‘Gay Shame’

Matthew Todd has written another piece about ‘gay shame’ and the emotional damage which internalised homophobia inflicts on the gay psyche. It’s been a favoured subject for many since the publication of ‘The Velvet Rage’, the tagline of which – ‘Overcoming the pain of growing up gay in a straight man’s world’ – makes its thesis clear. It’s worth noting, however, that while it claims to ‘draw on contemporary research’, the book is not a peer-reviewed publication with the scientific rigour that entails. It is also written by a commercially-operating psychologist who has, it’s fair to say, a financial interest in his thesis. This review suggests the ‘evidence’ cited in the book consists of five items and that instead the argument rests almost entirely on anecdotes. It’s worth reading the review as it highlights several big criticisms of the book that I won’t go into here.

As I work daily with medical research depositaries, I have previously spent some time looking at the research into the mental health of (mostly) gay men. There isn’t much out there and it’s contradictory, to say the least. Only this week a peer-reviewed study has been published which suggests that gay men are more likely (than straight men) to seek help for psychological issues but are actually less likely to experience distress. This greater tendency to seek help could explain the over-representation of gay men with diagnoses of mental health issues. Now, as the linked blog makes clear, this study is problematic and far from conclusive – but interesting nonetheless. What I found particularly interesting were the responses in the comments: “Ask any Iranian homosexual hanging from a crane”, the author is told. Someone else suggests that “gay men have lower sexual frustration and this may cause increased happiness”. The response, the recourse, tends to be anecdotal and stereotypical rather than factual.

This study suggests that lesbians have “equally strong levels of mental health as their heterosexual sisters and higher self-esteem” and that gay/lesbian youth are only “slightly more likely” than heterosexuals to attempt suicide. This one initially seems to clearly suggest that gay and lesbian people suffer worse mental health. Hidden in the body of the text, however, the authors acknowledge that it could be the case that gay people are simply more likely to seek help. They offer a further possibility – that the lifestyles of gay people make them more susceptible to mental health problems, rather than underlying mental health problems leading them to certain lifestyles. This study again suggests that LGB people are at greater risk of mental health issues but states that the nature of the research makes it nigh impossible to ascertain why that is, resorting to guessing what is ‘likely’.

The full report of Michael King’s UCL study is available online and it makes for interesting reading. The media (particularly the gay media) universally presented it as showing that LGBT people suffered disproportionately from mental health problems. Yet it is full of interesting and contradictory findings. For example:

Violence and bullying in adult life, for whatever reason, were more commonly reported by lesbians than heterosexual women, but there were few differences on these factors between gay and heterosexual men. However, regardless of the prevalence of such events, gay men and lesbians often attributed the harassment or violence to their sexuality. Lesbians were no more likely than bisexual women to have been verbally assaulted but were more likely to attribute such verbal assaults they received to their sexuality.

Firstly, the suggestion that lesbians experience more violence than straight women, yet gay men are no more likely to experience it than straight men, runs contrary to the predominant narrative that gay men are the primary victims. Secondly, the finding that those who identify as gay or lesbian are far more likely (even than bisexuals) to attribute harassment to their sexuality seems that it could be of huge importance. If we take the ‘fact’ that men of whatever sexuality seem as likely as each other to experience violence yet gay men are far more likely to attribute this to their sexuality, questions clearly arise regarding this attribution. What motivates violence against straight men and why does this seemingly not similarly motivate violence against other men, for example? We see a similar possibility here:

Among men, bullying at school was reported no more often by gay than heterosexual men, but those gay men who had been bullied regarded their sexual orientation as the main provocation.

The report also raises interesting questions about bisexuality, given that reports of discrimination almost always fixate on homosexuality. It reads:

Bisexual men also reported more psychological distress than gay men. On all other measures of psychological or social wellbeing, however, there were no differences between gay and bisexual men or between lesbians and bisexual women

It found that bisexual people were less likely to be comfortable with their sexuality and less likely to be open about it. The reasons for this could be many – including the anecdotal distrust and mocking of bisexuality frequently found in the gay community. This puts quite a different spin on things than ‘LGBT people are the victims of homophobic society’.

It seems clear that it’s far from a straightforward issue, yet publications continue to unquestioningly print pieces like Matthew Todd’s. I think it’s easy to understand why – they just feel right. The Guardian may have a column dedicated to pulling apart questionable science but when it comes to identity politics, they’re happy to have their tummies tickled.

There is a further layer of complexity here. If we accept that gay men do indeed suffer disproportionately from mental health problems, it’s still an extra leap to then lay the blame for this entirely at the door of people like Ann Widdecombe or Lord Carey. Perhaps their words impact on young people or those struggling with their sexuality, and they certainly aren’t worth defending. However it seems to me that their increasingly hysterical rants are taken seriously by almost no-one beyond two groups – the minority who agree with them, and the minority who are fixated on the idea that the problems of gay people can largely be blamed on responses to their sexuality. Certainly it would be churlish to deny that most Western countries have improved immensely with regards to homophobia in recent decades – I think the almost-universal condemnation of Lord Carey’s remarks underline this. While it’s still unquestionably important to disagree with these people, it is also increasingly easy to do so. What is more difficult is to look at ourselves. I wrote only last week about the objectification and sexualisation which is commonly accepted in the gay media. It seems common sense to argue that homophobia causes mental health problems. It also seems common sense to suggest that the constant images of naked men found in magazines like GT and Attitude (which Matthew Todd edits), with their bodies airbrushed to absurdity, could cause mental health problems. Furthermore these magazines are heavily consumerist, presenting page after page of expensive clothing, holidays, gadgets, cars etc which are well beyond the reach of most people (whatever their sexuality). We already know as fact that comparisons with perceived peers cause feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. What’s more, these traits of the gay media – objectification, sexualisation, commodification – are more widely found in the gay community (something I looked at here).

It’s easy – far too easy – to believe that our problems stem from our sexuality and what we perceive society’s response to it to be. Even when you have your own magazine and newspaper column to say so. There are undoubtedly some out there who make a living from this reductive approach to their identity. Yet it’s a no-brainer that if you seek out homophobia, you will find it. If you want to believe that you are a besieged minority, you will believe it no matter what. It’s a simple narrative, one which makes sense and one which divests us of all personal responsibility for our lives. What is more difficult is to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves, our peers and to recognise the many aspects in which we are nothing out of the ordinary. As I’ve argued previously, engaging with these issues means getting past the idea that that thing which makes you a ‘minority’ is the defining characteristic of your entire being, everything you do and everything that happens to you, demanding that everyone around you recognise and understand this and then responding with fury if they do it ‘negatively’. This means appreciating that sure, a gay man with mental health problems may have them (entirely or in part) because of issues with his sexuality. However it’s not necessarily the case; it’s also not necessarily the case that if he blames homophobia for them, then it is certainly to blame. These problems are complex. Just like our identities.

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