I have a story to tell you –
“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I asked him.
He thought about it for a while and responded.
“Um, I want to have a house, and I want to have a job. On the weekends I want to go to the movies, and I want to have a group of friends to go with.”
“That sounds pretty good! How can you get there?”
“Well, I have to quit meth…”
It was a warm, sunny afternoon. I sat across from a friend on a balcony looking down on a calm street. We got into a conversation about his struggles with methamphetamine addiction, and I wanted to understand where he was coming from. I thought it would be a good idea to talk first about his aspirations rather than the gritty details of how he became addicted. I was shocked by how simple and “normal” his dreams were for the future. I had always taken shelter, school and friends for granted, but my friend didn’t have those things. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York where drugs and violence were rampant. He joined the military, which was his ticket out of that environment. He finished his service only to fall back into a life of drugs and destitution. All of these complicated social issues were also intertwined with his sexuality. In our conversation, he told me he just wanted to be normal – a place to live, a job and friends. What was noticeably missing in his vision was a family.
I recently read an article in the Huffington Post called “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” by Michael Hobbes that I thought captured very well some of the psychological problems that plague the modern gay man, and it has become one of my most referenced articles. One concept that stood out to me was minority stress that describes the constant psychological strain associated with being a stigmatized minority. In the case of being a minority in sexuality, relatively minor stresses dealing with perceived or actual social rejection and prejudice accumulate over time and lead to prolonged psychological trauma. It also talked about the sadness of not being able to have a traditional family. That was definitely an “aha!” moment for me because up to that point, I had not realized that a significant portion of my own depression could be attributed to my sexuality.
In junior year of college, I was going to a weekend retreat with the board of one of my college organizations. It was one of those bonding opportunities that gets the board closer to each other so we can work better together. The retreat would start with talks of organizational agenda setting and annual planning and eventually progress into secret sharing after a few rounds of drinks. When everyone was having a good time playing “Fuck, Marry, Kill”, I had already retreated into the corner anxiously like I always did in similar situations. I had to mentally prepare all kinds of reasons why I didn’t have an extensive dating history by college and came up with stories of attractions to various imaginary people. I would be mentally exhausted by the end of the night trying my hardest to provide unsatisfactory answers. To everyone else, it made me seem secretive and unwilling to share, defeating the point of a bonding night. It took me a while to process how those experiences shaped my interactions with others and my own psyche. I now realized how much my sexuality contributed to my social anxiety and unwillingness to get emotionally close to others. I felt like I had something to hide and was afraid I would be “discovered”. It was difficult to develop the kind of close friendship I saw in others because I couldn’t let my guards down.
I am much more comfortable with my sexuality today, but unfortunately the stress persists. When I visited relatives in China this past summer, I had an earful of questions about why I didn’t get a girlfriend in medical school or when I would get one. My family members were making all kinds of commitments to attend my wedding, including my 80 year old grandmother. When this came up, and it did a lot, I simply smiled and nodded. To them, I was an exemplar child – well educated and professionally accomplished. To me, I just felt like a fraud – I likely would never be able to deliver the kind of “normal” marriage and family they expected. I was going to be a disappointment to people who loved me the most. I believe that the closer one is to family, the worse the feeling. It only took me half a week before I couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to take the next flight back to the U.S….
When I asked my friend why he kept using meth despite all its negative consequences on his life, he said he felt powerful and sexy with it. It’s boring to meet guys without it because he didn’t feel attractive and confident. He had been struggling with depression and loneliness, and taking drugs was his way to have a moment of feeling like normal, no matter how temporary. He actively looked for people who party and play (hook up while on drugs) on Grindr. He just wanted to feel good about himself, and drugs were his gateway to that feeling. I nodded with an implicit understanding – I knew that feeling too well.
Perhaps you have read my last year’s diary entry on my entrance into the gay world, and it wasn’t full of rainbows and unicorns, so to speak. When I first came into contact with the gay world, a series of painful rejections quickly crushed my naive idealism and simple desires for acceptance. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, and what came with it was depression and a sense of self-hatred. There must’ve been something wrong with me if none of the pretty profiles on dating apps wanted me, right? In Hobbes’ article, he describes a process of being “re-traumatized” as one enters the gay world, a community where we are waiting to be accepted for who we are, only to be ruthlessly rejected for our ethnicity, appearance, income or demeanor. A quote that stood out to me was that “every gay man I know carries around a mental portfolio of all the shitty things other gay men have said and done to him.” In an age of anonymous, headless profiles on dating apps, it’s easy to forget all social etiquette, and we end up with a collective toxic culture that makes everyone miserable.
I have been ghosted or blocked on datings apps more times than I can keep track in the past years, but I do remember a few notable ones. One time I talked to a guy for several weeks and made plans to get boba. I was blocked right after finally sending him a picture. Another time I went rock climbing with a guy and never received a reply to my text after. There was a time that I traveled all the way from Boston to Hartford for a second meeting with a guy who said “you are a great person with a great personality and career, but not exactly my type physically.” Over the years I have struggled with deleting the apps but only to go back on a few days later. I think using dating apps is like gambling. We are on it to hit whatever jackpot that we imagine for ourselves, whether it’s the perfect boyfriend or the hot-boy-next-door hookup. But just like the casino, the player never wins. We end up creating an environment where guys with the best profile pictures get all the attention and can therefore pick and choose and leave the rest of us miserable and desperate from the trail of rejections.
The rejections, especially in the form of ignoring, ghosting and blocking, left me confused and depressed. At times it seemed like I was bracing myself for the eventual rejection in all my interaction with guys. I was defensive and quick to jump to conclusions whenever there was even a lag in response. Many of my friends have told me that I just needed more confidence, but it was very hard to find confidence when I had just received so many rejections. It was especially bad when this was compounded by being Asian and getting racist responses from apps. A friend once commented to me, when you have low self-esteem, you become desperate. And when you are desperate, you do the most irrational things. People engage in risky hook ups and drugs in an attempt to fill this painful void, but it’s like scratching an itch; they offer ephemeral relief but only to make the problem worse long term.
“Sometimes, I only eat a little bit of my food, like a quarter of a sandwich, and it would make me feel really fat, so I just threw the rest into the toilet.”
A while into the conversation, my friend admitted that he had been struggling with bulimia. Even though he had a normal Body Mass Index, which is how weight is measured to determine if someone is in a healthy range, he had an altered view of his body and believed he was overweight. He mentioned to me how there are so many fit and muscular guys and Grindr, and it made him feel unattractive.
A few years ago, I met up with a guy in Downtown LA. I was surprised that he even responded to me because he had what looked like a modeling picture on his Jack’d profile with the most amazing tan and ripped muscles. Fortunately for my anxiety, he looked a lot more normal in person, and we had a discussion about what he believed to be an inevitable progression for many guys in gay life. He said that when someone first enters the gay world, the person has this vision of finding and settling down with a normal looking, nice guy. Then he gets into the partying culture and starts to work out and look better. All of a sudden the nice guys are not fun and attractive enough. At the time, I was quite surprised and told myself “no, that’s not going to be me, I will always want the nice guy”.
In my exploration of the gay world, I have discovered more and more a whole lifestyle centered on partying. I started in West Hollywood and made my way around some of the gay centers in the country like the Castro and Hell’s Kitchen. I have been to clubs in LA, NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, San Diego and even some international spots like Valparaíso, Mexico City and Bangkok. I started learning about the various colors of circuit parties in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Interestingly, the attendants are typically young professionals who can afford the ticket and travel expenses to attend these parties, and I have gotten a glimpse of the scale of the drug culture in these events.
I went to Songkran in Thailand during April, and I think I finally understood what that guy meant with the progression of gay life. What I saw were professionally successful gaysians with model-like bodies from around the world descend upon the city overnight, filling up all the hotels in the well-known Silom district and meandering around in the busy streets of Bangkok. I was told by an acquaintance that the parties served as body building check-points for these guys who planned their travels around Songkran in April, White Party in May and EDC in June, etc. and that the most muscular guys are the ones who are perhaps most insecure about their bodies. Perhaps these guys are the ones who have “succeeded” to reach the body image zenith that gay guys strive for and are now enjoying the partying life, but then what?
We live in the era of social media and are under the constant bombardment of impossibly muscular guys from around the world who fill up our Instagram feed. These guys put Adam West’s Batman and George Reeve’s Superman to shame. The western standard of beauty for men has changed over the years to “more muscle and less body fat the better”, and the world is catching up. It takes an incredible amount of training and dieting, as well as good genetics, to reach that level. Most of us with normal lives busy with school and work will find it hard to pursue that lifestyle, but our Instagram and Facebook give the illusion that it’s ubiquitous and anything less is unattractive. We could blame professional makeup and Photoshop for the guys in magazines, but Instagram is real people! We forget that people take painstaking effort to curate their social media profiles by picking one out of hundreds of pictures with the best lighting, angle and shading. We are now all looking for someone who looks like that and feel bad that people don’t like us for not looking that way.
That day, I tried to offer as many words of encouragement and comfort to my friend as he shared his struggles with mental health, substance abuse and body image. I tried to tell him that it’s possible to be gay and to have a normal and perhaps even “successful” life. I wished to give him more hope for the future so he could heal from his past traumas and end his drug addition. But deep down, I don’t feel so different from him. I struggle with my own insecurities and psychological void. I have a hard time defining my own vision of “success” in life in the context of the gay world. Just like my friend, I need to figure out where my own path leads to and define a vision that is worth striving for.
I would like to suggest that one way to counter the toxic culture in the gay community is to create supportive, friendly and less-sexualized spaces both in person and online. I admire the work done by organizations such as GAPIMNY in NYC and AQUA in DC that offer in-person communities and safe spaces for gaysians to explore their identities and connect with others in a more meaningful way. However, not everyone lives in a big city with a large enough gaysian population, so online communities become extremely important. I want to put in a pitch for G3S where we offer an opportunity to discuss gaysian related issues and offer a supportive online space for those who might not have any organizations locally. We also have a mentorship program that connects people in a more personal setting where someone new to the gay world can be paired up with a mentor who have more experiences with coming to terms with their identities. Additionally, we are working to expand our model to more in-person groups by developing local chapters in cities like LA, SF and Toronto in an effort to create a more affirming gaysian culture.
I think we all have an individual responsibility to improve our collective culture. For me, I think it’s about treating myself and others well and with respect. I want to keep a realistic perspective of how many of the above mentioned issues affect me personally and take myself out of a loop of negative thoughts. I want to have goals for myself, whether it’s body image or professionally, but I want to keep them realistic and measured against my own growth. I am also making an effort to treat my online interactions with the same courtesy I would with my in-person interactions. I do my best to clearly communicate my intentions and only make promises I can keep. I think my life would improve significantly if I surround myself with kind and supportive people who are invested in my success. I want to thank all my friends in G3S and GAPIMNY who have supported me and encouraged me to write this follow up entry!