Sizing Up: When We Compete with other Gay Men in Gay Communities

gay men arm wrestlingGay Community is a hotly contested topic. Many argue it is exclusive and divisive and some even question its existence. How do gay men respond to the expectation to compete with other men?

Recently I wrote of growing up gay in Queensland in the 1970s and 80s. I attended an all-boys school which encouraged us to replicate 1980s Queensland masculine norms of behaviour: aggressiveness, competition, toughness towards each other. It was not exactly an environment where one felt safe or encouraged to show sensitivity, cooperation, support for one’s schoolmates and it did not feel like much of a community. The guys in this video from Glee are dressed quite similarly to the way we had to dress at my school, but the sense of shared fun and safety conveyed is a world away from what I experienced as a 17 year old: a bunch of guys enjoying each other’s company in an atmosphere of inclusion and safety with the new guy being sung to by his love interest. Quite surreal, and it would be fair to say that this would have been one of my ‘dreams’ as a teenager back then:


Gay Men, Anxiety and Belonging

Often I find myself in counselling conversations with gay and bisexual guys who have an understanding of competition between men as something that is genetically or biologically determined. ‘This is the way nature made us, to compete’ they say. When I hear this, I wonder ‘but is this the way you want your life to be?’. In any case, there are examples of cooperation and collaboration amongst animals as well. We have all heard of ‘survival of the fittest’ but it seems Darwin was not just talking about brute force. Recent research indicates that altruism and kindness are also important factors for evolution. Penguins flock together to protect their young and vulnerable against the cold. Meerkats guard each other against predators and various species of apes help others in their group and share without expectation of reward.

Gay identity is a relatively new concept established in the last 40 years or so. Gay people have developed communities over this time that offer them support when they find themselves left out of mainstream ways of living. However there is no question that some gay men find their scenes to be highly competitive, and this goes beyond the question of finding a partner. Sometimes the effects of this competition are described to me as ‘not feeling as good as others’ or ‘feeling less as a person’.  I’ve spoken to men, for instance, who have told me about accumulating huge credit card debt through buying clothes, expensive holidays or cool technology and other accessories so as to fit in with their peers and feel more comfortable in their gay networks. Others have responded to the anxiety of competition by taking drugs to feel more relaxed or ‘part of’ the atmosphere. At at conference I attended in Paris last year, Neal Carnes, an American researcher, spoke of the sense of belonging some gay men achieve through their use of crystal meth.

Exclusion and Competition in Gay Community

Men in large cities like London, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and San Francisco have suggested to me that the competitive aspects of gay mens networks may be more extreme in these metropolises. As a tourist in such places, one might experience adventure, but how is it to live there as a gay man? Are there expectations to wear certain clothes or have a particular body shape or ‘look’ or dance a certain way? One man told me that unless he was regularly ‘manscaped’ (had his body hair removed according to a certain fashion), that he would not be able to find a sexual partner, let alone a relationship. And I have been contacted by a number of men of Indian descent who told me that gay men in Melbourne only like white skin. So the sought after inclusiveness of gay community becomes, ironically, exclusive. Many gay men feel they struggle to meet the standards that a particular gay culture seems to enforce. What started out as a space where we could be free to be ourselves becomes a place of comparison.

What are your experiences of competition between gay men?
Do you have some stories of gay community, or personal examples of cooperation between gay men or men generally?
How have you managed to establish your identity? Through competition, through cooperation or in other ways?

You are welcome to share your thoughts and comments here. If a conversation would be helpful, contact me for an appointment.

Where are the Gay Couples? Looking for Same Sex Love in Australian Pop Culture.

Two Men EmbracingSydney is considered the gay capital of Australia. According to the 2011 Australian census, almost 30% of same sex couples reside in Sydney. And in Potts Point, a suburb in the centre of Sydney, more than one fifth of the couples are same sex. But we still rarely see same sex couples represented on TV, in magazines and advertising. Why isn’t the diversity of gay relationships reflected in popular culture?

The Visibility of Same Sex Relationships

Where I live, in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, there are a lot of gay couples as well, although perhaps not quite as many as Potts Point and Surry Hills (I checked it out: at Bondi Beach, at least 2-4 % of domestic partnerships were prepared to be counted as same sex). Yet in the romantic and sexual visual narratives of the music videos showing at my gym, I only ever see straight relationships portrayed. Any closeness and affection between men, for example, is virtually non-existent in these videos. Men and women, on the other hand, are depicted together across a range of interactions that seem to reflect everything from friendship and companionship, to romantic love, flirtation as well as the obviously erotic.

I’ve nothing against seeing depictions of love, affection, courtship or even sex between men and women in music videos, but it would be great to see some more visual story-telling that crosses the same-gender divide! My guess is that the producers of the music video programmes are either afraid that their advertisers will pull out (due to a backlash from certain viewers) or they are just unaware that they are reinforcing hetero-norms.

But here’s another question: Just how many music videos featuring same sex couples are actually produced?

Gay Sexuality and Gender Diversity in Music Videos

I’ve been lucky to live in Sweden for a few years where there is more representation of same sex couples in advertising and popular culture and more diversity around the performance of gender. Affection between men in Stockholm is not the no-go area it seems to be in suburban Australia. Mainstream films like Patrik 1,5 and broadcasting public acts of intimacy and closeness between men ensures nobody forgets! (Take a look at this Melodifestival rehearsal of ‘Hello Goodbye’ between Erik Segerstedt & Mattias Andréasson)

I can only think of a handful of music videos where I’ve seen narratives of same sex stories or representations of gender diversity, let alone depictions of same sex couples. And most of these could definitely not be classed as mainstream. I’ve posted a few of my favourites here. One high profile music video was ‘Same Love’ by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis which scored a huge number of hits on Youtube in 2012.

Last year Steve Grand released the video for All American Boy, a song about longing for a same sex relationship.

Matt Fishel explores a similar theme in The Football Song.

The video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ might have a few people thinking about the assumptions they make, even if the potential for a same sex relationship is revealed only as a punchline in the final seconds.

And then there is the Cosmo Jarvis Gay Pirates song that made it onto the Triple J Hottest 100 of 2011.

Gay people are everywhere. And seeing affection between men never hurt anyone. I’d suggest that seeing two men embracing in a music video might even affirm our identity. Many of my counselling clients told me that it makes them ‘feel more normal’ when they see other men together in advertising, films, TV and music videos.

What music videos have you seen that have helped you to feel good about who you are? Post your suggestions below!

Growing up Gay in a Straight State

2 men kissingReflecting on childhood experiences is not easy, but sometimes it makes us stronger.

Homosexuality and ‘Poofters’ in the Sunshine State

Even at quite a young age, I knew I was attracted to men. I realise this is not the case for every gay man, that’s just how it was for me. It felt quite natural to be interested in men’s bodies but I knew it was something I could not talk about. I thought it would not be considered acceptable to those around me – my family, friends, teachers, neighbours – in fact an unacceptable thing to mention generally to anyone. And I was right. My childhood and adolescence was spent in Brisbane, the third largest Australian city, in the 1970s and 80s. For these 2 decades, homosexual sex was not only a taboo topic, but outright illegal. No one was talking about it, few were prepared to listen and men expressing love and desire towards each other risked 14 years imprisonment.

Not only was homosexual sex a criminal offence throughout the state of Queensland up until 1990, there were also no mainstream representations of what we might now call gay identity. Those in my extended family, the other kids at my school and characters in the tv shows we watched, referred to ‘poofs’ and ‘poofters’. As a young boy I heard these expressions almost daily. They were insults shouted at those who had cut in front in traffic, taken too long in a conversation at the bottle shop or dropped a pass in the State of Origin rugby. They were also terms of contempt for men who did not dress according to gender norms or wore an earing. They were used to describe both Frank Spencer, the central character of one British comedy series ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (a heterosexually oriented man with mannerisms considered feminine) and Mr Humphries, a character in another called ‘Are you Being Served?’ (a homosexual man whose sexual orientation is conveyed through innuendo and never explicitly confirmed). There were also the many ‘poofters’ who reputedly hung out in toilet blocks or isolated beaches. My teachers, parents and the Courier-Mail continually warned me that these men ‘preyed on young boys’. So homosexuality and child sexual abuse were conflated as a singular reviled form of evil.

Coming Out of a Sexuality of Shame and Loneliness

As a young man, I didn’t identify with either Frank Spencer or Mr Humphries and tried to avoid public toilets whenever possible. I had read the explicit and enlightened advice about sexuality in my sister’s Cleo magazines (thank you Ita Buttrose!) and knew there was nothing physically wrong with me because I was attracted to men’s bodies. But at the same time I had no way of describing my sexuality or who I was. Somehow I knew I was not the only boy who felt the way I did but I didn’t imagine having much else in common with those other boys or men. It felt quite lonely and shameful.

All this started to change when I was 18-19 and began university. There I met other students and academics who referred to themselves as ‘gay’… and ‘bi’ and ‘queer’ and ‘pansexual’ and the list goes on. Previously I’d had no words to explain who I was and no way to connect with others similar to me. The change in my sense of self was sudden and wonderful. Some might describe this as my Coming-Out but I would say that is ongoing. Being ‘gay’ was different to being a ‘poofter’. It gave me access to a new language of identity, an identity potentially free of shame.

I know that this is just my story and other men have different experiences of their sexuality and identity in youth. Do you have a story you would like to share about growing up gay? Contact me

Counselling for Gay Men in Sydney or Online

Photo of Ash RehnMy 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*.

You might like to read more about my background, qualifications and experience. I also offer online counselling and therapy for gay men as a comfortable and convenient alternative to appointments in person.

For a number of years I have offered coaching, counselling and therapy for expats who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

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I look forward to hearing from you if you choose to contact me. Send an email now to get more information about my therapy and counselling services.


*Consultations in Surry Hills are currently available outside business hours during evenings and weekends