My name is Ash Rehn and I am a counsellor and therapist working with sexuality and related concerns. I’m available for consultations in Sydney and also online. Take a look over the site and contact me to make an appointment, enquire about fees or check my availability.
If you meet with me in Sydney, you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate for face to face appointments at my Surry Hills clinic*.
I’m so worried about HIV I can’t enjoy sex… … every time I say ‘that’s the last time I bareback’, but then I do it again… …I’m thinking about going on PrEP.
Fear of becoming HIV positive remains a significant source of anxiety for many gay men. If you are worried during or after gay sex, talking it over could help.
It’s just over 2 years since I started this blog and today I realized I hadn’t posted anything about a topic that comes up quite often in both my online therapy and Sydney clinic practice: Anxiety around HIV.
I started my professional career talking about sexual health and HIV with gay and bi guys. Over the last 25 years, scientific knowledge about HIV has grown steadily. Accessibility of treatments mean that many gay men now describe their HIV status as ‘undetectable’. Others are using medication like Truvada as PrEP (Pre-exposure prophelaxis) to protect themselves from HIV.
Yet fear of contracting HIV through gay sex continues for successive generations of men. The anxiety experienced by some guys after sex can be debilitating and disruptive to the functioning of their lives. And whether the sex itself is low risk or not, anxiety can still be present.
So why, when there is so much information around about how to have safer sex, do some men experience such anxiety?
Gay Shame and Risk-Taking
In my experience, it’s not only risk-taking that can lead to fears about contracting HIV, shame plays a huge role as well. This is particularly the case with penetrative sex between men. Feelings of shame get in the way of negotiating sex but also in seeking help or support when something risky has happened.
When people feel bad about what they have done, they are more likely to imagine others judging them and less likely to seek out help.
When gay and bisexual men do seek help they might encounter prejudice (yes! Even in Sydney!). Some medical practitioners, and – it seems terrible to write this – some psychologists and counsellors, respond to anecdotes of risk by treating the person as a pathology. Many of my clients have told me they were diagnosed with a sex addiction when their sexual lives did not match up to a professional’s ideas of what was ‘normal’.
Obviously this feeds shame as well.
We make sense of our lives through telling stories to ourselves and others about something that has happened. It helps us to decide what to do next. So when a man cannot talk about the sex he is having, or what he would prefer to be happening, it makes it much harder to make changes. When professionals are judgemental or show a lack of acceptance about gay sex, or barebacking, gay and bisexual men become reluctant to talk.
The Cycle of Worry about Sex
I’ve found this with men of all ages including young guys in their twenties who are starting to have sex and men in their forties and fifties who are coming out of straight marriages. A lot of men try to sort out their anxiety on their own. And it is not uncommon for gay men to cycle through phases: An occasion of sex leads them to worry (a bareback experience, for example), so they decide to be celibate, only to suddenly abandon that when it becomes unsustainable.
While it might seem embarrassing to begin with, talking over your choices with a non-judgemental professional can lead to more sustainable ways of managing your sexual desires. Taking extreme measures might seem the only option but is usually unrealistic. And deciding how to handle different scenarios in advance can leave you free to be in the pleasure of the moment while avoiding the worry that comes with regret.
Advances in HIV prevention mean that there are now more choices available to men who have sex. PrEP, a medication that has been shown to be effective against HIV transmission when taken as instructed, is one way some guys are choosing to protect themselves. But to work out what is right for you, it can be worth having a chat to a sympathetic GP or counsellor.
For more information about my services, or to make an appointment to see me in Sydney or online,contact me.
You can’t live anyone else’s life, just your own. So you have to keep giving yourself what you need on your journey.
The journey out of shame into gay life requires support, knowledge and courage.
During 2015 I’ve worked with a number of men in the process of coming out of straight partnerships (including marriages) and into gay lives and new identity. These journeys can be confusing, frightening and intensely de-stabilising, not only for the men making them but for their partners and families as well. It saddens me that so many psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors have such a poor understanding of what it is like for men coming out later in life and the kind of help and support these men might need.
The opening quote is from a man who made such a life transition, in his words, a journey out of shame. In hindsight, he spoke of the importance of preparing for each step and having the right ‘gear’: skills and knowledge he needed along the way. He also told me that having the opportunity to talk openly with me, without fear of judgement, had provided him the courage to keep going.
At the time of contacting me, this particular man had been besieged by guilt and shame. The first therapist he consulted diagnosed him with a sex-disorder. The ‘treatment’ involved prayer and self-denial- he was told he could not even masturbate! The man’s wife was described as ‘the victim’ which of course made the man out to be a ‘perpetrator’ and only contributed to his sense of guilt. Something that was intrinsic to this man – his attraction to other men – had been constructed as both pathology and sin (bad science and unhelpful religion colluding together!). Instead of welcoming another of life’s transitions, this guy saw himself as being in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
How does such a guy make the journey out of shame and into self-acceptance? My experience working with many gay and bisexual men suggests there are 4 factors that influence how long such a transition might take.
#1. The level of acceptance around homosexuality from a current partner and other family.
A higher degree of acceptance by a girlfriend or wife strongly correlates to higher self-acceptance and less shame by the man going through this transition. It is not always so easy for partners to accept what is happening. When a man takes the courageous step of opening up to his partner about what he wants for his life, it can be met with fear and derision. Some partners, however, say they always knew and are more concerned to maintain a sense of stability for the family.
#2. The strength of connection to, and access to other gay or bisexual men.
The more connection and friendships with other men that guys have, the less shame they tend to experience. The difficulty with this can be that friendships with other gay men so often evolve out of sexual encounters and this can impact an existing heterosexual relationship. So it is worth sorting out what comes first and how connection with other guys is established, particularly if there is an assumption of monogamy in the straight relationship.
#3. The courage and willingness to step out into connection with other gay men and take advantage of the above circumstances.
Even when others accept and welcome the changes they are making, some men are held back by fear of action. Obviously there is sense in talking through priorities and steps involved, but usually at some point fears need to be faced if progress is to be made.
#4. The presence of role models or identifying with other men who are living aspects of a preferred life.
These are strange new worlds for some men. Those who tend to have easier transitions often already know of a gay man they admire or respect who can light the way. It could be someone in the family, at work, a person from the past or even a historical figure who can give a sense that life as a gay man can be good and preferable. Even tv and films can provide useful coming-out stories or role models as inspiration.
Not everyone does or can move forward at the same pace. And there are going to be ups and downs in mood. Having a vision is important and this is something we can work out in online counselling conversations or face to face therapy. The journey out of shame is a personal journey but you don’t have to make it alone. Having a therapist as a go-to person when you are finding it tough can help you to endure the journey. Don’t give up! It can and does get better. And remember, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Is it possible for guys to fall in love? Can two men have a successful relationship? Do gay relationships last?
In my work providing counselling and therapy for gay and bisexual men, clients still ask these questions. That’s a sad reflection on how rarely we see gay relationships depicted in movies and on tv.
But now we have the film adaptation of Holding the Man, which along with Priscilla and The Sum of Us (1994), Head On (1998) and Walking on Water (2002) comprise the few internationally recognised gay Aussie feature films from the last thirty years.
It’s about time isn’t it? After a decade of virtual invisibility we finally have a love story that will (hopefully) get people talking. I reckon that most gay men in their thirties and over in Australia have heard of Holding the Man. We’ve read the original memoir by Tim Conigrave and many have seen the play by Tommy Murphy which has been staged in the Australian capitals as well as in London, San Francisco and LA. Ten years we have a film which is arguably more accessible and potentially of more influence than the book or play. And while most of the mainstream press is presenting the film from a marriage equality angle, I’d suggest they are missing the point. Holding the Man isn’t simply Tim Conigrave’s contribution to the gay romance genre. It is his confessional.
My Tim Story (because everyone’s got one!)
Right now everyone seems to have a story about Tim Conigrave. So I’ll keep mine brief. It’s 1989, I’m twenty years old living on the Gold Coast and a few months into my first professional role. I’m paid to lure gay guys to afternoon teas where I dispel myths about HIV and we chat about safe sex using bananas and condoms as props. Tim and his colleague who run the Fun & Esteem Project at ACON in Sydney have crashed-trained me one weekend along with a bunch of other ‘peer educators’ from across the country. And I’m channeling his presence with men twice my age. He’s a big man who can do both camp and authoritative on a turn. I’m carrying his confidence to conceal my shyness and compensate for my age. And now he is calling me to offer me an interview.
“What you’ve been doing there is really impressive,” Tim tells me over the phone from Sydney.
“But how likely is it I’ll get the job?” I ask.
“All I can say is get yourself down here.”
When you’re twenty, there’s a lot of reassurance and good feeling in hearing this from a man ten years senior. I was a boy from the ‘burbs of Brisbane. Sydney meant sophistication and sex packaged up in rows of terrace houses, beaches, bars and saunas. But I never went to the interview. I had a boyfriend who preferred to stay put. Ironically we broke up shortly afterwards. A few years later I applied again and ended up doing Tim’s job at ACON.
Making Gay Lives Visible
Timothy Conigrave was passionate about social issues as well as performance. His commitment is kept alive not only by these creative works but initiatives like The Institute of Many, a platform for HIV positive people to share experiences. But Holding the Man honours him less by justifying marriage equality than by reminding us of the devastation that public ignorance does to the lives of LGBT people. In this respect it parallels Torka Aldrig Tårar Utan Handskar, Jonas Gardell’s amazing work about HIV in Sweden in the 80s and 90s. On the same weekend that Holding the Man opened in Sydney, the NSW government bannedGayby Baby, a film about same sex parenting. Given what we should have learned about the importance of making LGBT lives visible, that is disturbing.
Aside from dispelling myths and changing attitudes, the significance of Holding the Man is really in the personal story Tim has to tell.
Is it possible for guys to fall in love?
Yes, absolutely, but don’t expect it to always be comfortable.
Can two men have a successful relationship?
Define ‘successful’. Are how will you maintain that relationship when those around you might not understand it? Or when you and your partner want different things?
Do gay relationships last?
Go and see the film and tell me what you think then.
As a counsellor for gay men I am often asked to give my opinion about how to find a boyfriend, gay dating and gay relationship advice as well as support for coming out and help for gay men’s mental health. I’m flattered that many of my clients assume I’m an expert on such matters, but must admit my training and personal experience comes second to the first hand understandings that other gay and bisexual men tell me in our consultations. I’m indebted to these men for offering to let me share their knowledge and wisdom with others. And this post is just that: 10 points to keep in mind when you are single and dating other gay men.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the idea of addiction to Grindr and how some men struggled with their use of apps like Grindr, Scruff, Hornet, Manhunt and Bender. Flirtation and dating involve skills so it is possible to improve over time. No one wants to keep making mistakes. One of my clients, who had experienced many disappointments and much hurt in learning about gay relationships, told me me that self-preservation was key. Here is his advice for gay and bisexual men to survive same sex dating.
10 Personal Rules for Gay Dating
It’s important to have a personal code of conduct, like the Four Agreements or similar which can remind us of how we should behave in a difficult world;
I’m old enough to remember a time when gay dating websites didn’t exist, a time before the Internet itself. There was no option to stay home if you wanted to meet guys. You had to go out. You had to go somewhere. Men met men at dinners, parties and dances, at bars and clubs, at gay sporting and social groups or in parks and public facilities. You were there, in-person, and you showed your interest in other men through your conversation or body language.
Then along came the technology that meant we could sit at home, in front of a computer, carefully crafting our online profiles in the hope we would meet a particular type of man who wanted what we were offering. We could trawl through pages of other hopefuls on sites like Gaydar, Manhunt or Gay Romeo, send messages of interest and wait for responses. These sites promised to match us to other men looking for long-term relationships, sex or friendship. Their chat rooms provided a place to exchange our ‘vital statistics’ and even find a hook-up in real time. A few years later, apps like Grindr and Scruff gave mobility and immediate access to men in our near vicinity. There was no more waiting, the men were often just metres away.
Is Grindr Leading to Gay Promiscuity?
There has always been a diversity of men using apps and dating sites, just as the guys you could meet at a party or in a park ranged across a spectrum from those looking for fast love (i.e quick sex) to those seeking a long-term monogamous relationship. So I think it’s a bit naive to suggest that this technological revolution in gay dating is responsible for a collapse of morality amongst gay men. If you read Larry Kramer’s ‘Faggots‘, written pre-Internet and pre- HIV/AIDS, it’s obvious the same criticisms of promiscuity amongst gay men were being made in the 1970s.
I speak with many men who are disappointed with Grindr and similar apps. The implied promise that there is an online match waiting for them raises their expectations. Some tell me they use several different apps and waste a lot of time hunting for sex or a partner or simply companionship late at night. For some guys this disappointment seems to feed the habit of going online. This was a theme in one of my short stories Hook Up. (You can read it at www.ashrehn.com ).
I know a lot of guys also become disappointed in themselves when they use Grindr. They might start out with an intention of finding a boyfriend and, when the guys they meet appear to only want sex, they settle for just a sex hook up as well because, in the words of one man, anything is better than nothing. But later it can seem like a sort of self-sabotage, and even leave them feeling ashamed. If you have had this experience, let me tell you, you are definitely not alone!
One of my counselling clients – and I share this story with his full consent – told me that accepting Grindr had limitations was a turning point for him.
“I realised that looking for a relationship on Grindr was like expecting to find a prince in a brothel”
He went on to say that it was possible that some princes frequented brothels, but those were not the kind of princes he was looking to meet!
Do Gay Dating Sites Cause Addiction?
Other gay, bisexual and even bi-curious men worry that the frequency of their use of gay dating sites might be a sign that they are suffering from an addiction. These are some of my unhappiest clients. They have tried, repeatedly, to stop using Grindr, sometimes even deleting it from their phones, only to download it again sometime later and then hate themselves for doing so, thinking they have failed. They tell me that despite re-installing Grindr, they don’t want to be using it. They sometimes describe it as a compulsion or obsession. (You can read more of my responses to Gay Mens Sex ‘Addiction’ here).
Don’t panic if this is you. As much as you might be struggling with trying to reduce or even stop your use of dating apps or websites, my experience is that all behaviour is a response to something. People usually have good reasons for the things they do. As convinced as you might be that you are suffering from a serious disorder or altered brain chemistry as a result of your usage of Grindr, Manhunt, Scruff or the others, it is extremely unlikely that you have done yourself any permanent damage or that you cannot recover from what is essentially just a habit. The first step might be recognising there are reasons you use the app and then finding different ways to respond to the same need. That could be something to do with loneliness or isolation or stress or a need for relaxation or adventure or intimacy or companionship. Talking it over in counselling can make the difference.
There are a lot of criticisms of apps like Grindr. They reduce people to ‘things’ or ‘products’. They are a reservoir of offensive statements about skin colour or cultural background or gender performance (“No Xs, no Ys, no Zs!“… you know what I mean). And it can be boring to spend time with someone who is preoccupied with chasing men through his phone apps. But I’ve also wondered whether we are losing some very important skills when we give all our attention to text based engagement with other men. I’m talking about how we respond to kinesics, oculesics, proxemics and haptics (Google these if you haven’t heard of them!). Some might call these ‘flirtation’ skills. I have asked guys in the Grindr generation about the ways in which they ‘sense’ another gay or bi man in their vicinity and the first thing they often do is look at their phone!
Let me be clear that I am not anti-sex or against gay men meeting for sex. But maybe you feel stuck on Grindr or a gay website and you’re not as interested in sex dates as you are in meeting a man for a relationship. One way of kicking the Grindr habit could involve focussing on other ways of engaging with men, in the flesh. If you haven’t done this for a while, or never at all, it might feel scary or too hard. But it gets easier with practice. And you can start with just improving your in-person communication with other guys. Sharing your experiences of simply relating to or conversing with other men can be a way into better relationships. Contact me if you are interested in discussing this further in a counselling appointment.
What are your experiences of using Grindr? Have you kicked a Grindr habit? Or how did you find ways of continuing to use Grindr without it taking over your life?
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The second story is the probably more substantial in its repercussions. (The sad fact is that such homophobic comments from sports commentators in Australia appear to still be somewhat of a norm). Ian Thorpe’s public ‘coming out’ to Michael Parkinson is the story to which I am referring and if you missed it, you must have had a weekend without news!
Ian Thorpe: Part of me didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay.
Social media has been buzzing with opinion about the Thorpedo’s decision. In response, columnist and publisher of Mamma Mia, Mia Freedman, wrote that despite lots of well-meaning protest about Ian Thorpe’s sexuality not being an issue, it clearly was for many Australians. She illustrated this by referring to Taylor’s continued bigotry.
Ian Thorpe has been lying about his sexuality for more than a decade. And we have to ask ourselves why. Did he fear being ridiculed? Did he worry he’d lose the respect or affection of an Australian public who had always adored him? Was he scared it would affect his employment prospects? Did he think his sponsors would abandon him? Was he afraid that he’d be vilified?
The answers it seems, from Ian Thorpe’s interview, are yes, yes, Yes, YES and YES!
I was already living somewhat of a lie in my life because I was trying to be what I thought was the right athlete by other people’s standards. I wanted to make people proud. I wanted to make my family proud and my nation proud of me.
Part of me didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay.
I didn’t want to be gay but I realised everything I was doing, I was still gay at the end of the day. That was most definitely a part of it, then it was that big lie. I felt there was a weight with that. Also people’s reactions. I was scared.”
Counselling for Gay Sexuality: Identity is more than Coming Out
While in my work as a counselling therapist, I regularly speak with men who are attempting to reconcile the weight of public opinion, sports commentator’s homophobic remarks, presumed responses from family members and often even the security of their jobs (these are just a few examples) with making some kind of acknowledgement of their sexual orientation. What they usually want is to be relieved of the burden to keep an aspect of their identity secret. They want to be themselves, without fear. It seems fair enough!
Some of my colleagues and commentators from within gay networks suggest that there is a simple answer to this, that is, to come out of the closet. They make a convincing argument that the challenges faced by LGBTQ people are primarily a result of internalized homophobia and prescribe counselling.
But few people I know ever went into ‘the closet’. It was built around them by others. I couldn’t possibly count the number of occasions growing up gay when I was exposed to comments like those of the aforementioned sports commentator. These comments came from teachers, family members, colleagues, friends, television and radio personalities and columnists in newspapers and magazines. The message I heard coalesced into ‘You and your type are not welcome to be yourselves around us‘.
This effect of this doesn’t simply go away when a law is changed or a new gay character with admirable qualities graces the TV screen or a family member kisses us and says ‘I still love you’ or an Olympic gold medalist swimmer says he is now comfortable telling the world he is gay. Even if the tide of public opinion towards gay men has turned, whenever someone assumes I am straight, I am faced with a decision. Do I clarify in a mini coming-out or do I let it go and remain invisible?
Gay Men in Australia: Coming out and the Heteronorm
It seems to be somewhat of an obligation for gay men in Australia to ‘come out’ these days. And perhaps if it just involved an act of making a single declaration that would change everything, I’d be a convert to the idea as well. But for most gay guys, coming-out is something that doesn’t take place in a single defining moment while making an announcement to parents or an English TV presenter (let’s remember that Ian Thorpe has already done both and more). For as long as we live within the heteronorm, the set of misleading false binaries around gender, sex or sexual expression, those who don’t fit it can look forward to ongoing comings-out.
It is a personal choice whether to share your understanding of yourself and identity with others and it should not have to done with an apologetic tone or as an act of uncomfortable disclosure, as if non-hetero sexual orientation is some kind of crime. If you need help with that, or with navigating your way through to feeling better about your sexuality, you are welcome to contact me.
I do hope that Ian Thorpe’s story helps other men – including sports figures – find ways of living their lives more freely. I look forward to seeing him speaking out publicly, on an episode of Australian Story and I look forward to reading the revised version of the Ian Thorpe autobiography. Sports reporters and others take note: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Let’s quit with the emphasis on ‘Coming Out’ in favour of developing a society that promotes inclusion and values diversity. We could all be inviting others IN instead of insisting or obliging them to ‘come out’.
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When you see the words ‘Coming Out’, what do you think about? These days it usually refers to coming out of the closet, an expression that has been around since the early 1970s suggesting an alternative to isolation, invisibility and shame at having something to hide for those who don’t fit the ‘norms’ of heterosexuality.
People are always talking about the importance of coming out, as if men who are gay or bi or otherwise attracted to other men have some kind of obligation to their peers and society in general to declare their sexual orientation. It also implies sexuality is something innate that can be researched and known and labelled.
This seems to me a tough expectation. Not only are you marked out as different to the norm, you are expected to fully understand your sexuality, embrace it and proclaim it to the world, or at least those close to you.
“Mom, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you… I’m gay.”
By the way, that has to be said with some kind of American accent, because it was the default script accompanying Hollywood portrayals of coming out in the 80s and 90s. If you have no idea what I mean, take a look at when Jack McPhee comes out to his dad in the 2nd season of Dawson’s Creek or the films Doing Time on Maple Drive, Edge of Seventeen or Torch Song Trilogy.
These coming out scenes were always accompanied by high drama (great for the movies), the adoption of an angry or apologetic tone (but what is there to apologise for?) and lots of opportunities for regret and resolution (which also makes gripping television). The treatment of the plot has changed since then, with parents now being depicted as more sensitive and accepting, but the script hasn’t changed much. It often remains an emotional blurt. You can see what I mean in the coming out to parents scenes with Kurt and Burt in Glee (season 1 episode 4) and Marshall and Max in the ‘You Becoming You’ episode of United States of Tara (season 2 episode 4).
Life is Not a TV Scene: Understanding Sexuality Takes Time
Taking this approach when discussing sexuality assumes that coming out for most guys is one pivotal moment, like a tv scene.
Or that everyone comes from kind of family that has such frank conversations.
Think of how long it took you to come to terms with your sexuality. Did you first have to understand it before you accepted it? Maybe you are still in a process of understanding it. What turns us on and how we experience our bodies isn’t something that remains static. For example, some men start off identifying as bisexual and then use other descriptions. But even if you do have more self-acceptance and understanding of your own sexuality than you had previously, did it happen overnight or over time? For most people, making sense of sexuality is something that takes time. Some even describe it as a journey.
Parents and family members often need time to ‘process’ or understand an announcement about their son’s sexuality before they can accept it. Many myths about homosexuality and bisexuality prevail. Same sex love is not so visible in popular culture. Your parents might not understand immediately, it might take some time or even some research. So the ‘announcement’ approach to coming out offers a heap of false promises. If you go into a conversation with an agenda to get acceptance or an expectation of understanding in one scene, you risk derailing their process.
In any case, once cherished descriptions of sexual orientation are starting to break down and becoming more sophisticated. The simple order of straight / gay / bisexual is becoming obsolete. The language people are using to describe sexuality has taken on more nuances to reflect the reality of sexual diversity. These changes happen over generations and often the point of reference for parents is in a different era to that of their children. Misunderstandings can occur because those in conversation are drawing on different models of sexuality, or on ignorance or false information. And believe it or not, sometimes such conversations have parents considering their own sexuality. The assumption that your parent is completely comfortable with her / his own sexuality might require revisiting. There is a famous gay novel with this theme called ‘The Lost Language of Cranes‘ in which a son’s announcement triggers his father to also come out.
There is also a version on film available…
Are you Seeking Your Parent’s Approval to Live Your Own Life?
So if you happen to end up in a conversation with your parents about sexuality, how might you proceed?
Any dialogue requires us to be ‘present’ in the moment, open to listening and hearing what the other has to say, also means listening out for their emotions without jumping into a reaction. At these times, it can help to feel relaxed. How comfortable do you feel with your body? In what ways do you manage your emotions? We can soak up stress from those around us so there is a benefit in remaining calm when the other person is experiencing a stress response. My suggestion to someone who wants to prepare for such a conversation is to learn a meditation practice and breathing techniques to give you more control.
And being comfortable with your sexuality can require some exploration. This raises another point. Do you know why you want your parents to understand and accept your sexuality? Consider this: for some men, the motivation is they are looking for a parent’s approval or permission to move forward.
But do you really need their permission for this?
Aren’t you already an adult with the right and capacity to make decisions about how you enjoy your own body and with whom you are intimate?
Why are you relying on your parent’s blessing or approval to live a life that is true to yourself?
Will it necessarily make any difference if you tell your mother or father about your homo or bisexuality? Some guys assume it will and then discover, having had some conversations about it with a parent, that the same challenges around appreciating their own body, or negotiating pleasure with someone else, remain. For others, a discussion with a parent can help because it is through telling stories that we make sense of our lives. Having an audience to our story can help, particularly if we are stuck in trying to make sense of it on our own, but only if the audience is in a position to listen.
Coming In: Invitations to Homosocial Culture
I believe sexuality is something to be enjoyed, cherished and even celebrated. It is an aspect of being human. It doesn’t require a label or a particular association with others. Yet others can validate and acknowledge it and even enhance the experience of it.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well, All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.
According to research by historian George Chauncey, prior to the second world war, Coming Out had a completely different meaning, particularly in New York City. Back then, gay and bisexual people had different ways of describing themselves and their social worlds. Far from isolated, invisible or ashamed, there is evidence that, in the early part of the 1900s there existed thriving societies of same sex culture. The term ‘coming out’ in those times involved a play on the upper-class tradition of debutantes being introduced or coming out into society. It was more a case of coming-into these homosocial environments where individuals were celebrating their lives and their relationships. Chauncey has documented these societies in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Instead of an expectation on gay or bi men to declare themselves, coming out previously meant an invitation to participate, experience and enjoy sexuality with others.
I first came across the term ‘Coming-In’ while researching community work at an annual international summer camp for men who love men in Sweden. At Sweden’s GayCamp, which welcomes all men regardless of sexual orientation, the aim is the creation of a homosocial society for a week where participants can have freedom from the heteronorm. There is no obligation to ‘come out’ but instead a welcoming atmosphere where attendees are invited into same sex culture and activities including the possibility to tell their stories to an interested audience. This is an opportunity to hang out with and be acknowledged by other men with diverse experiences of loving men. I will be writing more about GayCamp on this blog and look forward to presenting my research into inclusion and belonging practices at the 1st International Conference of Men and Masculinities in Izmir, Turkey, later this year.
Living a life true to yourself instead of the life others might expect of you takes courage. It doesn’t require a proclamation but letting go of hesitancy and inviting others into your world can help. People don’t always understand you at first because they might need time and your understanding. Are you ready to offer it to them?
How do I come out as bisexual? We don’t hear the answers to that question so much, because most of what is written about coming out is from the perspective of coming out as gay. What does it mean to be bisexual? And how does a man start identifying as bi?
I wanted to write something about coming out as a bisexual man. Something that might be inspirational and supportive, not to mention encouraging, of those who are seeking to feel better about their sexuality. I have included some thoughts of my own at the end of this article. But rather than just give my professional opinions, I decided to let the stories of bisexual men speak for themselves. So in the following blog I have linked to some news stories and sites that might be helpful or even offer guidance to bisexual men who want to reclaim their sexuality.
True Stories of Bisexual People
The last couple of years have seen a large number of athletes, actors, singers, writers and other public identities share their private bisexual identities with others. Often the choice to do so has been made in the hope of improving life for other people who are struggling with their gay or bi identities. The men in these bisexual narratives firstly had to come to terms with their sexuality themselves, before announcing it to the world. But I wouldn’t be surprised if sharing their stories also helped them in feeling good about their sexuality.
Conner Mertens was a student-athlete and promising American footballer when he decided to pitch his true story to the world. Apparently he was the first college footballer in the US to come out publicly while still playing.
Clive Davis, renowned producer of recording artists like Whitney, Santana and Kelly Clarkson came out in his memoir ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ last year saying ‘you don’t have to be one thing or the other’.
“I never stopped being attracted to women. Bisexuality is misunderstood; the adage is that you’re either straight or gay or lying, but that’s not my experience. To call me anything other than bisexual would be inaccurate”
Tre Melvin, an American Youtube blogger and comedian with millions of followers came out as bi when he was just 21.
“I’ve spent my entire life, 21 years, living for everyone else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to change myself to meet the standards and expectations of society and I’m tired. I’m tired of caring about what people think and I’m tired of living behind a mask so I’m burning it“.
Famous Men who have Come Out as Bi
Bisexual guys in the public eye are not something new.
And another actor famous for his masculine roles from the 1950s onwards, Marlon Brando, once said “Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed.” His autobiography is called ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me‘.
Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013, was openly bisexual and wrote a song about receiving shock treatment (which obviously did not work) when he was still a teenager. That song is called “Kill Your Sons“. Shortly after Reed’s passing, Mick Wall wrote this biography called Lou Reed: The Life.
Back to present day identities, Mike White who is a film writer (Dawson’s Creek, Orange County) and actor (School of Rock, Stepford Wives) is openly bisexual. He has spoken about how his sexuality inspired Orange County:
“If you substituted `I’m a writer’ with `I’m gay,’ you could certainly see there is a veiled coming-of-age gay story there.”
Standing up for your sexuality takes courage.
Some people are in less welcoming circles than others.
“It is very important to show the youngsters that it is perfectly acceptable and normal to be open about your sexual preferences. I have always been with women. Now, I have met a guy.”
Paranormal investigator Ryan Buell of Paranormal State came out as bisexual in 2010. In his book of memoirs, he talks about his efforts to reconcile his sexual orientation with Catholicism. “I’ve decided to share my sexuality and struggle over faith in hopes that others will no longer feel as though they are alone or that they can’t be religious.” You can buy his book here.
Some of the public identities who are attracted to both men and women have declined to use the term ‘bisexual’ but made it clear that their orientation is not limited just to either men or women.
Another musician, Michael Stipe (REM) has indicated that he is mostly attracted to men but also to women. When AIDS appeared in the 1980s he says he felt frightened. “I wasn’t troubled or confused, but I just felt there wasn’t a place for me. I hate and refuse to apply the term bisexual to myself. It doesn’t seem appropriate. It feels like just another label”.
Descriptions of Sexuality Can Change
The way men describe their sexuality can change over time as well.
In 1994 Billie Joe Armstrong from the band Green Day said, “I think I’ve always been bisexual… It’s a beautiful thing“. More recently he has said he doesn’t want to classify himself as anything. He has said the song “Coming Clean” was about questioning himself. “I think it’s a process of discovery. I was willing to try anything.”
Seventeen and coming clean for the first time I finally figured out myself for the first time I found out what it takes to be a man Well, Mom and Dad will never understand What’s happening to me
“Your sexual orientation does not define you. You are still the boy who forever won my heart. The only thing that concerns me is the number of empty soda cups and tea bottles in your room. Throw them away before ants come inside. I love you always, Mom.”
Bisexuality: It Gets Better
The ‘It Gets Better‘ Campaign on Youtube includes a diversity of people talking about their experience of bisexuality:
These classifications of sexuality have been constructed in particular cultures at particular times and often to help explain phenomena that don’t fit the dominant social ‘norms’. There are no proven genetic tests of sexuality. Same sex orientation and desire is quite natural and nothing new. The labels we use and the way people divide up sexuality changes from culture to culture. On my Forward Therapy site, I have written a post that responds to the questions ‘What is Bisexuality?‘ and ‘How Do I Know if I am Bi?‘. Take a look if you would like to read more about my own perspectives as a psychotherapy professional. You are also welcome to contact me if you are interested in a Skype consultation or email exchange or if you would like to meet in-person.
What are your experiences of bisexuality? Feel free to share them with others in the comments section below…
If you are gay and you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar (often called ‘bipolar disorder’) you’ve probably already been on some kind of medication. A bipolar diagnosis often follows a hospital admission, which can be a scary experience in itself. I’m not going to write about medication or hospitals here, because prescribing meds is not something I do. Instead I’m going to share some of the valuable insights I’ve heard from gay people with bipolar.
Diagnosis and Treatment if you are Gay with Bipolar
But firstly, let’s start with the question of diagnosis. Many gay guys and women worry they might have bipolar. It’s become common for people to research symptoms of mental illness on the Internet and find evidence for self-diagnosis. Keep in mind that Internet research can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: when we think we might have a condition, we are looking for information that proves we do, and we will generally find it unless there is equal or higher level of doubt in our minds.
Changes in mood are part of life and they don’t necessarily mean you have bipolar. However you might still be experiencing severe anxiety or depression. I work with LGBT people who think they might have bipolar or depression as well as those who have been referred to me by their doctors or psychiatrists. And while medication is an accepted part of life for many with bipolar, it’s only part of treatment. Medication on its own doesn’t ‘fix’ bipolar. Doctors are the medication specialists but when it comes to psychology, a mental health practitioner generally has more time and capacity to offer specialist therapy. If you are gay with bipolar (or are the gay partner of someone with bipolar), Medicare rebates are available for up to 10 sessions of psychology per calendar year. I can also refer you to a gay-friendly GPs, so it is possible to have different professionals for the medical and psychological aspects of bipolar.
Bipolar and Homosexuality: Overcoming Judgement and Responding to Gay Discrimination
While there’s no direct connection between bipolar and homosexuality, there are some interesting parallels. People with a diagnosis of bipolar often talk to me about the the way they are affected by judgements (or perceived judgements) and expectations. Sound familiar? This is so often the case for gay and bisexual men and women too. The judgements of heteronormativity are very strong against homosexuality.
And the sense of not fitting in, comparing ourselves to other gay men as well as the practical matters associated with discrimination and abuse against gay people can drive us into depression. If your family are treating you badly or if you are at risk of losing your career because of who you are (or who you love), or you think you might have contracted HIV, for example, it can have a massive impact on your mood. That’s important to remember, because much of the pop psychology and medical model to which we are exposed tends to suggest depression is just an endogenous condition (i.e. it implies depression just comes from within us rather than having external triggers). So people who have been diagnosed with bipolar, and particularly gay men, start to think there is something wrong with them or with their bodies.
Let’s not forget that homosexuality used to be classified as a mental illness. Fortunately those times are over, at least in Australia and other scientifically advanced countries. But the stigma remains for many. Counselling can assist you with things like stress management, communication strategies and problem solving. Having a professional to talk with regularly can be useful.
Advice if you are Gay with Bipolar (or even Coming Out with Bipolar)
Gay people with bipolar have shared a few tips with me over the years I’ve been working as a counsellor.
Because we want people to accept us, we might find ourselves in the position of trying to please others. Trying to meet others expectations and sensing their judgement can put pressure on mood, so bipolar people need to take extra care of themselves.
Once we get too high or really down, bipolar can be difficult to self-control, so there is some sense in moderating the highs and lows. Working out strategies with a talk therapist or counsellor can help us to do this.
It’s probably better not to start or cease medication without some assistance or consultation with a doctor. That way, if anything goes wrong with the chemistry, someone else knows what is going on and can offer support.
Have some routines and rules for yourself. Too much structure can suck the life out of us, but too little can make life unmanageable and overwhelming.
And following on from this: Keep doing the things that make you feel well! Make time to relax! Relaxation strategies can be something you develop in these psychology consultations.
Most people would agree it’s not great to feel out of control (at least not for too often). It might be more difficult to apply focussed psychological strategies during times of mania, hypomania or deep depression but meeting with a counsellor at other times can help ensure these extreme mood shifts are less likely to happen.
Do you have experience with being gay and bipolar? What strategies have you used? What advice do you have for others?
In Sydney, gay party season is upon us. Last week I saw the video for the Mardi Gras Party (that’s the main party, the one that is being hashtagged #theresonlyoneparty on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram).
It’s a cool production – lots of smooth muscular flesh, costumes and glamour set to a kicking n operatic back-beat mashup – and no doubt it captures the excitement and anticipation of getting ready for this year’s night of nights.
Not everyone likes to party. And the video portrays an undeniably youthful scene even though I have noticed a fair number of attendees aged fifty, sixty or seventy plus on the several occasions I’ve been to the Mardi Gras Party. So it would be nice to think that these events are for everyone, regardless of age, in keeping with the aim of SGLMG to be a beacon of diversity and acceptance and LGBTQI rights.
Are you ready? Want to see it? Here it is:
Sydney Gay Mardi Gras: Are You Ready?
Anxiety, Depression and Mental Health: The Other Side of Gay Party Culture
Everyone who goes to parties makes decisions about how they will enjoy themselves. But those looking to have a good time occasionally come crashing down afterwards. These are the other stories about party culture that, as a counsellor, I hear often enough to know that we also need to prepare our mental health for the party season.
It’s important to remember that not everyone at that party is in such a great state of mind when they arrive. Some participants have been having a really tough time of life. They might have recently left a relationship and be struggling with the emotional repercussions of that, or grieving the passing of someone they love. They might have lost their job the same week or have an existing mental health condition like anxiety or depression that is currently affecting them. Some people just don’t feel very good about themselves (many people describe this to me as ‘low self-esteem’) but still try to get out and enjoy their lives nonetheless. And partying can be a way to escape from life’s worries for a time. The trouble is that the come-down can sometimes be difficult to take.
Drug use is virtually considered the norm at dance parties in Australia and the Mardi Gras party is no exception. And every year the party medical volunteers care for those who accidentally overdose, have a bad reaction or take substances that they thought were reliable. If you or someone you know ever has a bad reaction to drugs, seek help immediately. ACON has produced a Partying at Home Guide with some good advice.
Gay Party Hangovers: Coming Down After Using Drugs
Another outcome of the exuberant use of drugs – e.g. alcohol, ecstacy, crystal meth, speed, cocaine, GHB – is that on the days following party weekends, many people experience a significant drop in mood and severe symptoms of depression, anxiety or paranoia. Sometimes these are so bad that they are accompanied by thoughts of not wanting to live or even actively suicidal thoughts. Whether someone has a pre-existing mental health condition or they are just having a bad party hangover, the advice is the same: seek medical help from GP or go to see your counsellor. Don’t delay until the symptoms worsen. It’s important to put a risk management plan in place.
The Mardi Gras Party is a celebration. It’s a celebration of diversity, a celebration of sexuality and liberation. It’s an opportunity to come out and enjoy being who you are with thousands of people who will, hopefully, appreciate your uniqueness. So I’d say it’s a celebration of life as well. Look after yourself and look after your friends this party season. If you are worried about someone, help them to get support and care. That way we can all look forward to partying again together next year.
How do you prepare your mental health for parties? How do you look after your friends? I welcome your suggestions!