually become someone we are not. Sadness builds. Shame increases. The trauma continues. My situation was no different. I continuously attempted to be a normal boy because I needed to survive in an atmosphere where I already felt alone and scared. The slightest inflection of a hand gesture or a specific pronunciation of a word would have exposed me to the world for who I truly was. The most heartbreaking part of this story is that I was trying to escape a reality I did not even fully understand. I was not allowed the space to figure out who I was, and came to the conclusion that just being different was a fundamental flaw.

2. Reactions & Outcomes

This may be an alarming amount of information to process that LGBTQ+ children and adults endure such self-shame, however it is true. By no means am I saying this applies to the entire LGBTQ+ community, as there are many of us out there who have lived very fruitful childhoods — receiving a tremendous amount of love and support. However, this blog is focused on those who do suffer from this shame. Without recognizing it, I sub-consciously walked around with the shame Todd explains throughout his book. I did not quite understand what drove my actions, but I honestly did not want to know. Avoidance was a big part of my life — and why wouldn’t it be? It was a safer, easier choice not to accept the inner hurt and pain that was inflicted upon me. Did that go away once gay marriage was legal a couple of years ago? No, of course not. It did not erase the memories of being teased by the other children as I threw a ball like a faggot. The rainbow flags proudly flourishing in every major city did not provide me warmth, as I remembered the days where family members told me I need to behave like other boys or they will continue to make fun of me. Sadly, I was not alone on this torturous journey and I have read about so many brave souls who endured the same. One who suffers from recurring humiliation is often subject to various downfalls. Our brains are not able to process all of it, and often cannot cope and recover. The concept of “shut down” is common where painful memories are omitted, to save yourself from the heartache. The problem with this block is that it provides merely temporary relief. After 18 years of “relief” my own painful memories came back, crashing down as a ton of bricks. When I first relived specific vivid memories of torture and violence inflicted upon me, it felt that I was re-living someone else’s memories. There was no way I would have allowed this to happen. The aching truth was that it did happen. I was shocked and horrified to read about how many have gone through a similar experience as mine, and as Todd details — we are sometimes unable to handle this significant amount of stress — which often leads to feelings of self-loathing, resurrecting the trauma we once felt as children. As this trauma manifests itself into adulthood, we somehow force ourselves to become a functioning adult — yet never developed proper coping mechanisms to deal with normal day to day stress. Add on the LGBTQ+ factor, and we have whole new level of constant uncertainty and questionable actions. Unfortunately, without realizing, all our relationships are compromised whether they are platonic or romantic. How can we learn to love others, when we hate ourselves so much? Reprising (and accepting) memories from the past that have been so significant is not a skill set many of us have. What do we do in this case? The answer is self-sabotage. We lash out. We avoid vulnerability. We hurt ourselves. We often think about suicide. (I did) We become addicted to drugs, alcohol, and sex. We criticize others who seem to have it “figured” it out — and secretly are envious because we feel incompetent to do the same. We feel incomplete. In summary, we are broken.

It is important to re-iterate there are large portions of the LGBTQ+ community who do not feel this way and have had very positive childhoods, that have transformed into beautiful adult lives. They have become core components of the LGBTQ+ community who have purpose and meaning. They are loud and proud, and I could not be happier for them. I envy those who live their truth and have no shame in doing so. However, have you thought about those who do not find comfort in living out loud so boldly? Many of them fall victim to the easy trap of forcing their way into the pool of toxic masculinity. Frequently, we see that straight men will act in a certain way — with a sense of bravado, macho behaviors, locker room talk, and engaging in interests/music that is aligned to what men are “meant” to enjoy. In a way, these men emulate what some some of us “failed” to be all those years ago. It has reached a point that some men in our community are so afraid to be themselves, they have centered their entire lives focusing their energy to be “straight”. This proves to be difficult for gay and bi men because where do we draw the line? Social dating apps often have labels such as “masc for masc”. We have trained our brains to become that archaic definition of a man — ripped muscles, no emotions shown, and walks and talks straight. Is this what diversity and inclusion means? Is this the progress we should be expecting in 2019? Compelling ourselves to be a version that has been defined by the hetero-normative society? The real question is: Why do they not conform to be like us? Why must we adapt to their lifestyle? Often people have mixed reactions when they learn I’m bi — either they saw it coming a mile away, or they had no idea because I did not act gay enough. My frustration is not about them making assumptions — that’s normal. Initial human reaction will always drive one to make a snap judgement about others. My issue is why do they feel if I “act” straight I must be straight? If I “act” gay, I must be gay? When I openly started sharing my sexuality with friends, one of my dear friends once told me — “I never made any judgements about you Bhav, because it’s not my place. I saw you as YOU, and that was enough for me.” Ultimately, she saw me as human. This needs to be the standard! Being aware of another’s sexuality is a peek topic of interest and I can fully appreciate it often drives points of conversation with peers or social groups. However, this message needs to be communicated widely that the LGBTQ+ community are still conforming their behavior to fit in a society to be accepted. This is creating a wrong precedent, and unfortunately is enabling a hostile environment within the LGBTQ+ community as well. I can only speak on behalf of gay and bi men, yet I see first hand that men are discriminating against other men, predominantly because they do not act as straight men, causing internal homophobia. It may be unconscious, yet we have to steer away from alienating each other mainly because we are constantly worried what people will think of us. I appreciate that we want to be against the stereotypes of loving drag queens and Britney Spears, however that does not mean we hurt each other by disgusting and foul language on these social apps. This stems from our internal trauma, yet it does not excuse this sort of behavior of being vicious and spiteful. We do not have a right to knock other men down by the knees because they live their lives differently. The issue at hand is that some gay or bi men may not even be aware they are doing this — which is why it becomes even more crucial to read Straight Jacket. It is time to enlighten ourselves, and finally crack this heartbreaking mystery — deviating away from any sort of toxic masculinity, and establishing a modern masculinity that is accepting and welcoming of all.

3. Current Illusions

A very quick note in this section but extremely important to explain. I briefly mentioned earlier that people take childhood trauma for granted, leading to serious mental health issues in adulthood. So let’s break this down, but switch the tables. Imagine if the roles were reversed, and straight kids were constantly told liking the opposite sex was wrong. Try to remember your childhood on the playground, and your teachers or unfortunately your parents, consistently said liking boys/girls was wrong. If you did happen to like them, then there was something wrong with you. All of that distress and suffering stews for years and years — building an internal volcano that is on the verge of erupting into self-harm. Your relationships are fake. You find it difficult to connect with the opposite sex, not truly understanding the core reason. You become reckless with sex, living unsafe practices and engaging in hardcore drugs and group sessions in locations such as sex saunas. All in a world where being heterosexual is actually illegal. Then fast forward 20/30/40+ years where straight rights becomes decriminalized, and you all lived in a world where liking the opposite sex was finally normal. Would you be able to cope with the sudden shift of acceptance? Would you immediately end those destructive habits, and begin to love yourself? Would you be able to forgive those who hurt you? Would you be able to forgive yourself? The answer is most likely no. This is what most of the LGBTQ+ have gone through — and before we create any more stereotypes, imagine yourself in our shoes. It is still incredibly difficult. This does not take away from the outstanding progress we have made over the last few decades. I have seen mindsets shift across family and friends in various forms. Still, we have a long road ahead. As you may see now, it is not easy to just switch off years and years of trauma, as it does not just immediately disappear. I personally am still struggling with the fact of speaking openly about my bisexuality. Not because I am ashamed or not proud — it just does not come naturally to me. I do not know how to do it, because for years I was told not to. Some can speak about their dating lives as they speak about how the sky is blue. For myself, and many LGBTQ+, we hesitate even though we know we should not. I am fortunate enough to have been born and raised in NY, a very metropolitan city. Now I live in London, arguably even more of a metropolitan city where being yourself is celebrated. However, what about those who live in Sudan? Those who live in Russia? Those who live in Alabama? Not only do they have to deal with their own personal trauma, and potential resurrection of that trauma, they have limited resources to guide them out of that dark hole. The most heartbreaking stories Todd mentions are the increasing amount of deaths we still see caused by external and internal homophobia. The June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting is very fresh in my memory, where countless innocent lives were taken merely because of who they were. There were countless suicide stories in Straight Jacket, explaining how childhood bullying and harassment led to innocent lives being taken too early. My only question is WHY?! Tears rolled down my eyes throughout this entire book, every time another suicide story was described. Yet briefly after, anger and rage filled my body, and I felt guilty for being here while they are not.

4. Change comes from the majority

If you made it this far — I thank you and want to say this is section is incredibly vital. Over the years, friends have questioned my loyalty to the LGBTQ+ community, and have described me as not part of the community at all. I have challenged this, without actually knowing why. Until now. I never had an issue with PRIDE, or events surrounding the celebrations. However, bringing our own community together once a year is the easy part. All of us will go out and celebrate our freedom, and once again be thankful for the sacrifices our predecessors made. The difficult question to ask is what now? What are our allies doing to help? Should they not be part of every single PRIDE event, not for the celebrations only, but to be part of a movement that is still relevant today? As fun as PRIDE can be, we have to remember this yearly event is a reminder that we are still fighting for our rights. Many of our brothers and sisters across the globe are still suffering, and it is up to the majority now to realize they have the power to make a difference. Showing up to the celebrations and generally being accepting of people around you are gay is not enough. Placing an ally sticker at your workplace is a good start, but we need more from you.

True change is driven by not only strengthening our community with PRIDE and related events. It’s assisting our straight friends to speak up. Todd says “It’s time to bring straight people in out of the cold” and I could not agree more! This is not just our fight, this is their fight as well. We should invite them to speak about how we need to change society norms, so that the LGBTQ+ community does not suffer in being a minority any longer. It is time for the straight community to speak up about homophobia and shout that having archaic views is not acceptable. It is time that we talk about homophobic bullying at schools — and teach our kids at a young age that they should be inviting people from all backgrounds to be part of their inner circle. It should be taught to them to not use harmful language such as “that’s so gay, faggot, sissy”. Organizations such as Diversity Role Models should have more straight allies so that our children grow up learning to respect one another.

As parents, our straight allies should be conscious of what language they use around their children. Constantly encouraging our boys to like girls or vice versa can have negative consequences on the child if they are LGBTQ+. If they happen to like the same sex, they can immediately feel like failures as it does not meet the parents expectations. Later down the line, it can foster the shame and internal homophobia I mentioned earlier. Mainstream media needs to be more inclusive of positive LGBTQ+ role models, rather than just sexualizing gay people. We do not want to be known as the gay best friend any longer. We want to be known for our contribution to society, similar to Harvey Milk and Audre Lorde. You may think this does not affect us, but it does. As far as we have come, we still adapt to what society will allow us to be — and if we are constantly portrayed in a hyper sexualized manner, we will without a doubt conform to that lifestyle. Legalization of marriage is an amazing step — but what will our children do with this right if they are depressed and self-sabotaging? What use will marriage be if our children, who are constantly bullied and harassed, continue to kill themselves?

Todd explains so much more in his book of how we all can help. How our straight friends can help. I will not go into all of that detail now, but I will give you my personal plea. Growing up in a strict immigrant Indian family, in the suburbs of New York, did not give me an option to be myself. There was not ONE person who I could relate to, leading to all the shame and trauma I felt in my life. As a child, I did not know what person I would become, yet society did not like the way I was shaping — so I tried my hardest to control deviating away from being “straight”. In hindsight, I realize you can never truly hide yourself in that fashion, yet the hurt and pain caused by my attempts to stay hidden, have not fully healed. I have been able to develop coping mechanisms via different outlets such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), yet it is a work in progress. With that said, I am happier now than I have truly ever been. Now it’s time for others to realize that what I have gone through should not repeat for future generations. It is time for us to heal.

To all my friends, and family members who are allies — I know you have always been on my side. On the side of LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, some of you may have not known all of the details that I have outlined here. Think about how you can further strengthen your alliance with the LGBTQ+ community. If possible, please read Straight Jacket — this book is not only for us, its for you as well. If you still do not feel compelled to read this book, then share this blog with your network. Let’s talk about it, openly. I want us to be on the same page on this topic, as future generations and shaping their minds is dependent on it. We have no place for negative stereotypes and ancient beliefs any longer.

To my LGBTQ+ family who may be suffering — know that you can survive. Handling this shame and accepting who you are is the first step, but please do know this — you have every right to be who you are and deserve a spot in our society today. We may have endured a great deal, but that does not mean change is impossible. It is actually the opposite. A new age revolution is on the horizon, where we all will be more tolerant and accepting of others. In the meantime, if you do feel overwhelmed or are under a great deal of sadness, there are resources out there that can help you. Switchboard UK is an amazing resource that keeps your conversations confidential. 56 Dean Street clinic is a free service to ensure you are safe and healthy. CBT saved my life, and it may help you as well.

Lastly, I want to share my ultimate gratitude to Matthew Todd. You have written a piece of work that has changed my life and has helped so many others in the process. In the midst of your own personal struggles, you stepped away and wrote a piece of art to support those in need. I hope one day we can speak about the change that you demand in your book. The change I demand. The change you should all demand.



Bhavik Shah

Award winning Mental Health & DEI Workplace Advocate. Exploring new curiosities, while challenging social convention. Contact me at