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The State of Gay

There are two distinct and very different stories being told about the experience of being gay in the UK in 2013 and the difference in these stories could not be more stark.

On the one hand, we have the positives – the soon to be legal status of gay marriage, established civil partnerships, increased visibility in the press and media, an equal age of consent, mainstream support for positive role model and anti bullying work, cross-party support for gay equality, the effective treatment of HIV, governments globally legalising equality and gay marriage, increased openness about sexual identity from public figures and gay parenting becoming widespread. This picture has lead to some naturally optimistic assumptions that things are looking good and that being gay is no longer an issue for those lucky enough to live in a progressive United Kingdom. It is a picture and a set of assumptions we all so desperately want to believe. And it is a picture that is so at odds with all the data available that demonstrates so alarmingly the state of Gay mens’ mental health both in the UK and around the world.

Any google search under ‘gay mens’ mental health‘ will trawl back devastating research from all parts of the world indicating that we are in a sorry state. The findings of the most recent and largest study in the world undertaken by Sigma was published in 2012 and  states – “Gay and Bi sexual men are more likely to attempt suicide, self harm and have depression than their straight peers. They are more likely to take illegal drugs. Half have experienced domestic abuse from a family member or partner compared with 17 per cent of men in general”. Ben Summerskill – Chief Executive of Stonewall concludes “this report provides hard evidence …… It ill-serves our gay and bi sexual communities when these uncomfortable truths are ignored“. The figures provide stark reading, sometimes demonstrating four times more susceptibility to negative and often life endangering behaviours than our, already vulnerable, heterosexual male counterparts.

The data is all the more alarming as it focusses on the critical end of the behaviour spectrum. If this is what is happening here, then what is also occurring in the lives of Gay men at the more subtle and less extreme ends of the spectrum? We are only seeing the tip of a disconcerting iceberg.

Setting all the data to one side, we already know all of this.  We already know that our lives are not all they are cracked up to be. We already have all the experiential evidence we need to know that our state of well-being requires attention. The short term relationships, the betrayals, the sense of loneliness especially at weekends and bank holidays, the obsession with sex, the inability to share our lives with work colleagues, the feeling that something fundamental is lacking in our lives, the lack of satisfaction that comes with acquiring more and more, the distancing from our families, our disproportionate response to life’s hiccups – the list goes on.

It’s not life and death ‘critical’, but it does remind us that below the surface of our lives there is something negatively affecting us at a deeper, more fundamental level. Add into this the more frightening scenarios – friends who are collapsing from recreational drug use, couples locked into distressing and abusive relationships, people cheating on each other, being let down by friends and social circles, excessive reliance on alcohol, chaotic routines, relationship dramas, etc…. and we start to get a real idea of how deep seated issues are affecting our present day lives.

As gay children we learned early on to hide or distract others from our secret. We adopted the behaviours expected of us or we hid our behaviours for fear of rejection. Some of us demonstrated who we were and received the full punishment for being seen to be different. This early trauma for essentially being who we were impacted us so deeply and ensured that we adopted rigorous survival strategies from the earliest of ages. Self reliance was often central to any strategy we used, after all we could not even be confident of the support of our immediate family let alone those beyond the confines of our home. Self sufficiency is a powerful double edged sword for us as adults. Sure we know how to survive, how to leave our families and often travel hundreds or thousands of miles from them to big impersonal urban cities to create whole new lives. We manage life threatening illnesses, sometime telling only a handful of people, we endure violence both in the home and outside, we create elaborate and subtle versions of ourselves depending on our environment, we carve out incredible careers, make ugly things beautiful. We often do this alone and it is to our credit that we do. However we become isolated in our valiant self sufficiency. We do not report crimes against us, we do not seek social support and care and we forgo the mainstream and create our own alternatives instead.

It is little surprise that LGBT people are vastly under represented when it comes to funding applications, crime reporting, democratic representation, workers rights, health care, etc. It is to ourselves that we turn, hence the misplaced expectation that a gay scene ( bars and clubs ) should provide us with the social support we need and the incredibly effective force we alone created in the face of a deadly virus and homophobic legislation. We have learnt to do it for ourselves. We are the masters of self reliance. But the price paid is isolation and non integration which often leaves the wider population unaware or ignorant of our needs and devoid of our participation.

So while the data and the antidotal evidence creates a dark picture it is, I believe, only a fraction of the reality, such has been our ability to hide, distract or avoid discussion of the issues both within and without our community.

The QUest RetreatThis is the territory we face head on within our work at The Quest. We go to the heart of the matter. We examine the trauma of our past in order to heal our present. We do something counter intuitive – we take groups of gay men and create a space where they can share their secrets and discuss the impacting initial shame of growing up gay in a predominately heterosexual world. We go back and uncover the stuff none of us want to look at. We lift the rug on all the experiences we thought we had successfully blotted out or dismissed in an attempt to live with respect and pride. It’s a powerful and exceptional experience. By shining a light on shame we begin to dismantle the hold it has on us. We become aware of just how insidious and subtle the effect of our shameful past has on what we would like to consider our functioning and healthy present. The behaviours belie our wishful thinking that we have moved on and that we are capable of living healthy and self respecting lives. The behaviours are the real indicators that something toxic is still at play and can seep out at any given moment. By engaging in this process we begin the slow and steady work of healing and repair. We are finally able to mourn the loss of our gay childhoods and fully step into our gay identities with real honour and self worth.

We start to create a new, renewed sense of self, resilient and conscious. We have the courage to acknowledge we are not as balanced and sorted as we had believed ourselves to be both as individuals and as a community. It is a slow and often painfully difficult pathway that confronts our often ingrained and restrictive behaviors and beliefs. But it is a route that has the potential to serve us so much more powerfully than the flimsy platform we have been standing on to date.

Darren Brady

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