There have been a few touchstone books in Gay culture, like Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s Goodbye to Berlin, Larry Kramer’s Faggots in the 70s and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story in the 80s. Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, is set to be another one — even though it’s not a fictional book.
The Velvet Rage is a refreshing attempt — after three decades of post-Aids concentration on gay men’s physical health — to address the mental health issues many of us are struggling with in silence: deep-rooted feelings of shame about our sexuality that shows up as unworthiness, not being good enough and being ‘unloveable’.
If you scale the room of a busy Gay night club or bar the last thing you’ll expect to find (or see) is Shame. This is probably why the Velvet Rage has had a mixed reception in the Gay community. Some loathed the book when it was first published in 2005: Have we not fought long and hard to be able to say we are out and proud? Have we not suffered enough during the HIV/AIDS epidemic? Why are we now told by this psychologist from Los Angeles that all is not well?
Downs explains that ‘Velvet Rage’ (he coined the phrase to refer to a very specific anger he noticed in his gay patients) is the deep and abiding anger that results from growing up in an environment where you learn that who you are as a gay person is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable. The roots of this rage, the book says, are found in childhood shame and parental rejection, which in many cases can be subtle and even unintentional.
This rage (a symptom of Shame) pushes gay men at times to overcompensate and to earn for love and acceptance by being more, better, beautiful, more sexy – in short, to become something we believe will make us more acceptable and loveable… Fixing from the outside?
The Velvet Rage eloquently refers to those of us who are obsessed with our bodies and physical appearance as Iron Butterflies — hiding our feelings of shame behind a mask of perfection, because of the “belief that there is something fundamentally flawed” about us. Of course, it’s not just the body-beautiful among us who suffer from shame and rage.
In fact, Gay culture is characterized by seductive beauty, artful creativity and flamboyant sexuality… all of which are ‘symptoms’ of compensating for the rejection and consequent shame we felt as children. Downs mentions the high numbers of gay men working as stylists, hairdressers and fashion designers. He says: “Because of our childhoods we’re good at these jobs. It is a specific gay talent because of invalidation. We are talented at stepping into something that’s a mess and cleaning it up and putting a fabulous facade on it.”
So where does the rage step in?
These unresolved feelings of unworthiness and shame, hidden behind a mask of fabulousness and the pursuit of an unachievable perfection, eventually manifests itself in the lives of gay men (the book only focusses on male homosexuality) in many ways: drug abuse, promiscuity, alcoholism, over-achievement, love and relationship addiction, depression, self-harm and suicide, body dysmorphia and eating disorders — four times more likely among gay men than with our straight counterparts. He also talks about the over-consumption and the absolute ‘need’ to have the newest and shiniest and best of everything.
He writes: “The expectation is that you have the beautiful body, that you have lots of money, that you have a beautiful boyfriend with whom you have wonderful, toe-curling sex every night… none of us have that. To try to achieve that really makes us miserable. The next phase of gay history, I believe, is for us to come to terms with creating a culture that is livable and comfortable.”
It’s wholly possible to read this book and think: This is a bunch of codswallop from a man who loathes himself for being gay.
However, Downs is very clear that the problem lying underneath the surface of our self-destructive behaviour is invalidation and not the fact that we are gay…
The Velvet Rage has come under fire for putting the more celebrated, creative aspects of gay culture in the spotlight, and suggesting that beneath them lurk serious psychological issues. Downs says: “It’s a minority of readers, but it’s a sizable minority. Probably somewhere around 15% of readers will get quite angry. The question I get a lot is, ‘If I want to have as much sex as I want then what is the problem with that? Why pathologise that?’
I am not, in fact, pathologising that, but people have interpreted it as such. My response to that is if that’s working for you, if that’s bringing you lasting fulfilment and creating a life that you feel really is the life that you want to live, then go for it.”
So for all the naysayers, I guess the clue really is in the title of the book.
And what’s the fix?
Well, it lies in the simple question: ‘Is this the life that I want for myself?’
If the answer is ‘No’, then the Velvet Rage might be the first band aid to help you live a more fulfilling life. Perhaps even set you on course to live the life you were meant to live. It has certainly helped me to identify some key issues in my life that needed much attention… And I am not ashamed to say that the first time I started to read this book, I tossed it in the bin after half an hour. But something about what Downs said stuck with me and I gave it a second chance. I’m glad I did.
Of course, by no means am I implying that there aren’t gay men out there who were able to grow up in loving and accepting families, and who live happy, successful adult lives with meaningful relationships, friendships and sex. I certainly don’t buy into the idea that we’re all broken. However, Gay culture has always been underpinned with the ideology of Pride. This has served us well… on the surface. The Velvet Rage has now finally identified a clear relationship between some of our behaviour and Shame. This will serve us better and that’s why this book is worth investigating.
Above all the book brings greater awareness of gay mental-health issues. Numerous studies, surveys and reviews have found that LGBT people are up to two-and-a-half times more likely to become alcohol or drug dependent, and over two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression disorders. Gay men particularly are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. This is a clear indication that LGBT people are at significantly higher risk of mental disorder, suicide ideation, substance abuse and deliberate self-harm than heterosexual people. This is a very, very serious issue. And it does not mean that we are ‘broken’, it simply indicates that there is a problem and we need to address it.