Coming to terms with your sexuality can be a challenge, and so can learning how to comfortably express your gender. Add in disease, fear and stigma and a culture full of homophobia, racism and sexism. All of these things — and many others — have a profound impact on the mental health of gay men. Gay mental health is a major concern for our community that sadly doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
There are so many issues gay men must contend with, but HIV is one of the most significant. Our community has endured 37 years of an ongoing epidemic. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of our friends and lovers, witnessed the past and current indifference of a hostile government and experienced the fear and guilt that came with survival. HIV has left an indelible mark on our state of mind, yet we still haven’t really stopped to take stock of its impact on our individual and collective psyches.
Writer and activist Eric Rofes raised the issue nearly twenty years ago in his book, Reviving The Tribe. He wrote, “In the midst of a continuing epidemic, what possibilities exist for the resurrection of gay men’s psyches? What resources are available to us and what kinds of programs need to be developed?”
Rofes understood that we had endured a collective trauma, but there was no plan in place to address the very real mental health concerns. In 2018, we still lack the structures to cultivate the mental health and wellness of our community.
Sex is a very powerful throughline in our culture; our relationship to sex has a major influence on how we view ourselves. Religion calls us sinners, society tells us we’re immoral and even our own community can accuse us of being “dirty” and “whores.” It requires a great deal of personal fortitude to foster a healthy sexuality in the midst of such pressures. It’s even more difficult to attempt alone.
Our bodies help us achieve sexual pleasure. But, our relationship to our bodies can be just as fraught as our relationship to sex. Feeling ashamed of your body can be isolating and agonizing. Therapist Dr. Chris Donaghue recently wrote, “Body shame is what holds many of us back, and it is an especially powerful deterrent to sex for those who don’t fit into the young, white, fit, able-bodied, hung, masc images reinforced as primarily desirable by the media, advertising, fitness, pornography, beauty and fashion industries.”
Our culture has constructed a very narrow beauty standard. It’s a standard that most of us will never meet yet it’s difficult to escape its reach. The pressure to meet these ridiculous gay male beauty standards can be exhausting, demoralizing, and wears down your mental health.
One can’t talk about gay mental health without exploring the very real issue of loneliness. Last year, Michael Hobbs’ groundbreaking article, “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” was a thorough examination of the issue yet it felt like it only began to scratch the surface.
One alarming piece of the story was the impact of suicide on our community. Hobbs wrote, “In Canada, Travis Salway, a researcher with the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, eventually discovered more gay men were dying from suicide than from AIDS, and had been for years.”
Suicide and HIV aren’t the only things killing men in our community. One other important factor is substance abuse. Drugs can be very attractive if they create the illusion of alleviating one’s depression, isolation, or self-stigma — but they are only illusions. Gay men require real, tangible solutions to help improve our mental health. The response to gay mental health needs must be just as intense and determined as our response to HIV.
Steven Shoptaw, a professor of family medicine at the Geffen School and director of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine, offers some potential solutions around the issues gay men face in regards to loneliness and isolation. He said:
One solution is to build healthy and meaningful social networks in men’s lives. For example, the City of West Hollywood has an energetic sports program with kickball and other team sports that are intended to help build those social ties.
The best antidote against pain of minority stress and other ick involved in being a human being in the second decade of this century is to have good, solid friends who give a damn about you. It’s not about who you’re having sex with. It’s about having good people you can talk with about who you’re having sex with (or the ick of being a human being in the second decade of this century).
We can’t ignore the mental health of our community. We can’t tolerate the stigma or embarrassment that is usually associated with mental health. We must bring it front and center and confront it head on. We’ve marshaled the community to respond to a health crisis before, and we can do it again. It’s critical to our survival.