In a recent Capital Xtra column, I wrote about some of the factors contributing to rising HIV rates among Ottawa gay men. There are personal reasons like condoms not fitting right or thwarting intimacy with the dude you’re fucking. There are community reasons like HIV-negative guys making it hard for HIV-positive guys to disclose their status without being rejected or judged. And there are structural reasons like the lack of hassle-free, gay-specific testing options in Ottawa for homos to check their status without the intrusive interview or lecture.
A local guy wrote to me to say he appreciated what I had to say, but was surprised that I’d overlooked one of the biggest challenges he’d faced.
“I can now see the path of destruction I was on. I had such internalized rage against myself. I was on a constant search for the next best thing to fill the empty feeling I had inside. I tried looking good, picking up, being on the A list, drugs, parties, designer clothes, beautiful home, amazing jobs.
“I’m surprised I’m not HIV-positive with the amount of risks I’ve taken. Did I have a conscious death wish? No. But even as a small child I knew there was something ‘bad’ about me from the inside. I judged everything against my internal voice. My own internalized oppression led to a massive depression for 40 years of my life. I now see I had no respect for myself, for my life or for others. How ugly is that?”
With his permission, I sent this man’s letter to a few local guys whose insight I often seek. The man who wrote to me has been out for over 20 years. Our community’s come a long way in that time, yet the personal pain this man describes is pretty common. How do those two truths compute? And what is the connection, if any, with rising HIV rates in Ottawa?
In his 20-plus years as a peer counsellor on the Gayline, Barry Deeprose heard many personal stories like this.
“I think we often talk about internalized homophobia without appreciating how it plays out in our everyday lives. Despite 30 years of legal advances, I am not sure we have moved very far on the mental health front. I am convinced that we are all affected by internal and external homophobia at an age when we have little means of resisting it. And then we integrate all this negativity.”
Deeprose argues that internal homophobia — even in men who have been out for years and present as guys who appear to have their shit together — can encourage over-achieving, unattainable expectations or struggles with self-esteem. That sort of pressure is exhausting. Understandably, some of us take the edge off with booze or drugs, punishing workouts or sex. And while we often keep it in the manageable zone, other times it may get out of hand for a while. Which only leads to more of that punishing self-criticism.
Cory Wong runs a local social group for Asian men. He notes that many of us take great risks to make peace with our sexuality. We trade the safety of the hetero status quo for a queer identity — sometimes paying for it dearly — with the hope that it will finally relieve that sense of living at society’s margins. The queer community we discover on the other side, however, often seems bitchy, bitter or discriminatory. It leaves guys feeling duped and disappointed and the whole process can reinforce the anger they felt at being left out in the first place. Wong thinks the crucial challenge is to channel internal anger and disillusionment into something constructive at the personal — and perhaps community — level.
Wong says that for too long, gay communities have been trying to prove that we are no different from straight people or that we have actually taken the heterosexual norm to new extremes. The former results in all those “I’m straight-acting” profile descriptions on gay411, the latter to the macho muscle-head desperate to distance himself from his nelly neighbour.
Wong finds this sad.
“From the start,” he says, “we did not see ourselves as we really are. We imposed a standard on ourselves that is so high that few of us can attain it. So we struggle not only with being gay in a heterosexual society, but also with trying to be the ideal homo within the gay community itself. And all along, we fail to question the very benchmark against which we judge ourselves: patriarchal, heterosexual society. Ultimately, individual differences are dissolved in this collective pursuit so that there becomes only one way of being gay.”
Deeprose says that the solution to rising HIV rates goes “way, way beyond just wearing a condom or getting tested.” The methods gay men use to cope with our internal rage can render us vulnerable to the virus. Deeprose seeks out alternatives to the typical, commercialized gay scene. Alternatives that are nurturing, uplifting and welcoming to all gay men — not just the straighter-than-straight elite.
“I have done a fair amount of work around healing, both myself and others,” Deeprose says. “It is intensive and requires a great deal of commitment.”