“Gay guilt” & the lack of gay Mental Health blogs

Right, I’m going to finish this damn post if it kills me.  (See my last-but-one post for an explanation of why that might be likely not to happen.)

About a zillion years ago, Teenage Misanthropy posed the question of why there aren’t more gay mental health blogs.  It’s an interesting question, and one I tried to write about, first in a comment on the post itself, and then, when I couldn’t make that come out sounding halfway understandable, in three separate abortive attempts to write a post for my own blog.  This is attempt number four, and I think I may be able to make this one work because, in one of those quirks of serendipity that seem to happen quite often in the blogosphere, there’s a post on Mentally Interesting which is about a different issue, but captures quite a lot of what I was trying to work out how to say about the lack of gay MH blogs.

Or, to put it another way, I’m going to steal somebody else’s ideas, modify them very slightly, and pass them off as my own… ;o)

The post in question deals with the issue of ‘feminist guilt’ for being a woman with a MH problem.  It is, like all the other posts that appear over there, fascinating and brilliantly written, and you absolutely should read it.  I hope I’m not paraphrasing too wildly, but one of the points made is that feminism teaches that women should be strong, capable and independent, and that having a MH problem makes it impossible (or, at best, bloody difficult) to live up to that ideal.  I think there’s a parallel phenomenon with gay people and blogging, and I think that may be why there seem to be fewer MH blogs written by gay people than statistics suggest there should be.

From the early 70s onwards, the main focus of “gay liberation” (now there’s an old-fashioned phrase for you – it goes along with people talking about “women’s lib”) has been on the idea of “pride”.  There have been specific political campaigns at various times, but that’s been the overarching principle.  The main visible component of the movement has been Pride marches.

I like the idea of Pride.  I like it because it’s as much (or even more) about changing the internal self-image of gay people (and latterly transgender people too) as it is about changing external reality in the forms of laws and so on.  The main aim of the Pride movement, I think, has been to create entire generations of gay people who are proud of who and what they are, and who live their lives accordingly.  I have to say, it seems to have been dazzlingly successful.

I think one of the main reasons public attitudes to homosexuality have shifted so far and so fast is that so many people either personally know someone who’s gay, or know someone who knows someone who is.  It’s very hard to think of homosexuals as strange and threatening when you have personal experience of them as “that nice guy Steve in accounts.”  Most of these gay people haven’t been especially political – plenty of them would refuse to attend a political rally, I’m sure – but just by being themselves, just by quietly living an “out” life, they’ve changed the world, or at least the Western parts of it.  Even though not all of these people may have been to a Pride march or festival themselves, the seeds for the social revolution were sown there.

But there is a downside to Pride.  Pride achieves its effect by promoting a particular image of gay people: happy, self-confident, emotionally stable, and romantically fulfilled.  This image was promoted for very good reasons – it contradicted the negative image of gay people as sad, lonely, and unfulfilled.  Over time, as marketing people began to realise there was such a thing as the ‘Pink Pound‘, this same image was picked up by companies trying to sell things, and has gradually become part of a packaged “gay lifestyle.”  This means that people who fulfil the ‘gay ideal’ are now supposed to be: happy, self-confident, emotionally stable, romantically fulfilled, improbably good-looking, rich, dressed in designer clothes, and with all the latest gadgets at their fingertips.  In fact, pretty much their entire lives should be fabulous.

Now, of course, this is a marketing myth.  Very few gay people would take it entirely seriously (although the BBC3 series Spendaholics managed to find at least one).  It’s not so different to the equally mythical images of perfect people with perfect lives that are used to sell things to straight people.  Where it is different, though, is that it is, in part, based on the fundamental “Pride image”.  That means, as well as the “my life seems like shit compared to that” issue that everyone with MH problems faces, gay people also feel a sense of “letting the side down”.

Of course, as the post on Mentally Interesting makes clear, it’s not just gay people who feel excessive and inappropriate guilt just for being mentally ill.  But I do think the guilt screw is given an extra little twist for gay people.

By not being happy, self-confident and so on, I’m not just letting the side down by failing to be like everyone else.  I’m also letting the side down because I’m providing ammunition for the sorts of people who still like to argue that being gay means living a lonely, sad and unfulfilled existence.  My life as it is at the moment doesn’t serve as a positive example; instead I’m some kind of an “anti-Pride” figure.  My life doesn’t say, ‘Hey kids, you’re gay?  Great, that means you can be happy and successful, just like me!’  Instead it says, ‘You’re gay?  Oh dear, that means you could end up like this.’

I think this is all made a little bit worse because one of the ways that people used to be nasty to poofs was by telling us we were mentally ill.  I know this is a factor in the way I think.  When I was still quite young, but old enough to know what gay was, and be properly aware that I was gay (which happened pretty young for me), I saw a letter in the Radio Times, of all places, that said something along the lines of, ‘Of course, all homosexuals are mentally ill, and most of them have other kinds of mental illness too.’  I don’t remember any of the context – I imagine the letter must have been in response to a TV or radio programme – but I’ve always seen it as my duty to prove that nasty-minded little letter-writer wrong.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I still feel quite a bit of guilt about this.  I am worried that by being open both about being gay and being a bit of loony I’m Letting Down The Team.  I know the guilt is irrational.  I know it’s incredibly arrogant of me to think that my inane wurblings could have any effect on the general social opinion of gay people.  But I still feel guilty, though.

So, this is (finally!) my suggestion as to why there might be a lack of gay people blogging about their own experience of MH problems.  Basically, I think that everyone with a mental illness is likely to feel guilty about it, but that gay people are likely to feel even more guilty.  I think that extra guilt can lead to a couple of responses.

On the one hand, I think it can lead to us being so keen to stress that being gay has nothing to do with mental ill-health that we decide not to mention our sexual orientation when we blog about our MH problems.  On the other hand, I think it can encourage us to keep quiet about the whole thing, and so never decide to keep a blog in the first place.  Or, at any rate, that’s my suggestion, for what it’s worth.

And, on that note, I’d just like to say – hurrah, I got to the end of the post without forgetting what it was I was trying to say in the first place.

*pats self on head*

But, having re-read it, now I find myself wondering whether it was really worth saying in the first place…

This entry was posted in About me, Anxiety, Depression, Gay Pride, Sexuality, Social commentary, Stuff I've read, Stuff I've watched. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to “Gay guilt” & the lack of gay Mental Health blogs

  1. Cellar_Door says:

    Hehe, congratulations on managing to finish one!

    I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t suffer from some sort of guilt. I find myself feeling guilty for not having a mental illness, especially since I am surrounded by people who do. In my personal and professional life, people that have had a mental illness are in the majority. I’m obviously lucky, but feel vaguely guilty and/or left out in equal measures :0)

    If it’s any consolation, I think you are doing a fine job representing gay mentals! ;0)

  2. The Chuckle says:

    cool post as always Aethelread – a lot of interesting points which I may have to come back and add annoying additional comments on later when my brain is working properly. Not being gay I can’t comment from personal experience on what you’ve said, but I think everyone belongs to some sort of club where they feel they shouldn’t have MH problems – gay, female, male, adult, parent etc etc. I think as soon as you feel that you’re letting the side down you tend to avoid admitting to it. I’ve avoided going into my concerns as a parent on my blog because I feel i have a responsibility there that is difficult to reconcile with depression etc. – guilt is great for suppressing expression!
    So, in a rambling way (hopefully I’ve said something with a point) I guess I can understand why guilt leads to avoiding expressions of MH problems and also why you might blog on MH but avoid all mention of sexuality. One other thing I guess would be that maybe sexuality isn’t important anyway?

  3. silvawingz says:

    Great post as always Aethelread! I did like your image of the gay ideal “supposed to be: happy, self-confident, emotionally stable, romantically fulfilled, improbably good-looking, rich, dressed in designer clothes, and with all the latest gadgets” I can see where you are coming from with this post. – I can see where you are coming from with this post but I do agree with The Chuckle that maybe it could apply to lots of people – I have my own guilt about my MH issues for quite a few reasons but I don’t really know if it is any less or more than yours.

  4. cb says:

    Great post – with a really interesting perspective (for me anyway!) so I’m really glad you did say it :)
    Sexuality, gender, orientation are such crucial parts of our identities that they play a massive role in expectations and perceptions – those that other people have of us and those that we have for ourselves. Guilt exists everywhere but the experiences of guilt can be different and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

  5. Alex says:

    Great post, I couldn’t agree more with the points you made (weirdly, the Radio Times inadvertently made me realise I was gay – long story). Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything else cohesive enough to say as a comment here, so I’ve done some rambling on my blog.

  6. Steph says:

    I can relate to your post. I was thinking the exact thing this morning, and MH problems for gay women are difficult to say the least. I am a black lesbian and has battled depression off and on for years. Its really effects your live and your relationships. Some of the relationships I have been in have been difficult when I attempt to explain the pain I experience from depression and how it affects my sexual life. I have been on and off of medications, but I know that I can still function without them. I know that the medication has affected my sexual desires. So my point is that I have a double problem to address, I am a black lesbian with depression.

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I really do appreciate the way you take the time to respond so thoughtfully to what I say. :o)

    I’m not going to do one of my usual going through everything point-by-point responses because (a) I think I’ve done that too much of late; and (b) I don’t want to become one of those bloggers who tries to bludgeon everyone into agreeing with them.

    Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but I think it would be reasonable to say that the first four responses share a general opinion that guilt is a universal experience, and that I was rather over-playing my hand when I argued that “the guilt screw is given a little extra twist for gay people.” First of all, I wasn’t trying to play a game of “my guilt’s worse than yours”, but I think it came across as though I was, and I’m sorry about that.

    What I meant was that, if we imagine two hypothetical people with identical problems with depression, and in the same general life situation, one of whom was gay and one of whom was straight, the gay person might be inclined to feel more guilt. The reason I think that this might occur is that it is still reasonably common to hear it argued that homosexuals, simply because of their homosexuality, will lead sad, empty and unfulfilled lives. I think this might add a little extra to the burden of guilt for our hypothetical gay depressed person because their experiences are confirming that negative stereotype. But I certainly wouldn’t argue that my own personal guilt is worse than that of anyone reading this, and I didn’t mean to call into question the validity of anyone’s experiences.

    Steph – Welcome to my blog! Thanks for highlighting the issue of what I suppose we might call “double prejudice” faced by gay people with MH problems (though I would imagine that you, as a black lesbian, encounter more prejudice than I do as a white gay man). It’s an interesting topic, and one I’d like to blog about sometime. On the subject of blogging, I notice that you don’t link to a blog of your own. If you don’t have one you should think about setting one up, if you’ve got the time and inclination. I know I, for one, would be very interested to read it.

  8. Cellar_Door says:

    I don’t think I meant to say you were ‘over-playing your hand’, because actually I do agree with you… was just aiming more for reassurance that it is not abnormal to feel some degree of guilt, if you see what I mean!

    And I appreciate you taking the time to respond to comments, it’s nice to have that interaction… :0)

  9. Megan says:

    As a 17 year old, it’s actually pretty disturbing the amount of people that have tried to suggest to me that my mental health problems are in some way related to my sexuality. And I’m not talking about the books my Very Christian Friend reads which helpfully let me know that with proper psychiatric counselling I can still live a fufilled and happy life (because that just makes me laugh), I’m talking about well-meaning intelligent people, healthcare professionals and the like. It has been variously suggested that my mental ill health has been contributed to by confusion over my sexuality, by hiding it from my family, by feeling ‘not normal’, and so on.

    Some of those things might well be true. It’s not to say that GLBT = mentally ill, but that as a GLBT youth with mental health problems, the two likely interact in some way. What’s interesting, though, is my reactions to such suggestions. I feel totally unable to accept or consider them. I feel as though I cannot admit that the two could affect each other, because doing so is *not what I’m supposed to do*. It’s a shameful disservice to the Pride movement.

    I don’t know if that made any sense at all, heh… Good post though!

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  11. The Chuckle says:

    Hi Aethelread, I wasn’t thinking you were over playing your hand, more as per Cellar Door, sorry if that didn’t come across ;-)

  12. Take a look at http://www.beatingthebeast.com.There‘s a fair few people who contribute to the forum who are gay.I used to post on there a fair amount about my depression & has been a great support with my probs.

  13. Ann says:

    Great post – with a really interesting perspective thanks.

  14. On the one hand, I think it can lead to us being so keen to stress that being gay has nothing to do with mental ill-health that we decide not to mention our sexual orientation when we blog about our MH problems.

    I think that’s exactly why I haven’t mentioned my SO on my blog. Perhaps it’s time to do so – I might blog about this soon.

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  17. Keith says:

    Well, I hate to buck the trend, but I was surprised by this post. It’s excellently well-written, but it didn’t reverberate with my own experience. I actually do write a blog (brokenwholeblog.blogspot.com) about being gay and having a mental illness (bipolar disorder), and, to be honest, I don’t feel guilt about it. Maybe because I’ve been writing about it for so long.

    On the other hand, I still occasionally feel shame over it, but I don’t think that has anything to do with being gay. It’s more disappointment when I cycle back into depression. Silly as it is, I can’t help feeling a little bit like it’s my fault. People are surprised if they learn that I have a mental illness since I look like one of those out-and-proud gay guys (okay, guilty as charged for being a “circuit boy”) you talk about.

    Is shame the same as guilt? I suppose it’s pretty close.

    Thanks for a great blog entry. I’m bookmarking you and putting you on my blog-roll.

    Cheers, Keith

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  21. mystery_puzzle_piece says:

    Thank you for writing this. I am a man with depression, social anxiety and Aspergers. I’m sure you can imagine my life has never been easy. I have wondered, why isn’t the GLBT community not much more supportive than heterosexual people to those of us with such disorders? Why is there not better outreach from our community? Other than some people I met in therapy, it has always seemed like most guys would rather not get involved (probably some because I am so extremely shy that they never got to know me, but I don’t believe that is the only reason). I have felt marginalized my entire life, by heterosexuals and homosexuals. Now I realize more and more how much stigma there is about mental illness and other disorders. Recent studies I have read are shocking: even though mental illness is fairly common, among the general population many people wouldn’t even want to work with someone who is mentally ill, or invite them to their home (though most of them already do, unknowingly). It is so similar to the attitude many have had toward GLBT people. I think you are right, there is a strong sense of guilt or shame, and fear that admitting to mental illness will negatively influence people’s perception of GLBT people, considering our history of oppression and our need to be seen in a positive light, has probably influenced many GLBT people’s negative reaction toward mental illness and disorders like Aspergers (including the reaction from some GLBT people who ARE mentally ill). The irony is of course, that many GLBT people become mentally ill DUE to discrimination. I have always been wary of discussing my illness with people, fearing being further marginalized. In my weak social position it feels very risky for me to speak out, but I am glad that there are others who are able to do so. The more GLBT people become accepted, and the more visible mentally ill people in general become, the more we will be accepted as both GLBT and mentally ill. I believe society will realize one day how harmful and foolish it is to stigmatize things that they simply don’t understand.

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