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.