Before our first — and final — date, the French man whom I’d been chatting to for the past 48 hours offered some comforting words to help calm my nerves.
“At the very least,” he assured, “we can still be friends.”
Possibly he meant well, but this flimsy promise made me realise I was already in trouble. I mean, who uses “least” and “friend” in the same sentence, as if acquiring someone to spend time with in a non-sexual manner is some sort of pathetic consolation prize?
Sadly, he’s not alone in this assumption.
In my bedroom, I have journal after journal filled with pages of yearning for people who disappeared, never to return, to come back or at least explain why they left. (To his credit, at least the French man was honest enough to let me know that “you are not the one for me.”) My words for all the others read a lot like heartbreak, even though they were written in memory of gay men I’d never so much as kissed.
I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to make friends with other gays, only to feel just as alone and outcast as I did as a bookish thirteen-year-old in a sport-obsessed, country high school. No one likes being rejected, but it’s certainly harder when the door is closed by somebody who promised you that they aren’t judgemental, and pride themselves on escaping the vexatious shallow stereotypes that have long plagued, and to some extent been perpetuated by, the gay community. In case you’ve never used an app or dating site before, let me give you some examples: “Masc4Masc”, “No fems”, “No Asians”, or “Gym-fit looking for same”. Crude and discriminatory as these sorts of self-descriptors are, at least I know where I stand. A million miles apart with no wish to edge closer, thank you.
For a long time, I believed it was only me who was in this predicament, and that my biggest failing was my appearance. If Instagram is to be believed, gay friendship is mostly muscled, tanned men smiling topless on the beach or in a club surrounded by an armour of hashtags. I figured that explained my struggle. I am shy, ugly and vegan, all of which pose a serious threat to anyone wanting to gain likes with the likes of #gaycute #gayhunk #gayhot. Moving through this glossed world in this wretched body made me feel like I was worthless; but moving in more intellectual crowds still made me feel like my brain and thoughts meant nothing so long as I had the same offensive face.
According to LGBT counsellor Clinton Power, there are in fact many gay men who find it hard to make friends and suffer from “deep loneliness and isolation.” Sadly, these feelings of despair are not limited to those who are closeted or in remote areas.
“There is enormous discrimination and judgment within the gay community itself. This is a sad reality because many gay men grew up being bullied and discriminated in some way,” says Clinton.
“There is a strong cultural pressure to have a muscled gym body and not fitting into this stereotype can lead to feelings of shame and self-loathing for some men. The reality is many ‘A gays’ (good-looking and gym-fit men) tend to form cliques with similar men and tend to exclude men who don’t fit their physical type.”
But for every A, there are at least twice as many Ps, Qs and Rs. Michael Hobbes’ piece, “Together Alone: the epidemic of gay loneliness” addressed the elephant in the room by acknowledging that black cloud of loneliness that has come to define the modern-day gay milieu. He noted that “the rates of depression, loneliness and substance abuse in the gay community remain stuck in the same place they’ve been for decades.” Hobbes’ story — long overdue for most of us — spoke to those whose voices had been deafened or ignored, but the noise it created has been stifled — or suffocated — and those who struggle, continue to fight to be heard or seen. Perhaps it’s time for us to hijack social media and flood out the filtered photos with our own; the machine, after all, works better when it’s being subverted.
When dealing with clients who feel they don’t measure up to the perfection they see reproduced on social media, Clinton advises them to “surround yourself with good people and find a supportive tribe of people you connect with.” Friendship is, by nature, often a transient experience: people arrive and exit quicker than we would like them to, but I also believe we meet the people we were meant to.
For some time, I had a gay friend who made everything make sense. He quoted me from his bible, The Velvet Rage and, in return, I recited entire chunks from my favourite journalist, Elizabeth Wurtzel. (I still can’t help myself. Here you go: “I need the thing that happens when your brain shuts off and your heart turns on.”)
We were alone together and his company made it possible for me to breathe underwater. Some nights, I fell asleep content just knowing that I knew him. We’d take ourselves off on imaginary trips overseas, transforming the bland city we lived in to somewhere sculpted by our own hands.
But this friend, who had more friends than I could ever imagine, was also deeply lonely. “Why does nobody want my love?” he sighed. It’s a question that’s been asked a million times before, and will continue to be repeated until the earth ends. I guess it was inevitable that this friend would leave, even though it upset me greatly at the time. I can’t help but wonder if, to many of the gay men I have known, I was just a passing distraction: someone who, at first glimpse, the thought might have been able to save them from themselves.
Perhaps it’s because gay men have long had to look to the internet to meet anyone that we romanticise — those behind the screen, or app — and hope that they might bring us the love we crave. Sometimes, that’s exactly what happens; other times, it falls flat. In offering my friendship, I have always felt like the beggar woman from Beauty and the Beast, pleading whoever opens the door to look beyond the gnarled flesh and rags and not turn me away dismissively once they find a lover.
But this isn’t a sad story, not entirely. After a journey of Tolkien proportions, I managed to find — and keep — two gay friends. If I wasn’t an optimist, I might have used adverbs like “just” or “only” — instead I just hope to know them for the rest of my life. In the beginning, I feared these friendships may evaporate or wear away into threadbare rag. Time has taught me to expect everything and nothing, and simply to enjoy the times we are together.
The desire to love and be loved is unequivocally paramount to human existence. Otherwise, Shakespeare never would have put ink to paper and we wouldn’t sit through humdrum office jobs without complaint simply because there’s someone waiting for us at home. But the belief that romantic relationships are the only ones worth fostering is a dangerous delusion that can only make the lonely even more alone.