The Cutting Edge . . .
During a recent series of reports on widespread drug use at gay Circuit Parties, Chicago’s WBBM-AM news reporter Steve Miller interviewed one man at the party who told him the reason gay men use drugs:
“I think there’s a lot of insecurities in the gay community. That’s why there’s a lot of drug use and stuff like that. I think they use that to feel more comfortable with who they are. You know, it’s hard to be accepted as gay people in America as it is, so this is something to sort of cut the edge.”
That view seems to be common. Berkeley psychologist Walter Odets similarly explained to the Chicago Tribune that gay men use crystal meth as “a terrific self-esteem enhancer” because “We have a widely depressed [gay] community living in the midst of a deadly epidemic and a society that’s still, for the most part, unapproving.”
That reasoning seems plausible. But think back. Where have we heard this explanation before?
Back in the 1970s, when sociologists (doing their research at gay bars) purported to find high rates of alcohol consumption among gays and lesbians, the rationale immediately offered was that we lived in a homophobic society and the pressures of societal hostility and the tensions of having to remain in the closet led gays and lesbians to seek relief in the anodyne, pain-deadening effects of alcohol.
Then during the 1980s, as AIDS irrupted into the gay male community, when some gay men continued to have sex with a large number of partners, the explanation was that gay men lived in a hostile society that devalued their lives, so it was not surprising that they sought personal validation by proving to themselves that they could attract lots of sexual partners.
Even today, when some gay men continue to engage in unprotected sex, you occasionally hear that, well, unprotected sex is more “intimate,” and after all as an oppressed minority gay men are just trying to find ways to compensate for social opprobrium, feel better about themselves, etc., etc.
Oddly, no one seems willing to say out loud that frequent drug use, unprotected sex, or heavy drinking can be enjoyable and that is the main reason people engage in them. They hardly need social hostility or internal discomfort to find them fun, pleasurable, gratifying and ego-enhancing.
But no, there seems almost no enjoyable but risk-laden activity gays and lesbians might engage in that someone does not try to explain as the result of societal hostility or compensation for internal discomfort about being gay.
But if you think about it very long, that social-psychological explanation begins to seem pretty tired and threadbare and look less like a reason than an excuse, a rationalization, an alibi, for not just one but several reasons.
For one thing, it is no longer 1970 or 1980. It has been more than 35 years since Stonewall and more than 30 years since homosexuality was de-pathologized by the psychology and counseling establishments. Institutional and societal homophobia have abated significantly, so if they were the cause of imprudent behavior, that behavior should have decreased proportionally rather than continued, much less increased.
Then too, this supposedly homophobia-induced behavior is being noticed most prominently not in Alabama or Oklahoma, which really are homophobic, but in the gay enclaves of our most tolerant, urbane, blue state cities: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. Some of the very people whose behavior is attributed to oppression even live and work in the gay enclave and hardly ever encounter societal hostility at all.
No doubt many of us felt, or at least were aware of, opprobrium toward gays when we were growing up – from our families, at school or from our churches. But people are not helpless victims of their childhood. We expect people to acquire a certain amount of self-knowledge and self-understanding as they mature, to come to terms with and get over the pains of childhood. That is part of what “growing up” means.
Furthermore, blaming homophobia fails to account for why most gays and lesbians, no less sensitive and subject to the same social pressures, now as well as during childhood, do not feel the need to engage to any great extent in these enjoyable but risk-laden activities. Somehow the majority of us manage to get along largely without them.
The social opprobrium model fails for all these reasons. But most of all it fails because it is too heavily influenced by an outdated behavioralist stimulus-response model of how humans function: Put in influence X, and generate behavior Y.
But people do not function that way; they are not machines. People have free will and personal agency. Talking as if they do not, as if they are in the grip of social influences they cannot resist, is exactly the wrong message to send to them. We need to remind them of their ability to control their own lives. We effectuate their capacity for self-determination by reminding them that they have it, not by offering spurious reasons why they do not.