For want of a less dramatic phrase, there is a gay identity crisis that is with us here and now.
The huge advancements in gay rights over the past two decades, from the equalization of the age of consent to the abolition of Section 28 via the introduction of civil partnerships, have given generations of gay men freedoms that previous ones could only have dreamt of.
However, today, as we mature into a supposedly ‘more accepting’ community, many gay men are finding that this more welcoming, yet still intensely heterosexually-structured world, provides little foundation for what is essentially a different lifestyle. And to say we live in a fully liberal and accepting world is far from the truth.
Regularly we hear about religious zealots across the world condemning homosexuality, and far right fanatics professing how gay marriage will destroy the very foundation of society. Psychologically speaking, it’s not easy living in a world that constantly reminds you that your lifestyle is not necessarily the norm.
So how do we move forward and construct a balanced and healthy life in the face of historical, and occasionally current, social exclusion? Worryingly some gay men resort to drug abuse, while others find themselves judging their lives by their heterosexual counterparts. Either way, discussions and forums have begun to emerge to challenge the issue of growing up gay in a straight world…
“The impact of growing up as a gay child but not receiving acknowledgement and encouragement creates many negative beliefs that can affect us all through our life,” states Darren Brady of Quest (www.gayutopia.co.uk), which hosted a weekend of events and discussion in November that focused on the lives and issues affecting gay men today.
The purpose of the two-day workshop was to analyse an issue that has slowly started coming to the fore of many gay men’s lives. As we grow into a wider mainstream community that has become increasingly accepting of alternative lifestyles, many gay men are finding that they still struggle to fit into what is largely a heteronormative – and white and male dominated – environment that can often be at odds with their internal feelings and early life experiences.
“It took me years to gain the confidence in coming out firstly to myself, then others, and coming to terms with my own sexuality,” relates Tony J Selimi, CEO and Founder of The Velvet Journey (www.thevelvetjourney.com). “All of which stifled my sense of belonging, impacted my health and wellbeing and destabilised my relationships, career, family, and community, giving rise to painful power struggles in and around me.”
LGBT children and teenagers are primarily raised heterosexual. Parents, generally, have high hopes for their children. They wish for them to grow up to be doctors or lawyers, attractive, healthy, happy. Then one day they’ll get married, have children and propagate the family tree. One can’t ever envisage a situation when a parent holds their baby in their arms and adds to that thought, ‘Ah, look, he’s so cute!
Maybe one day he’ll also be a homosexual!’ Unless you exhibit very effeminate tendencies from a young age (those who shunned Action Man for Barbie) your parents raise you heterosexual. Aunties ask ‘do you have a girlfriend, yet?’ when they see you at family functions, kids tease other kids and use the word ‘gay’ freely as a negative term, and schools teach teens about heterosexual sex.
Many gay people spend much of the first decades of their lives aware that their true self is contrary to what society tells us is ‘normal’.
“It’s not easy growing up gay in a straight world,” concurs Selimi. “Not only are you in the minority, but you likely have always been painfully aware of how you are different from others.”
He continues, “We have many gay men in their forties that are now realising that they have a lot of baggage, and as they get older it’s just getting heavier. They need to do something about it, they are looking for release and the release they have used is simply not working any more. These experiences can have a profound effect; you may be feeling depressed, suffering from anxiety or struggling to feel confident and happy with yourself and your life.”
Selimi cites other common issues faced by gay men as: HIV/AIDS; safe sex; substance use; depression/anxiety; alcohol and tobacco; gender identity; race and ethnicity; and economic status. All of these can add to any pre-existing, deep-rooted issues and manifest in a range of self-destructive behaviours.
HOW DID WE GET HERE? RIGHTS & RELATIONSHIPS
One would assume with the progress of LGBT rights, gay men would find acceptance and integration into mainstream life. So why are some gay men still feeling alienated in the wider community?
Darren Brady believes that while the surface looks rosy, in this country at least, it belies what is going on at a deeper level for gay men of all ages. “A lot of the problem now is our internal dialogue, not the external world. We still carry negative beliefs that affect how we think we are being perceived, and that can affect our ability to integrate. While we see progress in our rights in the UK, we have not seen the same progress with our own self-development.”
Dominic Davies of Pink Therapy (www.pinktherapy.com) is in agreement. “Even though we have pretty good legal protections, these are recent and most of us remember the times when the country was actively a hostile place.
Whilst it feels pretty safe to hold hands in most parts of the West End, outside of that small area one still runs a risk of violence or abuse.”
He adds, “Also lots of people living in London come from less tolerant countries, this can make it difficult for people to feel fully part of the community here.”
“Straight men get married and have kids, and we can carry on clubbing and taking drugs much later in life.”
Dominic Davies of Pink Therapy
Davies goes on to highlight how the lives of gay men are sometimes at odds with the often moralistic attitudes of the mainstream community, which is often defined in a religious framework that gay men do not feel a part of.
“Many of us don’t want acceptance and integration and to be assimilated into mainstream society, but enjoy the role of outsider, holding a mirror to society’s values and hypocritical morals and showing other ways to live one’s life.”
He continues, “For example, a very high proportion of gay men are in non-monogamous relationships and where sexual openness is handled without it resorting to a blow to one partner’s ego if his partner has sex with another man.
Jealousy and possessiveness are handled differently by many gay men. In many ways, we have much to teach the straight world about relationships!”
Indeed, with divorce rates amongst heterosexual couples increasing and the end of a marriage no longer presenting itself as the social taboo it once was, gay men have certainly highlighted the need for a modern society to redefine the concept of love and relationships.
But without any adequate advice during their youth on the very different interactions between men and men compared to men and women, what are the common traps that gay men fall into in their relationships?
Alison Raphael therapist at Openly Minded (www.openlyminded.com) believes many gay men feel shameful or cheated out of nature by their sexual orientation. What feeds this feeling? “I have found that gay men especially anticipate rejection so it keeps them from the present,” she offers.
“They slip into the past or channel their thoughts into the future. This means that their identity immediately disperses related to what is going on for them in the moment.”
SEXUALITY – NOT ABOUT SEX
What becomes clear is that younger gay men are navigating their way through a world that despite becoming increasingly accessible through the internet and social media, can also be intensely isolating in its ignorance to the needs of LGBT children and teenagers. Is there something that the Government could do to improve this?
Tony Selimi believes more needs to be done to provide adequate support to young LGBTs. “To start with [the Government] can make it obligatory for every school in the UK to include in their curriculum diversity programmes where such issues as teacher training, bullying, homophobia, and being gay can be addressed so that they are able to inspire children at an early age to live a life of their own making and free of judgement.”
“A lot of the problem now is our internal dialogue, not the external world.”
Darren Brady, Quest
He adds, “They could also tackle Heterosexism, the belief that everyone is, or should be, heterosexual and that other forms of sexuality are unacceptable.”
It seems we are still living in the shadow of Section 28.
The impending introduction of Gay Marriage is perhaps the single most important change in the progress of gay rights in recent years.
Whilst many gay men wonder what relevance it has to our wider community, and whether we even need a law to give us legal recognition for a relationship structure that many religious institutions would sooner have us exempted from, there is a greater value to its implementation than at first seems.
While, yes, society’s changing attitudes direct the decisions governments make, it is only once a government makes the brave first step into enshrining those rights into law does society then begin to change on all levels.
Think about the women’s rights movement, from giving them the right to vote and beyond, to the issue of racial equality. It is only once the governing authorities have accepted these rights that those oppressed people can genuinely move forward and integrate into the wider community.
For once gay marriage is introduced, LGBT children growing up today will know that their future relationships are as equal in the eyes of the law as heterosexual ones and just as valid.
Darren Brady also believes change should start in the home. “It’s important that parents begin to understand that their child has a sexual identity from a very early age and that they feel comfortable discussing it with them in order for the child to have a healthy sense of self at those formative years.
Then it is important that schools nurture the entire diversity of children’s sexuality all the way through to leaving school.”
Crucially he adds, “Sexuality is not about sex, it is about identity, similar to gender and ethnicity. Anybody that learns to hide a fundamental part of themselves from an early age will experience problems in life. If we explore, learn and become conscious of what lies beneath we are no longer hostage to it. When we know better, we do better.”
ESCAPING INTO ADDICTION
Worryingly, the worst of the problems that gay men face today can sometimes manifest through addiction, whether it’s in their teens, twenties, thirties or even later in life for those who were deeply closeted, especially if many of these early issues had not been dealt with.
“Alcohol has always been a social lubricant for us to self medicate anxiety,” offers Davies. “In many cities the gay pub is still the only meeting place available. This means we’re more likely to drink more often and perhaps larger quantities than our heterosexual peers. With regard to drug use, straight men get married and have kids, and we can carry on clubbing and taking drugs much later in life. There isn’t that pressure to settle down and assimilate.”
The range of escapes has increased, too. No longer is booze and ecstasy the high du jour for escapism, the arrival of newer drugs has meant more serious addiction cycles for some. Davies names G [GHB/GBL] and crystal meth as two of these.
Brady is in agreement. “We have learnt to escape in many different ways. For some gay men it is through career, religion, sex, and for some it is drink and drugs. It is often a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult feelings.”
The issue of gay men and addiction is one we’ll explore in greater detail next week.
THE BODY BEAUTIFUL?
Without any existing framework for many gay men to fit into during their early years, Alison Raphael goes on to identify how she believes many gay men seek approval from others mainly from their appearance. “This is a facade that protects them on a surface level for a while. It will psychologically distance themselves from who they actually are; their own sensibilities and character traits; so they are left with only emptiness.”
“Body shaping is the controlled engine to access self esteem and power.”
Alison Raphael, Openly Minded
She continues, “Life eventually becomes a performance. How long can that leading role run for? What happens to self-esteem, emotions? They wither into a secret part that one can withdraw into, and eventually, even this can shut down. A physical machine is the outcome.”
Sounds all rather depressing, yes? But I bet many of you can associate a part of yourself in that summary, whether it’s a desire to attain the perfect body or simply an obsession with clothes and the outward image.
I’m as much a victim to this as the next person. I can remember a dozen times when I’ve found myself indulging in retail therapy to make myself happy – it usually happens after I’ve had a difficult time. Occasionally I have to remind myself that, yes, it’s OK to miss a few gym sessions.
Of course, sometimes going to the gym is simply staying fit, and shopping is sometimes just buying new clothes, but it’s to what degree one does those things, how often and how you feel if you were deprived of them that is crucial.
Alison goes on, “I come across eating disorders as a common link to keeping the appearance of control. Body shaping is the controlled engine to access self esteem and power.”
What is perhaps most telling is the issue of age. How do gay men get through the constant onslaught of looking ‘good’, when maturing in a world that is so youth orientated?
“Self worth starts to dissipate because of ageing,” Alison states. “Beauty does not represent worth, and can become a monomaniacal obsession – but that is not to say that looking good can’t be important to you, it just shouldn’t be the be all and end all. Looking beyond the surface is the key to enhancing life. Understanding ones purpose in life goes far beyond this surface level. There is beauty in ageing.”
THE MATURE GAY MAN
“Ageing – it’s something we have all learnt to dread. A multi billion pound industry feeds off this fear, arming us with the tools to fight against ageing for as long as possible,” explains Dr Benjamin Piper, Chartered Counselling Psychologist at City and West Psychology (www.cityandwestpsychology.com).
“Along with the more ‘serious’ concerns of declining health, death, loss and insecurity, ageing brings with it the inevitable fading of youth and the positives it may have brought you. It also represents a change in how others perceive you and also how you may perceive yourself and understand your identity.”
Of course the fear of ageing and attempting to hold onto youth isn’t exclusively a gay problem, but perhaps a general male concern that manifests more evidently in gay men – after all, the image of a busty, glamorous young woman hanging off the arm of an older, often rich, straight man is not that uncommon.
But with gay men, the issue is often internalized and mirrored-back, with a focus on ourselves, not just the partners some men pursue.
“Focus on what is good about you and what you want from your own life.”
Benjamin Piper, City and West Psychology
Piper goes on to identify that for ageing gay men, the added stressors that may have been endured during their lifetimes due to heterosexualism has the potential to exacerbate many psychological issues, including any stress around adjustment to maturing and identity as an older gay man.
He goes on to highlight that the politicising of homosexuality in order to create social equality has been hugely important to older gay men’s mental health. On the other hand, with a sudden more liberal world, it also created the somewhat confusing idea of gay culture: flamboyant, hedonistic and at times superficial, the gay world wrapped-up in beauty and youth.
“Gay culture became so centred on youth and physical attraction, largely because the later stages of life in hetero-society – children and grandchildren – were not afforded to gay men,” explains Piper. “As the music stops and the lights go on, revealing our lines and bald spots, where do we go from here?”
He continues, “There has never been a yellow brick road to follow for older gay men to age into. Heterosexual men have a path to ageing—they can become fathers and grandfathers. They have a role in society as they age, but gay men, in the past, have not had that kind of role.”
“It took me years to gain the confidence in coming out firstly to myself, then others, and coming to terms with my own sexuality,”
Tony J Selimi, The Velvet Journey
Piper highlights how research suggests that marriage equality will have a positive effect on gay men’s psychological well-being. “This, I would imagine, corresponds to the research that indicates older gay men in committed relationships enjoy greater psychological happiness,” he says, but counters that, believing it to be somewhat misleading.
“A common presentation that I see in gay clients from their mid-thirties onwards in my practice as a psychologist is the pressure to be in a long-term relationship. Individuals as they get older can feel an increasing pressure, underpinned by societal heterosexual norms, to find ‘the one’.
This can be a conflicting force as some gay men may not feel ready for or ever want a monogamous relationship.”
Interestingly, Piper indicates that this is where our difficult experiences as gay men can actually benefit us: “I often suggest to my clients that they take time to really focus on the positives of their life experiences.
Look at the challenges that we have faced and how they can give us a much richer understanding and appreciation of life. This will give a person much better insight into what they are looking for in life past youthfulness, and worry less about what the gay world or straight world think about their individual choices.
Use your experiences as a person who has not always fitted into expected boxes and carve out what you want your life to be as a mature person.”
He continues, “It’s probably worth thinking back to when each of us was a bright-eyed bushy tailed twenty something, with a flat stomach and tight skin. Think back; were you completely happy and insecurity free?
Probably not! Placing self worth on youth and looks and how you fit with expected societal norms – gay or straight – only sets you up for an emotional fall, and can ironically make a person a bit boring and unattractive. Instead, focus on what is good about you and what you want from your own life. Let the youth enjoy what you once did and enjoy where your life can now take you.”
Be yourself and be proud of who you are, you are not as invisible as a trip to your local gay bar suggests.
NEXT WEEK: GAY MEN AND DRUGS