Turning away from the relentless pursuit of ‘I’ and ‘Me’

By Timothy Allsop.

Originally published on Medium, 26 January 2021.

While Matthew Todd was generally correct in Straightjacket in highlighting that a lot of gay men’s issues with control and perfectionism arise from the trauma and shame of growing up gay in a straight world, his book did not feel like a full answer. Yes, we may seek to overachieve, be prettier, fitter, stronger and so on because we are still suffering from the shame we were and are made to feel from our position as a minority growing up in a culture that was not made for us. However, our control and perfectionism might also be sustained because of the stories on which we choose to focus. I would argue that our emphasis on urbanised gay male life, and measuring our success against our careers, status and money, has meant that we have occluded many gay experiences that reveal there are many of us who live away from the big city, who are moving to a different beat. That is not to say that there are not challenges and complex issues to living in more remote or rural areas, but that if we do not tell broader stories about who we are, we end up perpetuating the ‘escape-to-the-city’ narrative in which the gay person relentlessly seeks happiness in an urban community that may not actually be ‘home’.

According to a five-year study carried out by John Pachankis and his team at Yale[i], gay men experience stressors not only from the outside (straight) world, but also from within their gay communities and networks, especially around issues of perceived social and sexual status. Some of these pressures, which I have experienced, seem particularly acute to gay men and the result of a potent mix of gay shame and toxic masculinity. The body-fit culture has certainly been exacerbated by social media with literally thousands of gym-focused accounts, where selfies with abs are provided to satisfy ‘thirst’ but also unconsciously make us judge ourselves by those relentless standards. There is also the constant stream of ‘humblebrags’ that can make the rest of us feel as though we are not achieving enough. There are several studiesthat show an increased level of narcissism in gay men, and some of this behaviour can be linked back to the shame we felt earlier in our lives. We have used introspection — even narcissism — as a defence mechanism, because to be within ourselves was — and is — safe. But when our (helpful) self-obsession meets the aggressive, materialist demands of urban living, the result isn’t freeing, but rather gruelling.

As I mentioned in my last piece, the city is often portrayed as a place to aspire to, both in straight and gay culture, because it advertises itself as a place of material and social gain. The reality is, for many people, that they end up feeling isolated while stuck on a treadmill of having to show they are living their best gay life. There are, undoubtedly, more support services available for gay people in urban settings with places like 56 Dean St offering all kinds of useful support. There are also more social places to meet, although many of these are under threat.

Yet, what I am talking about is the value system to which many of us unconsciously ascribe when we are in an urban setting: the conversations about jobs, the places we eat at, the places where we spend money, the emphasis on working hard, achieving and being a visible success. By locating all this behaviour in our sense of internalized shame and the past, we avoid having to confront the realities of the culture into which we are buying, which is itself as toxic as the persecution we experienced when we were younger.

There is a disconnect between what we say to ourselves and each other, and what we actually do much of the time. For example, I saw a recent Instagram post of a gay reader which showed him reading a queer book with the tag ‘it’s okay to be who you are and don’t judge a book by its cover’ yet the person was holding their book while topless and flexing their abs. Another said: ‘Social media is not about being perfect, it’s about sharing real shit,’ again accompanied by a topless image. Clearly Brexit has restricted the supply of T-shirts.

I’m not trying to be prudish and, of course, there is a place for shallowness (thanks Bridgeton), but there are plenty of gay people living by different values and many of them don’t live in the city. For some of them, it was a conscious choice to move away from the cultural values associated with the city. Richard, a farmer and horticulturalist from Norfolk explained: ‘I evolved as a person. I was more comfortable not to fit into a preconceived idea of what gay men did. I fell into a lot of traps that to be successful you had to earn loads of money… but by the time I got here (Norfolk), I was actually… you need to be happy and there are different ways of measuring success.’ He was clear to say that he didn’t think it was just a gay problem and that ‘there is more pressure on everyone in an urban environment…financial security equals success.’ On the other hand, he pointed out how not enough value is given to rural jobs: ‘I don’t think people necessarily value gardeners or people who work in agriculture. A very urban view of looking at that is that you go out into a field and pick potatoes.’

fin, who identifies as non-binary, lives in Wales. Their non-gay-male perspective may be instructive: they explained that their interaction with the local farming community and village felt far more activist than going to London Gay Pride. ‘The local farmers were letting us plant more trees for wind breakers…and you know all these negotiations have to go on. That negotiating process, that is actually activism on an everyday level. It’s the constant back and forth’.

Living in the countryside is by no means easy for gay people, and I have written about the decline in queer venues and the lack of services, but there is still a lot of community action, outreach groups and gay people choosing to make a life away from the city. They find meaning and purpose in their relationship to nature, to the land, and most importantly to the local communities whether straight or gay. Many of the people I have spoken to say they try to live life away from their screens and social media. It is also worth noting there are also many gay people who never left the place where they grew up, who chose to stay with their family and friends, or did not have a choice to leave because of poverty, education or any number of circumstantial reasons. Many of them recognized being seen as almost second-class gays. Jon, from East Anglia, explained how he often felt ‘put down’ by city gays who were rude about where he lived and the little it had to offer.

My intention is not to pitch the city against the country, although I do think we have neglected the complexities of life that exist outside of major urban centres. But I do know the pressures of socialising with gay people whose concerns are vectored toward what seem to me to be stereotypical heteronormative male ambitions. I also know many gay people who felt they had no choice but to move to the city and were encouraged to do so because of the urban gay life they saw on their social media, televisions and in the books they read. Yes, we have to continue to work out our issues of internalised shame from experiences earlier in our lives (reading The Velvet Rage is a good place to start), but I think there is also a lot of work to do in challenging the urban gay assumptions about the culture in which we are now living — a culture that accentuates the ‘I’ and ‘me’ over the more community-affirming ‘we’.