[cw: suicide, mental health]
You might have read my recent post about cycling infrastructure in London and how policy campaigns increased cycling here (they really did, and I only hope it continues). I cited an excellent blog then by Michael Hobbes. He is also behind a story that has gone somewhat viral in the Huffington Post called ‘The Epidemic of Loneliness’ (I’m not sponsored to enthuse about him by the way; I’ve never even met him!). I’m linking you all the article because since I first read it this spring, I’ve revisited it a few times and found more things that really made me think. Other people must feel similarly because it’s generated a huge response (including a valid riposte by Slate). It’s an arresting, as well as provocative, piece of writing.
I think it’s an interesting piece for anyone, not just gay people, but be warned: the topics covered get a little intense. One thing Hobbes doesn’t touch on – and this is typical of media more widely in gay reportage – is that some of the riskier sexual practices and drug-taking behaviours (particularly chemsex) described are concerning but not statistically widespread. Even in urban centres like London, only a minority of non-heterosexual men participate in risky practices, but this tends to be over-reported because of the (possibly dubious) interests of writers and readers. My social sciences PhD actually covers that in some depth, so I feel confident in saying that you shouldn’t worry that every gay person you know is permanently drugged and hasn’t slept in 3 weeks. What is more interesting in this article is the larger environment of anxiety despite the supposed equality now enjoyed by gay men.
Hobbes’ argument is that despite all that gay men have won in the past few decades, many still aren’t happy. We know that in North America and Europe (what geographers often call the ‘global north’), drug use is higher than in the heterosexual population and sexual health is often poorer (striated further by different factors like socio-economic background, ethnicity, and access to healthcare), but mental health problems are also higher than straight men, and suicide rates significantly higher. After all:
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.
Given that the London LGBT Pride festival hits town next weekend, I thought it would be interesting to share Hobbes’ article to give us a slightly different view of ‘how far we’ve come’ (I’m thinking here of The World We Have Won by Jeffrey Weeks, 2007). There are ongoing debates amongst queer theorists about the commercialisation vs. political power of pride parades. In short, some argue that the spirit of pride been lost in its creeping corporatisation, and that it is a shadow of its former political protest. Others argue: what’s the point in pride, when equality has now been won?
My (short) answer to both these views is: yes, it is true that to an extent pride has become commodified and commercialised, but such a shift is inevitable given that LGBT legislation has battled for integration into the mainstream. This assimilation comes with its own neoliberal conditions, and a parade needs to get sponsorship to ensure its viability in order to showcase less ‘fund-able’ or comfortable aspects of its queer message (which they do, albeit with mixed conviction – one of the better examples is showcasing small LGBT refugee charities, and supporting their ongoing work). To those who say the event is unnecessary, Pride remains a powerful visibilisation of queerness plus an opportunity to advocate on behalf of other, more marginalised groups including trans individuals, PoC and sexual minorities who are currently enduring more pernicious governmental or political rule elsewhere in the world.
Also, aside from its arguable political impact, Pride shows us that there is room for a global network of fun and enthusiastic social gathering that can claim the city for just a day for its sexual minorities. Politics and pleasure do not have to be mutually exclusive. Pride also helps communication between L,G,B and T individuals who are more often found apart and only occasionally brought together in any sense other than their abbreviating umbrella.
As Hobbes’ article shows, it may be specifically this lack of more regular, integrated socialisation opportunities that sees gay men continue to suffer the burden of poor mental health so disproportionately to the straight population. Hobbes under-interrogates the ethnic and class-based marginalisation operating within both gay and mainstream hierarchies, and only touches on other sexual identities, which is probably all we can expect in one article. But lest we forget, for other sexual minorities some of these mental health problems are multiplied: this week we learnt that over half of all trans school students in the U.K have attempted suicide. As Hobbes notes:
Any discussion of gay mental health has to start with what happens in schools. Despite the progress taking place around them, America’s educational institutions remain dangerous places for kids, filled with aspiring frat boys, indifferent teachers and retrograde policies. Emily Greytak, the director of research for the anti-bullying organization GLSEN, tells me that from 2005 to 2015, the percentage of teenagers who said they were bullied for their sexual orientation didn’t fall at all. Only around 30 percent of school districts in the country have anti-bullying policies that specifically mention LGBTQ kids, and thousands of other districts have policies that prevent teachers from speaking about homosexuality in a positive way.
This piece is by no means a scientific journal article, but it really latches on to some important issues.
I’m reminded of my post last autumn after the death of a friend about ongoing bonding with friends and family, the value of communication, and the importance of platonic intimacy in the face of a world that feels tough sometimes. Do remember to kiss your friends faces more (perhaps metaphorically; we are, after all, British).