Sixteen years ago, at 19, James Brandon drove cross-country from St. Louis to study at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena. A year earlier, his alcoholic father, whom he had nursed nearly daily, had died of cancer. Handsome, talented and affable, Brandon was determined to achieve his dream of becoming an actor. Then he got caught up in the gay partying scene.
"It was fun at first," recalls Brandon, who came out when he was 21, "but not fulfilling at all."
With his new friends, for three years Brandon hit the gay bars and night clubs in L.A. and West Hollywood, partying hard with drugs and alcohol. After one drug-fueled Saturday night at age 24, he drove alone on Pacific Coast Highway in his black Saturn toward Malibu as the sun rose. With only a guardrail between him and the rocky outcroppings of the Pacific Ocean below, he considered what would have been unthinkable when he first arrived in L.A.
"I thought, 'Nothing is stopping me from driving off the cliff,' " Brandon recalls. "It was an intense moment. I was confused. I was lost. I was also thinking it would be so poetic: I'd die with the sunrise."
On the verge of possibly becoming a suicide statistic — one that's far more common among gay men than straight — Brandon suddenly got a call from a friend on his cellphone, asking if he would go to yoga with her this morning. He turned around, and that day made a decision that changed everything.
The working actor threw himself into yoga's mental, physical and spiritual disciplines. "I stopped doing all the drugs and found different tools to reach my ecstasy," Brandon says. "My focus was being on a new spiritual journey."
Some of his gay male friends followed a more lethal path. One died from a drug overdose. Another passed away under mysterious circumstances, which Brandon suspects were connected to drugs.
Brandon says, "I have friends who say, 'You're just lucky. You found a way out.' But I'm no different than anyone else. I just woke up to the fact that I can make choices, and that I wanted to empower myself. It's always there within all of us. But we can cover it up with drugs, sex or alcohol."
Forty-three years after the Stonewall Riots in New York City, gay men still struggle with high rates of drug-, sex-, and alcohol-related problems — a situation that gay leaders are hesitant to discuss openly for fear that anti-gay factions will use these facts to promote the bigoted view that gay men are sick and disturbed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gay men have higher rates of substance abuse than the general public, are more likely to continue heavy drinking in later life, smoke tobacco at higher rates than other men, are at greater risk of mental health problems such as major depression and anxiety disorder than other men, and are more likely to commit suicide than other men.
Sexually transmitted diseases are increasing among gay and bisexual men: Most syphilis cases in the United States involve men who have sex with men. Also, the annual number of new HIV infections among gay and bisexual males 13 to 29 years old jumped 34 percent between 2006 and 2009, the most recent data that CDC provides. Men who have sex with men account for 4 percent of the population, according to the CDC, but they account for 61 percent, or 29,300, new HIV diagnoses each year.
The CDC tends to link these problems to forces outside of the gay individual and gay community — particularly homophobia and anti-gay discrimination, known in the medical community as "social stressors."
"As long as we have homophobia," says Dr. Ilan Meyer, a researcher and senior scholar at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA's School of Law, "we'll see these patterns continue."
In 1995, Meyer devised a now widely accepted theory to explain these LGBT mental and physical health disparities — the "minority stress model." The respected researcher placed much blame on American society, writing, "Stigma, prejudice and discrimination create a hostile and stressful social environment that causes mental health problems."
The CDC and many gay-health experts embraced Meyer's model — and gay-rights leaders often use it when slamming their political opponents.
"If you are told you should not be who you are," explains gay-rights activist and Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs, "then I'm not surprised that when you get the chance to be who you are, there are some explosions."
But today other experts, though still overshadowed by the widely promoted "minority stress model," question how Meyer's theory is used by health experts and activists — and particularly the strong underlying message of victimhood it communicates to gay men.