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"People make choices," says Thomas S. Weinberg, a sociology professor at Buffalo State College, who wrote the 1994 book Gay Men, Drinking and Alcoholism. Weinberg steps outside the mainstream view to explain what is hurting gay well-being: Personal choices, he controversially says, are "more important than stress models."
Some have begun to argue that health experts, gay-rights leaders and gay individuals should take an unblinking look at their own contributions to gay men's health disparities.
"All the sociological factors are just an explanation after the fact," argues iconoclastic AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein, who agrees with Weinberg. "It's an excuse. It may even be a valid one, but it's still an excuse."
"It's not outside of us but within us if real change is going to happen," says Brandon, who was bullied in middle school and now is spearheading a fledgling LGBT self-empowerment campaign called I Am Love. "I don't deny the fact that those studies are out there, but none of that matters to me. I don't let any of those [social stressors] disempower me."
For Brandon and others, the new gay frontier is no longer solely a fight for equal rights.
Lucas John is a 29-year-old man-about-town who created the gay gossip blog WeHo Confidential. He moved to heavily gay West Hollywood from West Covina when he was 22, looking to be among his own and to find a special guy.
Seven years later, he's utterly disillusioned with the gay scene in L.A. and West Hollywood. "There's no such thing as love in L.A.," John says. "It's almost entirely gone. It's a great place to be single. It's not a great place if you want to find love."
Gregarious and quick-witted, John is still seeking that special guy. His social routine, however, often centers on looking for hookups online, sometimes having unprotected sex, and drinking and partying with friends looking for good times, casual sex and, often, a sugar daddy to pay the bar tab at night's end.
"When I was younger, I thought I could sleep my way into being loved," John says, "and that's just not how it works. ... People who think they can sleep around and get ahead are delusional. It doesn't happen. But there are many people who are willing to take advantage of those people and then discard them."
John often feels angry, lonely and confused. Asked if his actions and choices in friends may contribute to his lack of success in finding love, the talkative gossip blogger goes uncharacteristically quiet.
Tony Sweet is a 42-year-old radio personality who grew up in Kansas and moved to L.A. 10 years ago. In the Midwest, Christian ministers, pushing the notion that homosexuality is a sin, were highly influential in forming public opinion. He never paid much attention to them. "I knew God has big plans for me," Sweet says. "I never thought, 'God hates me because I'm gay.' "
Sweet, openly gay for years, did, however, develop an eating disorder in his 20s. "I felt I had to look a certain way and live up to certain expectations," he says. "To me, we aren't helping our community all that much because we're not accepting of certain ways we dress or what we do for a job. It stems from not being self-accepting."
Sweet publicly expresses a view that, at least for now, is a no-no in the gay world: He's felt more pressure and more stress from people in the gay community in Southern California than he did in Kansas — among bigoted, organized-religion adherents.
Matthew Mishory is a 30-year-old filmmaker and L.A. native. He's partnered and lives in West Hollywood. "Life can be difficult," he says, "and it's helpful to have someone help you through those challenges." He adds, "I think it's a great thing to be in love. When I hear people say that's impossible for them, I think that's foolish."
Mishory surrounds himself with both straight and gay friends, and says the "vast majority" are looking for stable, long-term relationships. His unhappy view of the L.A. gay scene is that "too many gay men are competing with each other and tearing each other down, but life is not a competition."
Andrew Extein is a 27-year-old social worker from Florida, living in Silver Lake and working with gay youths. Extein usually stays away from West Hollywood, one of the world's gay meccas. When he does go there, he says, he rarely has a good time.
Extein's impressions of WeHo are the last thing most local boosters and gay residents would say: "It's a very scary place. It's like a Disneyland for gay people. My friends and I end up depressed by the end of the night. It's not very life-affirming."
He finds it "very difficult to connect to people there. West Hollywood represents all the bad parts about the gay community. It emphasizes all the drinking and drugs and what you're wearing and how you look. It's scary because it feels like I should be that way, but I'm not. So it makes me feel as if something is wrong with me."