“[Most of us gay men had] engrained in us one very strident lesson: There was something about us that was disgusting, aberrant and essentially unlovable. Whatever it was … we decided must be hidden completely from view. Although we are older now, we are still driven by those insatiable, infantile drives for love and acceptance. In order to survive, we learned to become something that we thought would be more acceptable to our parents, teachers and playmates.”
“Why are my intimate relationships short-lived? Why am I so drive to have the perfect body, the most beautiful house, the most fabulous career … Why do I fight this nagging depression that tells me my life is bereft of greater meaning? What all of these questions point to is an emotional wound … The wound is the trauma caused by exposure to overwhelming shame at an age when you weren’t equipped to cope with it.”
The above quotes are from the opening chapters of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, by Alan Downs, Ph.D. As I mentioned in the last post of the Invictus Pilgrim Book Club, I have decided to alternate discussions between Forged and this book, which I want to introduce today.
I have been learning a lot about myself as I have been reading Velvet Rage. Most particularly, I have been learning about shame and how much is in me and has been in me for most of my life. Mind, I’m not talking about being ashamed of who I am or what I am. What I’m talking about, and what this book talks a great deal about, is the experience of being made to feel ashamed of oneself for who one is, not because of anything one has done, but because of whom one is. Carried long enough and deeply enough, this shame turns into an abiding self-hatred.
Velvet Rage is essentially about discovering this shame, exposing it to the light of day, analyzing that it has done and is doing to us, and what we can do about it. As the book’s author, therapist Alan Downs, points out, there is a pressing need for gay men to understand and deal with the shame they are carrying. As Downs writes in the Introduction:
“In this book you will find an honest and more complete picture of what it is to be a gay man in today’s world. Yes, we have more sexual partners in a lifetime that any other grouping of people. And at the same time, we also have among the highest rates of depression and suicide, not to mention sexually transmitted diseases. As a group we tend to be more emotionally expressive than other men … we have more expendable income …
“But are we truly happier? The disturbing truth is that we aren’t … Much the opposite is true. Psychotherapy offices the world over are frequented by gay men … Substance abuse clinics across the country … are filled with far more gay men than would be indicated by our proportions in the general population …
“Some ill-informed, closed-minded people would say that it is our sexual appetite for man-on-man sex that has made lasting happiness illusive. If we would just be ‘normal,’ find a good woman and settle down, then we’d discover what life is all about. That’s just crazy. Our struggles have nothing to do with loving men per se. Substance abuse, hyper-sexuality, short-lived relationships, depression, sexually transmitted diseases, the insatiable hunger for more and better, and the need to decorate our worlds to cover up seamy truths – these are our torments. Becoming a fulfilled gay man is not about trying to become ‘not gay,’ but has everything to do with finding a way through this world that affords us our share of joy, happiness, fulfillment and love.”
I found myself becoming angry as I read the foregoing paragraphs. How many times have we heard that “the gay lifestyle” breeds all these conditions, i.e., substance abuse, hyper-sexuality, depressions, STDs, etc.? The truth, however, is that it is not “the gay lifestyle” that causes these conditions, but rather the homophobia, bigotry and intolerance in the society in which we live that causes these conditions – not to mention alarming rates of suicide among gay males.
Downs arranges his book “into a simple three-stage model that describes the journey of virtually all gay men with whom I have worked”:
“The stages are arranged by the primary manner in which the gay man handles shame. The first stage is ‘Overwhelmed by Shame’ and includes that period of time when he remained ‘in the closet’ and fearful of his own sexuality. The second stage is ‘Compensating for Shame’ and describes the gay man’s attempt to neutralize his shame by being more successful, outrageous, fabulous, beautiful, or masculine … in his attempt to make himself feel attractive, sexy and loved – in short, less shameful. The final stage is ‘Discovering Authenticity.’ Not all gay men progress out of the previous two stages, but those who do begin to build a life that is based upon their own passions and values rather than proving to themselves that they are desirable and lovable.”
Downs’ goal is to help gay men achieve the third stage of authenticity. “It is my experience,” he writes, “that gay men who are not ready or willing to work toward this goal have a difficult time acknowledging their shame and the radical effects of it on their lives. Until a gay man is ready to reexamine his life, he may not be able to realize the undercurrent of shame that has carried him into a life that often isn’t very fulfilling.”
Shall we journey together?