The first time we met, three years ago, he asked me if I knew a good place to do CrossFit. It was either that or watch a movie by myself. Only a few of the names of the gay men in this article are real. And there was Christian, the second guy I ever kissed, who killed himself at 32, two weeks after his boyfriend broke up with him. While one half of my social circle has disappeared into relationships, kids and suburbs, the other has struggled through isolation and anxiety, hard drugs and risky sex.
None of this fits the narrative I have been told, the one I have told myself.
Like me, Jeremy did not grow up bullied by his peers or rejected by his family. He was raised in a West Coast suburb by a lesbian mom.
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I barely knew at that point. This is a picture of me and my family when I was 9. My parents still claim that they had no idea I was gay. Jeremy and I are In our lifetime, the gay community has made more progress on legal and social acceptance than any other demographic group in history. As recently as my own adolescence, gay marriage was a distant aspiration, something newspapers still put in scare quotes.
Public support for gay marriage has climbed from 27 percent in to 61 percent in Gay people are now, depending on the study, between 2 and 10 times more likely than straight people to take their own lives. And just like the last epidemic we lived through, the trauma appears to be concentrated among men. In a survey of gay men who recently arrived in New York City, three-quarters suffered from anxiety or depression, abused drugs or alcohol or were having risky sex—or some combination of the three. In a survey of care-providers at HIV clinics, one respondent told researchers: This feeling of emptiness, it turns out, is not just an American phenomenon.
All of these unbearable statistics lead to the same conclusion: It is still dangerously alienating to go through life as a man attracted to other men. The good news, though, is that epidemiologists and social scientists are closer than ever to understanding all the reasons why. Travis Salway, a researcher with the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, has spent the last five years trying to figure out why gay men keep killing themselves. Salway grew up in Celina, Ohio, a rusting factory town of maybe 10, people, the kind of place, he says, where marriage competed with college for the year-olds.
He got bullied for being gay before he even knew he was. He had a girlfriend through most of high school, and tried to avoid boys—both romantically and platonically—until he could get out of there. By the late s, he was a social worker and epidemiologist and, like me, was struck by the growing distance between his straight and gay friends. He started to wonder if the story he had always heard about gay men and mental health was incomplete. Gay men were being kicked out of their own families, their love lives were illegal. Of course they had alarming rates of suicide and depression. And then he looked at the data.
This might be the case in the U. We struggle to assert ourselves.
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We replay our social failures on a loop. Since he looked into the data, Salway has started interviewing gay men who attempted suicide and survived. Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden.
John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. James, now a mostly-out year-old, tells me that in seventh grade, when he was a closeted year-old, a female classmate asked him what he thought about another girl.
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Immediately, he says, he panicked. Did they tell anyone else I said it that way? This is how I spent my adolescence, too: Once, at a water park, one of my middle-school friends caught me staring at him as we waited for a slide. But he never brought it up. All the bullying took place in my head.
But if you experience years and years of small stressors—little things where you think, Was that because of my sexuality? Or, as Elder puts it, being in the closet is like someone having someone punch you lightly on the arm, over and over. Growing up gay, it seems, is bad for you in many of the same ways as growing up in extreme poverty. A study found that gay people produce less cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress. In , researchers compared straight and gay teenagers on cardiovascular risk. Annesa Flentje, a stress researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, specializes in the effect of minority stress on gene expression.
Even Salway, who has devoted his career to understanding minority stress, says that there are days when he feels uncomfortable walking around Vancouver with his partner. Because while the first round of damage happens before we come out of the closet, the second, and maybe more severe, comes afterward. No one ever told Adam not to act effeminate.
But he, like me, like most of us, learned it somehow.
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My parents thought it was cute, so they took a video and showed it to my grandparents. When they all watched the tape, I hid behind the couch because I was so ashamed. I must have been six or seven. By the time he got to high school, Adam had learned to manage his mannerisms so well that no one suspected him of being gay. I had to operate in the world as a lone agent.
He came out at 16, then graduated, then moved to San Francisco and started working in HIV prevention. That ended up being a crutch. He worked long hours.
He would come home exhausted, smoke a little weed, pour a glass of red wine, then start scanning the hookup apps for someone to invite over. Sometimes it would be two or three guys in a row. It went on like this for years. Last Thanksgiving, he was back home to visit his parents and felt a compulsive need to have sex because he was so stressed out. Before this, the longest he had ever gone was three or four days. It was a way of not dealing with my own life. For decades, this is what psychologists thought, too: But over the last 10 years, what researchers have discovered is that the struggle to fit in only grows more intense.
A study published in found that rates of anxiety and depression were higher in men who had recently come out than in men who were still closeted. But it was really horrifying. But I just felt like a piece of meat. It got so bad that I used to go to the grocery store that was 40 minutes away instead of the one that was 10 minutes away just because I was so afraid to walk down the gay street. And then you realize that everyone else here has baggage, too.
But that meanness is almost pathological. All of us were deeply confused or lying to ourselves for a good chunk of our adolescence. So we show other people what the world shows us, which is nastiness. Every gay man I know carries around a mental portfolio of all the shitty things other gay men have said and done to him. I arrived to a date once and the guy immediately stood up, said I was shorter than I looked in my pictures and left. For other minority groups, living in a community with people like them is linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression.
It helps to be close to people who instinctively understand you. But for us, the effect is the opposite. Several studies have found that living in gay neighborhoods predicts higher rates of risky sex and meth use and less time spent on other community activities like volunteering or playing sports. A study suggested that gay men who were more linked to the gay community were less satisfied with their own romantic relationships.
Rejection from other gay people, though, feels like losing your only way of making friends and finding love. Being pushed away from your own people hurts more because you need them more. The researchers I spoke to explained that gay guys inflict this kind of damage on each other for two main reasons.
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It has to be constantly enacted or defended or collected. We see this in studies: You can threaten masculinity among men and then look at the dumb things they do. They show more aggressive posturing, they start taking financial risks, they want to punch things. This helps explain the pervasive stigma against feminine guys in the gay community.
According to Dane Whicker, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Duke, most gay men report that they want to date someone masculine, and that they wished they acted more masculine themselves.
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Feminine gay men are still stereotyped as bottoms, the receptive partner in anal sex. A two-year longitudinal study found that the longer gay men were out of the closet, the more likely they were to become versatile or tops. Continuing the conversation from the last point, we often are beyond indecisive about what it is that we really want. Being gay is confusing. Once we break the norm, and find comfortability within our own sexuality, everything else is up for debate. Who do we want to be? Who do we want to date?
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