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4 min

Testosterone and the gay men who swallow or inject it

The final installment in Xtra’s series on steroid use

Body image and sex appeal: squeezed between two cultures that rank masculinity as a hot commodity, more than one in five gay and bisexual teens are turning to steroids. Credit: Thinkstock

In our series on anabolic steroids and gay men, Xtra looked at why young gay men are more likely to use steroids than their straight peers, and how it might affect their health in the coming decades. So far, we have looked only at illegal, recreational steroid use. Many gay men, however, also take testosterone for medical reasons — from tackling HIV to genetic conditions to old age. In the third and final part of our series, we share their stories as well.

***

In his late 50s, Mike realized he was more violent than he had ever been as a drug dealer.

In his years of peddling to feed his addiction, he never had to resort to violence. At six feet four inches, his mere presence was enough to keep danger at bay.

“I’m a charmer,” he says. “I’m a talker. You make them laugh, you know? You only have to have the appearance of being intimidating.”

So why, then, after hitting rock bottom, after walking away from drugs with the seemingly miraculous help of a psychologist, after getting his real estate business back on track, was he suddenly so angry all the time?

“I was like a grizzly bear,” he says. “You came near me or you stepped on my paw or you said something to me the wrong way, I’d snap. It was irrational. It’s a horrible way to be.”

A flyer came in the mail: “Do you have these symptoms?” He checked them all off, then crumpled it up and threw it away. The next week another came.

“It was like someone was trying to tell me something,” he says.

That someone was a doctor, soon to become Mike’s GP, who diagnosed him with low testosterone. After running a few blood tests, he put Mike on a regimen of 100 milligrams a week.

“My attitude changed immensely,” Mike says. “My family started to like me again. And I haven’t been charged with homicide.”

On testosterone, he regained control of his temper and his life. He was able to strip away some extra weight at the gym. Mentally, he felt sharp. Physically, he felt back in his 20s.

“To be honest with you, with the way it keeps me mentally, I’ll probably stay on it for the rest of my life unless my doctors tell me no,” he says.

Mike worries sometimes about the health effects of testosterone injections, but his doctor — like many experts in the field today — says that low doses are relatively safe. His injections are a tiny fraction of what a bodybuilder might use.

And for Mike, testosterone prevented a much darker fate. “There’s nothing worse than being a grumpy old bugger,” he says.

***

Murray, a retired teacher, remembers how steroids saved his life, and then almost killed him again. He was working in London when he was admitted to hospital with blood leaking into his brain. He had HIV, and his platelet count was so low he was hemorrhaging. The only thing that would save his life, a doctor told him hurriedly, was to raise his platelet count quickly. The only thing that would do that was a massive shot of steroids — larger, Murray says, than his nurse had ever seen.  

The shot worked but created problems of its own. Murray also had diabetes, and the waves of testosterone coursing through his veins sent his blood sugar into uncontrollable loops. One moment he would be violently ill, the next semi-conscious. For the next week, he checked his blood sugar every 15 minutes and took insulin six times a day.

Murray does not remember steroids fondly. “They are really horrible shit,” he says. “I think people who use steroids recreationally are really setting themselves up for a lot of problems. Like, if you have diabetes, I mean, you go blind. You lose your feet. You die.”

***

David, a hotel night manager in Ottawa, has soared and dived on a testosterone roller coaster his whole life. At 27, he was diagnosed with Klinefelter syndrome, a genetic condition caused by the unusual combination of two X chromosomes in addition to one Y chromosome. The extra chromosome comes with a host of challenges, including arthritis, poor coordination — David was never much of an athlete — and, most importantly, low testosterone.

His first testosterone capsules gave him the first hair on his chest and face, along with some disturbingly wild dreams. He took the capsules for seven years but then lost his extended health plan. No sooner had he stopped taking the drugs but his personality swerved for the worse.

“I had a lack of self-esteem,” he says. “I wasn’t assertive. I was in a bad relationship. I was in my first gay relationship, and I allowed a man who was a little bit older than me to use me as his punching bag.”

David fell into depression and gained 100 pounds. His wakeup call finally arrived when he discovered his partner had been sitting on a latent syphilis infection for two years. He left, got a new job and started taking his medication again.

His personality reversed. He became more confident, more dominant and more reckless. He switched from bottom to inveterate top. “There’s nothing passive about me anymore,” he says.

His new hormones have also made him firmly non-monogamous.

“Because of the testosterone, I don’t think there’s a man out there who could take the amount of sex I require,” he laughs.

Even though his shots are for a medical condition, David doesn’t tell his friends, or even the front-desk staff at his clinic, what he’s injecting into his thigh every week. They think he’s taking B-12 vitamins. A tacit silence surrounds testosterone, he has found, from his nurses to his doctor.

“I’m not sure why the stigma, to be honest,” he says. “You’d think a guy my age getting testosterone shots would be a normal thing, but it’s always been that way.”

Although he dislikes the stigma, when David read Xtra’s coverage of young gay men using steroids, he was shaken.

“Tell the young men that they don’t know what fire they’re playing with,” he says.