Thursday night’s Together Alone event in Vancouver, a community conversation about gay male loneliness felt anything but lonely with more than 100 men in attendance. Though loneliness was the subject of the evening on June 8, 2017 at XY, panellists and audience members made it clear that loneliness among gay men isn’t necessarily about the number of friends you have or whether you attend social functions — it’s much more complex.
The discussion was co-sponsored by the UBC Men’s Health Research Program and the Health Initiative for Men (HIM), and was sparked by writer Michael Hobbes’ Huffington Post article “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” which struck a chord with queer men around the world when it was published earlier this year.
“This issue was hiding in plain sight for quite a long time,” Hobbes told the audience.
Hobbes’ article explores the fact that despite the rapid advances in gay rights and broader social acceptance, gay men are still more likely than their straight counterparts to take their own lives, have a major depressive episode, suffer from anxiety, abuse drugs or alcohol, or have risky sex.
“We are in the midst of a crisis. This is a real crisis,” he said, citing research that found suicide among Canadian gay or bisexual men results in more deaths than HIV.
“All of us go through the closet with damage that’s profound but also invisible,” he added. “It was only when I started interviewing people for this story that I realized, ‘Oh. I’m still carrying that.’”
Hobbes was joined on stage by Travis Salway, a researcher at the BC Centre for Disease Control; Brian O’Neil, former professor at UBC’s school of social work; Darren Ho, Mpowerment program manager at YouthCO; and Aaron Purdie, a registered clinical counsellor and program manager at HIM.
Among Purdie’s roles at HIM is conducting intake interviews, and he says he quickly discovered that when asking “Do you feel lonely?” the answer was invariably “Yes, and it’s pretty bad.”
“That happened whether they had a partner, that happened whether they had several partners, that happened whether they were alone, whether they hadn’t had sex with someone for several years, whether they were hooking up almost every night,” he says. “That feeling of loneliness is omnipresent.”
Vancouver in general has a reputation for being lonely, a city in which people can be cold and friendships difficult to forge. In 2011, the Vancouver Foundation learned that a growing sense of social isolation was one of the most pressing issues identified by area residents.
“I’ve been here for 14 years and it’s been extremely hard to make connections and make friends,” says audience member Otto Von Bischoffshausen. “I used to connect with so many men when I was in South America and then I come up here and I’m invisible.”
Salway, whose research focuses on whether specialized health clinics can address unmet mental health needs of queer adults, has not compared data between cities so he can’t say whether or not Vancouver’s gay men are experiencing loneliness at a higher rate than other Canadian urban centres.
“What we’re seeing locally is, as with other places, we’re seeing high rates of these markers of struggles associated with loneliness — things like depression, suicide — but really just not the level of health services that we need to address it,” he says.
In response to the Vancouver Foundation’s findings, in 2012 the City of Vancouver launched its engaged city task force to enhance how the city engages with citizens and to enable community connections at the neighbourhood level.
Salway says cities can definitely play a role in creating opportunities for people to come together and address some of gay loneliness’ root causes.
“We need more spaces where we can have groups or counselling or we can get people more connected to different forms of healthcare that are meeting their needs,” he says. “I think what the city of Vancouver is doing to invest in the new LGBT centre is fantastic. I think that’s sorely needed and couldn’t come a minute sooner.”
Audience member Michael Ianni expressed a desire for more spaces where gay men could meet that aren’t centred around alcohol consumption or sex.Hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff have arguably made it easier than ever for gay men to connect and meet; however, the question of whether they alleviate or exacerbate loneliness generated much discussion at the event.
According to Ho, who coordinates the Mpowerment drop-in program for youth who identify as gay, bisexual, or queer, while a small number of guys are able to use mobile apps to meet people and make friendships, for most it simply isn’t enough.
“What we find is guys do have experiences going online and using these apps but they come [to Mpowerment] because they want the physical, face-to-face, in-real-life connections,” Ho says.
Some audience members shared experiences of the discrimination they’ve encountered through such apps — “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” — and the sense of alienation it creates. Several pointed to a study from Hobbes’ article that found 90 percent of gay men interviewed wanted a partner “who was tall, young, white, muscular and masculine” and how such ideals perpetuate loneliness in the gay community.
“I wish I had a cure for this or to make us less looks-focused,” Hobbes says. “This idea that if you’re not physically attractive to me you’re somehow worth less is really pernicious, and I think a lot of that does come from the fact that we’re interacting with each other in a primarily sexual way.”
As the eldest member of the panel, former social work professor Brian O’Neil, described coming of age at a time when same-sex sexual relations were still criminalized, and how “that does kind of shape your life and you don’t just forget about that.”
This sentiment was reflected in Hobbes’ article — how the passage of same-sex marriage laws or the appearance of positive gay role models on TV still haven’t been enough to shake the daily stresses the come with living as a minority or the lasting impact of being in the closet, no matter how many years ago that may have been.
Like Hobbes, none of the panellists had a prescription for how to cure gay loneliness, but if the event’s turnout is any indication, there is an eagerness among gay men in Vancouver to address this issue and work towards its solution.