the velvet rage
“The experience of being a gay man in the twenty-first century is different from that of any other minority, sexual orientation, gender, or culture grouping. We are different from, on the one hand, women, and on the other hand, straight men. Our lives are a unique blending of testosterone and gentleness, hypersexuality and delicate sensuality, rugged masculinity and refined gentility. There is no other group quite like that of the gay men. We are a culture of our own…. Alan Downs The Velvet Rage
i have been romanticizing the image of mary poppins leaving after her zany and heartwarming interlude at the banks’ home since my eyes opened a bit more last november. poppins came, she worked her magic and taught some lessons, and when she felt the family members’ had expanded their own views of their lives and their connected life together, she opened her bumbershoot and let the wind lift her to her next adventure.
this speaks to the work i do and how i feel about it. i naively believe that having an impact on the system i work within will somehow impact the system for good. sadly it is not always the case. permanent change is an oxymoron in itself. change happens, but just as true is that change then happens again.
i admit, rather sheepishly, that when the systems i work within begin to revert back or move beyond the changes i have participated in, i flee. it becomes time to go. i can’t say whether this is a weakness or a strength or whether any of the changes i have helped orchestrate create a better world. i can say i leave a real part of myself on the table and i exit as a better person- stronger, with more insight, and i find a place to have a more open heart- although sometimes that takes work.
my life change this week. a new season begins and i will let the wind carry me.
there are so many things about my youth that can stir deep emotions with the wink of an eye. a sound, a smell, and so often a feeling. i was such an impetuous young one- dancing under the stars while channeling the spirit of isadora duncan- listening in on adult conversations with the precision of a tape recorder but with the interpretation skills of a deaf lad with no sign language skills. i understood the depth of the feelings i had and the conversations i heard, but i had no grasp on the impact those things had on my soul or my naivete.
impulsivity was probably my closest companion and my greatest rival. like a mime, i could mirror life to onlookers in a normal way, but the mere fact that it was only a reflection and not a true depiction fooled those around me and kept me trapped like the boy in a bubble.
i didn’t understand that i really needed to feel loved. my family loved me and it never occured to me this love might not be enough. i knew i was viewed as different- without a father around and very much effeminate, but i had no idea what it would be like to not be that way. i didn’t consider my differences unless in the company of others- and then being different – being me- would hurt.
i became strongly independent because of necessity. i wouldn’t dare speak to anyone about the shame i felt being different. i didn’t want to vex them with my shame. and i didn’t want to make them see it if they didn’t either. so i stuffed these ideas and feelings into an inner secret container that barely saw the light of day. i protected it with the bright light of denial for years and frankly became a master of deception- a skill many gay men of my generation developed over those years to remain sane or at least coping.
If gay men are going to have to self-diagnose and treat their own mental-health issues, lending a well-thumbed copy of The Velvet Rage might present the first Elastoplast to the problem. “When you read it, it all seems so very obvious,” says therapist David Smallwood, “but no one had written it down before. I don’t want it to seem like I’m a single-issue fanatic. All I’m saying is that when I see someone that is troubled in this way I will bet my next 20 years’ salary on where it started. I start dealing with gay men that have issues around sex or drugs or alcohol and within five minutes I know that we are into their childhood. So I think that every gay man to some extent will have been affected by velvet rage.”
Downs has assumed an almost messianic place in the lives of those who have absorbed his thinking. He has broken the implicit language of half a century’s gay culture and flipped it on its head. The central axis of an individual’s gay narrative, one that used to concentrate on the coming-out story either as a teenager or later, has been shifted back into childhood. The result is that gayness appears to be a psychological as much as sexual condition. Historically, gay culture has been underpinned by the word “pride”. Now Downs has identified a clear relationship with shame.
“I do think that a lot of the issues in The Velvet Rage have pushed gay men and gay culture to create thoroughly wonderful things,” says Downs, “but the question that each of us must ask is: ‘Is this the life that I want for myself?’ When you read the biographies of most people who have been incredibly successful in the creative world, they haven’t always achieved a personal life that is satisfying and fulfilling. That is my concern as a psychologist.”…. paul flynn theguardian.com
i have written and spoken of emotional sobriety for a few years now, but i am only beginning to get a taste of what this term may actually mean in my 4 dimensional life. i will continue the quest to understand my barriers to love- no matter what they are- and i hope i am able to manage this task. the fears and the shame i developed early on have paths deeprooted in my psyche- like the sewers in paris. i sometimes slip into one to get home safely and without fanfare like the phantom leaving a night at the opera. so much music and so much intrigue can easily send me to isolate in the quietly dark to stave off the intrusion of feeling.
emotional sobriety for me is first understanding this about myself and then hopefully reaching the place where i don’t have to slip away- but stay and linger in the feelings and the mood.
i recently heard this preview of “the cautionary tales of mark oliver everett” and i must say i’m hooked. there seems to be an understanding of the simple and beautiful that makes up peace in life. peace is not complicated. nor is it contrived or gimicky. it is simply there.
there has been much deserved press for a speech by irish drag persona panti bliss. i must say i have listened to it about 10 times or so and i find it to be plugged into the very soul of the conversation about lgbt rights in the 2nd decade of the 21st century of our human culture.
there is very little blame or projection about the responsibility of the oppression still felt among a good portion of our community. for me it really touches upon some basic construct of the modern gay male psyche at least those over 40. it seems a cycle we grow up feeling shame about who we are or how we are we are, then we are grown and we often go crazy and taunt each other and watch each other trying to shake that very shame. and that feels oppressive.
i have blogged often about shame and shame-based trauma. this is the cornerstone of many men’s foundation. as is lovingly laid out in alan downs’ short book “the velvet rage”. the ongoing process of being different, loved ones realizing we are different and slightly turning away we, in turn, feeling that turning away and internalizing it, knowing that our loved ones are treating us differently, which causes some of us to feel unlove-able which we also turn inwards to hide, and then spend a good deal of the rest of our lives playing out in a myriad of phases and dramas trying to erase that unlove-able, working through the anger of distancing, and coming to terms with being different and letting go of feeling unlove-able.
the advent of gay marriage is perhaps the next biggest gain for the lgbtq community. no we shouldn’t create an ideal to model heterosexual relationships and that is not the only aspect of marriage equality. what matters is that we are love-able, and that the world at large accepts and insists that we are love-able even if we are different. and then perhaps this ongoing dance of being different and slightly being rejected by our family and friends can come to an end. we can be accepted as we are and fight different internal battles just like our non-gay contemporaries.
i absolutely love the chutzpah that panti lassoes in her talk in the theater. i have gratitude and respect for a truth coming so quietly and so candidly.
here is panti bliss’ speech that has been set to a rhythm track a la the pet shop boys. i adore this just as much.