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Gender Studied      January-February 2017

Healing Stigma in the Age of Social Media

 

IN NOVEMBER 2011, an undercover news crew ambushed me and my wife outside an organic butcher’s shop where we were picking up our Thanksgiving turkey. At the time, I was a respected English teacher and rowing coach with more than two decades of teaching experience under my belt. But the only thing the news crew wanted to talk about was my brief stint as a gay actor in the adult industry. In an instant, I was labeled the “Porn Star Teacher.” And in that same instant, my ability to be happily and legitimately married to a woman while successfully teaching high school students to read, write, and row were all thrown into doubt.

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, the shadow cast over me was one of stigma—a discrediting label assigned by society and meant to isolate the individual so labeled. As I learned later, a stigmatized person often suffers from broken relationships and loss of community, income, and housing. In many cases, the person’s identity is damaged because he or she eventually internalizes the stigma. Tragically, all too often, stigmatization eventually results in suicide.

In my case, once the label “Porn Star Teacher” was attached to my name, a series of damaging assumptions came rolling in: that I must be gay; that I must be lying to my wife; that I must be leading a double life or harboring other secrets. All of these assumptions were in fact inaccurate.

For starters, I’m not gay; I’m bisexual. And my wife, who also happens to be bisexual, has always known about my sexual orientation. What’s more, the decision for me to do adult work was one we made together at a time when we were broke, the economy had bottomed out, and unemployment was over ten percent. To keep my family off the street, I did any kind of work I could—so long as it was legal. Porn paid in one day what other jobs paid in a week. So I made the movie—and made the rent.

Seeing your life played out in the court of public opinion is a surreal experience. While I received support from many people from around the world, it wasn’t enough to save my teaching career. My contract ran out, and I was no longer welcome in the world of education. As the months passed, the effects of stigma started to manifest themselves in my life. I was isolated from my professional world and no longer able to use my passion for literature, poetry, and teaching. I had PTSD and was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. More devastating still, I felt like the person that I’d been for so many years had been shattered into a thousand pieces.

Insomnia set in. I couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time, at which point I’d wake up, my heart pounding, my body covered in sweat. To escape my nightmares, I’d get up and make myself a coffee. Before long, I found myself trying to do what I’d done so well during two decades of teaching and coaching: analyzing the challenge and determining what steps were needed to overcome it. I started reading everything I could about the cause and effects of stigma. I realized that though stigma is an ancient societal construct, today, thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s perhaps more dangerous than ever. It’s communicated at unprecedented speeds and on an enormous scale. And once the damaging information is out there, it’s impossible to scrub it from the Internet. In short, once you’re publicly stigmatized in the 21st century, there’s no way to turn back the clock. Instead, you have to move forward and find a way to heal your life and your identity.

For me, healing involved finding my community, that of bisexuals. It also involved finding a way to express myself artistically through poetry. Eventually, it led me to find a new purpose in life by helping others heal from stigma.

That’s when Healing Stigma was born. One of the first things I noticed was that while many organizations worked to raise awareness about various types of stigma through education, none of them had any information on what to do if you’ve been stigmatized. As a teacher, I immediately recognized the need for a practical, step-by-step guide on overcoming stigma. Soon, a friend introduced me to Dr. Robert Galatzer-Levy, one of the world’s leading authorities on stigma, with whom I’m co-authoring Healing Stigma: A Survivor’s Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age.

Currently, the Healing Stigma Program provides a range of hands-on services, including personal coaching, organizational consulting, stigma sensitivity workshops, and motivational speaking. We maintain a free, confidential peer-to-peer support group on Facebook, where members can interact and help each other, and we have a Healing Stigma Professionals group, where professionals can share news, opinions, and resources. We also use our social media presence and our weekly podcast, Healing Stigma on Left of Str8 Radio, to bring issues surrounding stigma to the forefront and initiate conversations.

Among the people we help are some who’ve been stigmatized due to sexual orientation, addiction, obesity, mental illness, learning disabilities, and HIV. Moreover, we work with a number of national and international organizations to raise awareness about specific stigmas such as physical disabilities, bipolar, bullying, and more.

Almost five years after being stigmatized, I’m proud of the work I’m doing and proud of who I’ve become. But more than anything else, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to teach again, except now I’m teaching individuals, families, and communities the hardest lesson I ever learned, that of healing stigma.

 

Kevin Hogan is currently co-authoring (with Robert Galatzer-Levy) a book titled Healing Stigma: A Survivor’s Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age.

 

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