I know, I know, the title sounds like it should be the name of a tribute band performing an easy listening version of ‘Killing In The Name’ at a tea-dance in a faded hotel just off the sea-front at Scarborough.* Or maybe Velvet Rage is what you feel just before the mist descends and you pick up your Velvet Revolver and start firing…
Enough silliness. I must begin this post proper with a hat-tip to the estimable beakie at Mental Nurse, who drew my attention to the newspaper report I’m going to be discussing. That Observer article is itself a feature about a self-help book, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, by Alan Downs, PhD (as he calls himself on the cover). I can’t comment directly on the content of the book as I haven’t read it, so this post is instead going to focus on the article, which is credited to journalists Paul Flynn and Matthew Todd.
The article follows what’s a very familiar pattern in mainstream media articles about Teh Gays: gay men may appear to live effortlessly glamorous lives, but beneath their brilliant, brittle façades they’re nothing but lonely souls trying desperately to compensate for a tortured and miserable existence with casual sex, expensive clothes, and shiny gadgets. The Observer and, especially, The Guardian, have been running occasional articles like this – articles which have a surface sheen of concern, but revel in anatomising all the ways that gays are failed human beings – for longer than I’ve been out. The furore over a Guardian-commissioned article called ‘Gay Abandon’ (which claimed that large numbers of gay men were coping with the hopeless nihilism of their inconsequential existence by deliberately seeking the ultimate thrill of HIV infection: this when there were no effective treatments), was the point at which a furtive Aethelread realised that there was such a thing as radical gay activism, and that it wasn’t inclined to take things like this lying down. Of course, that article – written, as I recall, by a gay journalist, just as this article seems to be written by two gay journalists – was a particularly egregious example, but the same tropes are still here, all these years later, in this article.
The focus this time around isn’t so much on the consequences of gay men’s abject wretchedness (though these are identified as alcoholism, drug-dependency, promiscuity – responsible promiscuity is a problem why? – and ‘an unusually sophisticated knowledge of superficial cultures’, whatever the hell that means), as it is the causes. Apparently, according to the book under discussion, it’s all the result of unacknowledged childhood trauma; my, what a breathtakingly original idea…in 19th Century Vienna. This is, I guess, an improvement of sorts – naive straight readers are being encouraged to pity the poofs rather than be horrified by the homos – but the underlying message remains the same: gay men are disproportionately broken and inadequate. In support of this idea, the article advances some statistics that I found rather startling.
The sub-heading of the article includes the assertion that ‘Gay men are four times more likely to suffer from depression than straight men’. In the main body of the article this is revised down to ‘two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety’ (quite some revision, I think you’ll agree), and the figure is attributed to Tim Parks of the charity PACE, who is said to have arrived at it following a ‘systematic review’ of evidence from NIMH. I googled all the likely terms I could think of, and I had a look on the websites of both PACE and NIMH (not an exhaustive look, I’ll concede, particularly in the case of the latter), but I wasn’t able to find any further details about Franks’ review. This is a shame, as I would very much like to see the evidence behind the 2½ times figure, which is considerably higher than I would have anticipated. When I looked into this in my own, haphazard way a couple of years ago (in the course of following a blog fight somewhere), the conclusion I reached was that very little research had been done into the question, but what evidence there was suggested gay men had only a slightly increased risk of mental illness compared to the population as a whole, and lesbians actually had a slightly lower risk. (It goes without saying that Velvet Rage, if it is produced in the way Downs claims, should affect lesbians just as readily as gay men.)
Without seeing the research Franks reviewed I can’t be sure, but I do wonder if the figure for depression amongst gay men has been inflated by including people who have experienced a strong but still proportionate reaction to unusually negative life experiences. It strikes me, for example, that a gay man who has encountered significant homophobia is likely to experience a profoundly negative mental state in the aftermath, and possibly resurgences of the same feelings at significant moments for years to come, but that this would not necessarily mean he was mentally ill. On the contrary, feeling bad when, say, you are rejected by your family is normal, a sign that your emotions are functioning as any sane person’s would. Depression, on the other hand, is a condition characterised by a low mood that cannot be adequately explained by reference to external factors. It seems to me that just because gay men may tend to lead bleaker lives than their heterosexual counterparts, and have emotional states to match, this shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that they have greater mental health problems.
I actually think the inappropriate medicalisation of issues around sexual orientation is a real problem. On the one hand, I understand entirely why sympathetic, well-meaning people want to rush to the aid of the victims of homophobia, and do what they can to alleviate their suffering. It’s a wonderfully kind impulse, but it has an unfortunate side-effect. If a gay man who encounters homophobia, and feels bad as a result, is told that he is mentally ill, this has the effect of encouraging him to believe that the problem lies within himself. He’s effectively told that the way he feels is not an appropriate, proportionate reaction to his experiences, but is instead something that has to be addressed with medication, or therapy. Those interventions are aimed at making things better for him, of course, and the people who deliver them, and who call for them to be more readily available, are impeccably well-intentioned. But the fact remains that feeling bad when you are the victim of homophobia (or any other form of prejudice) is not a sign of psychopathology.
This is a problem because if someone’s negative emotional state is not a sign of mental illness then interventions aimed at treating mental illness can’t work; even the most caring and dedicated medical professionals in the world can’t cure an illness the patient doesn’t have. It’s just a fact, sadly, that a gay man existing in a homophobic environment will necessarily feel bad. No amount of medication or counselling can alter that, because the negative emotions felt by the individual are not a result of something malfunctioning within their psyche, but an unavoidable consequence of the interaction between them and their environment. Ultimately, the negative emotions resulting from homophobia are a social problem, not a medical or psychological one, and they require a social solution.
A further issue here is that well-intentioned but inappropriate medical and psychological interventions are not just ineffective, but may even be harmful. After all, the only one way for a gay man to reduce the emotional distress he feels as a result of homophobia is to reduce his exposure to it, either by staying where he is and challenging it, or moving somewhere where it’s less of a problem. The problem with the medico-psychological interventions is that they may encourage him to feel that if only he tries a bit harder, if only he finds the right therapist, he’ll be able to square the circle, and live a happy gay life in a homophobic environment. And that, in turn, may distract him from taking the practical steps in the real world that are the only effective way of resolving his emotional distress. No-one involved in trying to help the victims of homophobia would want it for a moment, of course, but by focussing on an individual’s emotional state, by labelling his responses to homophobia mental illness, they may inadvertently contribute to the likelihood of him enduring distress for longer than he has to.
Let me go back to The Observer article. I had some harsh things to say about it at the beginning of this post, and I’d like to go into why that is in a little more detail. As you may know, there’s a long-standing tension between, on the one hand, gay people who want to assimilate into the heterosexual mainstream and, on the other, gay people who feel that spending a lifetime trying to pass as ‘straight’ in every particular except sexual orientation is perhaps not the most fulfilling of ambitions. I’m actually something of a fence-sitter on this issue.
Emotionally, there’s no doubt that the ‘heterosexual’ ideal – thinking of a single romantic relationship as the cornerstone of my whole life, aspiring towards the neat little house in the suburbs, and the kids playing in the garden – has absolutely no appeal to me. (Of course, there are very many straight people for whom it holds no appeal as well. It’s an old-fashioned mode of life, which is why I’m always faintly mystified that so many gay people, including many younger than me, are so keen to embrace it. To me it sometimes seems as though they think they have to validate their right to exist, and that living by the standards of their grandparents is the best way of doing so.) Intellectually, though, I’m persuaded by the argument that there should be no opportunity that is closed to gay people simply because of their sexual orientation, and I’m a firm supporter of equal marriage rights on that basis. I might personally find it a little odd that anyone wants to do the whole marriage, 2.4 kids thing, but I support the right of everyone – straight, gay, bi, or how ever they label themselves, or choose not to label themselves – to make that choice if they want to.
So far this probably seems like an interesting deathly dull aside, but the thing is I see the Observer article, and the book it discusses, as interventions in this debate. To see it in this way, you have to appreciate how the hallmarks of a ‘gay’ lifestyle are carefully identified, not as examples of personal choice, or as neutral sociological phenomena, but as symptoms of a deep-seated malaise. This is taken to its fullest extent in the Amazon blurb for the book, where ‘flamboyant sexuality’ and even, bizarrely, ‘creativity’, are cited as examples of maladaptive behaviour resulting from so-called Velvet Rage. (On the off-chance that you need it pointing out, ‘flamboyant’ in these contexts is always a euphemism for people who are readily identifiable as gay, people who ‘fail’ what we might call the straight-acting test.) Judged by this blurb – an unfair way to judge, to be sure – the book would seem to be a call for gay men to rigorously strip away any parts of their character or interests which would prevent them from passing as the world’s dullest heterosexual. Not a particularly attractive goal or ambition, I would have thought, and curiously at odds with the trend amongst many younger straight men not to worry about whether they sometimes come off as less than manly. It would be a strange irony indeed if gay men were to become the only people still trying to live up to rigidly defined gender roles.
Although the Amazon blurb may take the critique in stranger directions (why would anyone buy a self-help book that apparently wants to make them less creative?), the same principle is present in the article, although here it is the hallmarks of the stereotypical ‘gay lifestyle’ – the expensive clothes, the preoccupation with owning all the latest gadgets, the pursuit of recreational sex – that are identified as symptoms of malaise. Now, certainly, there is something to this (more, anyway, than there is to the implicit assertion that effeminate gay men require therapy aimed at making them more straight-acting). I’d be amongst the first to acknowledge that the exaggerated regard for a lifestyle few can afford, and the celebration of a body type few can achieve, can have negative effects on the people who fall short.
There is, unquestionably, an element of the commercial gay scene that is to be depreciated, just as there are parts of heterosexual culture that are to be depreciated for the same reasons. But alongside that there is the other aspect to the gay scene – which is that it’s a place people go to meet their friends, and have a few drinks, and a laugh. This is the side of demonstratively gay life that articles like the one in the Observer never mention. I can’t help imagining how disappointed a straight person who got their information about the gay scene from things like this would be if they actually went out on it. They’d be expecting wall-to-wall glamour and decadence, interspersed with bouts of crying as people contemplate the utter futility of their lives. What they’d actually find is people chatting, drinking, enjoying each other’s company, occasionally having a bit of a dance and, when the dutch courage has built up far enough, trying to pull. I’m no expert, but this is not all that different to what happens on the ‘straight scene’, I believe.
I realise it could look like I’m being inconsistent here. On the one hand I’ve been saying that articles like this one misrepresent the realities of gay lives by playing up the extent to which they’re ‘weird’ and ‘different’, but on the other I’ve accused them of trying to shoehorn gay people into a reductively ‘normal’ lifestyle. The thing is, articles like this really are trying to do both. They latch onto the things that make gay men different from straight men, and place such heavy emphasis upon them as to distort the real picture almost out of recognition. But they only do so in order that they can represent gay life itself as dysfunctional and maladaptive, as something that should be abandoned in favour of adopting a conventional ‘heterosexual’ mode of existence. Alan Downs’ – sorry: Alan Downs, PhD – book is just a useful pretext for making the argument all over again.
This is, I suspect, a debate that’s going to run and run, and that’s fine. It’s ok for some gay men to want to become an indistinguishable part of mainstream society, and it’s ok for other gay men to want to resist the assimilationist tide. It’s less ok, I think, for assimilationists to seek to pathologise particular modes of behaviour that don’t match up with their – frankly, rather old-fashioned – ideas of what the mainstream looks like. And when they get to the stage of arguing that distress caused by homophobia is mental illness, and that this ‘mental illness’ is linked to the same hypothetical malaise that makes some gay men camp and others creative – well, that’s going several steps too far, I think.
* – You think I’m joking, but in 25 years’ time this will actually be happening. Over-60s lunch clubs won’t organise Cliff sing-alongs anymore, they’ll be encouraging grandma to join in with her favourite Napalm Death track.