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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Can We Talk?

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.