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Monday 08 November 2010

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The Gay Blade

3rd September 2010

Can We Talk?

Posted by: Michael Stevens

Because there is something we’re not really dealing with in Homoland. It’s not HIV, but I’d argue a lot of our new HIV infections are caused by it.

I’m talking about the generally poor state of gay men’s mental and emotional health. Britain’s Attitude magazine recently did a story on it, which got picked up by The Observer. I see no reason to doubt the situation is any different here, in fact what I know of my own life and the scene I move through confirms this for me.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a gay man here in Auckland about the same problems. Gay men have higher than average rates of depression, of drug and alcohol dependency, of STIs, of emtoional and mental health issues in general, and, tragically, of suicide.

Yet it’s a topic we don’t seem willing or able to address.

I’ve been to far too many funerals of friends who have committed suicide. And I confess, it’s something I’ve thought about often myself. That began for me as a teenager, realising I was gay at 14 or 15, and thinking it was the worst possible thing in the world and that I couldn’t possibly find a way to live with it, that my life would be marred by shame and isolation, that I’d be rejected by my family, that I’d never find someone to love me - all those horrible and destructive thoughts weighed down on me as I look at the world around me, and only saw gay men portrayed as sick, sad perverts to be laughed at or attacked. At 16 I went around for several months with a razor blade in my pocket, wondering if I should use it. I never did.

And suicide is a thought, a theme, that still sits with me, the idea that I could end my own life one day. Before anyone panics and calls in emergency counsellors, let me say, I have never actually made an attempt, or even planned it, and I’m fairly content and planning on staying around to piss people off for a while yet. But I’ve thought about it - especially in the worst days of what AIDS was doing to me in the 90s. And I know I am not alone in this.

But we don’t talk about it. Or when we do, a lot of guys seem to blame themselves, to wonder what they’ve done wrong, what it is about them that makes their lives this way.

It’s not us. That’s something I’m very clear about.

We live in a world that marginalises us and makes us fight for every scrap of acceptance we get. Yes there have been massive and important legal changes - but society in general is still not that friendly towards us. And most parents would tell you that if their son is gay they’ll “deal” with it, but even that  tells you it’s something they’d not choose for their son, it’s not their first, best option - it’s something that has to be coped with. Every time I read a news report about a teenage boy killing himself and family and friends are trying to understand the tragedy, saying how it doesn’t make sense, what a good student/sportsman/friend he was,  I always wonder “Was he gay? Was he like me at that age, but he actually did it?” And I’ve spoken to young gay men who have found the way their family reacted to their coming out so difficult they’ve embarked on behaviour I can only see as self-destructive, at times with terrible results - and yes, I do blame the parents to some extent in those situations. Your 19 year old son got HIV or killed himself? What did you do to set up his life so he wouldn’t? How did you react when he came out to you?

We live in a largely homophobic world, and that takes its toll. We rarely get to see positive images of gay men on TV, in film, in pop songs - and these things matter. If we can’t see ourselves in the everyday culture around us, and see ourselves depicted in a positive light, the unspken message is that we don’t count, that we are in fact not worth it, that we can’t have stories of love and happiness played on the radio or shown on the screen. That’s a deeply corrosive and harmful message. And as I’ve said before, when I talk to young gay guys coming out, they typically say that they want a boyfriend, but the gay scene offers them bars, drink, sex and drugs. We don’t seem to have the social infrastructure to offer them, or older guys, ways to meet and to be outside of highly sexualised settings. I love sex, love a party, as anyone who has been paying attention to knows, but they are the icing on the cake - not the cake itself - or they shouldn’t be.

Do we need an institutional response? These mental health issues are just as important as HIV, we do have a real mental health problem as a group, but as they are less visible they attract far less interest. Could the NZAF do more in this area? Not without extra funding, and just whether it is where they should be working is a debate in itself. Could we get a campaign like John Kirwan’s one on depression up and running?

I’m not sure what the answer is, I’m not sure how we make our world better for us and for the younger generations coming out, but I do think we need a conversation, I do think we need to start talking about it, and considering just what we can do.

Tags: General

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Colin // Sep 4, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    I don’t know what to say, except that this puts in a nutshell excatly how I feel.

    I have struggled with my sexuality since I was about 13 and have never known how to address it, resulting in numerous bouts of depression over the years and one attempt on my life. I was found in time and brought round, but still at times wish that I hadn’t been.

    The biggest difficulty I have found is to actually trust myself to seek help, and then knowing where to go for that help. JK’s depression programme has helped, but I still suppress and, I suppose, deny the root cause of how I feel.

    Now in my mid 40’s and with a string of “straight” relationships behind me, I’m still wondering who and where the hell to go for advice. It’s not just about the sex, but the whole subject of what makes me tick. What my feelings and emotions really are.

    It’s a scary prospect, but there really needs to be a way to answer questions, to talk about the issues, to even identify the questions and issues in the first place.

    Michael, thank you for posting this piece. Who knows what may come of it, but here’s hoping that in time the suppression and opression will become things of the past.

    Love and peace

  • 2 Jacquie // Sep 5, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Michael

    this was one of the most insightful pieces you have written on here.
    Jacquie

  • 3 Jeff // Sep 5, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Michael,

    this is an important topic and a research project is underway to look at some of the issues you raised.

    Researchers at SHORE and Whariki Research Centre, Massey University have been commissioned by Te Pou (on behalf of the Ministry of Health) to conduct a needs assessment of mental health service requirements for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) populations in New Zealand.

    Research findings will feed into policy and service development to promote mental health and wellbeing for GLBTI people in New Zealand.

    The research team would like to hear from anyone who identifies as GLBT or I, (as well as individuals and organisations providing services to them), to assist in the identification of GLBTI mental health service requirements.

    To share your views and have a say please go to www.shore.ac.nz/glbti.html for more information about the study and an online form for you to complete.

    Cheers

    Jeff Adams
    Researcher
    SHORE and Whariki Research Centre

  • 4 Lexie // Sep 5, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Courageous stuff, Michael. Thank you xx

  • 5 DannyR // Oct 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I was diagnosed with depression 10 years ago while studying in Christchurch, and my difficulties at the time led to me postponing the completion of my degree. I went into the workforce, built up my emotional strength and learned some coping skills through counselling the the excellent folks at the Wellington NZAF Awhina Centre, and when I felt strong enough I went back to study, this time in Palmerston North.

    I did really well academically this second time round, for a whole two and a half years. But it was a profoundly lonely experience with no support from people in the LGBT communities and a family that is hostile to my queer identity, and the depression soon settled back in. I’d had ongoing suicidal and self-harm ideation for some time back when I first came out queer (just after my original diagnosis), and these impulses came back with a vengeance. Then two gay friends killed themselves within six months of each other, and that was it - it was all too much and I failed EVERYTHING this year.

    The people we are around have a really deep and lasting impact on our own mental health. And the reality is, the LGBT communities here in NZ aren’t mentally and emotionally healthy environments. I stay away now because the superficiality, hostility towards those who are different (I’m bi and poly), drug and alcohol abuse, backstabbing and bitchery doesn’t help. There is no celebration of diversity in our communities, it’s all a popularity contest and an exercise in conformity.

    I’m better off without it.

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