In conversation with Jeremy Helligar
Ade Adeniji (Co-Founder of The Quest) speaks to Jeremy about being black and gay, online dating, relationships, being an outsider, and much much more.
Jeremy Helligar is a journalist, author, pop culturist and world traveler from New York City, where he spent 15 years working as a writer and editor for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly. In 2006, he moved to Buenos Aires, where he learned Spanish and launched his own blog, Theme for Great Cities, a travelogue, memoir, entertainment bible and Sex and the City rolled into one. He followed four and a half years in BA and two and a half years based back and forth between Melbourne and Bangkok with one month in Berlin, one month in Rome, and one month in Tel Aviv, before landing in Cape Town. Jeremy currently resides in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World“.
Ade: I first came across your work on The Huffington Post and when I then started reading your book (Is it true what they say about Black Men) I immediately felt this urge to have a conversation with you, because right from the beginning you talk about being black and being gay. What was your inspiration for writing the book?
Jeremy: It’s funny because it happened in spurts. I didn’t set out to write the book. I have a blog called “Theme for Great Cities.” I’ve been maintaining that for about six and a half years now. And it just started off as me wanting to share my thoughts with the one or two people who I figured would end up reading it. Over time friends and strangers who ended up reading the blog kept telling me ‘you really ought to write a book. Because you have all of these experiences, you’ve traveled to so many interesting places, you’ve met so many different people, you should write a book’. And after a while I started saying maybe they are on to something, maybe I should write a book.
And the title, well…. a lot of times I talk to different writers and they have a lot of trouble coming up with a title because they want something that encapsulates the theme of the book. For me I don’t think that the title “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” necessarily encapsulates the theme of the book, but it’s definitely the theme of my life since I left the United States. As I’ve said so many times before, it’s the one question that I’ve heard in every country, on every continent, in different languages. With the book title, I wanted to take ownership of it and have a little bit of fun with it.
In the beginning it annoyed me, because there’s a lot of objectification there. I’ve come to the point where I still don’t like it, but I can laugh about it.
Ade: Yeah. It’s certainly an eye-catching cover and provocative title. I’ve been out in public a few times reading it and that’s been a very interesting experience, because people have either responded as in ‘that’s not true’ or ‘that’s so true’, either way, people have always said something; they either roll their eyes, smirk or say something.
Jeremy: That’s hysterical. The funny thing is I never actually answer the question. Just as in life, I’ve been asked that question so many times, and I’ve never actually answered it.
Ade: What sort of responses have you had from people, when they see or hear the title of the book?
Jeremy: Initially I remember when I first told my mom about the book and I gave her a couple of chapters to read. She said, “The title worries me, can you just call it ‘Is It True What They Say About Men? If you have the black men in there that people will think it’s just a book about being a black man.”
And I said “No mom, it doesn’t make any sense when you take out the ‘black men’ because white men don’t get asked”, ‘Is it true what they say about white men?’ It has to be ‘black men’..”.
The responses I’ve gotten have run the gamut. Some people are like ‘right on’, other people laugh, and I won’t lie to you some people are offended. It’s a polarizing topic because whenever you talk about race, there are people out there who don’t want to think about. Whether it’s for reasons of guilt or reasons of shame or reasons of ignorance, they just pretend that these issues don’t exist. They get very indignant when they read the stuff that I write about race. And that’s okay.
Ade: Race is a theme that runs right through the book. There’s a lot going on in the States right now, as we both know. Race continues to be a very big issue. And for yourself there’s also the intersection of being a gay man too. I know you wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, I think it was on the importance of being black and gay?
Jeremy: Yes. It’s funny because that whole piece started with a conversation that I had with someone, an Australian, several years ago, who asked me ‘if you could choose, knowing what you know now and the struggles that you would have as a black man, would you have chosen to be black?’ I said to him ‘I never really wanted to be anything other than what I am. I’ve never wanted to be white. I’m happy being black’. He said ‘that’s not what I asked you. I asked you “if you knew the hardships that you would have to face, would you have chosen an easier path. At birth, if you had been given two choices, take this hard path or take this easy path, would you have chosen the hard path?”
And I had to answer honestly and I said ‘no, I wouldn’t have chosen the hard path. But at the age that I am now, looking back, I’m glad I had that hard path because I don’t know what I am if I’m not black and gay. Those are such important parts of who I am. Not just because of my sexuality and the colour of my skin, but the experiences I’ve had as a black gay man. Those experiences have shaped my life and have shaped the person that I am. And I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
Yeah it’s been difficult. There have been tough elements of being black, of being gay, but I wouldn’t want to be straight. And I wouldn’t want to be white either. I would want, as a black man, I would want to not have to deal with some of the things that I deal with but I wouldn’t want to be white. If that makes sense.
Ade: Yes, it does. I think what I’m discovering in my own journey is that in order to fully talk about myself, I need to talk about being black and gay. I can’t talk about one without talking about the other. When I was younger and in the process of coming out, that was something that a lot of my white gay friends struggled with, because they felt talking about being gay was sufficient. And I said ‘well actually, I need to talk about being black as well”.
I guess for them, because they weren’t talking about being white, they saw race as a non-issue. But we both know it is an issue. Being gay on the scene brings up a whole lot of stuff around racism, which features in your book.
Jeremy: It’s really interesting because I don’t believe that I ever connected the two until I left the United States. First of all let me say that, and I will probably catch a lot of flack for saying this, but I think the gay community, not in any specific country but in general, is very racist. And they won’t want to admit it and they won’t like hearing that, but I think it’s very racist. Every time I go on Grindr or on a dating app and I see profiles casually saying things like “No Asians, no this, no that,” it reinforces that belief.
Before I left the United States, I didn’t have any experience with online dating because it was 2006, before online dating was a mainstream thing. And I think that in the United States it’s a very different culture. I was never asked ‘is it true what they say about black men’ in the United States. It wasn’t until I left that I was asked that question. I think that in the United States it’s almost taboo to talk about race. They sweep it under the rug.
I was going through life, I was dealing with the issues I had to deal with as a black man and I was dealing with the issues I had to deal with as a gay man, but I didn’t really put them together. I left the country. And until I moved to Buenos Aires and I met people who weren’t afraid to walk up to me and immediately acknowledge ‘oh my God, it’s a black man’. Which is something people in America would never do. Guys in America would never do that. But in Argentina it became the first thing that so many people would notice about me and would comment on. It was the same when I moved to Bangkok. In Australia it was different, but similar. In all of these places that I’ve lived where there aren’t a lot of black people, there’s been a similarity, it’s been a common theme.
Ironically, even in Cape Town, where I spent a year, I had the same experience. Which shocked me at first, and then I realized they’re only 20 years removed from apartheid. For them, for a lot of white gay men in South Africa, being seen with a black man is still taboo. I had a black American friend who showed me messages that he received from white guys on Grindr, where one guy said to him, “I don’t believe in the mixing of races.” Another guy sent him a message that said, “Fuck off, darkie.” Which is astonishing. I can’t imagine getting that kind of reaction in the United States. I can’t imagine getting that reaction in Buenos Aires. Anywhere but in South Africa with this recent history of apartheid, of institutionalized racism, it’s typically acceptable.
Being a gay person dealing with other gay people, you would think that they would know better. They spend their entire lives being ostracized and being separated because of who they love. And then they turn around and do the same thing.
Ade: What do you think is going on there? Why do you feel there is that level of racism within the gay community?
Jeremy: I don’t think it’s necessarily a gay thing. I think there’s a tendency for groups that are seen as ostracized and discriminated against to turn against themselves. Even in the black community you have it with the whole colour dynamic with how you have the light-skinned blacks versus the dark-skinned blacks. And in Argentina I noticed it with Argentines there’s the light-skinned European South American versus the darker skinned South American South American. I think there is a tendency for groups to turn against themselves. And I think that the gay community is no different.
Not only with the race issue, but also with the straight acting versus queening. I think it’s particularly pronounced in the online dating age, because in the olden days you didn’t necessarily walk into a bar and say to someone who started talking to you, “I want this, I want this.” You didn’t have a checklist. But online dating has given us the opportunity to treat mating as a real meat market. Where you’re actually going to market with a checklist and you’re looking at people based on certain criteria. Sometimes I look around me and I think ‘how do people end up together?’
Ade: What do you think is the impact of online dating within the gay world? Because there’s been a whole explosion hasn’t there with Grindr, Manhunt and the rest.
Jeremy: I wrote a Huffington Post article about how Grindr has taken the ‘fun’, in quotation marks, out of dating; I think it’s ruined it in a lot of ways. I’m going to make myself sound very ignorant and very stupid right now, but just like I was never asked ‘is it true what they say about black men’ until I left the United States. I never knew about the whole ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, I never knew about how important the top and bottom dynamic was until I left the United States; ironically my leaving the United States coincided with the online dating explosion.
I think what’s happened with online dating is that it’s now okay to ask people things that you would have never have asked them before. You would never ask a person … 10 years ago, meeting a guy in a club, you would never have asked them so, ‘big dick’? You wouldn’t necessarily have asked them on the dance floor so, ‘are you a top of a bottom?’
I think that online dating has taken away this level of gentility where people are now a little more cruel with reveal with each other. It’s now okay to say things like ‘no Asians’, ‘no blacks’, ‘no fems’, ‘no this’, ‘no that’. Whereas 10 years ago it wasn’t okay.
Ade: I guess some people would say that online dating gives them the opportunity to ask the things that they wanted to ask in the first place. It might not be creating anything new, maybe it’s simply revealing what was lying beneath the surface.
Jeremy: I think you’re right, I think it does do that. But here’s the thing, here’s what I miss most of all. Comparing 2014, to when I first came out in the early nineties, the thing I miss most of all is the sense of mystery. I miss the dance. I miss the talking to a person and flirting and not quite knowing what was going to happen or where it was going to lead, that sense of discovery.
Now, from the get go, the first question is ‘what are you looking for’. No one wants to waste any time anymore. They want to know if they have a shot and if they don’t have a shot, it’s out of there. It’s almost like even before we meet I need a guarantee that we’re going to have sex. We’re going to go all the way. There’s no mystery anymore.
Ade: One of the things you say in the book, I think it was regarding Grindr, you said ‘sex first, ask questions later’.
Jeremy: Yes. And it’s weird because I’m of two minds when it comes to that. In the one sense I think, for me, it all begins with a great conversation. I think a great conversation is the best aphrodisiac. When I meet a guy and when I am being physical with a guy for the first time it’s not just about the way he looks, but about the way he made me feel while we were doing those initial conversations or even if it’s just one conversation.
I’ve tried and I’ve failed to just dive in to the physical aspect without any prelude. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with guys who want to do that it just doesn’t really work for me. But I think it’s harder to find guys now in the Grindr age who are willing to go along with the mystery and who don’t necessarily want to know exactly what they’re getting from the get go. It’s harder to find that I think.
Ade: There’s something around the whole dating rituals around intimacy, connection, sex and being in a relationship. With the work that I do with The Quest, I’ve become even more curious as to how we learn about these rituals in the first place. For many gay men their first entry point into the world of ‘being gay’ – expressing their sexuality – is through ‘sex’ as opposed to through ‘intimacy‘ and ‘connection’. It feels like for many of us we learned how to have sex first, before we learned how to connect with each other as gay men.
Jeremy: That’s really interesting and I think guys who are in their teens and early 20’s now are getting started a lot earlier than guys did 20 years ago, when I was that age. I think even before I ever had sex with a guy I was able to identify as being gay, without the sex. Because being gay isn’t just about sex. And I think that’s what a lot of straight people think and I think that’s the wrong message to send out there. A gay man who is celibate or who doesn’t have sex for a year, is he not still gay? He’s still gay.
But I do think you’re right, that the first connection they have with other guys is through the physical. I think it’s harder for them to learn how to connect in that other way. Or even once you have the physical, once the physical aspect is in place, it’s harder to move out of that and evolve into something more.
A large part of my book was about this trip that I had with a guy who was half my age. The generation gap was huge. And not just because of the years between us, but also because of the conditioning that we had. He wasn’t out of the closet yet, but for him sex and being gay were simultaneous and they were intrinsically linked. Whereas for me, there were several years between knowing that I was gay and having that emotional connection with men, that I didn’t have with women, before I actually had any kind of physical connection with men. I think that completely shaped the way that I reacted to men and the way that I react to men now.
Ade: It’s interesting you mention the guy in the book, who I think was Shane. He wasn’t out and there you are – out, proud and embracing who you are. I’m curious in terms of the challenges that brought up for you as an out gay man, going out with someone who was not out of the closet.
Jeremy: It was very difficult. In hindsight, it’s surprising to me that I had that experience at such a late stage in my life. Because that’s the kind of thing that one would expect to experience in you’re 20’s, when you’re dealing with other 20-somethings who are still finding their way. But I was dealing with that in my early 40’s, with a guy who was in his early 20’s.
If I had met Shane in New York, and I actually say this in my book, I don’t know that he and I would have necessarily have had a relationship. I’m not saying that the feelings I had for him weren’t real, what I’m saying is that I was in a different country and I was in a very vulnerable space. I think that I was looking for something that I could hang on to, that I could grab, that could make me feel like I belonged. Because at the time I was living in Melbourne and I think he represented that safe place for me. As safe as you can be dating someone who is not out.
But I think eventually I realized that there’s just so far you can go with someone who isn’t ready. You get to the point where you feel like that person’s dirty little secret. I think Shane is a great guy, I think the world of him, but I really didn’t want to be in the shadows anymore. I did that my whole life 20 years ago. I didn’t want to relive that experience vicariously through my boyfriend.
When you’re in a relationship with someone you want to feel safe and you want to feel loved and you want to feel wanted. And if you’re with someone who is very tentative around you, you’re always going to have those thoughts. ‘Is he really into me? Does he really love me?’ And who wants to live like that. You want to be with someone who you’re certain feels very strongly about you and wants to be with you.
Ade: There’s a theme of ‘love’, ‘dating’, ‘lust’ and ‘intimacy’ that runs through the book. When you were talking about the ending of your relationship with Lucas, there was a line that really got my attention where you said, “Instead of going to see a therapist I decided to fall in love.” I was very curious about that line, especially as you seemed to be conscious of the fact that perhaps you could have explored your longings and desires in another way.
Jeremy: It’s so funny, because talking with you now I’m realizing something that I didn’t realize at all whilst living the book and writing the book. I’m realizing that so many of my relationships during the last eight and a half years have been about looking for a safe place. With Lucas, I met him a week after I was attacked and robbed in my apartment. I remember, I’ll never forget, a couple of weeks after we met I was telling my best friend back in New York about him and she said to me, “Are you sure that this is a good idea?” And I said, “Why would you ask that?”
And she said – this is someone who’s had lots of therapy and who talking to her you get the benefit of her opinion and her therapist’s opinion – “Do you think it’s such a good idea after going through such a traumatic experience, do you think it’s such a good idea to get involved with someone so quickly?”
And I brushed it off and I said “No, I’m fine, the robbery happened, I’m putting that beside me. This relationship is separate.” And that was me being very naïve because in hindsight I realized that I was, as I did with Shane, I was looking for a safe place.
I was six months into living in this foreign country, on this foreign continent where I didn’t speak the language and where I was violated, my private space was violated. I was looking for something to make me feel safe and something to make me want to stay there.
When you’re living in a foreign country and you come home and you’re attacked by three men in your apartment, after it happens and the dust settles the first thing you think is, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m going to go home.”
And then a week later you meet this guy who is almost like an angel who has come into your life to save you from all of that there. And to make you feel like you are safe again. And make you feel like you belong. And I think that that’s what happened there. Again I’m not saying that my feelings for him weren’t real, but I think the relationship started in a space where I wasn’t necessarily in the best position to start one.
Ade: You talk about ‘belonging’ and ‘safe space’ and I can’t help but think of ‘family’ and ‘home’. You very briefly talk about your family and in one instance mention you sister calling you a ‘faggot’. When I talk to a number of my gay friends about their family, there’s always this longing for the love that many of us never had from our family of origin. I’m wondering how you’ve reconciled that that longing?
Jeremy: It’s very interesting that you would mention that because the day that I decided to write this book, after having the suggestion made by so many people, I was having drinks with a friend in Melbourne and I was telling her a story from my childhood that involved one of my brothers. She said to me, “Jeremy, you need to write a book.” It was a throwaway tale that I told her. It was something about the way that story affected her that made me think maybe I do need to do this.
I consciously did not include a lot of information about my family in the book because I would need another book for that. Because I have a very complicated relationship with my family. It’s not a good relationship.
I think I’ve had in my entire life six months of official therapy. And I spent all of those hours talking about my family. Someday I may have the courage to write about it, I may not. But during the process of writing this book, I did come to realize that a lot of what I was searching for in relationships was me looking for something that I was missing. I had my friends, but I didn’t have that really strong family connection. I was looking for that in relationships.
I had someone who commented on my book – hated the book – and he said that the biggest problem he had with it was that I didn’t learn from my experiences. Which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ve been single ever since I finished the book and the last guy that I dated in the book is the last guy that I dated and that’s two years ago now.
I’ve just in the last couple of years reached a point where I can not be in a relationship, I can not have a good family situation. And it’s not necessarily fine. We all want to have a good relationship with our family. But I’m not looking for a relationship to heal that part of my life that’s broken, by not having the great family relationship. I’m learning to live the life that I’m leading without using love or romance as a band-aid to put over whatever part of my life isn’t working.
I think nothing will show you what you’re doing wrong more quickly than writing a book about your experiences. And when you put it all on paper you start to realize ‘oh my goodness, there are patterns’. And especially talking about it, like I’m doing now … The more I talk about it, the more things start to crystallize and I begin to realize that ‘oh my goodness, there’s a pattern to what I’m doing. I’m making the same mistake over and over and over again’.
Yeah, I have learned from the book. I wish I could say that my family situation is wonderful now. It’s not. But I won’t be using a relationship in order to fill that empty space in my life.
Ade: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
Jeremy: I think the biggest lesson, and it’s not even a lesson that I necessarily make in the book, but I think it’s something that I hope readers will be inspired to do after reading the book is take a chance. Get out of your comfort zone. I always say that everyone should spend a year living in a country where they don’t know anyone and where they don’t speak the language, because I think you’ll learn so much about yourself, about other people.
I don’t want to give the impression that I spent the entire time that I’ve been living abroad going from relationships to relationships. There are actually only a couple of key relationships in the book. I’ve spent most of my time single. And I think it’s important to learn how to stand on your own two feet and be independent. Be an independent person and independent thinker. And I think there is no better route to getting there than just picking yourself out of your comfort zone and dropping yourself into the unknown. I did it and hopefully by reading my story, people will have the courage to do it as well.
I have so many people who ask me ‘how do you do it, how do you pick up and just leave, how do you quit your job and just pack up and change countries’. Because people see it as being such an impossible, but it’s not.
I meet so many people who are from other countries; people are doing it everywhere. My story might be unique, but what I’ve done isn’t that unique. People do it all the time. I really want people to know that it’s possible and that they can do it. And that they probably should do it. Not necessarily for eight years, but at least for one year, because you’ll learn so much.
I think a lot of these guys who write things like “No Asians,” and “No blacks” and ‘no this’ and ‘no that’ in their dating profiles, I feel like if they did that, it would change them. Because you respect differences a lot more, when you pull yourself up and live among something that’s not the same as what you’re accustomed to. You respect difference a lot more.
Ade: You’re a visible openly gay black man. When I look around there are very few visible black gay men out there. What do you think the reason for that might be?
Jeremy: That’s a really good question. I think part of the reason is fear. There’s a lot of homophobia within the black community. It’s not just in one particular place it’s all over.
One of the things I noticed living in Cape Town, was I realized how invisible gay black men were in Africa. It was shocking to me. I realized it wasn’t just about apartheid and about racism. It wasn’t just about that. A lot of it was coming from the black community itself. Many black African men are afraid of coming out. They have to stay in the closet, because they’re living in families and/or they have families who won’t accept their being gay and it keeps them closeted.
When I went on Grindr for the first time, I couldn’t believe how few black men there were on Grindr. And the ones who I talked to, or talked to me, never had pictures in their profiles. It was obvious to me that they were hiding. That they weren’t comfortable with people knowing that they were gay. And I think that all goes back to a lack of acceptance in their families, a lack of acceptance in the black African community. I think it’s the same way in the United States and in the black community in the United States. And I get it.
I took a trip to Tanzania several months ago and it was one of the strangest experiences for me. Cape Town is the gay capital of Africa. In general you can be gay in Cape Town, there’s legalized gay marriage in South Africa and it’s generally okay to be gay in South Africa. But when I went to Tanzania knowing that in other parts of Africa that it’s not as accepted, I remember that I retreated back into the closet, in a sense, because I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want people to suspect anything or to look at me strangely. And it was very odd. These were feelings that I hadn’t had in 20 years since I came out. It’s really strange to be suddenly feeling this way again.
And part of me hated myself for it, but it brought me to a better understanding of what people who are in families that don’t accept or who live in communities that don’t accept them go through.
Ade: It’s interesting that you say that. We do a lot of exploration on the subject of ‘shame’ at The Quest, and we reference the work of Brené Brown. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of her. She’s a University of Houston researcher, who studies shame, vulnerability and courage. One of the ways that she describes shame is “shame is the fear of disconnection”. As human beings we’re all wired for connection, it’s ingrained in us, and therefore shame is this feeling of ‘if I reveal this part of myself, something in this interaction is going to change, they’re not going to accept me in the way that they’re currently accepting me. Something is going to shift’.
What you’re describing reminds me of that definition of shame. Which I think a lot of gay men are very surprised about, because sometimes we feel ‘I’m out, I’m proud, I’ve dealt with all that kind of stuff’. ‘I don’t have any shame’, and yet out of nowhere, shame rears its head.
Jeremy: It does. The idea of disconnectedness is profound. Because I think we all want to belong whether we’re gay, straight, black, white … That’s human nature to want to fit in and to want to belong. And I think within the gay community, even if you’re out of the closet and you’re out and you’re proud I still see it.
I keep coming back to this idea of straight acting. Even once we’re out and we have gone against the grain in the most public way, within the gay community we still spend so much time trying to conform to make ourselves as acceptable and desirable as possible. And we do this by being as masculine as possible. And by going to the gym and getting the great body and just by doing all the things so that we can belong. People talk about it all the time about the whole gay community of clones. They’re all running around with their six-packs and their tank tops and their jeans, all looking the same and acting the same. I think that all ties in to that quest to not feel like an outsider.
It’s funny because I talk a lot about how I’ve always felt like an outsider and being an outsider has driven so many things in my life. In one sense I embrace being an outsider, because it’s made me the person that I am. But in the other sense I left the United States because I felt like an outsider in New York, and I wanted to find a place to belong. Hence getting into relationships that weren’t necessarily the best relationships for me.
And in the end I have had to learn how to be on the outside and be happy with it. I think that’s really the key, because even if you can act as straight as you want to, you can get all of the muscles that you want to, wear the right clothes, have the right hair. That will make you look the part of the status quo, but it won’t stop you from feeling like an outsider, if that’s what you feel like.
Ade: Indeed. With all that in mind, I want to finish off with a question relating to a book that we published a few years ago called “Love Me As I Am.” In the book gay men write back to their 16-year-old self offering words of wisdom.
With all that you know now, through your life journey of traveling, being in relationship, family, if you were to go back and speak to the 16-year-old Jeremy, what would you say to him?
Jeremy: I would say take your time. The very first line in my book is, “You get what you’re not looking for.” And I think that we’re in such a rush to excel in our careers and to advance in our careers, to find the perfect job, to find the perfect relationship. We’re in such a rush to do all that and not only do we not enjoy the process, but we end up making wrong decisions, because we’re rushing to get to the finish line, rather than just enjoying; I won’t even call it a race, just enjoying the journey.
When I was 16 I wanted to get there quickly. I couldn’t wait to get there. I couldn’t wait to get away from my family, get away from my small town and start living my life. Now that I’m middle-aged, I wish I had slowed down and just savored a lot of moments that I didn’t savor. I wish I had savored them more. And I think that’s the biggest message that I would give the 16-year-old me.