Attention Gay Men: Our Choices Are Killing Us
Poster made famous by ACT-UP in 1980s: But today's silence within gay community is killing us.
Alan Turing was the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Harry Hay spearheaded a movement that brought greater acceptance, visibility and equality for millions of queer folks around the world. Simon Nkoli tirelessly fought, and helped defeat, apartheid in South Africa. And there's Renaissance genius Michelangelo, writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, revolutionary philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and many others.
They are all gay men. They all contributed mightily to making the world a more just and beautiful place. They are all examples of that unique spark or spirit that resides within each gay and bisexual man -- an X factor that makes us not better than straight men, but certainly different and special.
Are we, as gay and bisexual men, going to fulfill that exceptional promise and potential? Or are we going to continue to make choices that not only extinguish our spirit but kill us?
On the whole, gay men are healthy and well-adjusted. We are excellent sons, husbands, employees and bosses. We have changed the world for the better in so many ways. And the recent U.S. Supreme Court victories for gay marriage have been thrilling and inspiring.
But we are facing a crisis.
For years, we have continued to struggle with life-threatening health problems at alarming high rates compared to straight men -- such things as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and sexually transmitted diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes this clear.
On the CDC website, it's noted that gay and bisexual men are still most impacted by HIV/AIDS and syphilis, that they suffer higher rates of substance abuse, that they are more likely to drink heavily later into life, and that they are more likely to commit suicide and suffer major depression and anxiety and bipolar disorders.
And the CDC notes that these serious health issues are interconnected. The agency says, for example, that gay men with mental health problems are more likely to use illegal drugs and commit suicide. Or regularly using drugs and alcohol can lead to risky sexual behavior, which increases the likelihood of getting infected by an STD.
Our health problems, in other words, are feeding into each other -- and we're literally killing ourselves through suicide, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS at higher rates than straight men.
Let's say that again: We are killing ourselves at higher rates than straight men through suicide, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS.
It's a troubling, long-standing health crisis -- and it's not acceptable. Too many lives are being lost.
Some gay leaders and researchers are quick to point to the stresses of living as a gay man in an overwhelmingly straight world -- one that passes anti-gay laws and constantly spews homophobic rhetoric -- as a reason for mental health and substance abuse problems.
Some of that may be true.
But with that argument, they are coming very close to saying that we are powerless victims who have little control over our own lives and choices, that homophobes have more power over us.
That's a ridiculous notion -- lethal and self-defeating. We're screwed if we believe it.
Since homophobia still exists and is not going away any time soon, the victim theory, if embraced, dooms us to a life of external, homophobic stressors that forces us to drink too much, commit suicide too frequently and get depressed too often.
Gay and bisexual men are possessed of much more power than that. Just look at Hay, Baldwin and Nkoli.
So what's really going on? And how can we get healthier?
How can we confront and knock out the health problems that mess with our special spirits and talents, prevent us from fulfilling our highest potentials and stop us from realizing our truest selves?
How can we empower ourselves no matter what some crazy politician or minister is doing?
Much is at stake, especially if you believe that life's main purpose is to contribute something to the world -- no matter how small of an act -- that makes it a better place for all of us to live in.
If, for example, Harry Hay, a longtime Los Angeles resident who died of natural causes when he was 90, committed suicide before he started the modern day gay rights movement in the early 1950s, our progress towards full equality may not be as far along as it is today.
A widely accepted way to overcome problems is to execute an honest self-assessment and then fearlessly come up with solutions.
In the L.A. Weekly cover story "Gay Happiness, the New Frontier," health experts and gay men revealed that they thought the real reasons for our health crisis could be found within the gay community itself.
Gay men in Los Angeles told the Weekly that they believed a culture that focuses on one-night stands and partying, that emphasizes perfect bodies and good looks, that prizes material possessions, that sees gay men tearing each other down as they compete for attention and that pressures gay men to fit in or conform is bound to create unhappiness, stress and unhealthy behaviors.
That particular culture is also lacking in substance or meaning, and does little to help us become honest, unselfish and caring people who can contribute something good to the world.
Buffalo State College sociology professor Thomas S. Weinberg, who studied the drinking habits of gay men in Southern California, also notes that the influence of friends plays a huge role on how we live and the choices we make -- and we ultimately have to take responsibility for our own choices, which always result in real consequences, healthy and unhealthy.
The professor, in fact, says your peers, not homophobes, have a greater impact on your life. That's actually good news.
While you have little to no control over the craziness of others, you have total control over who you choose to love and spend time with.
Weinberg talks about "reference group theory," which states that our inner circle of intimates sets a standard for how we live our own lives. So if you're hanging with a bunch of close friends who engage in risky sexual behavior and drink and drug a lot, you are most likely to do the same since that appears to be the norm.
On the flip side of that, if you surround yourself with intimates who are striving to be the best people they can be and who are trying to contribute something to the world, that will be your standard -- and you'll act accordingly.
Beverly Hills psychologist Alan Downs notes in his gay classic The Velvet Rage, which offers tips to gay and bisexual men on how to live more authentic lives, that we should "carefully guard and assess those individuals you allow into your inner circle of intimacy. Their influence is monumental."
Some gay leaders, though, are hesitant to talk about the problems among gay men. They worry about airing "dirty laundry" in public, fearing it will give ammunition to homophobic politicians and ministers.
In essence, they are worried more about a public relations problem than a health crisis and saving human lives.
And when a truth-teller like legendary writer and gay rights activist Larry Kramer talks about gay men holding themselves responsible for their unhealthy actions, and how those actions may hurt other gay men, he gets shot down by a screaming chorus of P.R.-obsessed queer folks. That may be why few people have filled Kramer's big shoes in recent years.
In 2004, during a memorable speech at Cooper Union in New York City, Kramer told a mostly gay crowd, "It takes hard work to behave like an adult. It takes discipline. You want it to be simple. It isn't simple. Yes, it is. Grow up. Behave responsibly. Fight for your rights. Take care of yourself and each other. These are the answers. It takes courage to live."
In fact, last year the Weekly asked Dr. Jason Schneider, former president of the Washington, D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, if there's anyone today sounding the alarm like Kramer. Schneider replied, "I don't think we have that person talking that way now."
But our health should be a top priority among gay rights leaders. Otherwise, we won't be around to enjoy the equal rights we have won -- and to fight the battles that will come again.
A dialogue must begin, actions must follow and we must empower ourselves.
Judging from comments to the Weekly's "Gay Happiness" story and the blog post "Is L.A. Gay Pride an Outdated, Adolescent Mess?", there are people who want to do those very things.
People who want to live more authentic and healthier lives; who want to tap into and fully experience the unique spirits that are within them; who want the best for their gay and bisexual brothers; and who want to fulfill their sacred duties to make the world a better place -- maybe even show the world a better way to connect and love another person.
If we are truly pioneers in art, literature, philosophy and human rights, then why not be trailblazers in such things as love and personal fulfillment?
The choice is yours to live one way or another, but there will be consequences -- and they will not only affect you.
We can't help but think of these guiding words from Catholic monk Thomas Merton:
"The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are spread by contagion from the illusions of other men.
"We all seek to imitate one another's imagined greatness.
"If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be. Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.
"Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all.
"I would be liberated from the painful duty of saying what I really do not think and acting in a way that betrays God's truth and the integrity of my own soul."
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