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Facing the Man in the Mirror

It’s been two years since Attitude broke new ground with the ‘‘issues issue’’ which focused on the sensitive and somewhat taboo issues of mental health problems in gay men. Sparking a national debate, this special edition of Attitude lifted the veil from discussing controversial issues such as internalised homophobia, depression, sex-addiction and shame in an open and transparent way.

But what has changed since then? Having identified the key issues we face, there are now a growing number of gay men who are seeking a new kind of conversation, one which allows them to explore the deeper meaning behind their experiences as gay men. This is reflected in the new book ‘Love Me As I Am: Gay Men reflect on their lives,’ which presents the moving stories of 24 gay men from all walks of life writing an open letter to their sixteen year old self. Developed from a workshop exercise by life coaches Ade Adeniji and Darren Brady, the book signals a new willingness of gay men to step forward and tell their stories in a way that empowers them to break free from the self-destructive patterns that have blighted our community.

In this article James Barber speaks with Ade and Darren, to find out how they are helping gay men to heal the wounds of their past so they can live more authentic lives.

It’s been a year since Darren and Ade decided to add the letter-writing exercise to the workshops they run through their self-development organisation, The Quest. But before they introduced the exercise to the workshops, they tried it on themselves. ‘‘As a 47 year old man writing to my sixteen year old self it felt strange’’ confesses Darren, ‘‘but it made me get in contact with the kid I was when I was 16. I had to think what does this child want to hear? For me it was telling my sixteen year old self that everything would be okay, and you are okay just the way you are. To some extent I have to keep reminding myself of that, even now.’’

Ade says that writing the letter helped him to remember things he had long forgotten. ‘‘When I started re-connecting with my past I started thinking oh maybe that’s why I now do this. In my teens there was a guy I had a crush on when I was in high school, he was my tormentor, he was my bully, he was the guy who made my life hell. But I was so in love with him, and then in my thirties I was dating this guy, it was an awful relationship, when it ended I was like oh my god, he is exactly like that guy from High School. I was dating a guy that my sixteen year old self wanted to date. I had not made that connection. And I had to say to myself actually Ade you are not sixteen anymore, you’re now 32, you’re needs are very, very different from that 16 year old. So for me writing the letter allowed me to connect with that part of myself that I thought I had left behind.”

After experiencing the emotional revelations of writing letters to their sixteen year old selves, both of which are featured in the book, Darren and Ade introduced the exercise to a group of men in one of their workshops. Curious to see whether the exercise had a similar effect Darren asked them if they wanted to share their letters with the rest of the group. ‘‘One guy, a bit begrudgingly and nervously stood up, and said I would like to read my letter, and then another guy said I want to read my letter. In the end about 18 people out of the 20 people in the workshop stood up to read their letters to each other,’’ remembers Darren. ‘‘And what I recognised in that moment was all the words gay children are never told when they’re sixteen. It dawned on me that these men had to be the parents they never had, they needed to hear the words they were never told as 16 year old boys.’’ Following this powerful insight Darren and Ade knew that they had to find a way of putting these stories in to a book, which they both hope will extend beyond the reach of gay men. ‘‘The people I am most interested in buying this book are parents, because most don’t know how to have conversations with their children about sexuality, because they associate it with sex’’ explains Darren. ‘‘But by reading the book, parents can get an insight in to what children need and they can start to be the voice that we had to be for ourselves. I hope in the future parents will be having conversations about boys being boys, or girls being girls, as they do about boys being gay, or girls being lesbian. That will be an actual part of a child’s upbringing. Parents can have subtle, but fundamental conversations with their children, so in the future children won’t need to sit down in a workshop and write a letter to their sixteen year old self.’’

Darren and Ade say that although the letters featured in the book come from a diverse range of gay men from all walks of life, there is a thread of continuity that ties them all together. ‘‘When we had received all of the letters for the book, Francois Lubbe, who is the editor of the book, was reading all the letters and he came up with some titles based on the messages that were coming through’’ begins Ade, ‘‘and what we began to realise is that every single letter in some shape or form was a reader saying ‘love me as I am, accept me exactly as I am’, that was what every single letter-writer wanted to hear. ‘You don’t have to be any different’. I didn’t get that, and many of the writers didn’t get that.’’ Ade says that when we look at the compensating behaviours that many gay men have, it’s trying to compensate for the feeling of not being enough. ‘‘I know that’s what drove me to the top of the career ladder, I thought I’ll be a director, I’ll earn lots of money, and then I can be loved. When I would meet people, I would feel like oh I’m not ready to be loved exactly as I am, I need to get there first, and then you can love me.’’

It was after a moving panel discussion about the poor mental health amongst gay men held by Attitude magazine that Ade and Darren decided it was time to take action in helping to heal the wounds that many gay men carry. ‘‘During the panel discussion we heard really touching stories about men who were recovering from various forms of addiction,’’ remembers Ade. ‘‘We heard people speak about the trauma of going down the path of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and sex because they thought it was going to numb the pain. They thought they could go down that road and be okay. And for me that really resonated,  because for a very long time I’d carried this wound of being damaged. I felt that there was something wrong with me and that I needed to cover that wound.’’ Reflecting on his own wounds, Ade says he realised that his drug of choice was his career and the chasing of external success. ‘‘When I left with Darren and he told me his story I thought actually we do have an addiction as well, our addictions are simply different. And if we are feeling this way, and those gay men that we’ve heard are feeling this way, surely there must be many other gay men who are going through something similar, so why don’t we put something together and create a place where gay men can talk about these issues, with a view to navigate a way of moving forward as authentically as we possibly can.’’

Filled with a burning sense of urgency to take action Darren and Ade headed to a nearby cafe to start brainstorming ideas. ‘‘We were discussing how the gay community is not that nurturing’’ recalls Ade. ‘‘And it was at that point that we said let’s do something to address this issue. Darren and I love The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, so we thought why not run workshops based on the book? So we ran a six-week exploration of the book, and we had about 12 people that attended the workshop. In each week, we would dive in to different sections of the book. We held it in a gay bar in Vauxhall, every week we would meet up having these really deep conversations, guys were sharing stuff that I’d never heard before. I remember a guy sharing a story about when he become HIV positive and he said the first thing he thought was I deserve this, this is God’s way of telling me I’m not good enough, I had never heard a human being say that, I remember another guy said he could never come out to his mother because she would disown him. We spoke a lot about the fears that were holding them back from truly living, and at the end of the six weeks I remember saying to Darren we need to do this again.’’

Realising that there was a strong need for intimate meetings of this kind, Ade and Darren founded The Quest, an organisation which acts a resource for gay men to explore and better understand themselves. Reflecting on this transitional time, Darren and Ade say it was a risk re-designing the original construct of the organisation. ‘‘When we first started we were using The Velvet Rage as a hook, that got people through the doors, but it was a challenge when we decided to re-brand’’ remembers Ade. ‘‘We were known as The Velvet Rage workshops, but we wanted to bring more of ourselves to the construct that we had developed. We didn’t want The Velvet Rage to become this bible, because it’s not, it’s an entry point. And so we felt that we needed to come up with our own name, and our own identity. And when we did there was a lot of resistance that we experienced from guys who said why are you leaving The Velvet Rage behind? Don’t you like The Velvet Rage anymore? And then it was like, who are these two guys running The Quest? Before we had The Velvet Rage and it gave us some credibility. So when we stepped out as Darren and Ade, it felt like we had to start all over again.’’

In January of last year, The Quest was officially launched, giving Ade and Darren the opportunity to broaden their approach of working with gay men. There were things that they took out of the workshops, and things they added to make it more of a holistic experience. And now they both feel that they have a construct that they both love. Consisting of evening socials, workshops, and weekend retreats, Ade and Darren have carved out a niche for themselves, developing a very different approach to treating the issues that gay men face. ‘‘A lot of people are familiar with the activist approach, campaigning for better rights in the workplace and gay marriage, the outside in approach, and that’s valid, there is a place for it, and there is also a place for the inside out approach’’ asserts Ade. ‘‘We can’t abandon one in favour of the other, otherwise it’s like a house of cards that is simply collapsing.’’

The vision Ade and Darren had when setting up The Quest was to create a space in which gay men would be able to do the individual work, in terms of looking at their own lives, investigating their past, show up for their lives as it is now, and start releasing some of the things that aren’t working. ‘‘We also hope to build more community, which we had experienced during the six week exploration of The Velvet Rage, and we’ve kept this in place. We want the gay men on the programme to feel as if they have a band of brothers that they can call, if they were feeling low, or if they want to go to the cinema, or go for dinner. So there is the individual stuff, and then there is the group stuff. One of our main goals with The Quest is about enabling gay men to have better relationships with themselves and the world around them.’’

When asked if they are helping to build a new type of community for gay men, Darren says that The Quest is just one of the many alternative gay communities that are emerging. ‘‘I think community isn’t just one thing, certainly within The Quest there is a growing community, but it is a community based on connection. And that’s all community is. You can have community with anyone you feel connected to. You can have community with your knitting group; you can have community with your neighbours, or other gay men. It’s just about having trust with other people and having intimacy. And with The Quest we build trust and intimacy with the guys that we work with. Darren says that this is extremely important because there are many gay men who are seeking communities in which they can form deeper connections. ‘‘We are creating a different conversation for people to have so they can feel more confident in communicating in a way that doesn’t revolve around sex’’ says Darren. ‘‘The work we do isn’t about sex, it’s about intimacy. As kids we never got to court each other, we had to hide all that kind of stuff. If we liked another boy it was never talked about, so we never learned how to be with each other, until we got to 17, 18, 19, and by that point it was all about sex. We jumped all of the social interaction stuff, and jumped right to sex, so really we are creating an environment in which we can learn to be with one another without it being sexual. I think straight people are just as interested in sex as we are but they have a much wider spectrum of relating to each other than we do. Ultimately I think it’s about us as gay men increasing our choice about how we want to be with each other.’’

Although it is still early days, Darren sees The Quest as a new movement geared towards shifting how gay men understand their own emotions and behaviours. ‘‘We are only just beginning to understand the issues we face as gay men from an emotional psychological point of view,’’ says Darren. ‘‘We’ve been so preoccupied with externalising, that we forgot about going inward. I think that’s what we did in the past. We created the bars, the marches, all that external stuff, but we didn’t look internally at how we were feeling, and what emotional wounds we were carrying. But within the western world, we are very privileged to be at the epicentre of new thinking, and as gay men we have an incredible opportunity to really move things forward.’’

Darren and Ade say that they have noticed that a number of the guys they have worked with through The Quest have been stepping forward because they feel as if they are part of a new movement. In November of last year, The Quest held a storytelling performance in which contributors to the book ‘Love Me as I Am’ re-enacted highly emotive passages from the book in front of a live crowd. Ade, who was also in the play said that the men who he shared the stage with made him realise just how far they’d come. ‘‘When I think back to when I first met them, I would have never imagined they would be on stage sharing their stories.’’ ‘‘When the guys did the show on Saturday they were all as high as a kite,’’ laughs Darren, ‘‘and there were no drugs involved. It was really amazing to see these men at their most beautiful.’’

Ade says that the most consistent feedback they get from people who have got involved in The Quest is that they feel that they are being different from the people they know, and they are having different kinds of conversations. ‘‘Many of the guys we have worked with come back and say how can we assist? What can we do? What do you need? How can we support you, because we really want to get involved.’’

Noticing the difference The Quest is making, Darren believes that there is now an opportunity for gay men to become leaders in emotional intelligence and psychological well-being. ‘‘People who have gone through trauma and crisis are usually the most equipped to come through it, to understand it, and move forward. The pain can be transformed in to wisdom’’ says Darren, ‘‘and so my hope is that some gay men will emerge as being leaders, in the same way gay people were leaders in the arts, fashion, and writing, and all that kind of stuff.’’

Ade says that the work he is doing with The Quest is healing his relationship with other gay men, whilst Darren says that he feels like he now has a really strong connected, intimate gay family around him. ‘‘I rejected my family quite early on, I left Manchester moved to London and did my own self-sufficient thing, but underneath I really missed being part of a family,’’ admits Darren.

Feeling optimistic about the future Darren and Ade say that they want to reach as many gay men as possible, because there is a long way to go before we reach a tipping point. ‘‘We are just playing with the fringes here, and I want to have a big impact’’ declares Darren. ‘‘I don’t want the work that I and Ade are doing to just be for the few, I want it to be for the many. As soon as most people have gone through the process of looking more deeply at themselves, and they have the emotional intelligence they can pass it on to other gay men, or to people in their families, because the issues we deal with are human issues, it’s just that we are using this specific context.’’

Ade says that although The Quest is London-based, they plan to do workshops nationally across the country, as they have had requests from Wales, Manchester and Birmingham. ‘‘We also get emails from people overseas, from the US, Australia, and across Europe, so we’d love to have this on a national and international platform, and to have a wider reach.’’

Darren and Ade say that they plan to provide different kinds of platforms, so gay men can have more of these kinds of conversations. Another book is in the works, one which they describe as a ‘work-book’ designed for those who are unable or feel uncomfortable attending the workshops. When asked what the future holds for gay men across the world, Darren says that there are still many issues we will need to face, but if we are prepared to look deeply at ourselves we can create a brighter future for ourselves. ‘‘One of the things I’ve learned through my work as life coach with The Quest is that it does not take a lot to make a significant shift in our lives. We just have to create those conversations and stay in them, and then we can come to a resolution much quicker. People are shit scared of looking at this stuff, but once you’re in, its so exhilarating.’’

J Barber 2013 ©

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