Homo OFF the Range

555046_10100257064443052_1562883017_nWide open spaced. Terrain that expands as far as the eyes can see. Endless possibilities. The capacity to be yourself, anywhere.

Literally and figuratively, those are the best parts about being a Kansan. They’re also the ethos for what it means to be “homo on the range.” I started writing this column nearly five years ago because I wanted to start a dialogue about LGBT issues in the Midwest while establishing an identity for what it means to be queer in a red state like Kansas. It’s been an awesome experience to share my life and perspective with you. Half a decade later, I still firmly believe that you can be yourself and be successful anywhere.

That doesn’t mean you should stay in the same place indefinitely, though. You should fall in love with your life a little bit each day. If you don’t, you owe it to yourself to make some changes. For me, I decided over a year ago that I needed to manifest some pretty epic alterations, and I made a plan to move. By the time you read this column, I will be “off the range”, living a new life in Los Angeles, California.

I leave Kansas knowing that I am fortunate to have lived here. I came of age in Wichita at a time when LGBT rights and gay identities were in a state of massive flux. When I moved to Kansas in 1999, the gay rights movement here was still emerging.  I decided early on to always be honest about who I am. I was rewarded for that. Eager to create change, I have been continually empowered by the people here to do good work. Whether it was running the Sedgwick County Democratic Party, writing about art for The Wichita Eagle, promoting bands with ROK ICT, or organizing events at the National MS Society, my sexual orientation has always been viewed as being secondary to my sincere drive to make Wichita a better city. I’ve always felt accepted by most people here. I have even forged friendships and earned the respect of many who were not originally allies of our community. I am nobody special; it’s the collective spirit of the people of Kansas who embody something truly extraordinary.

The locale that launches us defines significant facets of who we are. Though I now call Los Angeles my “home,” Kansas is the place I will always be “from”. Being “from Kansas” means you originate in a place where honesty, hard work, and integrity are central values. It means you incubate somewhere that rewards drive and ambition with encouragement and opportunity. And it means you traverse on soil that you can fertilize with your unique sparkle. In Kansas, you can manipulate the wind as it blows. Those of you who remain should utilize that exceptional malleability to color a more vibrant culture and grow broader acceptance for our LGBT community.

The new life I’ve secured on the west coast was paved by Kansas’ golden road of possibility. I’m excited to start a new position working as a fundraising events manager for a social justice oriented non-profit called Liberty Hill. Having the distinct privilege of moving to a city and immediately getting to work to make it a better community is an advent I am truly grateful to experience.  I will never forget where I came from. Though it’s time for me to go “off the range”, I know that Kansas is a state of mind. In that state, we’re all at our best when we are 100% our unabashed selves.

While this column signals a wrap for “Homo on the Range”, the epic adventure is just beginning! You can keep up with my California-sized exploits on my blog, www.homoontherange.com or by following me on Twitter.

History: Making, Living Change

celebrate-lgbt-history-month-4LGBT history isn’t the story of a particular cast of notable characters or even a linear tale of significant events. Our history is enormously dispersed and incredibly personal. There are obviously important figures and occurrences that have been pivotal to our collective progress. More influential, though, are the millions of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender who have shared their struggles with their friends, families, and communities. They have picked the locks of other’s hearts, changing the trajectory for generations that will follow.

History is made every time a person tells their deeply religious relative that they are gay, requiring their kin to reexamine long held dogmatic beliefs and look deeper into divine interpretations.  History is made when two men and two women hold hands by the celebrated Keeper of the Plain statue in Wichita, causing many straight people to do a double take, but also subtly changing notions about love. History is made when someone born female starts to live publically as a man, allowing all of us to understand that love really doesn’t have a gender. History is made when a parent discovers that their child is gay and quietly accepts them with love in their heart.

We make history when we are out at work. We make history when we don’t allow our sexuality to segregate us from our faith. We make history each time we push aside the shadows of shame and allow ourselves to fall in love. Even the most seemingly insignificant of actions and indiscriminate of encounters adds to a larger effect.

Unlike other civil rights movements, we don’t come from a community of similarities. There’s no monolithic trait all persons who are LGBT share; indeed, it’s the opposite. We are racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, religiously, and geographically diverse. Our political ideologies run across the spectrum, as do our athletic abilities, and our tastes in art, music, and entertainment. That fact has always posed a significant challenge. It’s hard to develop a cohesive plan of action when a group is so varied. Yet, perhaps that’s why we’ve been so successful as of late at truly changing hearts and minds.

There’s a saturation of media reports about how quickly Americans have embraced marriage equality and how comfortable the public has become with homosexuality in general.  There was nothing quick about this, though…just ask a gay person in their 70’s or 80’s who had to hide for most of their life! Because of millions of small actions over many decades, though, we reached a tipping point. Sometime in the last four years or so, we truly did make history by mainstreaming our community.

We in the Midwest still have a LONG way to go to get to where we need to be. We can find comfort in our history, though.  Remember that you make a little bit of history each day, just by being honest about who you are!

Two Americas

ImageWhen we hear the phrase “there are two Americas”, we generally think about wealth disparity or economic inequality. In the post-Windsor world there’s a new divide: those who live in states with marriage equality and those who do not. It may seem like a simple matter of public policy that effects only a small segment of the population. It’s actually creating a large chasm, though, that threatens to drain talent from states clinging to old traditions.

There are now thirteen states where same-sex couples can legally marry and subsequently have their marriage recognized by the federal government. The Gayly is not distributed in any of them. That means if you are reading this paper, you are in the lesser of the two Americas, at least in terms of rights that you are afforded. There’s nothing inferior about the people and the aptitudes of our communities, though. That’s an important point that business leaders, opinion makers, and politicians need to remember.  With equal rights and basic freedom offered in multiple places now, why should anyone who is gay continue to live somewhere where they aren’t treated equally under the way?

That’s a question a lot of people are starting to ask themselves. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, too, because how many people really want to leave their home? All of us have a certain pride in our states. We understand that the Mid-western queer brand of stubborn independence is its own unique phenomena. For a lot of LGBT folks, personal responsibilities and economic realities will keep them exactly where they are. Others, especially those who are young and single, will choose to get educated or start their careers in locales where they won’t have ridiculous burdens placed to their love, though.

There’s a reason our states adopted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Right wing politicos correctly predicted that this day could arrive, and they wanted to “safeguard” their states when it did. They’ve actually set us up for failure, though.

In his 2002 book, “Rise of the Creative Class” urban studies theorist Richard Florida laid out a formula for building a booming city that centers around supporting and developing a creative workforce. A big part of the equation is laws that promote inclusion and diversity, along with a thriving gay community, which is often at the epicenter of creative ingenuity. He found that companies choose what cities to bring their operations to based in part on this because they know that their educated, accomplished employees will want to live someplace where everyone is respected.  Gay rights have become a values centerpiece among the millennial generation because the issue is really a proxy for a more open, multi-faceted, and diverse world.  As this generation rises, states who treat gay people like second-class citizens are starting to look less and less attractive.

Each of us will make our own decision regarding how we operate in this new divided reality. There won’t be an immediate mass-exodus to marriage equality states, but there will be lots of individual choices about where to work and live that will add up and have big effects. A broad, national ruling establishing the right to marry is needed, but we can’t expect the US Supreme Court to save us. We have to liberate ourselves. For those who stay—and I assume that’s most of you—that will mean having some very honest conversations with a lot of people about how this new reality effects you and your family. Midwesterners are great listeners. So let’s talk! It’s a conversation that will ultimate make all of our states stronger.

Homo on the Range: Coloring Your Own Culture

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Carrie & I at Art Aid, during the Naked City era.

What does it mean to be homo on the range? I’ve been writing this column in various publications for over four years. This literary experiment has been an attempt to unearth the unique state of the modern-day queer experience in the Midwest.  It turns out that Kansas, and really every state it touches, have some surreptitious truths that the whole country could benefit from understanding.

“Homo on the Range” is a state of mind. It’s the audacity to be you, anywhere. It’s the boldness to standout. It’s the courage to keep going. It’s wide-open spaces, full of unlimited possibilities. One does not have to be a “homo” nor live “on the range” to be part of it. More straight people actually read this column than folks who are LGBT, and my blog by the same name gets hits from places as far away as Pakistan.

Being homo on the range is also living in a state of vulnerability. When you are gay in the Midwest, you stand out! There are no LGBT enclaves in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas. Sure, there are friendly towns and businesses, but there is no West Hollywood, Boys Town, or Castro to be found in between the hayfields. You can’t easily blend into an existing culture here. If you are going to be out, you are going to have to create that culture yourself. It’s up to you to color your own community.

The paintbrush was handed to me on a crisp, autumn night in 2008 at an after party during the Tallgrass Film Festival, Wichita’s premier annual independent cinema event. I was sipping martinis with my four best friends, perusing a new cell phone app called Twitter. In the middle of sending my very first tweet, a sharply dressed, wavy-blonde haired woman approached our table. Her name was Carrie, and she was looking for a gay voice to add to her emerging magazine. I’d been trying to make a difference on the equality-front in politics for years, but our conversation that night opened my eyes to the possibility that I could have an impact with my words, too.

A few months later, I penned the very first “Homo on the Range” for Naked City Magazine. Mostly read by straight people, not all of who were natural allies, that column raised a lot of eyebrows. A few advertisers pulled out. Some readers wrote the editor to complain. Mostly though, everyone was all right. It turns out that having an honest dialogue in a tasteful manner about a difficult issue is a Kansas value. My work for the magazine later opened up connections for freelance work. Today, I’ve had close to 300 articles published as a result.  That’s one of many ways I’ve colored my own culture and created my own community here on the range.

Anyone whose unique sparkle drives them to use their distinct abilities to nurture connections and enhance communities is already a “homo on the range”. There are straight people who are far better at this than I am! While I may have conceived this moniker, there are far superior motions being set forward by countless individuals in the gay community that will get us farther than any of my words ever will. I look forward to the day when those collective efforts make the range a home everyone can be proud of!

Looking Good, Being Gay

Image“You actually have to look good to be gay. You don’t make the cut.”

That’s what Brock, a bisexual boy at my high school, mockingly said to me the morning after I came out of the closet. His words were my first introduction to the LGBT community. I was 15, 5’11, and overweight at 220 lbs. I knew that I didn’t look good; but I also knew that I was gay, and that there was nothing I could do to cut that fact about myself.

We can’t have a conversation about LGBT health without confronting a silent epidemic within the gay community. A 2007 study conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that gay and bisexual men are 3 times more likely than their hetero-peers to develop eating disorders. An alarming 15% of gay and bisexual men have at some point had serious issues with disordered eating.  Proportionally, statistics suggest that there are actually more gay men dealing with body image issues than heterosexual women.

When we come out of the closet, we immediately yearn to be embraced by the LGBT community we come into. There’s an awkward element of body fascism among many gay and bisexual men that can make this a rocky transition. A lot of us get bullied by our heterosexual peers in school. We internalize their rejection of who we are, and we hope that the people who are like us—other gays—will be accepting. The truth is, though, we’re often harsher to each other. When the bullies go away, we often step in to take their place. Enforcing a strict code of sexual attraction is one way we perpetuate the bully narrative.

Brock was a proxy for a larger truth; bodies are a big deal in the gay community. A study came out last year from England in which close to half of respondents said they’d trade a year of their life for the perfect body. It’s a hypothetical situation that sounds hyperbolas, but it speaks to a larger insight into the pursuit of perfection.

Starvation diets and over-exercising are avoidance tactics for dealing with the issue of body image. We’ve done a great job of normalizing physical obsession, but we as gay and bisexual men need to come to terms with our corporal selves. A lot of issues that plague our community, like alcoholism, smoking, and eating disorders, have their root in early encounters with homophobia. We have to deal with our past and how we see ourselves mentally before we can truly get a handle on our bodies.  We also need to stop beating each other up and start embracing everyone. No one should ever feel like they have to starve themselves to be a good gay!

We have to stop punishing our bodies and start nourishing them, too. Instead of an hour and a half of cardio everyday, maybe we’d be better off integrating a weekly yoga routine so that we’re in tune with our body and our soul. Rather than painfully avoiding food or eating miniscule Lean Cuisines, perhaps we can embrace more sustaining eating habits like adopting a whole foods, plant based diet.

Words have a way of lingering; what was a stupid, adolescent put down haunted me through years of body shame, over exercising, and disordered eating. I eventually slimmed down and “looked good”, but ultimately I wasn’t truly at peace with my own body until I made peace with what I was putting inside it. Last January, I became vegan, meaning I don’t eat animals or animal byproducts.  It’s a way of living that mixes good food with good karma to optimize your body, sharpen your mind, and strengthen your spirit. I still don’t have a perfect physique; what I do have, though, is a healthy lifestyle I can feel good about.

That was my journey. Everyone’s path will be different. We must all make our own cut, not because you have to look good to be gay, but because being gay should feel good for you!

Adonis and Narcissus- In Search of the Dance Club

Identity is a myriad of personal circumstances. Though we live in a diverse world, there are certain hegemonic standards we measure ourselves against. Deviation often proves difficult. To embrace being gay, one has to accept the difference within. Unmasking Adonis requires an examination of sexual orientation’s potency. Finding its connection to body perfection is a search for the location to an exclusive dance party.

A 2007 study conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health gave credence to the suggestion that gay and bisexual men are at a higher risk for eating disorders than their male heterosexual peers. This is one of the only known studies thus far that zero-in on LGBT populations and eating disorders.  Of the 516 subjects, 15% of the men who identified as gay or bi admitted to at one point suffering from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorders. That’s a full 10% higher than straight men in the same study. It’s also higher than the study’s 10% of lesbian and bisexual women and 8% percent of heterosexual women who reported the same eating disorder issues. While men attracted to men make up a low percentage of the population overall, they appear to be disproportionate members of the eating disorder population. Ironically, a “women’s issues” seems to be tinged in testosterone.

The reasons for this discovery within the gay community are not entirely rooted in association, though. A key competent to this study was the investigation into whether gay and bisexual men with greater connection and affiliation with the gay community are more likely to have eating disorders than those with lax or no ties. Principle investigator Dr. Ilan BLADE. Meyer’s original theory that active participation in gay culture gravitated men toward certain body standards proved inconclusive.

“It is not clear why gay men have high rates of eating disorders,” said Dr. Meyer. “One theory is that the values and norms in the gay men’s community promote a body-centered focus and high expectations about physical appearance, so that, similar to what has been theorized about heterosexual women, they may feel pressure to maintain an ideal body image.”

Adonis and Narcissus dance at another club, perhaps.

“Even gay and bisexual men who participate in gay gyms, where body-focus and community values regarding attractiveness would be heightened, did not have higher rates of eating disorders than those gay and bisexual men who participated in non-gay gyms or who did not participate in a gym at all,” observes Dr. Meyer. “This suggests that factors other than values and norms in the gay community are related to the higher rates of eating disorder among these men.”

Author Tim Bergling explores some of those “other” factors in his book Chasing Adonis: Gay Men & the Pursuit of Perfection. Though not an inherent investigation into the root causes of eating disorders among gay and bisexual men, the text explores desire and questions physical attraction. Bergling interviewed over 200 men to examine how gay society objectifies the male body. The dynamics of Steroid use, body image disorders, gym culture, Internet hook-ups, obsession, stalking, porn, erotic Web sites, and strip clubs are all discussed.  There’s no conclusive reason for why men chase after the illusive Adonis, but a reading of the quotes by the men interviewed reveals some pretty raw truths about body image and physical expectations.

“I’m not fat. I’ve never been fat. Can’t imagine living life like that, especially as a gay man. I’ve seen how we treat fat guys, and it ain’t pretty,” said Brian, an accountant from Tennessee. An anonymous “Bill” put it even blunter. “The gay male is obsessed with beauty and youth, and we objectify and diefy muscles and looks over all else. There is no way brains will ever win out over beauty in today’s gay culture.”

“Working out is like a way of life for me, almost an addiction. I get depressed if I miss one workout and a panic attack if I miss more than that. Some people say I am way too obsessed, but a lot more are always telling me how much they would like to feel my chest and biceps. I listen more to that second group,” said Hawaii model John.

Bergling’s book is notable not for its scientific evidence, but rather for the honesty his subjects offer. Each chapter contains poignant, humorous, and sometimes harrowing accounts of how body-image obsession has impacted how gay men see themselves and their peers. Ultimately, it’s a broad window into the psyche of same-sex desire.

Somewhere inside that consciousness, Adonis and Narcissus dance seductively.

Filmmaker Travis Mathews visualizes collective body ideology in his documentary “Do I Look Fat?” It’s a 70-minute film that follows the stories of seven gay men who have struggled or are struggling with body image and eating disorders. It digs deep into both gay culture and straight society to examine root causes. Themes such as childhood wounding, internalized homophobia, the effects of HIV/AIDS on the body and the prevalence of substance abuse histories are among a few that underscore the film. Perhaps most importantly, the film doesn’t shy away from asking why these common histories have, until now, been left in the proverbial closet at a community level.

The film blends personal narratives with clinical support from several experts in the field of eating disorders including an M.D. of a renowned eating disorder clinic, an art therapist, and a gay therapist who’s battled with his own body image issues. The word “fat” becomes the focal point for how gay men shame themselves and each other. Gay culture is taken to task for its part in promulgating a “one size fits all” narrative. The men interviewed have approached body image differently. Some have suffered with anorexia and exercise obsession, while others have grappled with bulimia and binge eating. Their stories are weaved into the larger narrative of the scope of this issue. While gay men are thought to represent about 5% of the male population, they alarmingly represent up to 42% of men with eating disorders, according to research done by Dr. William Howard at the John Hopkins University School. Each story in this documentary is another window into a problem so easily seen, yet readily dismissed.

“The reasons behind the high numbers are complex, painful, and in part, unflattering to the community, but the alternative to facing them head on is continued isolation and shame, both of which feed our proverbial friend, the closet,” says Mathews. “As I’ve traveled with the film, people continue to ask me how prevalent this is. My answer remains the same: it’s difficult to know with real certainty. Men, both gay and straight, are generally reluctant to seek medical attention for any health related issue, eating disorders being no exception. Our culture feeds this reluctance by its steady framing of eating disorders as a woman’s issue.”

In looking to debunk Adonis, I discovered that silence was perhaps our worst enemy. The common thread in all of the research I found was a universal understanding that there is a problem within the gay community as it relates to body image, but there is also a relative dearth in knowledge as to numbers. The trajectory for tracking this forward remains elusive. The normalization of narcissism as a means to skirt the larger issue of body fascism means our problem exists in a vacuum. If we aren’t willing to confront these fragments of our own shadows, few are going to help us sweep them up.

Cleaning up after raucous revelry is no fun; it’s far more fantastic to continue the Adonis/Narcissus dance party!

Adonis Boys

Image“I only date really think guys.”

Those words fell out of my crush’s mouth like a prison sentence falls upon a convicted felon. I sat across from him at the Barnes and Nobel’s café in north Wichita, eating a blueberry-chocolate muffin. Instead of enjoying the sensation of sweet fruit colliding with milk chocolate, I began to notice the impression of my own muffin-top underneath my shirt. I knew he would never find me attractive, at least not in my current state. I excused myself to the bathroom, where a familiar ritual unfolded.

Find a mirror. Life your shirt. Gaze at the reflection in total and complete disgust. Curse your existence. Close your eyes. Wish you were thin. Get depressed when your sockets open to the same sight.

Call it a Narcissus séance.

That was the ceremony I had been accustomed to practicing since I became aware of the meaning  of the word “weight”. While I wasn’t hideously obese, I’d always been a pudgy kid. A large part of that probably had to do with my distain for athletics and sports. It wasn’t that I despised physical activity. It’s just that from a young age it was very obvious that I was “different”. Every time I tried to be athletic, my masculinity was measured against the testosterone of my male pears.  To avoid their name calling, cackling, and physical abuse, I decided at a young age to be as anti-athletic as possible. That muffin shape that cowered beneath my chest was a constant reminder that this wasn’t exactly a fool-proof escape plan.

I decided in that B&N bathroom that I wanted a trapdoor! I had come out of the closet at 16 and had yet to have a boyfriend—hell, I had barely had sex at that point. I was tired of the sense of rejection I felt every time I read a Gay.com profile that stated “no fats”. I was fed up with being digitally dismissed every time I went onto a dating sight where most of the guys wanted “only slim/athletic builds”. More pertinent, though, I was willing to do whatever it took to get my crush to heart me back. If he only dated “really thin” guys, I would figure out how to become one of them!

I had a mentor to help me out, too. Blade and I went to high school together. Like me, Blade had always been overweight. In the years since graduation, he had magically transformed himself from a size XXL to a small. I wanted in on the secret. He promised to teach me the ways.

I had loathed going to the gym. Blade told me, though, that this magical contraption called an “elliptical machine” existed that could drastically trim my odious reflection. The first time I straddled the bulky machine, I was exhausted after 10 minutes. I wanted to quit. Blade reminded me of an unspoken axiom: as an out gay man, you’re already ostracized; to fit into the gay community, you best fit into the image of what a gay man is…and muffins be damned, gay men are supposed to be thin! I wanted to fit in, so I figured out how to make working out fit into my life.

The pounds began to roll off, too! Within a month, I was able to do an hour of cardio a day and I had lost 10 whole pounds. I wasn’t even altering my diet much. Within three months, I was down to 200. I felt great, and rightfully so. There was no reason for someone my height to weigh as much as I did. I should have started to work out. However, I should have wanted to lose weight for health’s sake, not boy’s sake.  About six months in, somewhere around the 180 mark, losing weight became an obsession.

I always hated math, but ironically numbers began to define my life. My self-worth was based entirely on the number I weighed in on the scale. I was working out 2-3 hours a day and re-arranging my schedule so that I could weight in as low as possible. Often this meant getting up at 5am for my first daily working out and not eating until 10pm so that I could get a second work out in, with yet another positive affirmation from the scale. In addition to excessive workouts, meals were being skipped. Sometimes I would go 2-3 days without eating more than 1,000 calories. I kept my eye on the prize, though—converting crush into boyfriend!

Along the way, I had lots of encouragement. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but I did have lots of attention from boys. Once invisible at the clubs, my body was suddenly a hot commodity. Guys who had turned me down for dates in years past were lining up. Go-go dancers who I once had to fling dollar bills at to get attention were now dialing my number. The reaction to my reduction was collective encouragement from everyone around me. It was gay men, though, whose words mattered most.  Constant accolades greeted my every public appearance. Lauds of “Wow, where did you go?”, “You are thin as a rail” and “You’re practically invisible” only fueled my obsession.  The grueling workouts and constant stomach rumbling were the cost of admission to Adonis and Narcissus’s exclusive dance club of acceptance—or so I reasoned.

Though companionship had been my original intention, I found that all the time I spent at the gym left little time for socializing. Most men—including my aforementioned crush—got annoyed and bored by my incessant ramblings about my diet and weight. When you starve yourself, your hunger signals eventually start to turn off. Unfortunately, I discovered that when one signal gets turned off, others follow. I had thinned myself out to faun the attention of men, but over time my sex drive had dried up…or maybe it got burned off on the elliptical machine, too!

The one consistent contact I did have, though, was Blade. Several of our friends had warned us that we had turned weight loss into an unhealthy obsession. The idea that two overweight men could have an eating disorder was laughable to us. Eventually, though, being anorexic went from a punch-line to a point of empowerment. We dubbed ourselves the “Ana Twins” and made up t-shirts to show off the sense of pride we felt in starving ourselves. I was “Ana”; Blade was “Rexia”. We wore the size small shirts to a gay club one night to near universal accolades. Blade’s crowd of club friends delighted in his “accomplishment” of having come so far—and bringing me along with him!

Eating disorders have a way of isolating you and altering your reality. We’d done a good job of segregating ourselves from most social occasions that revolved around food. Though I had already lost over 1/3 of my original body weight—and Blade even more—no number was low enough. We set a competition to see who could get to 150 lbs. first.

Blade won. He died 2 months into our game. His heart gave out after he didn’t eat a morsel for several days. Blade was found dead in his apartment, logged onto Gay.com. I assume he was trying to find a date. His physique matched many of the men’s desired dimensions. Unfortunately, I’m told ashes don’t weigh much. At the intersection of Adonis and Narcissist, lean becomes lethal.

There aren’t words to describe the difficulty of coming to terms with a friend’s untimely passing, especially one that played out in such a sequence. After I had time to process what had happened, and once I had dealt with much the guilt of having willingly participated in a farce that lead to someone’s death, I became curious about the people behind those profiles.  Who were these anonymous men engaged in a digital pursuit of Adonis? Our obsession over losing weight was greeted with raves of compliments by our gay peers. Why did their praise lead Blade to drown in a pool of his own vanity?  I need to the bottom of the pond.

Were eating disorders a silent scourge in a community that already has a lot of heavy baggage? If so, what forces were at work in the culture at-large that contributed to this new outlet for self-loathing? Even more important, why weren’t we talking about this within the gay community? What was being done in the medical realm to remedy this? In the quest to exit Narcissus Ave., these questions are more important than any one story.

Really Thin Guys: Cruising at the Intersection of Narcissus and Adonis

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Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

There’s an adage in homo-culture that states “the gym is gay church”. While it’s a tongue-in-cheek statement, it’s also darkly ironic. There’s an unspoken expectation among gay men that physiques be toned and muscled or slim, trim, and spryly sculpted. At a time when obesity is at an all time high, many even within the gay community assume that LGBTs are just as overweight as the average American.  Observe what’s happening around you— both in popular culture and with personal connections—and you’ll likely unearth an unspoken epidemic.

Gay and bisexual men have normalized body obsession to the point that eating disorders are an accepted and unnoticed way of life. Most would assume that body image issues and unhealthy eating habits plague heterosexual women. Though little research has been done on this topic in regard to men in the LGBT community, evidence does exist to give this issue weight. Sporadic studies with startling statistics, a few books that touch on the topic, and a documentary that focuses on gay body image do exist. Understanding eating disorders within the gay community, though, requires examination on multiple fronts. Personal stories need to be told. Research needs to be put into perspective. The facts need to be absorbed into the larger prism of gay identity.

Though worship of the gods from ancient Greek mythology ceased thousands of years ago, the chase for Adonis and the reflection of Narcissus are modern venerations of the gay community. Immortalized for his undying youth and brawny splendor, Adonis didn’t just attract the eyes of Persephone and Aphrodite. In the dance club, at the gymnasium, and on a stroll in the park, a gay man’s gaze is always cruising for his contemporary incarnation.  Absent Adonis, Narcissus comes knocking. Though legend says he drowned reaching for his own reflection, gay culture has resurrected his vanity. For many gay and bisexual men, each gaze into the mirror is a summons for his spirit. We all want to fall in love with the reflection staring back at us. It’s at the intersection of pursuit and desire that Adonis and Narcissus come back to tango…and we’re in search of the dance club!

There’s a certain mythology to our own lives.  What starts out as fantasy quickly collides with reality. I survived the ordeal of being at war with my own body. I count myself as a wounded soldier in the body wars. I had an intimate encounter with anorexia nervosa. I’m lucky to have survived its abusively fanatical embrace. In searching for Adonis, I became Narcissus. Ultimately, that ordeal lead me to question why so many gay men have a kamikaze obsession with being thin. At the time, though, my fixation was on being noticed by men—and my 22 year old, 6 feet tall, 240 pound self just wasn’t getting the glances I desired!

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Too many gay and bisexual men are staring into pools of their own demise right now.

In the next few posts, I am going to tell a very difficult story from my past. I’m also going to relate it into larger issues about the present health crisis in the gay community. Eating disorders an an epidemic and we need to start talking about them. I hope these posts start a conversation.

Bullying–Getting Used To It

From “Bully”
Alex’s mom isn’t about to get used to it.

“Do you understand that at some point, you got used to this?”

That’s what a very alarmed mom in Sioux City, Iowa asked her 12 year-old son, Alex, after being shown harrowing video footage of the hazing he encountered daily from his peers at school. In the midst of filming for the documentary Bully, the filmmaker felt obligated to show her what was occurring. Her middle school son was befuddled by the question; being the target of verbal and physical assaults had become so routine that he normalized what was happening to him. He even considered his assailants to be his friends. If they weren’t, that meant he didn’t have any. He had gotten used to it, but the mom said she never would.

Nobody wants to be alone. Everyone wants to fit in. Sometimes, that means you end up accepting the cruelty of others in a bargain for having your own ground to stand on. Adolescents must carve out their own place in the world. Their unique connections, friendships, and interests are what usher them into eventual adulthood and distinguish them from their parents. It’s a natural part of development. Bullying interrupts that progress, though. For a kid like Alex, he might be hated on, but at least that’s happening in his own space. The top yearning of teenagers is to carve out something distinct to them.

Eventually, we all grow up. Bullies do go away. When they do, their ghost remains. The victim often steps in to pick up where they left off. You can do a much better job of bullying yourself than another person ever could do in oppressing you. After all, no one else knows your darkest vulnerabilities.

I’ve explained in a previous post my own encounter with bullying. This column isn’t about what happened to me at school 15 years ago when I was a teenager. It’s about the effect that has had on my life as an adult. I offer up my story as insight into the seriousness of this problem in hopes that if you have kids, you’ll do everything you can to ensure they reach adulthood healthy and adjusted.

Kids become targets for different reasons. I was bullied because I’m gay.

I didn’t come out until I was 15, but somehow all of my peers knew when I was 7. School was a daily landmine of verbal insults and physical assaults. I never told my parents because doing so meant I would have to admit that their words were true. I grew up in a somewhat fundamentalist household. We went to a tongues speaking church three times a week, and I attended a Southern-Baptist influenced Christian school. When I wasn’t being called “faggot” on the playground, I was hearing my parents discuss AIDS being God’s punishment for homosexuals at home. When I wasn’t having spitballs thrown at my head, I was listening to Mrs. Lovelace, my 7th grade Bible teacher whom I idolized, explain that gays and lesbians had demons living inside of them. When I wasn’t getting punched in the locker room, having my charismatic youth group pastor invite in the so-called ex-gay ministry to remind us that we’d be going to hell if we committed “homosexual acts” was just as painful. I knew exactly who I was, and I accepted myself. There was no one around who embraced me, though.

So, I compartmentalized. I never believed their lies, but I did let their limited knowledge effect me. I was reminded daily that my feelings for other men were disgusting, and that I was an abomination. Their ignorance arrested my sexuality. I graduated high school. I stopped going to right wing churches. My mom became a liberal-minded borderline-Buddhist who meditates and reads the Kabbalah. My dad, though limited in his interest of sociology, nonetheless loves his gay son. I’ve had amazing friends. I’ve had really good jobs.  But I have never known the love of anther man because everyday, I have stepped in where all those bullies used to be. I became so used to being alone, isolate, and beaten down that I never allowed myself to form a healthy attachment to another man.

At some point, I got used to it.

If teenagers yearn to carve out something distinct, as adults we come to believe we are entitled to our own autonomy. My arrested sexuality took on a mutant form in its pursuit of sovereignty. In my early twenties, I developed intense, obsession-like crushes on a series of three different men. All three were high quality individuals, but they simply were not interested in me sexually. I knew that early on, but I lingered, telling myself that their feelings would change. I was really just flagellating myself in the same fashion others had once abused me. The kid punching me, the pastor preaching at me, and the parent indirectly condemning me had left; but I stepped in and took their place.

Unrequited love became the theme of my life. I always picked people I knew I’d never have. I would fall madly in love with straight friends. I would find gay men emotionally unavailable. I became a lightning rod for anyone with a stormy presence. If I were abounded by complications, I would never truly have what I deserved. That’s just what the bullies wanted; I did a much better job than them of denying myself happiness.

I am one of literally millions of gay men who have “gotten used to it.” We seem to have a special way in homo-culture of torturing each other after others stop tormenting us. I would venture to say that a large reason why gay men are so prone to drug use, promiscuity, alcoholism, and body fascism has to do with a culture of self-affliction that arises from the aftershock of being bullied. We continue the cycle of abuse by putting unrealistic expectations onto ourselves so that we never experience the one thing we truly deserve—happiness. We surround ourselves with friends who are bad influences, do activities we aren’t really fond of, and eventually we just tell ourselves that it’s all ok.

We just get used to it.

Just because you survive adolescence doesn’t mean you’ve gotten past the effects of being bullied. I’m just now coming to terms with what happened to me as a teenager…and I’m almost 30 years old. There’s hope, though. It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to ignore problems for a decade and a half and miss out on enjoying your youth. If you’re involved with a child in any way—as a parent, teacher, mentor, or authority figure—make sure you know what’s going on in their world. Put your own prejudices aside for the sake of their health and safety. Kids don’t tell their parents that they are being bullied because they are worried they’ll disappoint them. Make it clear that the only thing disappointing is an unhappy child.

Be like the mom in the movie Bully. Don’t get used to this.

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re someone who survived being bullied, but you let a part of you die with that experience. If so, go back and revivify that which was taken away from you.

The bullies of our past have moved on; it’s time for us to do the same.

Drinking Gay

Glory of the 1980’s.
photo by David Quick.

We live in the shadows of our past. We are shaped by the events of our own, individual life. We are affected by the histories of the communities to which we belong. Try as we might, we cannot escape certain realities; we can only embrace the truth.

Sometimes, that truth comes in the form of a massive headache and a tumbling stomach the morning after a night out. You’ve all been there. You really didn’t feel like going out. You certainly didn’t want to drink. But it’s Friday, and there’s an 80’s themed dance party at the gay bar downtown. Tonight could be the night—the night you meet that magical person; the night the world sees just how electrifying you are. So you throw on some parachute pants, find a Pac-Man t-shirt, and summon your inner-Zack Morris. You down a shot of Tequila to take the edge off. You head out the door of your apartment and head toward your destiny.

You arrive. The music is loud and familiar. It’s the same tracks they always play…just with a few extra Madonna songs tonight. It’s the same crowd, too. You recognize 90% of the people…it’s the unknown 10% you’re there for, though! You scan the room. You zoom in on a few prospects. They don’t zoom you back. You want to leave. You stay, though, and order a drink. If you’re liquored up, you’ll forget just how disappointed you are. This is an important moment.

It’s within this space—the time in between when your expectations were high with hopes and the time just before they are shot down by the disparages of reality—that alcohol becomes your fortune. It’s sort of like a liquid tax for being gay. You can be sober to the loneliness of your own reality, or you can pay a toll to intoxicate bliss.

This is how queer people are disenfranchised.

Hangovers aren’t particularly indigenous to homos, but there are certain reasons that LGBT folks are three times more likely to abuse alcohol than their hetero-peers. In the Midwest, the isolation is compounded by a conservative political climate and a fragmented sense of community. There aren’t enough of us, and we don’t really know what to do with each other. We live in a heterosexist world where no one teaches us how to be intimate with a member of the same-sex. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Most of us grew up being engineered toward a sexuality that didn’t fit; even when parents and peers accept us, we’re left alone to negotiate how we integrate into a world that only has fragments of space for people who are LGBT. It’s highly uncomfortable.  So, we drink. Gay identity often amounts to being a barfly.

You aren’t socially deconstructing when you’re rocking out to “99 Red Balloons”, though. You’re just trying to keep up. You’re keeping up appearances by pretending that this scene of ours is just fine by you. You’re also just plain trying to keep up with the number of drinks those who arrived earlier have downed. By the end of the night, you’ve imbibed 7 beverages. Maybe you’ve even gone home with someone. What about the magic and the destiny, though? Providence got lost somewhere on the dance floor… or perhaps inside one of your glasses.

When we surrender our uncomfortabilities to the bottle, we drown the very hope that is intrinsic to our unique being. There’s a special challenge to being gay; in the 21st Century, we have the ability to redefine the very terms of life by rising to the occasion of this contest. We live in a highly assimilationist culture. Advertisers and media conglomerations tell us what music to listen to, what TV shows to watch, what clothes to wear, and which foods to eat. To acknowledge a sexual orientation outside of heterosexuality is to admit to being different. It’s an affront to American social order. Yet, it’s also the paradoxically the paradigm of what it means to be American. In the last century, we opened doors for people who have been marginalized by expanding opportunities for women, racial and sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, and other groups. The challenge of this century will be to determine what we do with the freedoms we’ve been afforded. The queer community can play a distinct role in this.

Instead of blending into a rainbow flag subculture where Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga are our patron saints and where communion is taken with a shot of tequila and some poppers, we need to be masters of our own universes.  We need to create our own culture—lots of different cultures so that each person, homo or not, can have a distinctive place where their talents and gifts fit. Alcohol is the antithesis of uniqueness. It’s a distraction so that you don’t have to contend with that peerless sparkle inside. If we can simply own who we are—and I’m talking about characteristics way beyond sexuality—we can create powerful forces. Part of the reason drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity, and suicide rates are high in the LGBT community has to do with how we discourage true individual examination. Gay people are just as guilty as the straights, too!  There’s a tendency to “fit” into the gay community as soon as we come out so that we aren’t left standing alone. Empty bottles on a table and toxins in your tummy aren’t company, though.

We homos have a peculiar history with alcohol. It brought us together as a movement when bars were the only true avenues for same-sex socialization.  In many places, that’s still true. As a community, we need to start thinking about what this means in terms of how we live our lives today.

Eighties dance parties are fun. Zack Morris is cute. But is going out all the time worth the health risks?

I drink. Sometimes I drink too much. Hell, I drank too much last night! But I’m getting tired of waking up feeling terrible. My body is screaming for change. I have a feeling yours might be, too. So let’s start a conversation. How can we get out of the bar scene and get more in tune with our own being?

More to come…much more…

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