Friday, November 4, 2011

IP Book Club: Introducing Velvet Rage

“[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?


  1. I like you was infuriated by Down's approach at first. Isn't he just continuing stereotypes that we want to avoid? How could a gay male psychologist speak that way about gay people? But you have to get past the initial shock, realize his audience is gay men, and his position is one of help as someone who's met hundreds of clients, and accept that behind stereotypes though an over generalization there are pieces of different people in some of them. If that was all the book had to offer, it would be of little value. But it seeks to CHANGE these stereotypes by helping the reader recognize that much of the superficiality, promiscuity, that is present in parts of the gay community is due to the inability to cope with a lifetime of shame. He offers an escape and a way out. The point is not that we should be ashamed, but that we shouldn't be ashamed to be gay, that there is nothing wrong with it, that there is no "gay lifestyle" but healthy happy people in relationships. But to get to the holy grail we have to first recognize the way our lives have been structured by trying to avoid shame. It rang true for me, and I realized that much of my desire to please others, to overachieve, was a desire to avoid shame at all costs.

  2. Oh my gosh. The quotes you offer are powerful. He addresses exactly the issues which were often brought up in some of the Evergreen meetings I attended; the problems with drug abuse, promiscuity, depression, a shallow search for perfection. All of these issues were touted by some to be reasons why we should "help" gay people not be gay; that doing so was a "loving" response.

    I'm moved.

    I have a deep desire to be well adjusted, stable, healthy gay man. And I'm ordering the book this afternoon.

  3. Wow, those excerpts are fascinating. I saw this on another blog or somewhere and checked it out on Amazon, but I wasn't sure from the reviews that I quite cared to put it on my reading list, at least not now. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on it and may yet get to reading it.

    It was good to see you at the Circling the Wagons Conference this evening, even though I didn't introduce myself. It felt kind of weird and funny seeing you and feeling like I knew your whole life story from your blog and that you had no idea who I was, ha ha. I was the younger guy in the black hoodie and glasses on the end of your row to the left. Seriously, though, your blog has been really positively influential to me, and I'll have to introduce myself tomorrow.

  4. Alex - Thanks for inspiring me to read this book. My comments about becoming angry were not directed to the author, however, but to those in our community and society who espouse the views I described.

    Utahhiker801 - I don't think you'll be disappointed.

    Trev - I'll look forward to meeting you!