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*.
That’s a good question and it might even be one of the questions Elio is asking himself at the end of the gay love story that is now a film, Call Me By Your Name.
(Caution: this post contains spoilers for both the film and the book of Call Me By Your Name. If you haven’t seen the film yet you might want to do that before you read the rest of this article about coming out with courage.)
Anyone who has met me knows how passionate I am about gay literature and how much I enjoy films with LGBTQ+ themes. In providing therapy for gay men, I often find myself making suggestions for viewing gay films or books. I’ve read both the book by André Aciman and seen the film directed by Luca Guadagnino and I recently posted enthusiastically about them on my Patreon for gay fiction. Aside from simply being yet another story to make our lives more visible, what I appreciated about this film was the way it portrayed courage, being authentic and coming out.
Elio (actor Timothée Chalamet) at 17 is realising he is in love with Oliver who is 24 but comes across as more mature, somewhat arrogant and decisive, but restrained emotionally (played by 30-something Armie Hammer). Oliver seems at first disinterested in anything but intellectual engagement. But as young Elio takes more risks in declaring his desire, Oliver literally embraces these advances (the film contains kissing and some sex scenes but the book presents their romance much more erotically). Who doesn’t want, at least once in life, the experience of falling in love? But how do we find the courage to take steps into the unknown, perhaps risking rejection, so that our love might be acknowledged and possibly reciprocated?
Who doesn’t want, at least once in life, the experience of falling in love? But how do we find the courage to take steps into the unknown, perhaps risking rejection, so that our love might be acknowledged and possibly reciprocated?
Bisexual? Afraid? Love My Way.
Chalamet’s Elio is infatuated, Hammer’s Oliver more dispassionate and then ambiguous. He might be bisexual. He might be afraid. We don’t really know because he doesn’t want to risk showing himself (the end of the book projects us forward twenty years to give us a better idea of what was really happening for Oliver at the time, but I’ll leave that for you to discover).
If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter, says Elio. What things that matter? replies Oliver. You know what things.
Both Elio and Oliver feel somewhat constrained by assumed cultural and family expectations (they are both Jewish) but their hesitancy in pursuing the relationship is different. For Elio this is a coming of age. His lack of experience due to his age induces passivity even though he knows he is experiencing one of those things that matter. Oliver who, despite dancing with abandon to the Psychodelic Furs song Love My Way, won’t allow himself to step into anything more enduring than a summer romance with Elio, chooses instead to marry a girlfriend he has not even mentioned and embarks on a different life course altogether. Is it bisexuality or is it fear?
It can often feel harder for men with established lives to find the courage to come out or face the things that matter. Shame about being gay can hold men back from living authentic lives. The fear of HIV for those who grew up in the 80s still has some men trapped in unhappy celibacy. Coming out in midlife presents particular challenges. But the common experience here is living with authenticity and being true to yourself.
Authenticity, Courage and Therapy for Coming Out
One of the most tender scenes in the film is the monologue at the end by Elio’s father. Let me say one more thing, says Mr Perlman. It will clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way.
Let me say one more thing. It will clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way.
Was Mr Perlman, Elio’s father, also gay? Here the story resounds with David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes, another father coming out to a gay son.
Authenticity takes courage. And it can also take work. We might feel uncomfortable, not know what to do and be reluctant to take the steps to change our lives. But the rewards of taking these steps and making change are waiting: freedom, growth, energy and the opportunity to find a gay relationship, just to give a few examples. Remember our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once, says Mr Perlman.
Counselling and therapy for gay men can help them find their courage. If you would like to have a conversation about authenticity, coming out to family or courage, contact me now and together we can work through the next steps forward.
Fear of rejection is a common reason gay men seek counselling, and rightly so. No one wants to feel like he is ‘not good enough’ or ‘not as good’ as others.
And feeling inferior can lead us to withdraw from the world, to escape or overcompensate. We end up making twice as much effort just to fit in. And yet we still feel damaged, defective or deficient in some way, never quite meeting the standard we think others expect, imagining they are judging us adversely for who we are. How can we overcome these feelings of shame and fears of rejection?
The Origins of Gay Shame: Velvet Rage or Straight Jacket?
I’ve no doubt that, for most gay men, this sense of inadequacy is rooted in the emotion of shame associated with gay sexuality and identity. In his highly celebrated book The Velvet Rage, Alan Downs centres shame as the primary driver of destructive behaviour for gay men. He offers some useful ‘lessons’ for us in how to live a more authentic life. However I don’t think he puts enough emphasis on the way gay shame is constructed in our schools, workplaces, communities, by media outlets and through political processes and decisions (just to name a few). We can’t really address individual shame without connecting the dots back to our shared journeys as gay men.
We’ve all had experiences of being excluded or feeling different. Attitude magazine’s Matthew Todd has written about this in Straight Jacket: How to be Gay and Happy. He calls it a shame that has been inflicted upon us. Let’s not fool ourselves by thinking shame simply comes from ‘within’. It’s something we learn while growing up. We are conditioned and programmed into feeling gay shame and that conditioning and programming continues into adult life. And despite these shared experiences of exclusion and rejection, gay men compete for validation, often participating in shaming and rejection of each other. If you are familiar with the culture of Grindr and other ‘dating’ apps, you will know what I am talking about. Gay men can be mean to each other!
How Gay Shame can Sabotage Therapy
One of the most fulfilling aspects of my career is being present with other gay or bisexual men, as well as men who are questioning their sexual orientation, as they unpack the impact of gay shame in their lives. Gay men choose me in the hope I will offer more understanding than the straight woman they saw for CBT or the straight man who sat silently analysing them. They find my webcam counselling services while researching Grindr addiction or gay porn dependency. Or they Google gay therapist in Sydney or their gay friend recommends me. Some are referred by their GP under the Medicare Better Access provisions. In any case, they tell me it’s a relief to have found a counsellor who is gay. They want to be honest about the anxiety they feel around other gay men or their struggles with depression or meth use or isolation. They want to talk about the sexual risks they are taking or body dysmorphia or their HIV diagnoses or loneliness. And they are pleased that we can dialogue together. They are happy I’m not just going to sit and listen and that we are actually going to have a conversation.
This is a good start, but sometimes shame can undermine therapy. If the primary way in which you interact with other men is through dating apps, you might strongly associate gay men with feelings of suspicion or distrust. You go looking for affirmation or validation, and what you get is rejection. And at some point after the initial relief of finding a gay therapist, the reality that you are talking with another gay man kicks in. Can you really trust this guy? Is he everything he claims to be? Is he even qualified? What’s to stop him rejecting you as well?
In a recent article, The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness, Michael Hobbes says that gay men are primed to expect rejection. And I see this start to happen in the therapy space as well. It doesn’t help that the medical model positions therapists as experts who will assess, diagnose and treat your problems, minimising your own role in recovery or treatment. Men often enter therapy expecting that I will judge and diagnose them, telling them the ways in which they are defective and then fixing them. They are primed to both being judged and judging in return. They charge me with the responsibility but then question my authority and capability, suspicious of my intentions or expertise or qualifications. I am, after all, just another gay man! At this point it is important to ask: To what extent might your self-criticism and previous bad experiences with gay men be affecting your trust in the therapy and gay therapist?
Self-Compassion for Gay Men: Using Mindfulness to Overcome Shame, Rejection and Overcompensation
We don’t qualify our way out of shame. Doing that is called overcompensation. Most of us are familiar with trying to overcome feelings of inferiority or fear of rejection by putting in an extraordinary effort or being above reproach. Many gay men deal with feelings of insecurity by aiming to be beyond criticism. That might involve hours at the gym trying to create a flawless physique, climbing to the CEO position or racking up credit card debt on designer clothes. In other words, the biggest critic is often oneself.
My approach is to gay shame is informed by mindfulness practices and Buddhist psychology principles as well as the work of self-compassion researchers such as Dr Kristin Neff from the University of Texas. It involves practising particular ways of relating to yourself and often requires shifting your self-perception. It isn’t a ‘trick’ I can give you and it isn’t just making yourself feel good. Changing your relationship with yourself requires cultivating awareness and requires you take specific actions. Your treatment is not the therapist’s responsibility alone, it is a collaborative effort. Above all it involves practices of goodwill towards yourself and others.
Make a start by researching your therapist or counsellor and then committing to the process. Medicare provides up to 10 rebates per calendar year for focussed psychological strategies. If you are meeting online over webcam, it works better to start with regular sessions no more than one or two weeks apart. The first session is an opportunity to ask questions and have doubts clarified. Take care if you notice persistent doubt, suspicion or guardedness within yourself. To what extent might these be a reflection of the shame or self-loathing that actually brought you to therapy?
Secondly, don’t assume friendliness on the part of your therapist implies an absence of expertise. Friendliness, kindness and goodwill is part of the treatment. If we are going to transform our relationship to ourselves from one of shame to one of love, support, comfort and patience we need to actively value ourselves and each other. We need to start practicing positive self-regard and positive regard towards others.
Finally, don’t let gay shame undermine your therapy. Gay identity can be a significant source of stress but it’s also a means to connect with other men. Nico Lang writes that if we don’t celebrate gay happiness, we only make the loneliness epidemic worse. Don’t let the fear, suspicion and judgement that brought you to seek help sabotage your efforts to receive it. Your counsellor is here to work with you, not against you. However isolated you are feeling, you are not alone.
Sonia Kruger (an Australian ‘personality’) stirred up social media this week by appearing on national television and condemning targetted scholarships for young people who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Kruger claimed the scholarships were being awarded because of ‘sexual preference’.
… I don’t think it should have anything to do with the awarding of a scholarship. I think a scholarship should be given on merit. – Sonia Kruger
There was plenty of agreement on Facebook, even pages like QNews:
I don’t think getting a scholarship because you are lgbti is ok at all, they should be earned academically.
I agree with her 100% what does sexuality have to do with anything?
LGBT Scholarships: Whose Business is it Anyway?
No one has mentioned something glaringly obvious. The Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN) which is offering the scholarships is entirely funded by business. This isn’t the taxpayer’s money we are talking about, it’s private money raised by the ABCN through member fees and donations. So essentially it’s up to them how they spend it. It’s none of Sonia Kruger’s business!
The ABCN is a not-for-profit organisation that connects business with disadvantaged education through mentoring and partnership programs. Members include companies like PWC, Commonwealth Bank and EY who are generally known for their support of LGBT employees. But that’s not the point. Imagine you and a few mates formed a club to raise money for a particular cause and then someone from outside your club started banging on about what you should and shouldn’t do with the money. Mostly the response would be ‘mind your own business!’ (smiley face optional).
No one seems to have said this to Kruger yet. But in her line of work, it matters little what she says. The celebrity business is highly competitive and the goal for any ‘media personality’ is to be seen and heard, so we can’t really begrudge her for having a rant when she gets a spot on the Today Show can we? It’s just a shame she had to be so mean-spirited in the course of furthering her career.
The ABCN Scholarship Foundation is offering a number of year 10 students $7000 each over their senior school years and the first year of uni in addition to a mentor and travel expenses. I wasn’t able to see how many scholarships were on offer this year, but 41 scholarships have been offered since they started in 2013 so my guess is it’s between 10-15 that are available. Contrary to the myth that now seems to prevail, they aren’t just for LGBT students but exceptional students facing economic, family or social challenges. Five (yes, only 5) are targetted: 1 to an indigenous student, 1 to a female student in Victoria, 1 to a student from a refugee background, 1 to a student who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex (LGBTI) and 1 to a student from Western Australia (it begs the question why Kruger doesn’t have it in for ‘Sandgropers’ as well?).
According to the invitation from ABCN, students selected for targeted scholarships must also meet the primary criteria for a scholarship. So we are talking about just one of a number of scholarships here. And it IS being awarded to a young LGBT person with academic merit. The danger is that, when dumbed down for viewers of morning TV, an opportunity to publicise these important scholarships gets derailed into yet another act of gay bashing by a celebrity desperate for airtime.
Karl Stefanovic knows how to – to use a Swedish expression – ‘do a poodle’. He’s a celebrity who can say something offensive about transfolk then claim the spotlight again by rolling on his back and apologising. Offensive but crafty. Kruger tends to just move on, so if she follows the pattern she is establishing, the next soft target will be just around the corner. Before it appears, let’s debunk a few myths…
Scholarships are often Targetted at Particular Groups.
Scholarships should be awarded on merit only.
I saw several comments like this on Facebook and some of them came from gay-identifying people.
Scholarships are only awarded if you are exceptionally great at what you are studying, not because you think you should be entitled to one because you have had a hard past.
Not true. Even if it was public money being used, which it is not, these comments reflect ignorance about scholarships. It is commonplace to award scholarships to those whose background has disadvantaged their access to academic opportunities. Most universities in Australia award targetted scholarships including, for example, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) which offer scholarships to students with disabilities, women students, indigenous students and those from regional areas.
Sexual Identity is not Sexual Preference.
To ask a student if they identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual… you are asking somebody about their sexual preferences and I find that that’s a really odd thing to do… – Sonia Kruger.
This is a common error for (some straight) people discussing LGBT concerns. Unfortunately some do struggle when the question of identity arises. Perhaps it conjures images of nudity or pleasure that can only be imagined? But your identity and the details of the sexual activities you enjoy are not necessarily the same thing. There are many young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bi or trans who may not have had any sexual experience but they still know who they are. To ask a young person how they identify is not to pry into their sexual habits but to acknowledge and dignify the person.
Gay People Still Experience Discrimination.
Isn’t affirmative action for gay youth twenty years too late?
No, it isn’t. Some of us might live in a gay bubble but I’ve spoken to many LGBT people who continue to experience similar bullying, threats and violence to that which I experienced growing up in Brisbane in the 1980s.
Someone else wrote:
If LGBTIQ people want equality then they should be treated the same as anyone else in society.
Hell yeah! The problem is, we are not treated the same, are we? In Australia, it’s still possible for a gay teacher at a private school to be sacked if it becomes known they are in a same sex relationship. You can still be refused access to your partner in a hospital which is under a religious auspice. It’s still impossible for same sex couples to access the most common legal contract available to heterosexual couples under Australian Commonwealth Law (it’s called ‘marriage’). And if you are in a same sex relationship in this country, you do not have the same property rights or automatic inheritance provisions as you do in a heterosexual relationship. In some states, you cannot jointly adopt children. Yes, LGBT people SHOULD be treated equally in Australia, but they are not. And perhaps that is one of the reasons why this charitable organisation is targetting a scholarship to LGBT young people.
If you are a young person or know of one who might benefit from a scholarship, the Pinnacle Foundation also provides them to LGBTQI young people 16-24 years of age. (By the way, if you have got this far and are still antsy about young LGBT people being offered scholarships, the Pinnacle Foundation relies on donations and corporate sponsorship as well, i.e. no taxpayer dollars were used in their generosity)
To create a society based on principles of inclusion and diversity, we have to be prepared to support those values. I applaud both The Australian Business and Community Network and the Pinnacle Foundation for the important work they are doing to assist LGBT young people to achieve their goals.
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 Holding the Man 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?