Yes, male privilege exists. But it carries a terrible cost—especially if you’re gay.

Essy Knopf male privilege
Reading time: 6 minutes

The dominance of the male gender is visible not only in male privilege,1 but also their overrepresentation in high-income brackets and their managerial roles.

It would be easy to assume that the many advantages enjoyed by males serve as a buffer against poorer health outcomes, and yet this isn’t always the case.

Men are for example more likely than women to die early from a number of causes, including suicide.2 This trend is not exclusive to the US but it is present globally as well

And these early deaths aren’t so much the result of lifestyle choices, some argue, as they are the profound loneliness lingering just below the surface.

The connection between male privilege and loneliness

In I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Terrence Real makes a compelling case for socialization’s role in contributing to the all-too-common experience of loneliness among older men.

He notes that boys compared to girls are typically less spoken to, comforted, and nurtured by their caregivers, leaving them prone to passive trauma, for example in the form of neglect.

Real notes they are also socialized to cut themselves off from their own feelings, their mothers, and from social support. 

That is, socialization teaches boys and men that entry to the club of masculinity is dependent upon their continued spurning of “dependency, expressiveness, and affiliation”.

Males are asked to uphold an impossible gender norm closely tied to the notion of rugged individualism.

Real says the cost of passive trauma and disconnection from self and others is that males suffer an unstable sense of self-esteem—and even shame—over their own emotions.

Forbidden the right of vulnerability, males have no choice but to emotionally numb themselves, internalizing rather than externalizing their distress. The result is covert depression. 

Having been trained to avoid others’ support, men inevitably turn to “defensive compensations” for this depression, such as drinking, gambling, or sex. 

The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that the resulting “addictions do to shame what saltwater does to thirst”.

Similarly, men may also seek an escape through grandiosity, or what Real calls the “illusion of dominance”.

Essy Knopf male privilege

The terrible loneliness of being at the top

What Terrence Real calls grandiosity, Lonely at the Top author Thomas Joiner describes as a fixation on earning money and building status.

Men in their 20s and 30s, he argues, are usually more self-focused than women. They assume an “either/or attitude toward wealth and status on the one hand and social connection on the other hand”. 

But as men age, this attitude wreaks a terrible price in loneliness, resulting in significant health disparities and higher mortality rates.

Joiner however diverges from Real’s thesis here by describing factors other than socialization as contributing to the male inability to form and maintain interpersonal connections later in life.

For example, he cites the “people versus things” gender dichotomy. Namely that from a very young age, boys are more interested in things, while girls are more interested in people. 

Males are by nature more inclined towards an instrumentality mindset, grounded in “assertiveness, self-confidence, competitiveness, and aggression”. 

This is opposed to the typically female, people-oriented mindset, which celebrates expressive traits such as “affection, cooperation, and flexibility”.

Joiner notes other differences, such as the fact that boys get less social coaching from each other and from men when compared to their female counterparts. 

Girls also have more gender- and age-diverse friendship networks. This contributes to females as a group enjoying greater interpersonal hardiness.

Having been spoiled with the “institutionalized, ready-made friendships of childhood”, men may fail to develop an appreciation for the “worked-for friendships of adulthood”.

Joiner claims that an instrumentality mindset can also lead to males developing a “don’t tread on me” attitude, best described as a “dogged self-sufficiency in the absence of healthy interdependence”. The links again to rugged individualism are, again, clear.

Joiner adds that “don’t tread on me” carries the tacit message of “don’t connect with me”. As argued by Real, men believe this attitude is necessary to preserving their conferred status as males.

“Don’t tread on me” combined with the single-minded pursuit of money and status normalized by our materialist culture can result in a more passive approach towards relationships.

Men as a result may be less likely to undertake the work necessary to maintain them.

In failing to feed or renew relationships, or to seek out new ones as they age, men may be setting themselves up for significant loneliness down the road.

The fact that men’s internal’s sensors are not fully attuned to their own emotional or social loneliness, Joiner agrees, further compels them to pursue said compensations. And rather than resolving loneliness, they only have the effect of compounding.

The health impact of engaging in addictive behaviors aside, loneliness itself can contribute to poorer health outcomes in later life while corroding one’s resilience and ability to cope with failures, disappointments, and losses.

When compared to seeking professional mental health, compensations are a more likely outcome among males, given that doing the former can threaten the male image of self-sufficiency.

And let’s not forget the stigma associated with male loneliness and accessing such services, which serve as obstacles in their own right.

How intersectionality can deepen male loneliness

Intersectionality argues that it is possible to simultaneously enjoy power and/or privilege in one situation, arena, or aspect of life, and oppression and/or disadvantage in others.

So while being male broadly conveys power and privilege, being an older male in Western society can have serious implications for one’s health and wellbeing.

If one happens to be an older male and have a minority identity such as “homosexual”, the impact can be exacerbated, for example through minority stress caused by stigmatization, discrimination, and prejudice.

This impact grows when one is also a person of color, a trait which brings many disadvantages in a White-dominated culture such as North America.3 4

The minority status of being gay male alone contributes to arguably higher levels of loneliness. And there is also the fact that gay men as a population have to work harder to gain entry to the “male club”.

Hostile attitudes towards homosexuals are often grounded in perceptions of their abnormality, i.e. “Too feminine”.

According to author Simon LeVay, gay men as a population are indeed different, exhibiting a “patchwork of gendered traits—some indistinguishable from those of same-sex peers, some shifted part way [sic] toward the other sex, and others typical of the other sex”.

In Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, he cites studies that indicate that where it comes to instrumentality and expressiveness—typically male-favoring and female-favoring traits, respectively—gay men tend to be shifted towards the opposite sex

Having gender-shifted traits in a culture that defines masculinity by limited expressiveness can thus double the pressure felt by gay men to conform to the stereotype.

It also means they are more likely to experience the disapproval of, and rejection by, others who subscribe to the standard (toxic) definitions of masculinity.

Social hostility can generate internalized homophobia, feeding into higher-than-standard rates of depression and anxiety.

It also provides a rationale for the all-too-common flight by gay men into compensations. (Consider here the higher rates of substance use and abuse, out-of-control sexual behaviors, and other process addictions.)

The link between gay loneliness and the potential for harm for example has been demonstrated in a study linking riskier sexual behavior as an avoidance strategy.

Those who engage in this strategy are for example exposed to higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The solutions to male privilege disconnection

To summarize, masculinity is coded in Western society in ways that are emotionally oppressive to males, hence the term “toxic masculinity”.

This oppression is intensified especially the case if you also share minority identities, such as being gay and a person of color. 

When combined with a biological inclination towards instrumentality and a cultural bias towards rugged individualism, this can wreak great harm to our mental wellbeing and our relational world. 

From this comes disproportionately adverse health outcomes, which as mentioned run in the face of the perceived advantages of being a member of an empowered and privileged gender.

Unfortunately, gender coding and social conditioning have been in existence for thousands of years. The intricate tapestry of our gendered lives cannot be unpicked overnight.

All the same, there are actions we can take as males to address the hidden costs of our gendered identity. 

Namely, we can choose to embrace “dependency, expressiveness, and affiliation”. We can strive for a greater connection with our inner selves, and others.

Such connections can be forged, Joiner says, by engaging in shared rituals that create a sense of belonging, togetherness, or harmony, such as sharing a meal with loved ones.

Here are some other suggestions:

Connecting to nature: As men, we stand to benefit by interacting more regularly with nature. 

This experience can reduce loneliness, especially when it provides opportunities to interact with others. For example, through hiking or gardening groups.

Daily phone calls: However awkward as calling people up out of the blue may seem today, relying too heavily on text messages can have some serious downsides.

Instead, Joiner suggests calling one person daily, if only for a few minutes. 

Whether you have something pressing to talk about is not important. The goal here is to create connection.

Reunions: Organize a reunion with best friends from one’s younger days can be a great way to renews existing connections.

Given the male tendency to lose touch with friendships as we advance towards middle age, this is essential.

A reunion can also bring many of the benefits associated with indulging nostalgia

Sleep regularization: None of the above is possible if our sleep schedule is out of sync with those of others.

If this is the case, we should consider shifting our life patterns to promote social interactions. 

We can this by maintaining a regular sleep schedule and seeking out opportunities to interact with others, such as through a shared physical activity like a sport. 

Gay autistics exist, and we need a name

Essy Knopf gay autistics spectrum unicorn
Reading time: 3 minutes

As a gay autistic, I wasn’t really surprised when I learned that gender identity and sexuality happen to be more diverse among autistic people.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

What really surprised me, however, was the fact that people like me didn’t yet have a name.

When you’re autistic, you’re usually described as being “on the spectrum”. Sex, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation have also been portrayed as existing on a spectrum. 

That said, the gender spectrum model has been criticized for being limited in its representation of the full range of sexualities, genders, gender expressions, and sexual orientations.

To explain: when you argue that male/man and female/woman occupy two points on the far ends of gender expression, you exclude other identities that may not entirely exist between these two points.

For example, intersex people might feel their sex characteristics are outside of existing categories of male or female.

One alternative to the spectrum model created by the organization Trans Student Educational Resources is the gender unicorn model.


The unicorn model is a lot more open-ended than the spectrum model where it comes to defining gender, sex, and physical and emotional attraction. 

The five categories used in the unicorn model are gender identity, gender expression, the sex one assigned at birth, whom you are physically attracted to, and whom you are emotionally attracted to.

So rather than describing people like us as being on two spectrums, I’m going to roll with the term “spectrum unicorn”. 

I think using this label can be a great way to identify those of us who are both autistic and LGBTQI+. It also opens the conversation to exploring some of the unique challenges we might face.

The theory of intersectionality is all about, well, intersections—not of traffic, but our identities.

But let’s say we use the traffic metaphor. In this case, the cars are our individual identities and intersections the contexts that define how they interact.

For instance, as someone who is gay and autistic, I sometimes felt stigmatized and oppressed on two fronts by wider society. This means I experience double the minority stresses.

Growing up, I was mocked for both my interests as a gay boy and for my autistic behaviors.

And even within the LGBTQI+ community, I have felt excluded and marginalized for being autistic.

For instance, as someone who has sensory sensitivities, gay nightclubs and circuit parties are incredibly overwhelming and thus unpleasant.

This means therefore I can’t easily participate in some aspects of mainstream gay culture, which reflects the ableism of wider society.

Conflicts between LGBTQI+ and autistic identities are a pretty big topic, and one I plan to explore in a later post. But if you at all relate to anything I’ve said today, let me know in the comments.

Do you identify as autistic and LGBTQI+? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced due to these identities? Have you experienced conflicts between them?

The first step towards an anti-oppressive social work practice? Understanding intersectionality

essy knopf intersectionality
Reading time: 9 minutes

Intersectionality teaches us that identity is complex, made up of a variety of factors including race, gender, class,1 ethnicity, age, sexuality, and physical ability.

How these aspects of self interact with power structures and cultural interpretations2 and shape our experiences of privilege and power, oppression and disadvantage, are the crux of discussions about intersectionality.

Critical Race Theorists argue that having a minority identity, such as being Black in a society in which White dominance and structural racism is the norm, will lead to some level of oppression while being the dominant identity—White—will result in the opposite experience.3 4

Racism, just like ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism are all forms of oppression. They are not universal, but reflections of power differentials produced by those with dominant identities. In North America, these typically are “White”, “male”, “heterosexual”, and “Christian”.5

The oppression experienced by a Black person is only further exacerbated when they also share additional “targeted” identities such as “having a disability” and being lesbian, which brings its own share of minority stresses.6

But say you were all three of these things and a member of the upper-class. This would complicate matters by adding some degree of privilege to the power differential equation.

Selfhood thus is the result of “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”.7 This is the puzzling truth of intersectionality: nothing is ever as clear-cut as it might seem.

In the following paragraphs, I will use my own experiences as a case study about the intricate—and sometimes contradictory—nature of having intersectional identities.”

An introduction to intersectionality

I identify as a person of color and someone who has a disability (autism). I also identify as a gay male.

My identity thus is neither single nor unitary, but the product of innate traits such as genetics, gender, and sexual preference, as well as self-selection and social construction.8

To elaborate: while I was raised in Australia, I never felt anchored to this nationality, nor to that of my parents, given I had limited access to their home countries and cultures: Iran and the US. 

I was raised in what I perceived to be a White dominant culture, and knew that my olive skin color led people to view me as non-White, or at the very least an “honorary White”.9

My awareness of being non-White was only heightened through conflict or oppressive microaggressions—“small acts of racism, consciously or unconsciously perpetrated”10—such as being called a racial slur by a stranger at age six.

In the wake of 9/11, some high school peers began altering my name until it resembled either “Saddam Hussein” or “Osama bin Laden”.

While motivated by the desire to order the world, these categorizations marked me as both inferior and outsider, imposing upon me a racial identity that conformed with a racial essentialism stereotype.11

According to this stereotype, all Middle Easterners are Muslims, and therefore terrorists, patriarchs, misogynists, and anti-Western.12 These post-9/11 racial scripts13 were reductive and failed to respect the unique and multifaceted nature of my identity.14

My racial identity, in this case, was not an “objective, inherent, or fixed” quality corresponding to a “biological or genetic reality”, but the product of social construction;15 a shaping through “social and cultural contexts, public discourses, national myths, and intergroup relations”.16

In being identified as Middle Eastern, I was grouped with a devalued “target”, to be dominated, oppressed, and marginalized by “agent” groups.17 

the thoughtful gay intersectionality

The social construction of oppression

The oppressive experiences I described here were not the product of mere individual prejudices and attitudes, however, but rather a cycle of socialization designed to reinforce racist patterns of privilege and oppression.18

This socialization triggered in me a sense of shame and guilt about the way I looked, in turn giving rise to internalized racism. Those drove me to shun all aspects of my own perceived “otherness”19 during future social interactions.

Growing up in Australia, I learned in school that these racist patterns were the product of legislation, such as the cultural assimilation policies of the 1940s and 1950s.

There was also the White Australia Policy, which limited immigration of all non-British people and was only abolished in 1975 with the Racial Discrimination Act.20

Despite the Australian government’s subsequent embrace of multiculturalism, it seemed to me that the commonly held social expectation remained one of assimilation.

If you failed to speak English with an Australian accent or to use Australian slang, if you subscribed to “foreign” religions such as Islam, or if you refused to embrace tokenistic aspects of Australianmui culture such as enjoying barbeques, the beach, and sports, you faced possible mockery and marginalization.

This I now understand was more than standard “ingroup” behavior, whereby members’ identities are reaffirmed by their exclusion of “outgroup” members.21

It was, rather, a process of socialization oriented towards sustaining “White, male, heterosexual, Christian institutional and economic power”.22

The tyranny of heteronormativity

This process began in school, with the daily enforcement of rigid gender scripts.23 Males were expected to have a keen interest in sports, to regularly prove their athletic prowess, to speak in clipped, monosyllabic sentences, and to limit their facial expressions.

Any kind of weakness was not tolerated. Expressing emotions or empathy was frowned upon. Judgment, dismissal, or exclusion among boys and men were the three methods by which I saw this toxic masculinity socialized.

In this sense, one’s gender “membership” often felt uncertain—prone to being retracted by one’s peers at the slightest infraction. 

Every aspect of how one presented or conducted oneself felt open to scrutiny. If you had a lisp, gestured too much, or walked in a certain way, you could be declared “girly”, “pansy”, or even a “f****t”.

To be called gay was to be ruled an abject failure as a male, a dirty sexual deviant, and a threat to the social order.

Once accused, you would invariably find yourself pushed to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Given my various autism-related traits, such as my unusual gait and style of speaking, I found myself excluded and bullied by members of privileged agent social groups; specifically, White, neurotypical, heterosexual boys and men. 

How oppression can accumulate

This “othering” I think was also the product of ableist assumptions that those with disabilities lack intelligence and are helpless and incapable of assuming care for themselves.24 

In a culture that codes masculinity as being self-sufficient, people with disabilities accordingly fail the acid test. 

Consider that when my impairment was revealed—upon committing a social gaffe, for example—some people would respond by calling me “stupid” or “r*****ed”. 

While my disability might seem mild to some, my different style of thinking and behaving was nevertheless picked up by the finely attuned senses of agent group members, who would cut in line ahead of me at the cafeteria, turn away upon my approach, and exclude me from social gatherings. 

Where I had internalized racism as a survival mechanism, I also learned to internalize ableism and homophobia, hiding my struggles and my sexuality where possible.

I endured sensory sensitivities that made sitting in a classroom difficult, but fear of inviting victim-blaming25 however kept me from ever complaining or seeking support.

For to be perceived as disabled or gay would mean I would lose certain privileges, such as the social acceptance afforded to my “normal” and straight peers,26 and even incur their hostility and oppression.

A toxic masculinity cocktail

My aversion to revealing any vulnerability was the product of a socialized script of self-sufficient masculinity.

This script in turn stemmed from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps/equal playing field” beliefs that have come to define both North American27 and Australian culture.

Australia for example has long conceived of itself as the land of the “fair go”, where everyone has a chance of getting ahead, with the nation priding itself for its apparent egalitarianism.28

The bootstrapping/equal playing field beliefs value self-sufficiency, as well as a formal conception of equality, whereby everyone is entitled to the same treatment.

That same conception however fails to acknowledge that people operate within power structures that either inflict disadvantage or fail to make adequate accommodations for those who face it, such as people with disabilities.29 

While I reconciled with my sexuality in my early 20s, it was not much later, after my autism diagnosis at age 26, that I was able to name the problem identified above.

By calling out this ableism for what it was and recognizing how it pervaded all aspects of my life, I was finally able to embark on the road to liberation as described by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire.30

My reality was no longer grounded in the belief that I was a bad person who deserved rejection. Instead, I now saw that I was someone who had been oppressed and disadvantaged.

Without a diagnosis, I had never had an adequate way of explaining my difference, or of receiving the therapeutic interventions that might have otherwise helped me overcome my interpersonal challenges. 

Intersectionality: sometimes a target, sometimes an agent

I recognize that for all these difficult experiences, there were instances in which I nevertheless enjoyed some power and privilege.

In some instances, I was a target, but in others, I was treated as an agent. As a male, I had unearned advantages and conferred dominance over females31 which, historically speaking, had enabled the former to objectify, sexually harass, and menace the latter.

Besides never having to fear such treatment, I enjoyed other privileges, such as never having to devote much attention to maintaining a gender normative appearance. Nor did I ever have to fear that the way I dressed might be blamed for my later rape.32

My male gender identity has also meant that where it comes to employment, I have a better chance of securing higher pay and a managerial role. As someone with lighter-colored skin, I also enjoy skin privilege.33

Identifying as cisgender means I have never been subjected to the kinds of everyday and major discrimination and prejudice that many trans individuals have faced,34 sometimes even from within the LGBTQI+ community.

For instance, I can successfully “pass” as my chosen gender and can use public facilities without fear of intimidation or attack. The humiliation and hurt of being dead named or having my gender identity questioned have never been a reality for me.

Growing up as a member of the middle class, I enjoyed other privileges such as a stable home, three meals a day, the occasional vacation, and so on. My parents at one point were even able to secure a private education for me and my siblings. 

As an Australian, I never had to endure disadvantages and dangers other people of other nationalities might, such as extreme poverty, civil rights abuses, war, famine, water/food scarcity, natural disasters, genocide, totalitarian dictatorships, energy shortages, a lack of public infrastructure, rampant corruption, deadly pollution, and environmental degradation.

Like other Australians, I have been blessed with a home country renowned for its cultural diversity, fresh air, intact natural environments, low population density, strong public healthcare and welfare systems, low-interest government college loans, a low unemployment rate, and low crime rates.

My nationality has granted me the comfort of knowing there was always a safety net there, waiting to catch me in the event of personal disaster.

The conflicts and contradictions of intersectionality

In short, I experienced disadvantage as a person of color who had a disability and was gay, while also enjoying privileges as a lighter-skinned cisgender male, a member of the middle class, and an Australian.

Understanding that we can have cumulative disadvantages, or simultaneously face privilege and oppression, is what intersectionality is all about.

The contradictoriness that appears during intersectional inquiry reveals the problem with assuming what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. 

Intersectionality invites us to ask and to listen, to adopt a position of humility.

From such a position, we all stand a better chance of truly understanding and empathizing with one another’s experiences.

Such an understanding is crucial to our struggle as human beings for collective empowerment.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Why ‘eulogy values’ are crucial to our happiness as gay men

Essy Knopf gay men
Reading time: 6 minutes

For most gay men, the journey from chronic insecurity to enduring wellbeing is fraught. It can be likened to fording a swift river under the cover of darkness, without the benefit of a boat or boatman.

Not only must we fight the currents of the past, but we must also somehow manage to keep our heads above the water in the present.

Without light to guide us, we risk losing sight of the far shore. Without a strong inner resolve, we may surrender and be swept downstream. 

Our suffering is often like mud on the river’s banks, so deep and compounded that we risk becoming mired in it before we’ve even reached the water.

In such times, we may be overwhelmed by the temptation to give in to our sense of powerlessness. Accepting that we may have no agency, that change is impossible, leads us to abandon our goals. 

We as gay men often settle for a life of contrary desires and actions, pursuing cheap thrill encounters in favor of purposeful deeds and meaningful connections. But such internal contradictions promise no peace. 

Rather, they are likely to only deepen our suffering.

Gay men and impulsive living

When I was in my early 20s and making my first forays into the gay “scene”, I met a man called Jeran.

Jeran was a gentle soul torn by insecurity. Having been abandoned by his father at an early age and bullied at school, he’d moved from the suburbs, seeking shelter in an inner-city gay village.

Despite always being surrounded by other gay men and having a mother who overcompensated to the point of celebrating her son’s birthday with him at a gay club of his choice, Jeran continued to suffer from self-loathing and impulsivity.

I knew Jeran desperately wanted a partner. But rather than attending venues and events geared towards dating, he spent his evenings compulsively cruising hookup sites and nightclubs.

Jeran was more of an acquaintance than a friend, so I was surprised when I received a call from him early one morning some months after our initial meeting.

Thinking it must be an emergency, I answered. Jeran apologized for waking me up then breathlessly launched into an account of his latest hookup. 

It quickly became clear to me that Jeran had confused a sexual encounter for a romantic one. When he explained the man he had met had recently split with his wife of some years, leaving his two children in her care, I hesitated.

But for Jeran, the fact the man had admitted this much could only ever be proof of his sincere intentions.

The following day, Jeran called again, seeking my enthusiastic endorsement, while disclosing intimate details that I had no interest in hearing.

By the third call, I finally told him that I needed him to reign it in. To my astonishment, Jeran replied by suggesting I might be jealous and dangled the consolation prize of a threeway

Given I had never expressed sexual interest in Jeran, this left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. I made an excuse and got off the call. 

About a week later, my phone buzzed. When I picked up, it was not Jeran this time, but his mother, pleading with me to go and check on him.

Jeran’s suitor, she explained, had stopped returning his calls, and her son was now in hysterics and threatening suicide. Concerned, I went over to Jeran’s studio to talk him through the situation. 

A stolid, red-eyed Jeran greeted me at the door. I tried to broach the subject of the breakup, but he deflected.

After a friend arrived to offer support, Jeran—without so much as a word of explanation—opened his laptop and proceeded to watch hardcore porn.

It was as if someone had set the faucet to full blast then switched it off just as suddenly.

Jeran’s denial of the relationship trauma he had just experienced was so complete he refused to take the necessary downtime to process his painful loss and, within a day or so, was back to cruising sex sites.

Over the next few years, I continued to see Jeran online, promoting drug use and branding himself as “semi-masc”—an apparent disavowal of his proud identification as camp.

Part of me wanted to reach out to him. Yet I knew that his entrenched sense of shame would prevent us from ever having the kind of authentic, nurturing conversation I knew he longed for.

Finding your anchor

Jeran’s suffering epitomizes that of many gay men who spend their lives yoyoing between highs and lows, refusing to acknowledge emotions and forever scrambling to find the next fix.

But in becoming preoccupied with the pursuit, we grow ever detached from our core values—values that should serve as a comforting source of stability, whatever the circumstance. 

Journalist David Brooks laments this universal challenge in his book The Road to Character:

Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth. You lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments. You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. 

Without the grounding influence of a firm value system, those of us suffering the anguish of unsuccessful relationships or the pain of alienation from our authentic identity as gay men may turn to the validation promised by grandiosity, or the quick-fix relief of addictive substances or behaviors.

The problems we face in such circumstances are undoubtedly profound. There are no easy solutions, but if we are to ever find them, we must first be willing to put a moratorium on external distraction.

Only then can we achieve a much-needed internal reckoning.

gay men eulogy values

1. Write a mission statement

Instead of trying to find solace in our ever-changing physical reality, we can turn to the inner world of principles.

By actively engaging with our value system, we generate positive change. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny”.

How do we identify our principles? We can start by asking questions like:

  • What’s most important to me? 
  • What values do I believe in practicing daily? 
  • What am I most willing to fight for? 
  • What is my definition of a healthy, content, balanced life? 
  • What nourishes my body, mind, and spirit?

Look at your answers, making sure to distinguish between what Brooks calls “resumé values” and “eulogy values”.

Resumé values are values concerned exclusively with material success, the kind that sounds great on your resumé.

Eulogy values, on the other hand, are tied to your character. These are the traits loved ones might celebrate at your funeral.

Once you have identified your eulogy values, frame them as statements about how you intend to live your life, and why.

List these principles on a one-page document. Close your statement with a pledge of commitment and sign the bottom.

Congratulations! You now have a mission statement. 

Now print out copies of this statement and tape them in places where you’ll be reminded on a daily basis of the code by which you have chosen to live your new life.

2. Set some S.M.A.R.T. goals

S.M.A.R.T. stands for five categories: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This goal tracking system helps break objectives into easily understood and trackable metrics.

Begin by brainstorming some goals in service of your newly articulated principles. Then download a S.M.A.R.T. goal planning spreadsheet and organize them into the five categories listed above.

For example, if healthy eating is a value you’ve identified, you can consider meal planning each week and preparing some home-cooked meals.

If you’ve listed community service as a goal, you can set aside time to volunteer for some nonprofits in your local community whose services you feel are valuable.

If you’ve decided you want to live a more mindful existence, consider implementing a 15-minute daily meditation practice.

In order to help you stick with your new resolutions, you may want to set reminders on your phone or program a habit-tracking app. Make sure to regularly check back on your progress at the times you’ve designated under the “T” section of your goal planner. 

The act of setting these goals alone will affirm your self-worth. And when you follow through with them, you are taking intentional steps towards creating a lifestyle defined not by the desire to escape but to embrace.

3. Be kind to yourself

Our society is addicted to the notion of instant “Cinderella-style” transformations. Transformation, however, runs on its own clock.

For this reason, you must be both patient and kind to yourself. Many gay men have a tendency towards achievement and perfectionism.

If this sounds like you, ensure your goal-setting and fulfillment does not become yet another behavior characterized by compulsivity.

Instead, practice listening to your feelings and needs. Cut yourself slack when needed. Treat this as an opportunity as much for growth as for self-compassion. 

Remember that you are tending a garden that will, in time, bear fruit. Conscientiousness and persistence are key.

The alternative is neglect, and we know very well the costs of this: the overgrown patches where snakes lurk, the flowers choked by weeds, the gnarled trees with their spoiled fruit. 

Craft a bold vision—one guaranteed to bring wellbeing and security, then carefully cultivate it.

“He who has a why to live,” says German philosopher Nietzsche, “can bear almost any how”.

Takeaways

  • Write a mission statement identifying the values that are most important to you.
  • Set goals in service of these values.
  • Break your new goals down into action steps using the S.M.A.R.T. system.
  • Pace yourself, and remember to practice self-compassion.

Why gay men suffer from internalized homophobia

Essy Knopf internalized homophobia
Reading time: 7 minutes

Even today, gay boys and men grow up facing the dual challenge of cultural homophobia and its byproduct: internalized homophobia.

The chance they will suffer from the latter is magnified when that homophobia plays out in the family home.

When I was 14, I remember a relative telling me that HIV/AIDS was the result of “gay men having sex with monkeys”. Say what?

“Oh, but it’s true,” the relative insisted. “Scientists have proven it.”

Today, such a claim could be easily disproved with a quick Google search. And while confusing being gay with bestiality might have been laughable, the statement had carried a hateful subtext. 

What this relative was really saying was that gay men were despicable sexual deviants.

That same message was conveyed in countless other situations. Once while visiting a friend of my father’s, I was forced to listen to him rant about a male flight attendant he’d noticed wearing makeup.

“He’s just a f****t,” the friend said, as if this explained everything. “I found it nauseating”.

These comments left me burning with anger. Any passionate defense I mustered would, of course, have outed me, and meant enduring the disdain not only of this homophobe but my father as well.

In high school, a girl I had considered a friend complained to the entire class about seeing a news segment about the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.

“Why do gay people have to shove it in our faces?” she said. “It’s disgusting.” Never mind the fact she herself had chosen to watch the segment.

Our teacher had simpered in agreement. Then – in a tone that was meant to convey tolerance – he stated that while he personally had no problem with gay people, he believed they should “keep their sexuality to themselves”.

Which is precisely what I did. With these kinds of comments being thrown about, there was zero chance I would be telling anyone about my sexuality any time soon.

It is no surprise then, that in this kind of hostile climate that we as gay men feel compelled to live lives of subterfuge.

The source of internalized homophobia

The same year I was told gay people should “keep their sexuality to themselves”, I undertook a job bagging groceries at a local chain store.

The store was occasionally visited by a rail-thin man wearing a goatee and garish gold jewelry, who had a tendency to mix and match his clothes: a tie-dyed shirt with cow-print pajama pants, a bucket cap with mandals.

I guessed by his mincing movements that he must be gay, a fact that left me puzzled. Every gay boy and man knew that flamboyant behavior invariably drew negative attention. Was this fellow trying to paint a target on his own back?

It is only with hindsight now that I realize this stranger’s campness was not necessarily an act of showy defiance but self-acceptance. The problem wasn’t his embrace of femininity, but the fact that I was uncomfortable with it.

Femininity, after all, was a quality I had long learned to disguise as a matter of survival.

Yet in accepting that my safety depended upon my ability to conform and “pass” as someone straight, I had unwittingly internalized homophobia.

The low down on gay men and femininity

Gay men face marginalization and persecution often because we tend to behave in non-heteronormative ways, which in turn enable others to identify our sexuality and use it as a basis for exclusion.

Gay men are typically portrayed in the media as being more feminine and are commonly labeled “sissies” and “pansies”.

But is there any truth to the claim that men are more feminine than their heterosexual counterparts? 

In Gay, Straight and the Reason Why, author Simon LeVay reveals that gay people do indeed tend to be “gender-atypical” where it comes to certain “gendered” traits. 

What traits exactly are gendered? According to LeVay:

In the area of personality, men rank higher than women on measures of assertiveness, competitiveness, aggressiveness, and independence… Women rank higher than men on measures of expressiveness, sociability, empathy, openness to feelings, altruism, and neuroticism… Men prefer thing-oriented activities and occupations (e.g. carpenter), whereas women prefer people-oriented activities and occupations (e.g. social worker). Women have better-developed aesthetic interests and less-developed technological interests than men.

As a group, gay men tend for example to score higher than straight men on tests measuring empathy, aesthetic interests, and verbal fluency.

Studies have revealed gay men are less physically aggressive. They are also gender-shifted towards instrumentality, expressiveness, and people-oriented occupations. (Note here the use of “shift”, as opposed to “inverted”; that is, gay men as a group do not completely adopt typically feminine traits.)

According to an analysis of a survey conducted by the BBC in 2005, gay UK-based respondents on average perceived themselves to be more feminine. This finding is backed by a number of other studies.

The pressure to be masculine

In my earlier article on embracing our authentic gay identities, I shared author Terrence Real‘s claim that from boyhood males are expected to reach for the brass ring of masculinity.

This masculinity involves a form of self-reliance that asks us to cut ourselves off from our emotional selves, our mothers*, and the support of our communities. 

Socialization teaches us to view emotional expressivity and vulnerability as feminine traits that must be avoided at all costs.

The prevailing definition of masculinity, of what it means to be a “successful man”, is one of self-reliance.  

This self-reliance and independence are further promoted by widely adopted social beliefs such as rugged individualism: i.e. “I don’t need anyone’s help, I can do this all on my own”, or the practice of stoicism, which advocates keeping a “stiff upper lip” in the face of hardship. 

Self-reliant masculinity is promoted by the archetypal male hero in movies and television, be it the hardboiled detective of crime fiction, the tough-as-nails gunslinger of Westerns, or the ironclad action hero.

These characters typically prove their merit through unflinching courage and physical prowess.

According to this definition, the opposite of self-reliance is weakness. When we exhibit “feminine” – that is, the gender-atypical – traits, we inadvertently signal to others that our masculinity is “defective”, thus inviting homophobic scorn and condemnation.

essy knopf gay internalized homophobia

Double-barrelled shame

Gay men historically have received a double dose of hostility, on account not only of gender-atypical traits but of being seen as inherently flawed.

Being gay was once viewed as an act of rebellion against the laws of God, as per the Bible’s accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah. Gays were viewed as “perversions”, on par with the likes of pedophiles.

The advent of modern science saw being gay reclassified as a mental disorder, a label that would remain until 1973 under the order of the American Psychiatric Association.

The perception that we were untrustworthy and possibly dangerous, however, persisted.

Consider for example the “Lavender scare”, in which thousands of gay people were purged from US military services and intelligence agencies from the late 40s and into the 60s.

In 1953, President Eisenhower even signed an executive order banning gay men from employment by the US government and its private contractors.

Suspicion towards gay men endured even from 1981 onwards, with the advent of what was initially called the “gay disease”, “gay cancer”, “gay plague” or “gay-related immune deficiency”.

Later retitled HIV/AIDS, the resulting epidemic triggered a moral panic that fueled further discrimination towards and ostracism of gay people. 

The impact on gay men

The negative light in which we as a group have been regarded, together with the emotional repression demanded of us, puts great strain on the mental health of gay boys and men.

Given we naturally tend towards empathy and expressiveness, I would argue this strain is greater than that faced by heterosexual men.

In the face of social pressure to emulate ideals of “manliness”, and the dismissal, ridicule, and physical harm we may face when we defy them, many of us find ourselves falling in line.

We do this by taking on the loathing others harbor for our authentic selves, altering our self-presentation along the lines of the masculine ideal.

That is, we learn to conceal our more evident “feminine” traits, including our interest in other men. Some of us may even avoid all possibility of judgment by eschewing the company of heterosexuals, moving to live in a gay village.

But the inauthentic shell which we don as a matter of necessity may become a new comfortable norm. Self-loathing will likely leave us crippled by ongoing covert depression.

Unable to tolerate our vulnerability, we find ourselves in turn unable to tolerate it in others. We adopt judgmentalism, rejecting other gay men as we ourselves were once rejected.

Gay bars, clubs, and dating apps are rife with this kind of behavior, which in many cases is an expression of internalized homophobia. Consider, for example, those people who write “no femmes” on their dating profiles, or demand a highly specific “masc” type or muscular physique in their partners.

While not as dramatic as a closeted man cruising a gay nightclub and attacking someone for making a pass at him, this latent form of internalized homophobia is characterized by emotional repression so painful that many sufferers are forced to seek refuge in grandiosity or addictive behaviors.

The irony of this repression and its byproducts is that they only further our existing sense of isolation, creating conditions ripe for more depression.

In order to free ourselves from the tyranny of homophobia, we must learn to accept and embrace all facets of our identity – without fear of reprisal. Source: Elise Gravel

The cure to internalized homophobia

In order to overcome self-loathing, we must first acknowledge how we have suffered by turning away from our authentic selves.

To break the hold internalized homophobia has on our lives, we must learn to accept and embrace all facets of our identity – without fear of reprisal.

For some of us, this may involve an outward exhibition of our more feminine traits. We may choose, like the goateed stranger of my teenagehood, to wear whatever we want and to act in the way that feels most natural to us.

Or we may simply seek to reconnect with and express our emotions; to let down our guards and create conditions in which others can do the same.

It is through such shared vulnerability that I believe we can ultimately achieve true healing, not just as individuals, but also as a community.

Takeaways

  • Being gayhistorically was seen to be a perversion or illness.
  • Gays as a group show some “gender-atypical” personality traits.
  • One is the typically “feminine” trait of emotional expressiveness.
  • Expressive gay boys and men thus face double the stigma.
  • Survival requires hiding our authentic emotional selves.
  • The result is depression and judgmentalism.
  • If we are to heal, we must restore emotional authenticity.

* I acknowledge that disconnection from one’s mother may not apply to all men, for example in the case of being raised by a male caregiver, or gay parents.