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An important discussion, but too pessimistic, simplistic
on July 18, 2013
This book left me with some pretty mixed feelings. As a guy in my late 20s, I think this book is too dark. It has a gloomy, sort of Freudian take on what it means to be a gay man, and it speaks to a depth of shame that I think my generation just doesn't feel as much any more. I won't say that we didn't all feel deeply ashamed before we came out, or that we don't have anything to learn about the impact of that shame, but increasingly American society has moved to embrace us rather than shame us. And so when Alan Downs says, in italics for emphasis, that for the gay man, "the avoidance of shame becomes the single most powerful, driving force in his life," I just don't think that's the case any more, if it ever was. It's too simplistic and too dark a brush for the complex, multifaceted men that we are.
One of the passages that especially made me want to burn the book was a discussion about the gay man's affinity for the arts and for creative endeavors. Downs says gay men are "the worldwide experts" on things like fashion and design, but that this affinity comes from his deep sense of shame, rather than any inherent drive or skill:
"Is there really a gay creativity gene that we all inherited? When you think about it, is it actually plausible that our sexual orientation genetics would somehow also give us a talent for hair, makeup, and rearranging the living room? I don't think so. ... Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely-crafted façade." (p. 20-21)
First of all, it is possible that our genetics would give us an affinity for the arts, and to belittle this creativity as "rearranging the living room" in order to make the point is insulting. This is a problem common to the whole book. The only explanation Alan Downs sees for anything gay men do differently is our shame, or desire to avoid it. In my opinion, this simplistic reasoning is hurtful rather than uplifting.
Downs' everything-is-about-shame analysis also extends to how he views relationships and sex. Downs seems to believe that, once healed of their shame, gay men will form monogamous long-term relationships just like straight people, and that bathhouses, Grindr and other things will simply fade away. I think monogamy is great, but I don't think that a gay man's love of sex or sexual adventure is going to dissipate somehow when he's healed. In fact, embracing his sex drive may be part of fully embracing who he is.
Another problem with the book seems to stem from Downs' largely wealthy, older and (presumably) white clientele. He seems to think we're all wealthy. "We have more expendable income, more expensive houses, and more fashionable cars, clothes, and furniture than just about any other cultural group" (p. 2). But this isn't right. If you look at the stats, as a group, gay men make less money compared to straight men, and LGBT people are more likely to live in poverty than the general population. Downs should try to speak to a broader diversity of gay experiences, or at least acknowledge that his perspective is limited by his clientele.
The final nail in the coffin for me was in the second half of the book, when Downs implies that once a gay man heals himself of his shame, he'll withdraw from the gay community:
"His visibility in the gay community often diminishes. ... You may see him on occasion at the gym or at a political fundraiser, but he is not a regular on the gay scene. ... Many of the gay men who `disappear' do so because they have outgrown the need for the avoidance of shame and acquisition of validation that is at the core of so much of the mainstream gay culture." (p. 110-111)
This is just wrong. Yes, a lot of people may go to bars and clubs to seek approval or validation, but just as many go to have fun, to hang out with friends, to hook up, or whatever. And if you're over the bar scene, how about volunteering at the local HIV/AIDS charity, or joining a gay chorus or a gay swim team, or getting involved in our fight for civil rights? There's no reason to disdain the larger gay community because you're no longer 21 and want to dance the night away to Lady Gaga. And there's no reason to say those 21-year-olds are all about shame avoidance. Come on. There's a lot to love and celebrate about our community, our history, and our future. How is the response to being healed one of withdrawal? No, get involved and help others! Find ways to mentor younger men!
Ultimately, it's hard to recommend this book, but that doesn't mean there aren't valuable lessons in it. A discussion about shame and how it shapes our lives is so important. I do see unhealthy addictions to drugs and to sex around me, and we need to talk more about it as a community. I've had to deal with the need for validation and approval, and have most certainly had my share of struggles in relationships. Let's talk about it. But, please, can we have a more complex discussion? One that is more inclusive of the diversity in our community? One that openly discusses what makes us distinct from straight men without chalking those differences up to darker forces? And one that says to get involved in your community, rather than shun it?