Tue, Aug 24, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Growing up ‘different’

This week a leading magazine will suggest that Britain’s gay men are suffering from alarming levels of depression, low self-esteem, drug dependency and attempted suicides — with few places to turn for help

By Tracy McVeigh  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Matthew Todd is feeling uncharacteristically nervous. “It’s a big taboo, we’re expecting it to cause quite a stir,” admits the editor of Britain’s award-winning gay lifestyle magazine, Attitude. Above the obligatory cover shot of a shirtless Adonis-type torso, this month’s mag is labeled “the issues issue.” Todd has good reason to be wary of how it will be received. The theme is the worryingly high rates of mental health and dependency problems among gay men.

“There is this cliche that we are all having a great time partying, but actually we know, and the research is now showing, there are a hell of a lot of unhappy gay people; far higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than among straight men; far higher rates of self-destructive behavior; substance abuse and sex addiction; and high levels of issues around intimacy and forming relationships.”

Evidence shows that gay men are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide. A research project at London’s University College hospital found “significantly higher” rates of mental illness among gay men than their straight peers. “It’s an incredibly sensitive issue that gay men are very defensive about,” said Todd, “because we fought so long to say we’re equal, we’re happy with who we are. While that’s true, we’re also suffering from the trauma of the journey, the isolation, the secrecy and the shame, and the resulting effect on your mental health that is more likely to happen to you if you grow up gay than if you grow up straight.

“It’s about low self-esteem and the self-hating gay man. But the time has come to find the strength to face it and realize that, while it’s not our fault this has been inflicted on us, we do need to deal with it.”

Out of the closet

George Michael

Singer George Michael pretended to be straight to avoid hurting his mother and says its caused him deep “psychological trauma.”

“People want to see me as tragic with all the cottaging and drug-taking ... those things are not what most people aspire to, and I think it removes people’s envy to see your weaknesses. I don’t even see them as weaknesses any more. It’s just who I am.”

Rupert Everett

Actor Rupert Everett, who briefly worked as a male prostitute to fund a youthful drug habit, says he regrets coming out of the closet because he feels it damaged his career:

“The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the film business. It just doesn’t work. I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out.”

Stephen Fry

Polymath Stephen Fry has talked of his teenage struggles with his sexuality in a world of “shame and secrecy.”

“Gay people expect the world of love to be imponderably and unmanageably difficult, for we are perverted freaks and sick aberrations of nature. [Straight people] — poor normal lambs — naturally find it harder to understand why, in Lysander’s words, “the course of true love never did run smooth.”

For Todd, realizing he was gay at the age of 10 sent him “freefalling into shame.” “It was the beginning of the worst five years of my life. I feel for me then and for kids now totally let down by society. I should have been able to talk to my teacher, to my parents. I don’t think many people really understand the trauma.”

The isolation begins in childhood. “They pick up on the fact that the parents are sensing there’s something different too, and that’s bad. The child is absorbing all this. Another level of shame. It’s a painful thing for people to deal with. Not everyone comes out of the closet shouting hurray!”

After several years of therapy, Todd is starting to deal with his own compulsive behaviors. “The gay scene is incredibly sexualized. Kids come out into this sexualized world where there is lots of booze and lots of drugs, there’s nothing that’s just healthy, gentle and relaxed. It’s empowering to have lots of sex, but only if that’s what you actually want, if it’s you making the choice.”

Some luckier gay men found themselves in supportive environments. Author and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe said going to Sussex University saved him and that the taboo of talking about mental health issues had to end: “Growing up with a burden of guilt is many people’s story, mine is just the gay man’s story. We have to learn to unlearn the self-hating thing. We need more honesty with each other, less insistence on gay solidarity all the time.”

But still, as one gay blogger wrote: “The gay community is truly a wounded lot. In essence, young gay men have no role models in the home, no one to guide them through feelings of insecurity. They know deep down that they are different, but as young people tend to do, they don’t view ‘difference’ in a positive, healthy light. They come to believe that they are inherently flawed, unlovable, second-class citizens.”

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