breaking the “straight jacket”
Ahead of this weekend’s Pride in London Parade, peek inside Matthew Todd’s new book exploring how to be gay and happy.
"It is the irony of ironies that the word we chose for ourselves, gay, which originally meant jolly, carefree and happy, has come to describe a group of people who collectively appear anything but."
These are the words of Matthew Todd, ex-editor of Attitude and author of the recently released Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy. At when half of LGBT youth have contemplated suicide, Todd's offering is as necessary as it is harrowing. Most importantly, the books goes beyond simply identifying the mental health epidemic plaguing queer communities. At long last, it seeks causes and - crucially - potential cures. As the stark black lettering of the opening volume makes clear, the source of much queer trauma is the skeleton in the closet that pride was meant to have erased: shame.
Childhood experiences are formative, and the sense of unacceptable difference is immediately ingrained in any kid that seems to trouble the sexual or gender order.
Shame comes in two forms. In Ancient Greece, the word had two variants: aidos was productive shame, the kind of bashful modesty that largely functions to stop us behaving like assholes. The other was aiskhyne, a sense of disgrace and dishonour that damages one's esteem and sense of self. This is toxic shame: the kind born of bullying, rejection and abuse, the kind that burrows its way into the psyche and plays itself out as trauma in bizarre and seemingly unrelated behaviours. The endless complaints of wanting to find a decent partner rather than a shag in the G-A-Y loos (just before proceeding to shag in the G-A-Y loos), the anxiety that too often determines where and how we exist in public spaces, and the depression that has driven too many of our community to suicide aren't coincidental - they aren't just tragic quirks in an eccentric community. That Omar Mateen, the man who gunned our queer Latinx brothers and sisters in Orlando, might have been repressing queer desire isn't either. The seeds of shame are sown early, and their fruit can be fatal.
Childhood experiences are formative, and the sense of unacceptable difference is immediately ingrained in any kid that seems to trouble the sexual or gender order. The Stonewall Teachers Report of 2014 found that 86% of secondary schools and 45% of primary school teachers said pupils experience homophobic or transphobic bullying. Two thirds of secondary teachers and one third of primary teachers had heard words like faggot, poof, dyke or queer used in classrooms and playgrounds across the country. This works from an early age to internalise shame, and, as Todd argues, to teach us that, "Deep inside, in a way we cannot understand or articulate, we feel we are somehow flawed, bad and unlovable, and that we must fight against who we are to survive."
This isn't conjecture: it isn't just Todd extrapolating personal anecdote or one survey into the a broad political point. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study surveyed 17,000 patients. It found that a child with four or more negative childhood experiences (including but not limited to incest, a mentally ill or addicted parent, and sexual, physical or emotional abuse) was over 1.5 times more likely to become obese, 5 times more likely to become an alcoholic, and 46 times more likely to become an intravenous drug user than a child with none of these negative experiences. Of the "negative experiences" cited above, the most prevalent cause of destructive behaviour wasn't an addicted parent, nor was it incest as one might think. It was "recurrent chronic humiliation" of the kind that the Stonewall Teachers Report exposed as rife in schools across the country.
Controversially, Todd argues that the way forward isn't reclamation of behaviours that straight society considers deviant - the kind of "queer equals hedonistic" equation that still pervades queer and straight thinking.
The "straight jacket", the "tight-fitting, one size restraint imposed on us at birth that leaves no room to grow outside its narrow confines", forces us into certain actions, movements and positions. Perfectionism, unhealthy competition on the queer scene, femme-shaming, transphobia and bi-phobia from gays and lesbians, the far higher proportion of queers who develop eating disorders - all have links to shame, something reproduced in attacking, othering, fetishising and dismissing queers of colour and the genderqueer.
Controversially, Todd argues that the way forward isn't reclamation of behaviours that straight society considers deviant - the kind of "queer equals hedonistic" equation that still pervades queer and straight thinking. Queers who claim that meth-fuelled orgies, getting shitfaced five nights a week, and balking at the thought of anything deemed traditional are doing themselves and the community no favours, he argues. Speaking from the Attitude head office he explains that "We engage in so much destructive behaviour, yet it has been claimed as a badge of identity by some in the community - that to be shooting up is somehow empowering because it means we're different from the mainstream. I find it strange. It isn't doing many people much good."
The consequences, moreover, are dire: those lost along the way to overdose, drug addiction, alcoholism and self-harm echo through the book. Each new name resonates with the symphony of tragedy and loss that thunders throughout the opening chapter. For Todd, who is overcoming his own addiction and mental health issues, a simple reinterpretation of "deviant" behaviours as radical or anti-assimilationist isn't enough.
"We grow up being told that being gay is terrible and miserable. So we then run around telling everyone how great it is, how great we are, and how proud we are, and we are incredibly sensitive to anything that might challenge that, so we try and shoot it down in flames," he argues. The consequence is a community that won't talk about its shame, and instead adopts a stance that might be doing more harm than good. Breaking the straight jacket isn't about total opposition to the stereotype of straight suburban banality, it's about avoiding either extreme, of working out what a middle ground might be. The book's strength is offering tangible suggestions on how to overcome shame, and remove the "straight jacket" without setting it - and in the process, ourselves - on fire.
Wear what you want to wear, identify how you want to identify, and if you want to spend your life in clubs, do it.
The final chapter, 'Recovery', is a encyclopaedia of action plans. LGBT-affirmative therapy, addiction services like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, volunteering in LGBT centres, attending trans support groups, minimising porn consumption, using Grindr healthily, safe sex, and connecting with sexual health and drug advice services at Dean Street and beyond are all on offer. At a macro level, donating to queer community centres and lobbying politicians tangible support to build these spaces remain integral.
"Wear what you want to wear, identify how you want to identify, and if you want to spend your life in clubs, do it," he explains, with resonant, heartfelt compassion, "I just want us to get to a point where we feel good about ourselves." The legislative fight might be winding down. The fight for happiness is just beginning.
Text Edward Siddons
Photography Colm Howard-Lloyd