Sunday, August 11, 2013

How to maintain a gay lifestyle under the scrutiny of others

Back in June, before I went on holiday with my Thai friend B, I received an email from a long time reader of this blog. He had seen the pre-holiday post about the state of my relationship with ex-boyfriend T, and was emailing me to encourage me not to give up on that relationship. I was very touched to get this email :-). Of course, since he sent me the email my relationship with ex-boyfriend T has unfortunately come to an end :-(.

I sent a reply to the email, and after a couple more emails, I agreed with the reader that it can be hard to make gay relationships work. During the email conversation, he asked an important and interesting question, and I asked him to expand the question into an email which I could post on this blog. The result was the following email:

Dear GB,

How do we maintain long term gay relationships under the scrutiny of others (both gay and straight)?

Scrutiny comes from close family and friends who don't believe in gay lifestyles. From colleagues who find it hard to understand that a man of a certain age continues to claim bachelorhood with no intention of getting a girlfriend, from governments that do not allow gay marriage, from public who are curious or confused or angry about gay male relationships. The context of this question is not just limited to the culture where I'm from (Asia), but could apply everywhere.

Please do not quote high level theory about ignoring others, living my own life, moving to a gay friendly city, taking pride as being gay etc. these are high level ideas that people may wish to follow but most likely unable to. We are all human beings, with family ties, colleagues, friends etc. We are not living alone on an island.

Being single at older age gets scrutiny. Being attached with a man also gets scrutiny.

I personally don't think those married gays are enjoying the attention that the world is giving to them. Who does not want to live peacefully and choose the life they feel more comfortable?

People are born in this world to survive. To survive we have to make difficult choices. Choices that lead to survival or happiness. Best if it leads to both survival and happiness but then it is no longer a difficult choice.

GB, appreciate your advice. I don't think there's a universal answer.

The reader starts his email by asking about maintaining gay relationships under the scrutiny of others, but he quickly moves on to the broader question about how to live life as a gay man. So I'm going to try and answer the broader question, namely how can one maintain a gay lifestyle under the scrutiny of others. The majority of the problems that gay guys have in their relationships are similar to the problems that arise in straight relationships. The real problem is how to live as a gay man, especially if one doesn't want to come out to everyone.

A few years ago, I answered a related question with a post called Conversational Evasion Techniques. Anyone interested in the issues posed by this long time reader's email should certainly read that old post. However, the question that I'm trying to answer here is broader, and consequently requires a more profound answer. Some people are able to follow what the reader calls "high level theories", but I accept what the reader says, namely that most people have no idea how they could ever make those ideas work.

Looking at the reader's email, I think that part of the question is being framed in the wrong way. Towards the end of his email, the reader mentions survival, and that gives an important insight into the way that the reader is thinking about his life. His attitude derives from a kind of siege mentality, where one feels that one is constantly under attack, and survival with perhaps a bit of happiness attached is the best that he can hope for.

People like the reader, who don't want to disclose their sexuality for whatever reason, feel under attack whenever a situation arises where an out and proud gay man would naturally disclose his sexuality. Obvious examples of such situations would be when a new friend or colleague asks a gay man whether he has a girlfriend or not, or when a gay man's mother asks him when he's going to get married. For someone who doesn't want to disclose their sexuality, the only question they hear in any sort of situation like that is "Are you gay?". Gay guys who're not open about their sexuality then feel under intense pressure to avoid disclosing the truth, and consequently they often don't give a good answer, even if they think that they do.

As an aside, ex-boyfriend T is a perfect example of a gay guy who does badly in those situations, although I know he thinks that his performance is acceptable. It's exactly the same as all those anti-gay politicians who get caught being gay, because they're also trying too hard. People who try too hard to avoid any association with anything remotely gay go to the top of any list that I'd compile of likely closet gay guys. Real straight guys don't have anything to prove, so their response to those situations is completely natural.

Although closeted gay guys might feel under attack, the fact is that in most of those situations, the intention behind asking the question is benign. Furthermore, in a situation like that where the question is indeed meant in a benign way, the siege mentality can result in an entirely inappropriate response. One obvious example (that I mentioned in my previous post about Conversational Evasion Techniques) is that when a new colleague asks a guy if he has a girlfriend, the new colleague is usually trying to make friends because they're trying to establish some common ground. Most guys are indeed straight, so discussing wives and girlfriends is a way of building a bond with another straight guy. Similarly, when a mother asks her son when he's going to get married, it may well be that her real concern is for his long term happiness. The best way of responding in all these situations is to try and work out what the underlying intention is for the particular situation, and armed with that knowledge to deal with the situation is the appropriate way.

Unfortunately, the insight that most of the time other people aren't surreptitiously asking whether one is gay is the easy half of the answer to this question. Whatever the situation is, how can the gay guys who don't want to disclose their sexuality frame a response that will seem as natural the response of a genuinely straight guy? It is possible, but to be able to do that, the gay guy has to have become completely comfortable in his own skin so that he knows who he is. The more comfortable a guy is in being gay, the better the guy will be in responding, even if he doesn't want to disclose his sexuality. In the early stages of coming out, one isn't sure about a lot of things. Guys will be thinking "Am I really gay?", and perhaps "I'd rather be straight, so is there a path that will take me from *bi-curious* to straight?", "What on earth will everything think of me?", and "How on earth can I survive as a gay man in a straight world?" and so on. In that period of self-doubt, gay guys will naturally have the siege mentality that I mentioned above, and unfortunately some guys find it hard to move on.

For the gay guy who doesn't want to come out to everyone in his life, simple acceptance of the fact that he is gay isn't enough for him to be able to live under the scrutiny of others. To start with it's likely to be a grudging acceptance, and that's certainly not sufficient. He needs to get to the point that being gay is no longer an issue for him. He may well choose not to come out to some (or even most) people in his life, for example because he may be living in a country where homosexuality is illegal, or perhaps because he doesn't want to disappoint his parents. However, if he can reach the point where he's completely comfortable in himself about his sexuality so that he's started to focus on other issues in his life instead, then he's reached a point where he can be more objective about his situation and handling scrutiny will be much easier. At that point he'll know that he's made the right choice for himself, he'll know who (if anyone) needs to know about it, and he'll know that it's not the business of anyone else to tell him otherwise.

The key to reaching that point is to find ways to build confidence. Confidence that being gay is beyond his control, but that since he is gay he needs to learn how to make the most of it. This takes time, but my suggestion would be to do at least one gay thing each day. Guys who are new to being gay might start by trying to admire images of good-looking guys and not feel guilty about it. Going to a gay venue and enjoying the social company of other gay guys is another idea. If there are any people that a particular gay guy can come out to, then he should do that once he feels sufficiently comfortable about himself. Best of all, there's no substitute for enjoying the intimate company of another gay man and feeling good about that as well :-). But however a guy builds confidence in his sexuality, what I call the confidence mirror is important in dealing with scrutiny. If the gay person under scrutiny has high confidence in the way that they're leading their life, then any people that they're talking to will subconsciously pick up on that and tend to leave them alone. Similarly, a lack of confidence will lead to more and more scrutiny. However, as long a particular gay guy genuinely knows that he's doing what is right for him, then he'll be able to deal with other people in an appropriate way.

However, confidence in being gay is only part of the solution. To be good at living under the scrutiny of others one needs to have confidence in one's own self-worth as a member of whatever society one lives in. So one should try and succeed in one's job and career. Everyone, both gay and straight, have various issues that they need to tackle at various stages in their life. For most people, the path to full self-acceptance and self-knowledge is a long one, and for a guy that is gay working out how to deal with it will just be one of the obstacles on that path. Where does the path ultimately end up? A fundamental question for everyone to ask themselves, both gay and straight, is as follows:
Given who I am, given all my talents and all my shortcomings too, how can I be the best person that I can possibly be?
Maslow's pyramidA good way of thinking about this is by reference to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The long-term reader who sent me this email is focusing on survival, which is at bottom of the pyramid. What we should all be trying to do is to work our way up to the self-actualised level at the top of the pyramid. Those are the people who've really worked out who they are, and as a consequence they've worked out how to be the best possible person given all their attributes.

We can't all be great people like Nelson Mandela, or great scientists like Alexander Fleming. But if we find the right path, each of us can fulfill his or her potential and be the best possible person given all our attributes, both positive and negative. Realising one's shortcomings is important. For example, in my case, sometimes I lose my temper and as a result I can occasionally be unnecessarily rude to people. I do try and work on that shortcoming, and as I get older and hopefully wiser I find that I lose my temper less. However, one consequence of that is that I'm completely unsuitable for any role which would involve media scrutiny, because I'd end up having problems like the UK politician Andrew Mitchell. On the positive side, I've still got a passion for the subject that I studied at university, so when I can I focus my energy on that. When I first realised that I was gay I would have put that attribute on the list of my shortcomings, but now I regard it as a positive attribute, for example because it gives me perspectives that my straight friends and colleagues don't have. And so on.

Early in the email, the reader says "... do not quote high level theory about ignoring others, living my own life". However, what I've tried to do is to show what the path is towards that so called "high level theory". In summary, my short answer to the reader's question is that to live life as a gay man under the scrutiny of others he needs to grow in his confidence as both a gay man and a worthwhile and productive member of his community.

Do any other readers have any other suggestions?

Update 13-Aug-2013: In response to the reader who left the first comment, if you read my post carefully, you'll see that I am NOT saying that people need to be 'out' to climb the Maslow pyramid. Self-actualized people know who they are, and whether other people know or not isn't important to them. The confidence that a gay man needs to develop is simply that he himself is gay, that it's the right choice for him, and that no one else has the right to tell him otherwise. Or to put it another way, he needs to lose the guilt that he may feel for not being straight, and then he can be much more objective about his situation. In a tolerant Western society, coming out to some or all of one's friends and family probably makes a lot of sense these days, but e.g. in the homophobic countries that still exist in Africa then it's probably not appropriate. Although coming out to people helps build confidence when it goes well, it's not necessary because there are other ways to build confidence.

Most people will have some issues to overcome in their life. It really doesn't matter whether the average gay person has more or less obstacles than the average straight person. Who would you rather be, a person who lives in a third world country and who doesn't know where their next meal is coming from, or a gay guy with a promising career working for a homophobic firm somewhere in the Western world? It's very much a case of "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger", and viewed from that point of view, the gay person who successfully deals with the gay issue will be a more complete person than a straight person who hasn't had any difficulties to deal with.

In this context, I always remember the cuckoo clock speech from the classic film "The third man":
"… in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!"
However painful turmoil may be, I for one enjoy the creativity that comes out of it :-). And it may well be that my response to this reader's email is better than it would have been had I not split up with ex-boyfriend T recently!

GB xxx

Update 27-Aug-2013: Follow up post More about maintaining a gay lifestyle under the scrutiny of others.

Update 1-Sep-2013, spotted this article on the BBC news website today: Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled business


Anonymous said...

GB, you make some interesting and valid points, particularly with the reference to Maslow, and living life as a successful, confident and ‘out’ gay man. In an ideal world all everyone would be able to freely climb the Maslow pyramid without any significant barriers (families, work, society, religion, etc.) – But we do not live in an ideal world, gay men are in the minority and face both more and greater barriers on their climb up the pyramid than ‘straights’ on average.
Many gay men as children knew that they were ‘different’, and depending on when and the environment in which they were born their childhood experiences of being ‘different’ will have an impact on their adult life. - If they have had negative experiences of being different then they may seek to hide those differences (homosexuality) when in the presence of the majority (‘straights’), particularly in a ‘straight’ dominated work environment. As a result they can end up being stuck in permanent ‘survival’ mode, remaining (semi-)closeted in their professional and/or private lives if they can not even ‘come-out’ to their families for fear of being rejected. No doubt, it is hard to build confidence as a gay man under these circumstances, esp when they feel that success in certain or all areas of their life depends upon the concealing of their sexuality, the revealing of which is seen as a risk too great to take. – In the end it can result with the person leading two outwardly successful and separate lives, but never living 100% of either. - Confident about being gay, but unable / unwilling to fully exit the ‘closet’.
I think confidence plays an important role in helping a gay man to lead a successful life in all areas, but to gain confidence as a gay man requires a significant degree of risk-taking on their behalf: To ‘come-out’ to friends, family and colleagues involves risk and requires security and...confidence (ironically).

GB said...

Thanks for your thoughts, recent anonymous commenter, whoever you are. In response, I've added an update at the end of the main post :-).

GB xxx