10 must-read books for gay men seeking growth, healing, and an escape from the struggle mindset

growth and healing Essy Knopf
Reading time: 8 minutes

The coronavirus lockdowns gave us time aplenty to stew and fret. Some of us however took it that time to play “life catch up” or even to undertake personal growth and healing.

As a gay man, I know that it’s precisely when life begins to slow down that I find both the time and the mental bandwidth to seek out the personal insights necessary to said growth.

At the time, I proposed the following reading list to help jumpstart the journey for anyone walking a similar path.

While the worst of the pandemic is largely behind us, the lifelong quest for self-knowledge continues. The following 10 self-help books I consider mandatory reading for this quest. Here’s why.

Essy Knopf growth and healing The Velvet Rage

Understanding the gay struggle – the first step towards growth and healing

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade. Why is this so? We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival.”
– Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage

Even as an out and proud gay man, I felt like I was still living a life of subterfuge. Only now it wasn’t my sexuality that I was hiding but my vulnerability

My dating experiences revealed I wasn’t the only one struggling with an entrenched sense of self-loathing and shame. More than a few of us had been left emotionally crippled by our experiences.

Not only were we incapable of building robust relationships—we were also prone to seeking relief through substance and process (behavior) addictions.

The Velvet Rage argues however that there is cause for hope. Author Alan Downs charts the journey gay men must take from self-loathing to self-acceptance before concluding with a raft of invaluable suggestions for how we can live happier and healthier lives.

growth and healing Daring Greatly Essy Knopf

Transforming your life through vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

When I came out as gay, I was searching for connection and a sense of belonging. I was, in a way, looking for a replacement family for the one from which I had become alienated.

Initially, I looked for it at gay venues, like bars and clubs. I quickly learned that it was sex, not vulnerability, that many of the men I met were looking for.

These individuals might claim to have achieved self-acceptance, and yet their aversion to vulnerability was so total, the denial of shame so complete, that our relationships remained mired in superficiality.

Any invitation to be emotionally authentic was met with bewilderment, resistance, and even scorn. To those I encountered, being vulnerable was at best weak, at worst dangerous.

Daring Greatly author Brené Brown argues that this need not be our fate. “Shame,” she writes, “derives its power from being unspeakable. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid”.

Her solution? Recognize it for what it is, understand its triggers, strive for critical awareness, and be willing to reach out to others and speak out about our shared experience of shame.

You can watch Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability here.

growth and healing The Body Keeps the Score Essy Knopf

Recognizing the influence of trauma

“Traumatized people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions, because emotions lead to loss of control… Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”
– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

I was 12 when my family began to fall apart. My older brother’s daily battles with my parents, his drug use, and random acts of violence, lying, and thievery reduced our household to a warzone.

My parents eventually buckled under the strain of it all, withdrawing emotionally and giving my brother free rein to bully me. 

The experience left me stricken with an unrelenting sense of loneliness and worthlessness.

Trauma was a word I exclusively associated with veterans or victims of extreme abuse. But as I came to later learn, trauma can be entirely passive, like emotional neglect.

Trauma for gay children is an all too common experience. We face it when we are rejected, assaulted and even cast out for our sexuality.

Bessel van der Kolk’s comprehensive The Body Keeps the Score is a deep dive into the manifestations and mechanics of trauma.

Readers will come away from it with new insights not only into their own experiences with trauma but possible treatments as well.

growth and healing Learned optimism Essy Knopf

Adopting optimistic thinking

“An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.”
– Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism

While my family was disintegrating, I was also being bullied at school due to a then-undiagnosed disability, Asperger syndrome.

My resulting depression and anxiety led to what Learned Optimism author Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic explanatory style”. 

In moments of difficulty, I would resort to self-blame, telling myself I was unlovable and entirely deserving of my misfortune. These explanations came at a great cost to my mental wellbeing.

Learned Optimism argues that we can correct this chain of thinking by identifying the adversity we’ve experienced, the existing beliefs they trigger, and their consequences. By disputing these beliefs, we can alter the impact they have on us.

You can discover your own explanatory style with the help of this quiz devised by Seligman.

growth and healing Self-Compassion Essy Knopf

Being kinder to yourself

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’”
– Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion

Previously I’ve discussed the burden of “grandiosity”, a defense used by gay men against feelings of inferiority or covert depression.

The one thing I’ve found key to my recovery as a workaholic perfectionist is the very thing I’ve denied myself: self-compassion.

When our attachment as children to our primary caregivers is disrupted (more on this below), we fail to develop critical self-soothing skills.

This may cause us to neglect our own needs during times of stress or suffering. We may even seek distraction in grandiose or self-destructive behaviors, like addiction.

Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff offers a third alternative: practicing self-soothing through mindfulness, being aware of our emotional states, and responding appropriately to them with words and acts of compassion.

growth and healing Mindset Essy Knopf

Adopting a ‘growth’ mindset

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over… Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
– Carol S. Dweck, Mindset

Those fixed in their thinking, like grandiose gay men, are stricken by a fear of failure and imperfection. 

As such, they seek success in the place of growth, superiority rather than self-acceptance.

But, as in the words of Mindset author Carol S. Dweck: “If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?” The fall from such heights can be devastating. 

The opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset, which calls for us to suspend constant judgment of ourselves and others. A growth mindset makes us more likely to seek out personal change and development.

The good news is we don’t have to be born with a growth mindset to enjoy the benefits. We learn to adopt one through practice.

growth and healing Boundaries Essy Knopf

Setting clear boundaries

“Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences.”
– Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries

Boundaries are crucial for all gay men because our right to choose how we live is one that often comes under the scrutiny and judgment of others, especially our own families.

As a gay man who enjoys a close relationship with my mother, I can safely say that it was one arrived at through continual negotiation, and a willingness to defend my personal boundaries. 

My transition to independent adulthood was predictably rough. My mother, for reasons that were perfectly logical to her at the time, would insist on trying to control or judge aspects of my life even after I left home. 

My decision to get a mini-mohawk, for example, would result in the silent treatment. Piercing my ears resulted in her nagging for me to “take them out”.

In moments of weakness, I would kowtow to her will, at the cost of mutual respect.

Renegotiating boundaries with our parents can be a particularly thorny process, yet it is critical to the longevity of your relationship as well as those that follow.

While the non-religious may struggle with Boundaries’ numerous Biblical references, Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic remains a vital guide to establishing better relations with our loved ones.

growth and healing Attached Essy Knopf

Understanding your relationship needs better 

“People have very different capacities for intimacy. And when one person’s need for closeness is met with another person’s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.”  
– Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

Dating for me has historically been an uneven game of push-pull; a mismatch of varying needs and expectations.

It was only when a friend introduced to me the concept of attachment styles that the cause was at last brought into focus.

Our relationships with our primary caregivers from our childhood onward serve as a template for how secure we feel in the world. It also forms the basis for how we “attach” to others. 

Attachment falls into three categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Anxious people seek closeness and affirmation, avoidants seek distance and independence. 

Secures typically have no difficulty bonding with either type and thus serve as an ideal partner for anxious and avoidants.

While this all sounds rather formulaic, being able to recognize your own needs as well as that of your romantic partner is a guaranteed way to save both of you a lot of difficulty—and heartache—down the road.

Those interested in identifying their’s or other’s attachment styles can try this brief quiz by authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

growth and healing Full Catastrophe Living Essy Knopf

Learning to meditate

“Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of agency, control, and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacity for paying attention and on the awareness, insight, and compassion that naturally arise from paying attention in specific ways.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living

In Full Catastrophe Living, author Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that while stress may be an unavoidable feature of life, how to deal with it or not deal with it is ultimately our choice.

For example, the trauma I experienced growing up was hardcoded into the behavioral circuitry of my brain. I found that later conflicts would invariably trigger them.

The resulting fight-or-flight response was often destructive to my relationships.

It was possible however to reprogram my brain to judge and react to every stimulus. This is the essence of self-awareness.

By practicing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, we can learn to be present with our experience. Through mindfulness, we can learn to be aware of our feelings, rather than controlled by them.

Improving emotional intelligence

“People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.”
– Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

The skills described above – self-awareness (knowing one’s own emotions) and self-compassion (managing those emotions), as well as self-motivation, empathy, and relationship management – are all critical to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”.

Emotional intelligence is a meta-ability that governs how successful we are in all aspects of our lives, from relationships to our wellbeing, to personal effectiveness and productivity.

My discovery of Daniel Goleman’s seminal work served in this sense as a catalyst for confronting my own trauma and seeking a fresh perspective on my struggles.

I accomplished this with the help of therapy, reading self-help and psychology books, opening up dialogues with others, and yes, undertaking meditation.

While some sections and theoretical discussions may not be relevant to all readers, Emotional Intelligence is an essential read for all gay men on the path of self-improvement.

15 transformational documentaries LGBTQI+ folk can appreciate

Essy Knopf gay documentary coronavirus lockdown
Reading time: 8 minutes

When I originally wrote this list, I was in the midst of the first coronavirus lockdown, stuck at home with not a whole lot to do.

The world has changed somewhat since then, but I believe these films remain as interesting and important as ever.

And while my selection isn’t exactly targeted at LGBTQI+ folk, many of these films have queer themes and subject matter.

All of them made the cut for a single reason: they each have the potential to help us become a little more thoughtful, informed, and empathetic.

So if you’re on a journey towards self-betterment, I’m sure you’ll find something of interest in the following list.

15. Touching the Void (2003)

A docudrama based on the book of the same name by climber Joe Simpson, Touching the Void is about his and Simon Yates’ ill-fated 1985 climb in the Peruvian Andes.

While the pair succeed in their quest to climb a 20,814 ft mountain, the trip quickly goes awry after Simpson breaks a leg mid-descent.

As severe weather bears down on them, Yates is forced to sever his friend’s rope, sending him plummeting to the bottom of a cliff.

What follows is a belief-defying tale of endurance that will leave even the most seasoned thriller viewer with lead in their stomach, right up to the unexpected finish.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes

14. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Encounters at the End of the World is a mesmerizing look at the characters and creatures who choose to call Antarctica home.

The documentary perfectly embodies the sensibilities of German filmmaker-cum-philosopher Werner Herzog, who has made a career of chasing seemingly impossible film projects, often about figures bent on achieving impossible dreams of their own.

Herzog, who shot the entire film with a crew of two (counting himself), invites viewers to revel in the wonders and curiosities on the frontiers of human civilization in and around McMurdo Station.

Over the course of Encounters, you’ll meet scientists who listen to ice for the alien calls of seals, a deranged penguin toddling inland towards a solitary death, and a physicist who draws parallels between spirits and subatomic neutrino particles.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

13. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

BAFTA-nominated They Shall Not Grow Old is a World War I documentary by a giant of cinematic craftsmanship, Peter Jackson.

The pioneering director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy has painstakingly restored and colorized archival footage while adding sound effects and voice acting under the stewardship of professional lipreaders.

Jackson sutures together more than 200 firsthand accounts by British veterans, offering new insight into the horrors and hardships of trench warfare.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a technical triumph that manages at various times to be buoyant, sobering, and deeply moving.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

12. The Biggest Little Farm (2018)

The Biggest Little Farm chronicles American wildlife photographer John Chester and wife Molly’s almost ten-year attempt to construct a sustainable farm from the soil up.

The effort, inspired by a promise to one very loveable dog, plays out like a modern Robinson Crusoe. Chester and Molly are forced to adapt and improvise to the ever-changing demands of revitalizing a former orchard.

Along the way, they learn to harness rather than battle nature to create their own little patch of paradise. The film teams with an effervescent spirit of wonder, human ingenuity and hope. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

11. Project Nim (2011)

Project Nim follows a groundbreaking scientific endeavor to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee.

Researchers’ efforts to socialize and train the eponymous “Nim Chimpsky” begin with his adoption by a human family.

From the moment we learn Nim’s human mother chose to breastfeed him, however, we see the road of good intentions and its inevitable outcome.

The result is as much a tale of hubris as it is of humanity’s mercurial – and often unwitting – capacity for cruelty.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

10. Shirkers (2018)

Shirkers is an intimate whydoneit about an act of interference that derailed the promising career of a young Singaporean director.

It was the summer of 1992 and Sandi Tan and friends had set off to film Tan’s debut feature under the guidance of mentor and teller-of-tall-tales Georges Cardona.

Afterward, Tan charged Cardona with processing the raw footage, only for Cardona – who had shepherded the film from its inception – to vanish.

Almost 20 years later, Tan was able to recover all of her lost reels, sans audio. She uses the botched film as a springboard for exploring Cardona’s motives and true identity.

Shirkers is a wistful journey through the hypersaturated visual landscape of a changing Singapore, infused with a longing for a past lost and found, and a future that could have been. 

Where to watch: Netflix

9. Deep Water (2006)

How far are you willing to go in the name of pride?

This question underscores amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst’s single-handed race around the world for the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (of no relationship to the annual television awards ceremony).

The film charters the family man’s battle against the odds to survive boat troubles, wild weather, and, ultimately, madness.

With Crowhurst hopelessly behind and his reputation hanging in the balance, he decides to put off radioing for help in favor of falsifying his yacht’s positions in his logbook.

Crowhurst’s final accounts of battles with cosmic beings elevate this story to the level of tragic parable, serving as a warning to all those who aspire to the heights of greatness, unaware of the fall that may very well follow.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

8. Green Porno (2008)

Delightfully camp and playfully ludicrous, Green Porno is the nature documentary at its unsexiest.

Written, directed, and hosted by Italian-American actress Isabella Rossellini, best known for her roles in Blue Velvet (1986) and Death Becomes Her (1992), Green Porno technically isn’t a feature film, but rather a series of shorts.

In each episode, Rossellini dons cardboard and rubber-foam animal costumes to explain and enact usually bizarre, sometimes grotesque, and occasionally morbid mating rituals.

While her approach is essentially edutainment, the third season leans more into activism, highlighting the danger commercial fishing poses for marine life.

Green Porno is an unexpected delight, guaranteed to make you first cringe – then laugh.

Where to watch: YouTube (free)

7. Won’t You Be My Neighbour (2018)

More than a few of us long for the kind of father figure that was American television personality, Fred Rogers.

The host of the preschool TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran for a respectable 33 years, the soft-spoken Rogers became a mainstay of children’s television, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of countless viewers.

Modeling a distinct brand of openhearted kindness, Rogers served as a gentle counter to popular notions of masculinity.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour explores how the Presbyterian minister treated his show as a shelter for young minds, free from the barbs of insensitivity, violence, hatred, prejudice, and adult agendas.

The documentary casts the late Rogers as a kind of luminary, and perhaps rightfully so; the lessons he taught and the hope he bestowed continue to resonate today. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Now, Vudu, YouTube

6. Last Train Home (2009)

Most gay men know intimately the pain of having to separate from their families, a choice that is often as much a product of choice as circumstance. It is a pain shared by the protagonist of Last Train Home, rebellious teenager Qin.

Raised by her grandparents and saddled with the expectations of workaholic parents who are, for all intents and purposes, strangers, Qin decides to cast off the yoke of their dreams of a better life through education.

Her decision is as much motivated by a desire for financial independence as it is a breakdown in familial understanding and empathy.

Qin’s story is tinged with bitterness, heartbreak, and a sense of loss that is certain to hit home for many a queer viewer.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Tubi (free)

5. Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)

Academy Award-nominated psychological horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) was a camp classic about two ex-actress siblings, played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, locked in a battle of wills.

Echoes of this toxic family dynamic can be found in the relationship between the subjects of Mommy Dead and Dearest, Gypsy Rose Blanchard, and mother Dee Dee.

For years Dee Dee perpetuated lies about her daughter’s age, fabricating claims she suffered from numerous disabilities and chronic illnesses.

Dee Dee subjected Gypsy to physical and psychological abuse while foisting upon her a battery of unnecessary surgeries and medications.

Towards the end, Gypsy Made plans to escape from her life of captivity which culminated in a decision to kill Dee Dee with the help of a secret online boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn.

Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee’s story is so unbelievable you could be forgiven for dismissing it as the stuff of schlock horror fiction.

It is indeed a story with few precedents, and yet its theme of toxic child-parent relationships is one many gay men are well acquainted with.

Where to watch: Google Play, HBO Now, YouTube, Vudu

4. Holy Hell (2016)

Holy Hell is a fly-on-the-wall account of the Buddhafield cult directed by Will Allen, a gay man who sought refuge beneath the ring of yoga master and cult leader Jaime Gomez.

Leveraging footage from his time as the cult’s videographer and chief propagandist from the mid-80s onwards, Allen depicts the cult’s rise under the influence of the enigmatic and increasingly paranoid Gomez.

He details the alleged control and sexual abuse inflicted by Gomez on male followers.

Gomez, a self-proclaimed “God” with a penchant for plastic surgery, swimming briefs, and eyeliner, is eventually unmasked as a Venezuelan actor and porn star.

Holy Hell functions as a warning that the comfort and safety offered by “gurus” may be little more than false promises.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

3. Southern Comfort (2001)

Southern Comfort follows the final year of the life of trans man Robert Eads. Eads is succumbing to ovarian cancer. It is an illness, he tells us, that might have been averted had numerous doctors not refused him treatment until it was too late.

The film is not a grim march towards death, but a poignant portrait of a man whom society has failed. Southern Comfort moves at a meditative gait that seems to capture as much the spirit of its idyllic setting of rural Georgia as it does its subject.

Eads spends his last days celebrating a close bond with his “chosen” family while enduring a painful visit from the biological one that has rejected his new gender identity.

Yet Eads does not appear to harbor hatred for those who chose politics and self-interest above professional and familial duty.

Rather, he seems to emerge not torn by the injustice, but, rather, transfigured.

Where to watch: Tubi (free)

2. Paris is Burning (1990)

Before there was the award-winning FX show Pose, there was Paris is Burning.

This landmark documentary offers a snapshot of the gloriously queer underground ball subculture, in which self-fashioned models and performers take to improvised catwalks to compete for trophies and prizes.

Ball culture we learn was as much an exercise in gender and social class satire as it was empowerment, offering both refuge and a platform for creative talent within marginalized communities.

Paris is Burning serves as a celebration of its subjects’ resilience in the face of social opposition. It is also a historical document of an important cultural movement that gave rise to the likes of voguing. Mandatory viewing for all thoughtful gays.

Where to watch: Previously available on Netflix – check Google

1. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

The AIDS epidemic sparked mass panic of the likes we have only since seen with the rise of the coronavirus. It led to the deaths of millions from the late 80s onwards and fuelled the widespread stigmatization of gay men.

Academy Award-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague is directed by David France, a journalist who provided frontline coverage of the outbreak from the very beginning.

It covers activists’ battles with the US Food and Drug Administration to expedite the approval of often toxic, but possibly life-saving drugs.

One of the fruits of their tireless labor is the antiretroviral drug Truvada; a hard-won privilege often taken for granted by gay men today.

How to Survive a Plague for that reason serves as a timely reminder of our communities’ many successes on the road to secure our rights – and of the distance that still remains to be covered.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

essy knopf top documentaries