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Growing Up Gay in a Straight World

In this conflab, Ade Adeniji, Co-Founder of The Quest and Sunny Bahra, a previous participant of The Quest workshops, talk about the notion that ‘Gays need to grow up’.

Ade: Beige Magazine recently ran an article with the headline ‘Gays need to grow up‘ and it struck a cord with many people. What were your thoughts on seeing the headline?

Sunny: Well it’s been something that I have been thinking about for quite a while and the article just prompted me to talk to you about it. Why do gay men have this perceived attitude of not wanting to grow up? The article gave some interesting insights, but I think the issue is much deeper than they were willing to go.

Ade: Yes, I had thought about the theme recently too; I was getting ready to go out and had caught sight of myself in the mirror and for a minute or so I wondered whether what I was wearing was ‘age appropriate’.

But don’t you think that for many gay men, particularly those without children, it feels like time is frozen and we are forever young?

Sunny: I think that is only a tiny part of the argument. Sure children and any responsibility like that will make you “grow up” – but lots of straight people don’t have kids and their behaviour can be very different.

Let me preface this by saying that I am going to be very generalistic here, for discussion purposes and not everyone will fall into my line of argument.

So the question is why?

Ade: Yes, it’s a tiny part of the discussion, but also significant one. When I look at my friends who have children it has forced many of them to grow up and face the fact that they have someone else to look after. Within popular gay culture this is not the norm, many do not have children, so there is a sort of ‘Peter Pan complex’ of I don’t have to grow up – yes, the physical growing up happens, but mentally and emotionally it often does not happen until there is some sort of crisis – relationship ends, job loss, death, medical status etc or a relationship with an intimate partner is entered into.

Sunny: Sure – but I think it’s too easy to just focus on the issue of children. I really do feel that gay people, on the whole, grow up much later than straight people. Whilst straight people are navigating adolescence we are desperately trying to figure out “what’s wrong with me?”, “why don’t I fit in?”, “why am I different”? Or some just ignore that aspect of themselves and bulldoze the issue and play straight (again – huge generalisation). So much splitting, hiding, disguise, shame, confusion etc. It adds layer upon later of suppression that prevents a gay child from properly growing and maturing at the same rate as straight people. We often miss out in some very crucial behavioural skills relating to relationships and intimacy in our adolescence. Fast forward to when you’ve “come out” and there is this rush to make up for lost time. You have a bunch of adults trying to date / have a relationship and many have not practiced this with a member of the same sex in their adolescence. Throw in all the shame and confusion and unresolved issues that many of us have with being gay and no wonder we numb and party and press the “fuck it” button (as the article mentioned).

Straight people just don’t have to edit themselves – they just get on with finding out who they are during adolescence. That’s a luxury most gay people just do not have – and as a result it can taint our emotional development at that age….

Ade: Indeed. And so many come out into a popular gay culture where it is the norm to stay ‘young’ – and where to be over 40 is perceived as being stuck on the shelf.

In my opinion, we cannot underestimate having someone to look after or being in a relationship. Both situations potentially mean having to ‘grow up’ and take responsibility. A number of my friends, including myself for quite sometime, really struggled to hold down a relationship; because I was in a mind frame of old emotional stuff that was keeping me stuck and unconsciously I did not want to grow up. For me growing up means knowing that I have wounds and pain from my past and navigating my life so that my ‘stuff’ does not get in the way or me being my best self.

Not wishing to over labour the point, but kids can sometimes force the person to grow up – I see that with my gay friends who have all the old stuff from the past that you mention and have gone on to adopt, and they have had to grow up. For those who don’t have kids and are not in an intimate relationship, it’s about going on a psychological journey of unpicking stuff from the past and doing the work to heal.

Sunny: Oh, I totally agree. Even having a dog has made me appreciate responsibility – thinking of something other than myself. However, I suspect if there as a way to measure all of this – the difference between gay and straight people taking into account the issue of children, I still think there will be a significant difference between gay and straight people .

Ade: Gosh, there are indeed differences. And the one you mention about how straight and gay people explore adolescence is significant – whilst straight people are cultivating relationship skills – either directly or seeing images in the media, those who are gay are simply doing it in their imagination. And so come young adulthood, many are having to play catch up. And gay culture does encourage the Peter Pan complex, pick up any gay magazine and this is driven home time and time again.

Conflab - ASSunny: It also has to do with family and maintaining a support network of friends. So many gay people leave home (often intentionally due to issues of acceptance) – travel a great deal and then, as a result, make and keep a support network of friends a great deal later than straight people. Most of the straight people I know still have their friends from school / early on in life. Most of the gay people I know don’t. We just don’t settle into ourselves until much later in life and that has a significant impact on self esteem which is directly related to the issue of “growing up”.

Ah I’m glad you touched on the media. I think that’s not totally accurate though. Look at the “straight media’ – it’s all about youth and looks too.

Ade: Yes, the straight media is also about that, but we also see other images either in film or TV. With the gay media, which is often print there is mainly one type of image that is mostly portrayed – young, able-bodied, under 30, white and fit. Pick up any of those free gay magazines and we easily get to see what those who are new to the gay scene first come across.

Sunny: The article said, “gurning men in their fifties lurking around the shadows of clubs like senile praying mantises, lurching forward to ensnare the nearest muscle bound twink when he’s off his guard or in a state of semi-unconsciousness on the floor. Whatever way you look at it clutching a colostomy bag on the dance floor will never be a good look”. I thought that was a really patronising and quite a self loathing statement to make. One that is often echoed by most gay men I know. And yes I agree – the gay media does all it can do to distance itself from the older gay man. Perhaps in part it’s because we are so new at this still. Historically the global gay presence was only felt in the 70’s and that was very brief – the onset of HIV and AIDS halted so much of our progress with regards to self-esteem. There really hasn’t been much of an image / notion of what it is to be an older gay man – out and accepted / integrated into society. We are the generation who will, hopefully, change that.

Ade: Yes, I am indeed optimistic of that. People are living longer and taking better care of themselves, so with time we will start to see more diverse images.

What also needs to happen in parallel is that more of us focus on tending to our inner lives, so that we also grow up emotionally and mentally. We all have to grow up and cannot act like children forever, less we find ourselves stuck and repeating self-defeating patterns.

Whilst I thought the article was thought provoking, I would have welcomed a more robust discussion about understanding why many gay men have not fully grown up, rather than shaming the behaviour. Nonetheless, it allowed us to have this rich conversation!

Sunny: I like the way the article finished – in a positive and hopeful way. It did touch on the issue that in order for us to “grow up” and have healthy, happy lives takes work. I totally agree with that – it does take work; to examine one’s life and see how to undo some of the things that aren’t working / aren’t helpful. That’s where I feel The Quest is really helping. And you can read it in the gay media too – there are more and more articles about looking at shame and working to have a more integrated life as a gay person.

I truly believe that in order to move forward you have to look back and take care of “unfinished business” and us gay folk do have quite a lot of unfinished business in our past that just doesn’t need to be impacting today anymore…

Ade: That now needs to become the norm – looking back to heal and finish the unfinished; rather than shaming the behaviour that is as a result of the unfinished business. I’d like to see more narratives about making attempts to understand the behaviour – in terms of the thoughts, emotions, beliefs that drive it.

Sunny: I do believe that we are at a really interesting point in gay culture and that we are the generation that should take the lead and making a difference.

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2 thoughts on “Growing Up Gay in a Straight World”

  1. Hi, very interesting discussion here. I haven’t read the original article yet but I wondered if you guys thought that the fact gay men enter (or wish to enter) a relationship with someone of the same sex, it is harder for us to separate self from other? It might be harder to learn compromise and to see our partner as a separate human being with potentially a very different view of the world. There is a narcissistic element that can be hard to grow out of and to see for what it is. Instead of searching for an adult relationship we find it easier to look for ‘another me’ or ‘a better version of me’ or ‘who I’d really like to be like’ and then we find it hard to accept our partner’s imperfections, shortcomings, differences.

    Hope this makes sense. Like you were saying, this is a generalisation – but maybe it’s relevant in some cases.

    1. You raise an interesting point Jayson. I think that the point you raise finds its root in our childhood and upbringing – in terms of how love was shown/not shown to us by our parent or caregivers.

      For some of us this leads to elements of co-dependency when it comes to our relationships – and the struggle to separate self from the other…. and when the other does not meet my/our needs/expectations, we either cling or flee……. so for some of us, intellectually we feel we are looking for ‘an adult relationship’, but our wounds from the past often get in the way and we end up repeating what we have always done.

      I have found that the reason we ‘find it hard to accept our partner’s imperfections, shortcoming, differences’ is because we have accepted our own…… we cannot give, what we do not have!

      Thanks for the views, its a complex subject with many layers!


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