Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Email from a gay adolescent en pleine crise existentielle

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a young gay reader who's currently living in the USA:

Dear GB,

I would imagine that you are becoming a bit fatigued by this type of letter, but I have a situation that is not too unlike that of the previous emailer in existential crisis: I'm an even younger gay man and I feel like all the paths in my life are dead ends because of my inability to reconcile my sexuality with my upbringing... I would really appreciate any insight that you could offer...

How to unveil the particularities of my, well I'm graduating very soon from a top-tier Ivy League university with multiple degrees (social science, language, maths). My youth in Manhattan was one of private ballet classes, Japanese calligraphy lessons and weekend Paris trips to study "the trauma of Haussmannization" while reading Baudelarian poetry,etc.; I also had a long music career that ended with diplomas in piano and violin performance from a prestigious New York school at the age of seventeen. At present, I speak six languages fluently (English and another four European, plus Japanese), and a number of others conversationally. I would imagine that I come from a relatively wealthy background; in addition to their equity holdings, my parents own outright a portfolio of properties of high standing in Manhattan, San Francisco, South Ken and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

When I'm not summoned to my parents' place in London, I spend my free time roaming around Paris and Milan, raiding the boutiques on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Gucci, Via Monte NapoleoneVia Monte Napoleone. Afternoons are passed reading Proust, drinking café crèmes, smoking like a fiend, managing my stock portfolio, and composing literary criticism. My close friends (and there are few) are wealthy New-Yorkaises, Parisiennes, and Londoniennes -- that is to say, all female cosmopolites (who will one day marry rich, successful men). I am described as tall, "beautiful", and having a quasi-anorexic frame; in my rather limited experience, I have found that I almost exclusively attract men who seek to dominate me sexually.

With regard to my future career, I feel rather lost. (I should add here that I just had my twentieth birthday.) My father worked for an investment bank in New York and my only sibling runs a London-based hedge fund. I've been considering banking as a career path, and although I find the work interesting enough, I don't know if it will provide me long-term personal fulfillment. (I also have serious hesitations as my homosexuality, physique, and effete nature will certainly limit how far I can go in that realm; your previous posts have been revelatory in this regard.) That said, I do want to be financially independent at some point, and I know that this is the only way for me to do it while maintaining an acceptable standard of living.

And so, despite what appears to be an ideal life filled with literary creation, clandestine sexual escapades with New York firemen, and large-scale consumption of luxury goods, the paradox I confront on a daily basis is that I detest the background that gave me my privileged existence.

I strongly reproach my parents for having raised me improperly; thanks to them, I know next to nothing about popular culture and at this point, do not think that I will ever be able to assimilate into it. It is therefore difficult for me to make friends who do not come from similar milieux. As such, I have *no gay friends* -- gay people my age from similar backgrounds tend to stay hidden in the closet, daring only to peek out every once in a while. Worse, my sexuality makes it impossible for me to integrate into the traditional European and American social worlds to which my parents (and my girlfriends) belong. I am on the periphery of society both sexually and socially...what should I do to make sense out of my life? Would banking be the right decision for me, or would I be better suited to academia or to government? Should I seek out men in their thirties for a relationship?

P.S. I absolutely adore your blog, even though the level of sexual promiscuity sometimes disquiets me. The disintegration of your relationship with boyfriend #1 provokes me to think that my dream of one day loving and being loved ("aimer et être aimé") is unrealizable as a gay person in the 21st century.

Without doubt, I thought that this was one of the most beautifully written emails that I've ever received. However, the reader's level of accomplishment with e.g. six languages spoken fluently and multiple degrees seemed almost impossible for someone who's only just turned 20 years old, so I had doubts about the authenticity of the story.

As a result, I ended up exchanging several emails with this reader, and I also forwarded the email to the wealthy young guy who sought my advice recently when he was unsure about his future. Unlike me, he didn't have any big doubts about the reader's achievements, although he was jealous of the sexual escapades with New York firemen! However, he went on to say:

I do understand his concern. As a man of 20, I was exclusively closeted. I'm still not "out" in the raving queen sense now either. I am, at least, rather straight acting, and keep my sexuality to myself at work. Friends that I care to tell do know. He will probably find, like me, that men get a lot better as they become more secure in their footing, however, and he should look forward to finding things easier as he gets towards 25 than worse. Seeking men towards 30 is not a bad idea, but my experience is that this is hard. A lot of serious and successful older guys of that age will (from my experience) have reservations about committing time and effort to someone so young. Further, marrying a rich man is fine, but I don't believe even he expects any of his girlfriends will be that happy.

As for career. Tell him to do what motivates him. I actually enjoy my life. Work has become a lot better over the last two to three weeks as I realise why I do it - i.e the fact that it gives me validation - respect from my peers, a sense of purpose, independence - which is much better than the validation we get from sex or shopping!

I also sent the reader an email querying his achievements, but his answers raised even more questions in my mind, so in the end I've decided not to worry about authenticity. One thought is that perhaps the reader defines language fluency at a lower competence level than me. But in any case, I have met a few geniuses in my life, so I know that extremely talented people like this do exist. If they're gay and from a wealthy background too, I would expect them to write emails exactly like this reader did.

So what advice can I give this reader? He can't reconcile his sexuality with his upbringing, he feels lost in terms of his future career, he detests his background, and doesn't know what to do to make sense of his life!

Focusing on career to start with, I feel that banking would be a mistake. At the moment I think he's too sensitive to thrive in that environment. He saw the full response that I got from the wealthy young guy to whom I forwarded his email, and some of the things that were in the response upset him. But given that he's got multiple degrees and fluency in six languages, an academic or government career could suit him. But whatever career path he chooses, he needs to find projects that genuinely challenge him, so that success will give him the validation that the other wealthy young guy gets from his career. His language abilities strike me as outstanding, especially being fluent in Japanese, but just relying on those skills (e.g. by becoming a translator of some sort) would be a mistake because it wouldn't challenge him. Finding an appropriate career which allows him to make his own way in the world will help him come to terms with his privileged background.

However if he really wants to grow up and change his life for the better, I think he should do something a bit more radical. He implies that since early childhood he's been in full time education, but that's coming to an end soon, so now would be a good time to take a year out and do something different. Travelling around the world on the cheap would be good, perhaps staying in youth hostels. He could learn even more languages :-). Wat Xieng Thong temple, Luang Prabang, Laos Another idea would be volunteering to do some kind of charity work somewhere for a year, something like Community Service Volunteers that we've got in the UK but perhaps he could find something abroad. Hopefully he'd be a bit less sensitive after that kind of experience. Or head off to Laos and take a course in Massage therapy. I'm a big fan of Laos because when I visited in 2005, I got the impression that in general the people there are very spiritual and emotionally sorted. Since he's only 20 years old, any career that he may choose can wait, especially because he's not sure what direction to go in. It was good advice that Trevor gave the previous wealthy young guy who emailed me, namely to do something every day which scares you.

This advice would apply if this reader was straight. The fact that he's gay is a further complication, but I think that he should first come to terms with his upbringing and background before worrying about that. He says that he almost exclusively attracts men who seek to dominate him sexually, although he doesn't say whether he enjoys that or not! In any case, he should be much more optimistic about finding a guy to fall in love with one day. I also wouldn't say that my relationship with boyfriend number 1 is disintegrating. I'd say that it's changing, that we still love each other, but just because we love each other doesn't necessarily mean that a boyfriend-boyfriend relationship is correct for us at this stage in our lives.

Anyway, do any other reader have any thoughts for this reader?


Sir Wobin said...

If he's not happy with the life he's been given, he could drop it an go make his own. You don't have to keep it just because it was given to you. You'll have to deal with your attachment to the high life: frequent travel, luxury shopping and material largess. The old cliché of "golden handcuffs" come to mind (kinky image of NY fireman pinning you down in diamanté handcuffs woah! Bad Wobin!)

Make a life you'll be happy with. Use your own resources. You probably do not know what your deeper resources look like until you're faced with a real crisis. Not this existential crisis, a real one. Go live your own life.

alastair said...

What an interesting read; having come from an elitist boarding school and University background in the United Kingdom, I've come across a number of people who appear to suffer related symptoms.

The notion that anyone borne of such prestige should, for want of a more delicate term, be socially crippled in this way seems at once counterintuitive, and yet it's not uncommon. Having it be compounded by the gay issue can't be any help.

The best example of such a person that I know myself has seen a stellar academic trapped in an unending and destructive struggle to reconcile his repressed sexuality with his noble family background; unfortunately, he puts more stock in that background than his own well being, and rather than deal with the situation by finding himself, spends his time getting drunk and snorting lines all day.

Being handed down the very best of everything in a protected environment doesn't equip anyone for the stage, and frankly, doing what you feel you're expected to do rather than what may ultimately fulfill you will rarely lead to happiness.

I think the suggestion of voluntary work is a good one; a little bit of reality amongst some of the friendliest and most good-natured of people on the planet would be a novel experience. And if that's too much for a first step, try travelling out there alone, backpack if you can bear to, don jeans and flips flops, stop looking in the mirror and be a stranger in a place where nobody knows you; it's humanising at the very least.

Ultimately, this individual will always have his qualifications; he will lose nothing by taking some time out to see to his own happiness for a while; doing so can take courage in itself, but the importance of personal fulfillment is fuel enough to drive that process if you're willing to escape your background for just a while.

Joris said...

His mention of Baudelaire brought to mind some of the great works of French literature: could a solution be found in this refined and fantastic world ? This terrible plight reminded me of Huysman's two great heroes: Des Esseintes and Durtal. Durtal's journey to religious fulfilment is an idealistic vision, unachievable even at the time Huysmans was writing, and even more difficult today. Degraded parodies of Des Esseintes decadent refinements are essayed every weekend by all and sundry and are too common to attract the attention of the true aesthete. Neither of these literary creations seems to offer your correspondent much hope but perhaps he could follow the example of Percival Bartlebooth in Perec's 'La Vie: Mode d'Emploi'. Reaching much the same age as the enquirer he dedicates his life to a great project. He first spends 10 years learning to paint in watercolour and then 20 years travelling the world painting 500 harbours. Returning to Paris the paintings are made into wooden backed jigsaws, which Bartlebooth then pieces together. Each complete jigsaw is then bound back together, so skilfully that the joins are invisible, and the wooden backing removed. Exactly 20 years after is was painted the recreated watercolour is immersed in the waters of the harbour it represents to wash it clean. The sheet of paper is then returned to Bartlebooth in Paris.

Anonymous said...

Coming from a middle class background I would point out that almost no-one gets to reconcile their sexuality with their upbringing as almost all of us were not brought up gay. I can understand the problem that he faces, he sounds like the young Niles Crane. The best thing I can say is to get over yourself, stop taking it all so seriously and live your life for yourself.

Masturbedroom said...

There was an man born about 2,500 years ago into a privileged background and, in a way, his existential crisis led to his eventual enlightment. Humans are unique in a way that when our most basic needs are met and surpassed, we find a need to create a purpose in life.

The reader might want to venture into monkhood in places like Nepal, Bhutan or Tibet where he can get away from it all and think clearly about what he wants to do with his life (suggest also to research Bhutan's concept of Gross National Happiness).

A number of monks in these places do depart from monkhood and return to the material world, so other than learning a new language or two and coming into contact with cultures still rarely found in cosmopolitan London, Paris and New York, our linguist will be in the company of many men of which some might turn out to be unconventional gay friends who will have little, if any, idea of his background. He will be at liberty to start life afresh and be who he wants to be in their presence.

Anonymous said...

an existential crisis at the age of 20?

oh, please....

Tom Cat from Bondi Beach said...

He needs to look at the Diplomatic Service : lots of opportunites to use his language skills, travel and live in interesting places and heaps of gays too !! Win Win Win

lonely asian said...

sounds like the perfect movie reel; perfect man who has everything that money can buy, except love.

if he's considering charity work, may i suggest showering us here with luxury gifts some of us cant afford, first? :)

Lavi Soloway said...

If I had read my own blog (if such things as blogs or the Internet had existed) when I was in my early 20s and just arriving as a privileged but scared young gay man in Manhattan, I would have had so much more hope. For one thing, seeing another gay man living as an openly gay professional and raising a child would have shown me that so much more was possible than what I imagined. When I was in my early 20s it was closet, gay bar, gay friends, etc., and no particular vision of how to live a full life. Until I was in my 30s I thought being gay and having children were incompatible. Now gay men and women are everywhere with kids, and much more open about their sexual orientation in all aspects of their lives. (Here in New York there are so many gay investment bankers over at JPM we call it "Gay P Morgan"). I guess a lot has changed since the '90s.

Anonymous said...

Yeah seriously, shove it. All gay men have to deal with coming out and so many of them face many more problems than the "existential crisis" our poor rich kid here faces. Strap a pair on and deal with it...we all came out under less-than-ideal circumstances and there's no reason that your rich ass needs to whine about an existential crisis. How pretentious and overdone.