Call Me By Your Name: Coming Out with Courage

Elio getting a massage from Oliver in Call Me By Your NameHow do I find the courage to live as a gay man?

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?

Elio and Oliver from Call Me By Your Name in the gardenBisexual? 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.

Elio from Call Me By Your Name looking afraid

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 HIV: Counselling for Gay Men

sign to confession and counsellingI’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.

Journey Out of Shame: 4 Factors Influencing Transition into Gay Life

Unrequited Gay LoveYou 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.

Man in bed with supportive wife or girlfriend

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.

two mates having a drink

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.

Man about to dive

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.

Man meditating on the road

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.

Coming Out to Parents and Family and Coming In to Homosocial Culture

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.

two mates having a drinkPeople 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.

It isn’t.

Or that everyone comes from kind of family that has such frank conversations.

They don’t.

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.

lost language of cranes novel

There is also a version on film available…

lost language of cranes film

 

 

 

 

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.

– from ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ by Walt Whitman 1819-1892

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?

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The following clip comes from Season 4 of the US tv series ‘Ugly Betty’.

 

Coming Out as Bisexual: Extraordinary and Ordinary Stories of Bisexuality

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?

two men and a woman smilingI 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.

Lee Ryan and Duncan James, two of the four guys from British pop band Blue, have now revealed they had consensual sexual experiences with men, and enjoyed them. Duncan has also come out as bisexual.

 

the soundtrack of my lifeClive 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

‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is available on Kindle or as a regular book.

 

 

In 2013, American musician Tyler Carter came out as bisexual in support of a performance venue employee for Image of Tyler Carter tshirtwearing a marriage equality t-shirt. Tyler Carter has his own range of clothing you can buy here. The slogan on one of Tyler’s shirts is “Believe In Yourself”.

 

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.

joe dallesandroJoe Dallesandro, made famous as a sex symbol by Andy Warhol in the late 1960s, has been married 3 times but identifies as bisexual. His most known films are Flesh, Trash and Heat.

 

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‘.

 

loue reed the lifeLou 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.

Also in 2013, 41 year old British Conservative Party MP Daniel Kawczynski told the party he was bisexual. He had split with his wife in 2011.

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.

cover of Ryan Buell book Paranormal StateParanormal 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.

African-American singer-songwriter and rapper Frank Ocean says that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences. While refusing to describe himself as bisexual, he has shared, through Tumblr, that he is thankful for loving a man. Reviewers have called Frank Ocean’s music ‘tender and engrossing’, ‘brave’ and ‘pulsing with electro-soul grooves, vintage jazz-funk’. It’s available here on Amazon.

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

If you want the music for Coming Clean on mp3, you can get it here.

British Olympic diver Tom Daley announced his bisexuality over Youtube. A few months later, he told media he was gay. Here is the video from when he first came out…

Ok, so all these people are in the public eye. Some might say that makes it easier for them to be open about their bisexuality, some might say it makes it harder. But ordinary people who are not celebrities also pluck up the courage to claim their identity. Zach Gibson came out on Facebook last year and received a note back from his mother.

“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…