In July, the Southbank hosted a discussion and debate chaired by Matthew Todd, Editor of Attitude magazine, looking at whether there is a problem with Drink, Drugs and Sex for Gay Men. Francois Lubbe, Editor of The Quest publication ‘Love Me As I Am‘ and The Quest Co- Founder, Darren Brady went along and this conflab took place a few days later.
Darren – So Francois, how did you feel during the discussion?
Francois – I was hoping to hear a solution-driven discussion, since most of the panel members had already engaged in similar discussions in the past. The fact is, as a gay man, I can see that there is a problem within our community in terms of destructive behaviour and how it affects our community. In my view this is beginning to take on epidemic proportions.
D – Yes I agree. I wanted to hear more about the root causes of this behaviour and less about what the behaviour was. It felt like we were describing the problem and not considering ways forward. A bit like listening to the music being played on the deck of the Titanic. Do you think that it is difficult having a solution driven conversation?
F – I think, talking about “what the problem looks like” is not necessarily admitting that there is a problem. So, yes, the fact that this is about the third discussion that I’ve attended in the course of two years, and no one has yet stood up and said “OK, why is this happening and how are we going to sort it out” tells me that gay men are struggling to talk about the elephant in the room, namely: we are a community in crisis.
Or, it could be that we know there are questions to ask, but we are scared of what the honest answers will be.
D – Are people struggling or just unaware or in denial? I think maybe it’s a combination of all three. For me the picture is clear. The consequences of growing up different from the earliest of ages, not having that reflected around us and not following in the footsteps of our parents is a traumatic experience. It is a trauma that is constant and therefore it becomes an insidious and subtle force that impacts us deeply. This is the root cause of many of our dysfunctional behaviours, some of which involve sex, drugs and drink.
F – Growing up gay is certainly a traumatic experience for the majority gay people… For goodness sake, let’s be honest, being a gay adult can be equally traumatic. Let’s not forget that part of our trauma is the loss of our childhood. No wonder, “playing” on the club scene is so appealing. The drink and drugs help us forget the grief of that loss and the sex tells us that we are loveable… Sadly, avoiding what lies beneath the surface only makes it worse and before you know it, you are not only recovering from a traumatic childhood, but also from a wasted adulthood.
D – Or an adulthood wasted! So what ways do you think we can move forward?
F – It begins with personal accountability (on an individual and community level) and getting our community to admit there is a problem. The next step is to explore the root of the problem and to engage people on a level that is comfortable for them. For this we need a fresh approach instead of waiting for government funding and hoping that someone will save us by having a debate in a library on a Wednesday evening when, let’s face it, the guys that need to be at that debate are all recovering from their weekend.
It will be so refreshing to see the gay media talk with passion about organisations like The Quest, wealthy individuals within our community (and there are plenty!) stepping up and sponsoring performance art shows that showcases in the clubs on a Saturday evening around 1am just before the hardcore party starts – provocative entertaining stuff that the guys would want to see, but that carries a message of caution…
It’s time to start taking care of our own, instead of just pulling together whenever we are outraged at some injustice committed against us.
D – Yes. And it feels like this discussion is only just beginning. There has been a drink and drugs problem for a long time and apart from dealing with the outcomes of that (primarily health, crime and violence ) not a lot has been done to look at the root causes. What I have found is that by identifying difficult emotions, beliefs and behaviours that I possess, I have started to become more conscious of how I try to zone out by using substances or by seeking comfort through sex. By sitting with some very uncomfortable feelings, discussing them, sharing them and processing them, I find they have less of a grip over me. With this comes more freedom around the choices I make and less of an inclination to seek out extreme behaviour that ultimately can be destructive or leave me feeling bad.
F – I completely agree. I indulged a mercurial drug habit for about four years, all because I tried to escape painful feelings of not being good enough and trying to compensate for the shame I felt as a gay man. It took me four more years to rebuild my life, only to find out that I was repeating the same behavioural patterns… Until, I finally made the choice to say: this has got to stop. Why are things not getting any better? Dealing with emotions that has been swept under the carpet for nearly 30 years is very daunting… But so worthwhile… I love this journey of self-exploration. The biggest realisation (and relief!) so far, is learning that a healthy relationship with myself and my environment is possible.
D – And yet I think a lot of gay men are not linking their drug, drink and sex habits with painful feelings from the past. They are often just thinking ‘I want to get high and have fun’.
And when everyone else seems to be doing the same it seems like a great way of spending a weekend. I used to think the same. And sometimes I did drink, just for the enjoyment it brought. It wasn’t always to escape the past. Damien Hurst said recently that he recognised that he was drinking either to celebrate or escape. When he realised that he was drinking mainly to escape he stopped. I have come to realise that a lot of my habits around these things were often driven by an attempt to escape. These days I try and find other ways to deal with difficult things- I phone a friend, run a bath, do some writing or sometimes just have an early night rather than going out and getting blasted. And sometimes I go out and drink just for the fun of it. To celebrate. The difference is that now I know the difference.
F – Oh don’t get me wrong, the first time I popped an E, I did not think “Oh my God, I feel so unloved, I just wanna dance my heart out and be fabulous!” No, I just wanted to belong somewhere, and the club-scene took me in with open arms. It was a celebration to start with.
But you and I know that there comes a time when the sex, drink and drugs just don’t work anymore.
Now things are very different in my life. I make time to be on my own. I have no structure in terms of what I do with my “me time”, except that I will make a point of checking in with myself and ask: So, what’s going on with me? How am I doing? Oh and trust me, I still manage to sometimes avoid what’s really going on.
D – I think it is about distinguishing when we are choosing to engage in these things to escape and when we are just choosing to have fun and knowing the difference between the two. The problem, sometimes, is that substances can be addictive and are powerful and can then make distinguishing very hard to do. What starts as a celebration toast at a birthday can end up, three bottles later, as a drunken and messy affair. I find it particularly challenging on a Friday or Saturday night when a lot of the roads end up down sozzled alley. Finding something else to do on these evenings and finding someone to do them with can be difficult.
F – That’s where a supportive community comes in, don’t you think? Unfortunately, once you’ve dealt with an addiction, drawing the line will always be difficult. It was difficult for me to find a life outside the club scene because it was the first thing that I was introduced to as a young gay man, so after the veneer had come off and I burnt my fingers with drugs, I thought for a long time that my gay life was over… I think a lot of guys must feel this way and probably stay trapped in destructive and addictive behaviour for that very reason.
D – Yes. I think that is why creating an alternative community for gay men is important to add to the choices we have. I think that is beginning to happen – for instance- some of the coffee shops in Soho provide an alternative meeting place for some people to meet without alcohol being involved. The social activities that we encourage at The Quest are also intended to be an alternative too. But there’s a long way to go and it sometimes feels like a massive mountain to climb!
Any final thoughts?
F – I think it’s always good to be aware of the bigger picture and the challenges we face as a community. However, the solution lies within each of us. So for me, it’s about showing up in my own life and the lives of my friends, to honour their and my own journey and to be consistent in my support and care… and to be patient. We are standing on the cusp of massive social changes, our challenges are far from over, so yes there is a mountain to climb… But imagine how things will look from the top when we get there?