Keeping hope alive – and the epidemic of loneliness and suicide among gay men

You may be familiar with the myth of Pandora’s box. Pandora was the first woman, created by Zeus as a curse to punish what until then had been a society made up only of men for Prometheus giving them the power of fire. Pandora’s curiosity led her to open a box she had been told not to open and out flew all the evils that now blight our word – fear, anger, lust, jealousy etc.  All that remained in the box was hope. When we have been attacked by all of these evils we can always return to this one constant, hope.

But for some of us hope can also seem to vanish.

This last month two men I know have killed themselves. Both were gay. Both grew up in cultures where they were vilified for their sexuality. Both struggled in their lives. Stef turned to drugs and chem sex and lost himself in that to the point of ending up in prison for murder. The other I met when we were both monks. But he left the monastery a few years after me and then cut off all contact. It was only seeing a post on Facebook that I heard what had happened.

Stef came to the group looking for a way to find peace. He was a highly intelligent man. Sensitive and hurt by his families rejection of him for his sexuality. He left Italy for  London, in the hope of finding a more tolerant home. My monk friend was gentle, and quiet.  He came to the group once and led the most heart centred loving kindness practice. But growing up in apartheid South Africa he carried so much self-hate. Both men struggled with loving themselves and finding peace. In the end that led both to withdraw, isolate themselves, look for ways out of the suffering: through being good and ‘spiritual’, or loosing oneself in addictions, two extremes with the same root: low self-worth and shame.

It is my belief that there is nothing wrong or unnatural or unhealthy about being gay, but just as a child with brown eyes who grew up in a culture where brown eyed people were seen as evil would take that view in and loose self esteem, so to for us growing up in a culture that has only recently shifted to a more embracing attitude we carry the wounds of this disapproval and rejection. As a 20 year old in 1990 for me to have sex was to break the law. I enjoyed feeling that sex was a political act as much as an act of pleasure, but it made me very aware as well that I was in a society that treated me as different to my straight fellows who could legally enjoy sex at a younger age. I had abuse shouted at me as I cycled into Cambridge by van drivers. School mates made fun of me for being gay, before I even knew what the word meant. AIDS was used as a means to condemn me and all gay men as filthy and degenerate.

Even now if I am kissing a man in public I have one eye open to look for trouble. I was talking with a friend about this recently, how we can fear the threat of violence for as simple an act as taking our lover’s hand in the street or kissing a man good bye after a date. This is a lot to carry, a lot to place on a new relationship as we navigate not just when it is ok to kiss him, but if it is safe or the right place to do so! Or the feeling of upset when our date holds back from a kiss because there is someone standing there they do not want to see them kiss a man. Add to that the feeling of shame we may have internalised as we grew up sensing there was something wrong about us and it is no wonder the incidence of suicide, addiction and much higher rates of smoking occur amoung gay/bi men than straight men.

At New Year I had the realisation that although I look to men for love, I also fear that men cannot love, and that they will always walk away. How many of us have grown up with the subtle disapproval of male figures in our life, the slight withdrawing of affection and approval as fathers, teachers, school mates, realised there was something different about us? For me it was my step-father’s condemnation of me as a bit of a mother’s boy. The coldness from my school mates. The feeling of never belonging.

That is why I set up the group. To be a place where we can meet and create community and friendships.  Where we can share our joy and hope. Where we can speak freely and know from hearing others speak a familiar story that we are not alone.  That is why I share my struggles. I often get emails or have conversations after the group with men who are touched to hear another speak of the things they feel. To know that we are not alone is the most powerful healing. That I am not a solitary failure, but that this struggle acts to connect me to the human condition. That in suffering, and in joy, we find our shared experience of what it is to live in this world beset by the evils released from the Pandora’s Box of intolerance, bigotry and judgement.

When I loose hope, the world becomes a dark place. It is only the confidence that “this too will pass” that has kept me going at times of difficulty. I have had moments where I felt I would rather not live. But I found a way through. And I want any one out there who is struggling right now to know that once through this dark valley the sunlight one thought could never shine again does break through the clouds of depression. Keep reaching out, keep meeting others, keep talking and sharing. When it feels that all hope is gone – it is still there, it’s just that the flutter of its wings is so faint sometimes we have to listen attentively to hear it.

I recently started reading a new book that develops on the ideas in the Velvet Rage, called ‘Straight Jacket: how to be gay and happy’. After recent events it seems more important than ever to keep exploring this theme. Learning to love ourselves, to be able to be at ease in our own skin, to value who we are and the gift we are to the world. As gay/bi men we offer so much to humanity. It’s time to live each day as if it were Pride, to value who we are and what we offer: so much of culture, creativity and beauty that is part of our heritage was from the creative heart of our brothers. Before it was vilified for a man to love a man we served a role in societies throughout the world as the shamans, medicine men, healers and story tellers. We did not have our own families so we cared for the family of the tribe. My hope is that we can find a sense of real pride in being the unique part of humanity that we are, to share our gifts with the world and to be able to love and be loved. And as we all know, loving starts with ourselves. So we will continue to explore how to open to a sense of self-care and self love in the class each Monday.