A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an article. Thinking it would be a short but interesting read I clicked on it and 20 minutes later I emerged knowing I had just read one of those seminal texts that shape the discourse on what it is to be gay and the search for happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing. The article gave me hope, and made me cry. I’m sharing the link here as I hope it will touch you as well if you have not already read it and give a way for us as a community to start to talk about the issues it raises around loneliness and self-harm.
I posted it on Facebook with some reflections on how I felt in response to it. I was a bit anxious about sharing, but I’ve been reading a number of books on well-being and self-love recently that all encourage authenticity as the key to self-worth and self-love: saying how you are and how you feel and being yourself rather than presenting an edited socially acceptable ‘Facebook’ persona. I was so touched by the responses I got from people to my Facebook post and it really helped me to feel cared for and held by my gay friends.
The thing that most struck me in the article was the statement that more gay men in Canada die as a result of suicide than HIV/AIDS. Consider that for a moment. If suicide were a communicable disease we would all be terrified of it. But it is a silent killer – one man lost here, then another, then another……..slowly building up until the toll is in fact worse than AIDS (statistics of gay suicides are not available in many countries, but Canada does keep them). And it leads to asking why is it that even younger gay men are still more likely to be addicted to drugs or to be depressed or to try killing themselves than straight men of the same age?
A section of the article really struck me and seems to answer some of this question:
“We see gay men who have never been sexually or physically assaulted with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms to people who have been in combat situations or who have been raped,” says Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health.
Gay men are, as Keuroghlian puts it, “primed to expect rejection.” We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.”
Which raises the question: why? How can it be that just growing up in relatively safe environments, where some of the younger men have not even experienced direct homophobia or been physically abused for being gay, why do even these men show similar signs of post-traumatic stress to combat veterans or rape survivors?
As part of an answer to this the article goes on to discuss the issue of “minority stress”. This is not a term I’ve heard before, but it makes a lot of sense. To quote from the article again:
“Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.
For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.”
This was exactly my experience, and that of so many I know: the feeling of having survived childhood and adolescence as the increasing sense of not being a part of the male ‘tribe’ around me intensified. I still remember the intense fear I felt on going to the introductory session with the Cubs, being in a hetrocentric male world felt terrifying, it was not my world and on an unconscious level I felt that I would be seen through. We had sport on two days a week at my school, and I cried myself to sleep two nights a week in fear of what was to come the next day. Not just occasionally, but every week, for five years. I’m sure I am not alone there. I was talking with a repair man who came to my flat recently. He was straight, and loves to play football. I asked him about Rugby as he was tall and strong and looked as if he could play, and he said he hated it, he used to cry and not want to play it so his dad went in to his school and told them he didn’t want his son playing Rugby. How I longed for that sort of father! But as a boy who didn’t fit in with other boys at all, there was the sense that I needed to man up. Whereas this man saw his son playing football and being a regular boy, but who just did’t like Rugby so he acted for him.
These little moments of stress all build up, and the article outlines the impact of them on the body and future development:
“Growing up gay, it seems, is bad for you in many of the same ways as growing up in extreme poverty. A 2015 study found that gay people produce less cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress. Their systems were so activated, so constantly, in adolescence that they ended up sluggish as grownups, says Katie McLaughlin, one of the study’s co-authors. In 2014, researchers compared straight and gay teenagers on cardiovascular risk. They found that the gay kids didn’t have a greater number of “stressful life events” (i.e. straight people have problems, too), but the ones they did experience inflicted more harm on their nervous systems.
Annesa Flentje, a stress researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, specializes in the effect of minority stress on gene expression. All those little punches combine with our adaptations to them, she says, and become “automatic ways of thinking that never get challenged or turned off, even 30 years later.” Whether we recognize it or not, our bodies bring the closet with us into adulthood.”
The article goes on to say that healing this involves learning to bring awareness to the patterns, to recognise what was automatic but unaware behaviour and to bring kindness to oneself. I recently saw a report that the suicide attempts among teenage gay men in the US had dramatically decreased after same sex marriages were legalised. It was as if they had received a message from society that they were not alone….reducing that feeling of minority stress just a little through seeing that there were other men out there looking for love and that society now allowed that to be celebrated in a public ceremony.
Letting the Ice of Repression Melt
Right now it feels as if something is thawing in my life. A great continental ice shelf of repression and denial and I feel so much fear, anger and rage. Not actually feel it as right now it seems to be at a distance, but I struggle as I see it like some mummified remains of a monster appearing in the thawing ice….knowing, fearing, that on thawing it will come to life again and devour me.
This doesn’t feel very spiritual. And the fact that I sometimes feel so alone and that there are times that I reach out to friends and they don’t reply or respond and that that then pisses me off, but I try to be understanding and nice about it. Well even that I’m starting to get tired of. But I’m still too nice to tell them…..so the rage goes inside and eats at my gut like a rat in my belly or maggots and flies in my head. And then I see that I do it myself to others: being self absorbed, forgetting an arrangement to meet, only seeing others as a means to filling my sense of emptiness rather than a real connection from the heart.
In the monastery I had a good straight friend, but we fell out after several years of closeness. He told me he felt me to be selfish. It was so hard to hear as I thought I was being so kind and attentive to him. But I guess, looking back, he had a point. All my kindness and attention to him which he eventually rejected was not for him. It was so that he would not leave me. But as Jung says “what we resist persists, what we fight we get more of” and eventually it was this very energy of trying to keep his affection by not being authentic, but by showering him with kindness and attention that triggered his stuff and led to him cutting off from me to hold his own boundary and stop himself from being overwhelmed. And it’s a pattern I keep seeing. But like a car crash I see it happening but can’t stop it. I started therapy this Thursday, so it will be interesting to reflect on all of this in the sessions and feel into it more deeply. “Know thyself”, the key to freedom.
Reading this article was well timed and has added to my reflections on what is shifting for me right now. It talks of how as gay men we are less likely to have close friends over time, more likely to feel isolated and alone. Find it harder to build intimate relationships – romantic or social. And as social animals we can have food and water and all our other needs met, but without true intimacy we perish. But knowing this is not enough – I have to learn how to be intimate. That starts by opening fully to me and what is here. To be able to cry, and laugh and feel fully. To stop being spiritual and start just being. Easy to say. I don’t know how the fuck to do it. I’ve spent a lifetime being the good spiritual monk!
I realise that the idea of opening to another scares me. I fear that no man will truly be there for me, that they will all leave or let me down, that love is not truly possible, that I am not able to love another…..and why would any one want to love a mess like me anyway? So the work is on opening fully to self-care and self-love. And seeing that there are men out there who are wanting to connect from an authentic place, from the heart and who want to explore healing their wounds around relating through being in relationship. As part of this I looked online for images of male couples, and it was a lovely surprise to see so many from the past, as well as present. So I’m finishing with a montage of these, a lovely reminder that men have loved men throughout history, that we have sought each other out even in times of adversity when being gay truly was the “love that dare not speak its name”. They are our family, our ancestors, out tribe. Just as we are offering our healing to the gay men who will come after us and inherit the world we have created for them to live in. Here’s wishing you well in your own journey of self-love, self-care and deep heart connection with self and other.
To read the article in full click here