Rick Miller LICSW


Fifty Shades of Gay

What do you think of when you think, "gay man"?

Posted Apr 17, 2015

How accurate is your “gaydar”?  A lot of us think we know all about gay men—where they live, how they dress, how they carry themselves—as though being gay means a uniform way of being in the world. 

The most visible gay men, those who stand out the most, have traditionally lived in cities.  Safety in numbers, ease in community, extended family—all of this can be found in cities. And some of us end up living in a gay bubble, or what I call the Gubble.  We live, work, socialize, and make choices based on community norms or expectations.  The pressure to conform isn’t necessarily conscious, of course, and so decisions may be made without being fully considered. Similarity attracts similarity, and it feels safer to stay within the confines of what is known.

The estimates of how many gay men live in the United States range from anywhere between 1.8 to 3.8 percent to close to 10 percent of the population. The numbers are affected by many variables, including how likely the respondent is to self-identify or to speak openly to the pollster or even to pick up the phone.

Whatever the percentage, the truth is that many gay men do not fit the narrow profile that media outlets propose, and they may not be easily identified by our “gaydar.” In fact, many of the gay men who do not meet the popular criteria may have at one time or another shown up at a therapist’s office wondering how to deal with feeling deficient within the community.  Not feeling part of the larger peer group or not being accepted by peers carries a painful sting reminiscent of experiences of being the outcast growing up.

More and more, gay men don’t just live in cities. And we aren’t all rich. We aren’t all young, thin or neat. We come in all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. We have different faiths, political leanings, and philosophical positions. And as gay acceptance grows, so do the physical boundaries of where one feels safe.  The “gay ghetto “ is slowly diminishing in many cities. Now, more than ever, moving to the suburbs or to the country is an option. And as gay men are able to marry in much of the country, children are now a part of many gay men’s lives.  Back in 1977, the US National Gay Task Force (NGTF) was invited into the White House to meet President Jimmy Carter’s representatives—a first for gay and lesbian groups. The NGTF’s most popular slogan was “we are everywhere.” It’s true.

Still, we have miles to travel to leave the land of stereotypes—even our own about ourselves. Recently, I was confronted with this myself. I was at a training weekend and one of the participants had lived in Boston (where I live and work). We spoke a couple of times about life in the northeast. He was an older guy, who had moved out of the area years ago. Truth is, I would never have pegged him as gay, but at some point he mentioned having gone to some of the bars near my office. They were all gay bars! He was coming out to me and I had no idea.   I was moved by our conversation, and I also felt embarrassed and naive.  In “sizing him up,” I had assumed we had nothing in common. Presumption is so often inaccurate. Lesson learned. 

So, here we all are at the threshold of a more open and generous way of seeing each other and ourselves.  A few things to keep in mind along the way:

  • Making assumptions about others is a bad habit. Judgment is a harsh editor and sometimes cheats us out of positive interactions.
  • Be aware of your own biases and stereotypes and challenge yourself to think differently and more openly.  It’s an exercise that is really good for your health!
  • Consider being open to friendships with a variety of people of all ages and genders; it makes life more enriching! 
  • In order to have a happier life, do what you want, instead of what is deemed okay by your community. 
  • Think beyond how someone looks, or where they live, and get to know the real person inside, not just the label.  You may be surprised to find that real-to-real is better than being trapped in stereotypes.

Of course, this isn't just about gay men—it's about everyone.

More Posts