On Gay Loneliness

This Huffington Post article, by Michael Hobbes, on “gay loneliness after gay rights” has been making the rounds. I first saw it when a friend of mine sent me the link last week, and I was truly moved by it. Here’s a taste:

The term researchers use to explain this phenomenon [of disproportionate experiences of depression, loneliness, and suicide among gay men] is “minority stress.” In its most direct form, it’s pretty simple: Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.

For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.

John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. Even relatively small stressors in this period have an outsized effect — not because they’re directly traumatic, but because we start to expect them. “No one has to call you queer for you to adjust your behavior to avoid being called that,” Salway says.

James, now a mostly-out 20-year-old, tells me that in seventh grade, when he was a closeted 12-year-old, a female classmate asked him what he thought about another girl. “Well, she looks like a man,” he said, without thinking, “so yeah, maybe I would have sex with her.”

Immediately, he says, he panicked. “I was like, did anyone catch that? Did they tell anyone else I said it that way?”

This is how I spent my adolescence, too: being careful, slipping up, stressing out, overcompensating. Once, at a water park, one of my middle-school friends caught me staring at him as we waited for a slide. “Dude, did you just check me out?” he said. I managed to deflect — something like “Sorry, you’re not my type” — then I spent weeks afterward worried about what he was thinking about me. But he never brought it up. All the bullying took place in my head.

The whole article is worth your attention, and it’s already prompted a lot of conversation in my circles, but I just want to make two brief points that I haven’t seen others making in quite the same way.

In the first place, those of us — like me — who believe, for Christian theological reasons, that gay sex is morally wrong and therefore have a sort of vested interest in seizing on articles like this as proof of sin’s deleterious effects need to exercise extreme caution — both as we read the articles themselves, paying close attention to any potential confusion of correlation and causation, and as we talk about them with others, especially those who aren’t Christians or who aren’t convinced of the goodness of traditional Christian sexual ethics.

Much of the “traditionalist” Christian writing I’ve seen on homosexuality from the past few decades seems to follow a similar tack: as a preliminary step, they describe all the undesirable consequences that allegedly are caused or exacerbated by same-sex sexual behavior, and then, for the punch line, they say, “But following the traditional Christian sexual ethic will spare you all of that — so, come to Jesus!” This approach often appears to relish the lurid details of the seamier side of gay life and sometimes seems to gleefully fixate on supposed physical dangers associated with particular sex acts while neglecting to talk about any goods in gay relationships, and, on the flipside, it can easily present the gospel as a “fix” for human psychological ills. On both of these fronts, I’m dubious about it.

I’ve written elsewhere about the problem of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religious blackmail”: “those styles of evangelistic preaching that seek first to persuade people how wretched and miserable they are,” as Ian McFarland describes them, “and only then introduce Jesus Christ as the cure for their condition.” We should avoid this type of blackmail, regardless of any pathologies, imagined or real, that may beset the gay community. The gospel of Christ is a message of forgiveness and healing and eternal life — but not necessarily or straightforwardly a “solution” to any temporal maladies, though we may wish for and work hard for its benefits to be known and felt in the here and now (as in social justice work, and much else, that would help ease the suffering of gay communities). Robert Jenson has put the point with his characteristic pungency:

Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may in their own ways be describable as “forgiveness” or “liberation” and so on. To such possibilities the gospel’s messengers can only say: “We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do for you — which may well be suffering and oppression.”

Alas, I fear he’s correct.

The second point I want to make is a slightly hazy one that I am trying to feel my way towards: Reading this HuffPo article made me want to talk with my gay friends who aren’t Christians about the possibility of a shared loneliness. One of my primary experiences as a same-sex attracted man — and I really do think it is somehow deeply implicated in my homosexuality — has been, and is presently, loneliness. And if this article by Michael Hobbes is at all on the right track, then many irreligious gay men also experience loneliness at a basic, defining level. And my instinct is to say, Here is a possibility for real solidarity between us, somehow, in some way.

One of the ways I think about my task as a Christian is that I am called, in Tom Wright’s words, to enter into “the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point.” I am to participate in the world’s own groaning, including the groaning of my fellow gay men who aren’t Christians. But — and here’s the thing — I am not to do so from a place of superiority, as if my speaking the gospel to them has to involve an uncomplicated “before-and-after” testimony of how to escape gay loneliness, as if I can look down from a height I’ve scaled and offer assistance from a posture of carefree safety. Rather, if my deep human pain and loneliness has been shared by Christ — if in fact He has entered into my pain and born it on my behalf — then my calling, in union with Him now, is not to extricate myself from the human suffering He chose to share but rather to share it too, as a way of loving others, as a way of Christianly standing within (not apart from) the world’s brokenness.

Christ became human not so that my Christian life can be a release from the world’s humanity but so that, through baptism, I might now stand with the world for the world’s healing. Baptism, as the Episcopal priest and writer Fleming Rutledge has written,

means adoption into God’s family, lasting fellowship with him and the other brothers and sisters, the forgiveness of sins, empowerment for a life of joyful service, and the promise of eternal life — but it also means, inevitably, entering into a life of identification with the world just as the Son of God did…. To be a baptized Christian, then, means to be actively involved in the world as Christ was — not standing apart from it while it goes to hell, but taking its wounds, scars, and afflictions upon ourselves.

I don’t want to be misunderstood here. If gay loneliness can be alleviated through greater understanding of its causes, then by all means let’s pursue its alleviation. If any homophobia or bigotry, Christian or otherwise, is contributing to the alienation and marginalization of gay men, then by all means let’s renounce those things and redouble our efforts to fight against it. I hope I’m not advocating quietism here. But, as we fight, and as we experience the travails of the status viatoris, the ache of not having arrived at our destination yet on the pilgrim road, I hope we can cultivate some empathy and solidarity in the meantime. Wright again:

We [Christians] are to stand or kneel at the place where the world [is] in pain and need, and, understanding and feeling their sufferings, to pray with and for them, not knowing… what precisely to ask for, but allowing the Spirit to pray within us with groanings that cannot come into articulate speech.

Reading this HuffPo article on gay loneliness, in short, made want me to compare notes with my gay friends, especially my gay friends who aren’t Christians. It made me want to say, “I feel this loneliness, or at least a deeply related kind of loneliness, too.” If in some small way that instinct can lead to any kind of deeper hope, for all of us, and maybe also some kind of deeper camaraderie or loyalty between us, I would be glad.

21 thoughts on “On Gay Loneliness

  1. On my reading, the point of the HuffPost article isn’t really that there are bad consequences to same-sex sexual activity, but rather that there is a characteristic pain and loneliness that gay men experience REGARDLESS of whether they act out sexually with other men. This does not point to some overarching claim about specific sex acts, but rather it suggests (at least theologically) that same-sex attraction is in itself a disorder. If we have a scratch that no amount of itching — or not itching — will remove, then this is reason to believe that we are deeply wounded.

    I have spent a long time sitting on the fence about whether same-sex attraction is a psychological malady, or just an ordinary variant of human desire, but I must say that Hobbes’s article makes me lean toward its being a malady. I have known that I experience the desire for male intimacy rather compulsively, and that no amount of scratching seemed to assuage the itch, but I always imagined there were a good number of “out and proud” men out there who didn’t always feel like something was missing, who found the gay community rewarding, stable, and sane. Spiritual Friendship tended to confirm this sense of there being a grassy green haven of happy gaiety out there. Even if homosexual sex is wrong, I thought, the desire for it isn’t bound up in a lack of health.

    But Hobbes certainly knows better than I do. I’ve never been a part of the gay community, and my few encounters with it have never been “grassy green”. I’m a bit concerned that — if Hobbes is speaking accurately — Spiritual Friendship might be doing some degree of whitewashing.

    Does this mean I advocate spiritual blackmail? I don’t think so. First of all, there are absolutely no guarantees that a same-sex attracted person can gain ANY earthly comfort by forsaking gay sex, and I don’t claim any such guarantees. If the loneliness is endemic to the desire, then we should not expect quick fixes to come from not sinning. Secondly, Christians have always taught that sins do have earthly consequences, and that has been painfully evident in my own life. Simply pointing that out is hardly blackmail. There is nothing “blackmailish” about telling a thief that she might feel better about her life if she stopped stealing.

    That said, I’m open to evidence that the picture is not as dark as I have painted it. But it would be hard to convince me that Hobbes is being dishonest, and the picture he paints is not a very bright one.

    • “The term researchers use to explain this phenomenon [of disproportionate experiences of depression, loneliness, and suicide among gay men] is “minority stress.” In its most direct form, it’s pretty simple: Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t.”

      If the problem is minority stress, then that doesn’t indicate that it is a disorder, since the black guy or woman in the example would also experience it for reasons that aren’t disorders…

  2. The article focuses on gay men and the complaints of that group haven’t changed in the 30 years since I first ventured on to the gay scene. I’m sure you could find an article from the 1960s with references to the same “feeling of empitness”. Their problems arise from the fact that they are a group of men. It isn’t specific to their gayness.

    In that sense, gay culture as a whole is “proof of sin’s deleterious effects”.

    Also, the first two generations of out gay men didn’t aim to emulate straight people – so they didn’t have the same expectations of “success” in relationships.

    • You and I must have read completely different articles. Sure, the statements from gay men may not have changed over the decades but this article for the first time offers evidence of possible reasons for the loneliness and unhappiness that some gay men, and others in different minority groups, experience which have nothing to do with an inherent wrongness in their differences from mainstream culture.

      • There isn’t any “evidence” referred to in the article. It’s all talking points – not science.

    • The talking points are being made by people who are either familiar with or performing studies surrounding this issue. The points have some basis in science.

  3. Actually I think Daniel you and in a smaller sense Wesley miss the point of the article. One of the underlining reason many gay people suffer from this is not because of their sexual orientation but how their sexuality has been shaped by Christians as something as less than. Ever before we realize we are gay religious people like those on here devalue gay relationships. As a little kid we are brainwashed to believe our love is less than. We see this in any marginalized group and members of this group contribute to that. It is actually amazing that many couples like my husband and I do so well. It probably helps that we are atheists and have done away and fight the shaming seen on sites like this.

    • In which case gay life would be entirely different in places that have been entirely pro-gay for more than a generation (Netherlands, Sweden etc)

    • Thank you for the calm tone of your comment. I am open to the hypothesis that the mental suffering of gay men comes primarily from social shaming, but I haven’t seen conclusive evidence for that hypothesis. As Joe says, that ought to show up in studies of accepting cultures, but it doesn’t. Thus I think it should be a live hypothesis that the suffering is *statistically* endemic to the condition of same-sex attraction.

      Is such a hypothesis offensive? Only if science is offensive. Does it reinforce the social shaming, as you say? I don’t know. On your story, I would be a self-hating person, since I think that being attracted to men is an unhelpful condition that complicates my life (though God can work through it), and since I believe that I should not act on it. But I’m not self-hating, and I’m gentle with my attractions. When people criticize gay relationships or gay attractions, I don’t feel personally offended — though I do want them to realize that gay people can have life-giving relationships, and that same-sex attraction does not somehow disqualify one from loving male friendships.

      You have proposed the hypothesis that social shaming accounts for gay unhappiness. I am open to evidence for that hypothesis. Let me ask you this, though: are you open to evidence for the hypothesis that such unhappiness is somehow endemic to homosexuality, at least in men? And if you’re not, why not? Do you have strong evidence against the second hypothesis?

      • Daniel,

        “On my reading, the point of the HuffPost article isn’t really that there are bad consequences to same-sex sexual activity, but rather that there is a characteristic pain and loneliness that gay men experience REGARDLESS of whether they act out sexually with other men.his does not point to some overarching claim about specific sex acts, but rather it suggests (at least theologically) that same-sex attraction is in itself a disorder.”

        This is a complete misinterpretation and misappropriation of the article and the evidence presented. The article, if you read it carefully, offers SO many more plausible reasons for this loneliness and unhappiness experienced by some than that there is some inherent wrongness to same-sex attraction. In fact, the article and its evidence refutes decades of evangelical ideas about the causes and wrongness of same-sex attraction. The article also doesn’t say that all gay men suffer from this kind of loneliness, whether they are in a relationship or not.

      • Also, the article highlights evidence that shows the negative experiences and feelings of some gay people are not necessarily unlike those seen in other minority groups – which suggests not something inherently bad in same-sex attraction itself, but something else

      • Jay, the author of the article is clearly worried about the UBIQUITY of gay loneliness. Although he does not say that ALL gay men suffer from it (and I have not said that either), he clearly thinks that it is worth mentioning as something distinctive about gay life in the West. He is not happy with the status quo.

        You’re right that he does suggest some social causes for this, and he is clearly invested in the cause for this malaise being socially caused. But to say that his article “refutes” the idea that this malaise is caused by the condition of homosexuality is absurd. At best, he presents anecdotal evidence, and that anecdotal evidence is not convincing. I would be interested to hear which hypothesis of his you found so convincing.

      • The evidence he presents in this article as the possible causes for the loneliness and depression experienced NOT just by some gay people but by others in different minority groups (I emphasize, this isn’t just about gay people) is MUCH more solid and studied and less anecdotal than anything I’ve seen that has ever been put out by a religious or evangelical group to suggest that these symptoms point to some kind of inherent wrongness in same-sex attraction (*that* is a decades-long argument by religious types that needs to go away) – By doing this they are ignoring, as this article points out, that these symptoms and others tied to them are seen not just in the gay community but in a variety of other minority groups.

      • And while the article goes on to talk about issues specifically dealt with in the gay community, I feel the reasons it gives make more sense than anything else I’ve heard/read. All minority groups share some common stressors and symptoms and ALL also have their own unique challenges and problems that come from being different, from being “the other” and from a mainstream society that knowingly or unknowingly puts pressure on them. It makes great sense to me that so many gay people who grown up being bullied do, sometimes and in some ways become bullies themselves – that’s how abuse often works – they pay that pain forward. There’s more but I need to get to church 🙂

      • Jay, I looked back through the article for the evidence you’re referring to, but I couldn’t find it. It would be helpful if you cited quotations from the article to support your claim.

        You say that his evidence applies equally to gay people and other minority groups, but he specifically denies that, in the following two quotations: (1) “But minority stress doesn’t fully explain why gay men have such a wide array of health problems” and (2)
        “For other minority groups, living in a community with people like them is linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression. It helps to be close to people who instinctively understand you. But for us, the effect is the opposite.”

        Those quotations complicate the notion that the adverse symptoms found in gay men are merely caused by socialization and stigma. Mind you — and I want to be very clear about this — I am NOT saying that the bullying and isolation that gay kids (and adults) experience is excusable. It is completely inexcusable. But I do not think any of the evidence Hobbes presents suggests that social mistreatment is the only (or even the prime) reason that gay men experience loneliness, addiction, depression, and the like.

        Perhaps the cause isn’t intrinsic to homosexuality, but rather extrinsic. It’s still disturbing, and far from the typical “blame heteronormativity” narrative. If anything, Hobbes’s observations suggest that a major cause of gay loneliness is that gay men are not accepting of other gay men. Why is this? Are you curious about the answer? I am.

      • “But I do not think any of the evidence Hobbes presents suggests that social mistreatment is the only (or even the prime) reason that gay men experience loneliness, addiction, depression, and the like.”

        You don’t think this, why? This article is full of very possible, nay plausible reasons for why “some” gay people experience the intense loneliness and depression they do. Just because minority stress doesn’t FULLY explain these symptoms doesn’t mean that it doesn’t partly explain them. And the bullying that gay people experience must indeed be part of the rest of the answer. To ignore that it might be (or rather probably is) is dishonest.

        “If anything, Hobbes’s observations suggest that a major cause of gay loneliness is that gay men are not accepting of other gay men. ”

        This article addresses this and the possible for reasons for this as well. And I’m not sure where you got the idea that this article somehow suggests that gay men not being accepting of other gay men is some “major cause” – does he actually say this or are these just your words and interpretation? If you read the article he describes how bullying can be the direct cause of this behavior.

      • Daniel,

        “But Hobbes certainly knows better than I do. I’ve never been a part of the gay community, and my few encounters with it have never been “grassy green”. I’m a bit concerned that — if Hobbes is speaking accurately — Spiritual Friendship might be doing some degree of whitewashing.”

        There is nothing in anything you’ve written on this thread that makes me believe that what you said earlier is true: “I have spent a long time sitting on the fence about whether same-sex attraction is a psychological malady, or just an ordinary variant of human desire”

        My take on your posts is that deep down, you’ve never really given any weight to the idea that homosexuality is just a normal variant of sexuality. You propagate old ideas. I see nothing in what you’ve written so far that makes me think this quote of yours is true – I think you truly believe and have always probably believed, that there is something inherent in SSA that causes all of these problems. I think you have to believe that for the rest of your beliefs to make sense. And if this is not the case, I at least think your religious beliefs have tainted your outlook, not of just this article, but of SSA in general.

      • Jayhuck,

        Is doubting my sincerity really the best way for you to proceed in this conversation? OF COURSE, I’ve wondered whether homosexuality is just a normal variant. I could point you to dozens of posts on various sites (including this blog) where I claim that it IS just a normal sexual variant. And the question is quite independent of whether I think same-sex sex is morally permissible. I don’t — but I could very well think it is psychologically normal and morally impermissible.

        Articles like Hobbes’s article have convinced me that these negative outcomes are not fully caused by the marginalization of gay people. You keep telling me that he offers other explanations, but you haven’t told me what those explanations are. I couldn’t find them in the article, myself. Can you illuminate them for me?

        “This article is full of very possible, nay plausible reasons for why “some” gay people experience the intense loneliness and depression they do. Just because minority stress doesn’t FULLY explain these symptoms doesn’t mean that it doesn’t partly explain them. And the bullying that gay people experience must indeed be part of the rest of the answer. To ignore that it might be (or rather probably is) is dishonest.”

        That is a mistaken portrayal of what I’ve been saying. I’ve never denied that minority stress may be ONE cause for the data. I just don’t think it is the only cause. In that sense, I *think* we agree.

        “You propagate old ideas.”

        Gosh, I’m flattered. Old ideas are often — not always — the very best ideas to propagate, and I hope you learn the value of them.

        I honestly think we could have a very thoughtful and kind conversation, you and me. Maybe it could begin by my asking you a simple question: do you think that I have something against gay people, or do you think that I hate myself for my attractions to me?

  4. I do wonder, though, whether part of the loneliness doesn’t find its home in the lack of plausible social scripts that permit the fostering and developing of close same-sex relationships between men.

    I tend to believe that there’s a fair bit of diversity in our sexual, emotional, romantic, and aesthetic attractions. Yet our culture tends to assume that committed relationships must necessarily find their consummation in sex. And, admittedly, there are gay people who experience sexual desires toward people of the same sex. But I run into just as many whose same-sex desires are largely emotional or interpersonal. We still may desire a committed same-sex relationship, but for reasons very different from what the culture –and the folks at CBMW–necessarily suppose.

    So, yes, there is a certain stress about the shame of coming to terms with the fact that you may be different from others in a way that, at least until recently, made one the per se object of negative moral judgment. But there’s also the stress of coming to terms with the fact that it’s going to be much harder to find a committed partner in life. There aren’t ready-made social narratives into which one can opt. And being a pioneer is tough.

  5. Wes, I wish I could simply meet you and process through all these experiences together. I am extremely thankful for your ability to articulate what is going on in your life, how your respond to other writings and simply to allow me to recognize that I am not alone in how I experience life. More and more, those of us who struggle and yet pursue Christ are diminishing. The acceptance and development of side A individuals has left many of us who are holding fast to the truth of scripture even more alone than ever before. Thank you for putting yourself out there and using the gifts God has given you to be a voice to those of us who still remain in the shadow.

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