Stephen Rainbow chats to an old friend and discovers the disillusionment some gay men have with “gay life”. Why is it that so many gay men still believe there is only one way you can live happily and gay?
Several years ago I was on a flight back from Buenos Aires and I met a young guy who I was very drawn to. It wasn’t just that I found him sexually attractive, but he also glowed with a youthful optimism reflecting the fact he was just setting out on a new life in Sydney. I stayed in touch for a year or so but it was clear he was totally embroiled in Sydney’s gay life and so I lost contact with the young Peruvian. Until last night that is, when he made contact again after four years.
When I asked him how he was, he sounded melancholy at best, depressed at worst. The details of what has happened during the four years in Sydney are slowly emerging, but this gorgeous young guy who was so full of vitality and life is now utterly disillusioned with “gay life”.
When I suggested to him it was a challenge for many of us to find out what it means to live a good gay life he replied: “I am no longer concerned with living a gay life, I’d rather be away from it. Just because I am a guy who likes guys I don’t have to live the ‘gay life’. The ‘gay life’ is just not for everyone.”
His experiences are in Sydney, but his outpourings brought to mind a young guy here who recently asked if there were any gay couples that were monogamous as he had been told there were none. I can’t claim to know what happens in the thousands of relationships that exist between gay men, but I’d be incredibly surprised if there are no monogamous relationships among gay men. This is not to say that monogamy is good or bad, but I despair if the freedom for gay men that has been so painfully brought has not created an environment where gay men have choices about how they live.
How much are young gay guys exposed to the multiplicity of ways we can live as gay men? Where are our gay heroes and role models? One example is Australia’s high-profile Michael Kirby, who has been in a relationship with his partner for more than 40 years – his long-lasting love shows that being gay and having a long-term relationship is not mutually exclusive. Some relationships may even be monogamous!
While the stereotypes that the media perpetuates about gay men are incredibly damaging, don’t we also have to take a hard look at ourselves and the way that we present what being gay means (especially to impressionable young people)?
Britain’s Stonewall organisation’s 2011 Study of Gay and Bisexual Men’s Health confirmed, yet again, that “gay and bisexual men nationwide are more likely to attempt suicide, to self-harm and to have depression than their straight peers. They are also more likely to smoke, drink and take illegal drugs. It ill-serves our gay and bisexual communities when these uncomfortable truths are ignored”.
I suspect the evidence from the British survey is directly relevant here. And these factors associated with mental well-being have direct impacts on physical health. Two people I know who have recently been diagnosed with HIV, for example, became infected during periods of depression. The state of their mental well-being directly impacted on their sexual behaviours and in particular their willingness to take risks.
How wonderful it would be then if in addition to fabulous dance parties we also had the opportunity to share our stories and experiences and to explore what it might mean to lead a “good gay life”. Workshops and retreats along these lines certainly take place in the US, where the gay population is large enough to sustain a wide range of activities for gay guys, but there is little sign of such occasions here.
This is not to suggest that every gay guy should have to join a personal growth group, but it is about presenting that there is no one way to be gay, or to lead a “gay life”. We may be united by the fact that we all (can I generalise?) prefer to wake up next to a bloke in the morning, but beyond that our values and lifestyles are more than likely to be just as diverse as non-gay folks.
We have to do a better job of showing the diversity of lives that gay men lead and of the activities that we are involved in, from choirs and church groups to classical cars and child-raising. We need to hear and see more of gay businesspeople; of the couple who have lived happily together for decades; of the gay member of the military forces and the gay sportsman.
I need to be able to tell my young Sydney-based friend that there is no “gay lifestyle”. We have no choice about our sexuality. But by emphasising the huge variety of ways in which we respond to being gay and the multiple choices gay people make about how to live we may be able to begin honestly addressing the challenges we still face as gay men – reflected in some pretty sobering statistics – that show just how far we have to go before we can enjoy the fruits of the freedom so hard won in recent decades.
| Stephen Rainbow