Gay loneliness: critiques and counter-critiques

Recently I read the article “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” by Michael Hobbes. It’s about the physical and mental health issues gay men face, even in absence of overt bigotry. Based on personal stories and talking to researchers, Hobbes identifies two causes. The first one is “minority stress”–we’re made aware of our marginalized status constantly.  And even if we’re in a friendly environment right now, the minority stress was already pounded into us as kids.

The second cause, says Hobbes, is gay culture itself. Well, you get a bunch of people together, all of whom have dealt with minority stress, and it turns out they don’t form a big happy family. Hobbes talks about meanness, often in the form of racism, body policing, and masculinity policing. He laments that for many gay men, hookup apps are the primary way they really interact with other gay people.

I am mostly sympathetic to this article. I’ve long thought the health disparities suffered by gay men (and by other minority groups as well) are an elephant in the room. Instead we talk so much about same-sex marriage, bathroom bills, job and housing discrimination, and bullying. And while these are all important issues, it seems like they were chosen not on the basis of being important, but on the basis of being amenable to public policy changes. Health and economic disparities are tougher to address, because we often don’t know what causes them, much less how to solve them.

But here I will raise a few criticisms of Hobbes’ article, and also discuss other people’s critiques.

My first criticism is that the article focuses a lot on “well-off” gay men who nonetheless suffer from drug addiction or mental health issues. I think this is important to Hobbes thesis, which is that these problems occur even without a clearly identifiable cause. But I think the article would have benefited from more stories from non-white men or bisexual men.

For instance, I think it’s relevant to know that bisexual men are worse off than gay men by most measures, despite being less well connected to any sort of “gay community”. It suggests that insofar as the “gay community” is a problem, it’s not just a problem for people in the middle of it, but also people on the outskirts looking in. I put “gay community” in scare quotes because I think it’s questionable whether there is a single unified community, and whether it is “gay” as opposed to gay+bisexual+queer. But as far as the image goes, it looks like there is one gay community. And even if the image is illusory, it can be troubling to look in and say, oh, gay culture is awful and I don’t have any alternatives.

My second criticism is that I am extremely suspicious of the story of the guy who was in a 12-step sex addiction program. Whenever I see “12-step program”, I remind myself that 7 out of 12 steps explicitly invoke God or other religious concepts. I accept that sex addiction could be a problem for some people, but if it’s a real problem and not just a matter of religious values dissonance, then it is also a real problem for atheists, and 12-step programs are unacceptable.

Now, let’s take a look at some articles that have been written in response.

Why Gay ‘Marriage’ Has Not Cured Gay Loneliness – I’ll save you the trouble of reading this one. The answer is that gay people don’t have enough God. Pfft, next!

The Research on Minority Stress and Gay Men Shows “Loneliness”—but Also Resilience – This article is written by Brian Salfas, a researcher in mental health for gay men. Salfas notes that some of the gay men in these studies are doing just fine. This strikes me as a trivial observation. Salfas then criticizes Hobbes for being insufficiently nuanced in the description of the research.

So, this just annoys me as a writer. Hobbes’ article is already pretty long, and it is not possible for an essay to cover all nuances! If Salfas wants to elaborate further on the details of the research, he has his very own article where he is free to do so. But instead of actually explaining anything, he wasted the whole space complaining! This is classic clueless academic.

Gay Loneliness Is Real—but “Bitchy, Toxic” Culture Isn’t the Full Story – The author, Ben Miller, appears to be coming from a more radical queer perspective. Miller’s main point is that the problem with gay culture isn’t that people are mean, but rather that the gay men in question are hurt by their own privilege. However, in my reading of Hobbes, his story isn’t that gay culture is too “bitchy” or “toxic” (in fact Hobbes never uses these words at all), but rather that gay culture is extremely judgmental of attractiveness, body size, and race–that is to say, gay men suffer from a many-tiered hierarchy of privilege.  I’m not clear who Miller is disagreeing with.

Miller has other specific points, which range from nonsense to distractions.

First, he complains that Hobbes mostly focuses on “A-gays” (a term I hate already, it basically means privileged gay men). Yes, I also would have liked if Hobbes included more discussion of less privileged groups, and how they are affected by the same issues. But Miller seems to be saying that the only way to understand the root of the problem is by talking about stuff like trans murders instead, and I think I’m missing the connection here? This is the literal worst way to use trans people in a rhetorical argument–shrugging aside any problems that have the gall to be less pressing than murder.

Miller’s second complaint is about marriage equality, describing it as a “new and strange celebration of conservative values we’ve constructed as the ultimate goal of gay life”. I don’t agree, and also don’t understand what that has to do with the problems of gay hookup culture.

Miller’s third complaint is that Hobbes relies too much on research, and not enough on Miller’s own anecdotes. Next!

Oh, that’s it. Well, I hope you enjoyed this little cross-section of gay cultural discourse.


  1. cartomancer says

    I thought this article seemed a tad parochial too. Its focus seemed to be almost entirely on gay men living in large cities, mostly in North America (London gets a mention once or twice, but nowhere outside the English-speaking world). I suppose the author is in that situation himself, and most of the psychological research done on gay loneliness issues is probably from that context given how much easier it is to find a cohort of subjects in big cities with apparent gay communities. Nevertheless, I’m not sure how useful the article’s tentative conclusions would be for anything but a tiny minority of people experiencing these issues.

    Which was disappointing for me, because I’m of a similar age to the author and I have felt increasingly lonely and depressed over the years just as he describes. The line at the beginning about seeing all his straight friends get lost in suburbia and relationships and children hit home very hard, because that has been a major source of depression for me too. Though he said his gay friends seemed to all be taking a different path, which I can’t say I have experienced because I have precisely one gay friend and he’s just as lost amid suburbia and relationship as the rest. Which hurts in its own special way, because I’ve been deeply in love with him for sixteen years, but that’s beside the point.

    I think it might be useful to bear in mind that this article is talking about two different things – the stresses that can emerge from being gay growing up and the problems that can emerge from leading a certain type of urban gay lifestyle in North American cities that revolves around dating apps and being a part of a gay community. The article seems almost to assume that the latter is an inevitable result of the former.

    It seems to me that the author’s dismissal of his straight friends in one sentence at the beginning is indicative of a problem that nobody is really addressing. Why aren’t his straight friends stepping up to help out with the loneliness? Why don’t they make time to hang out with him and visit him and support him? (yes, I will admit to projecting here – to some extent I am asking why don’t mine?). There is an unchallenged assumption that somehow this cosy little heteronormative narrative of marriage and children and suburbia must not be questioned or disrupted or upset. They have theirs, and everyone outside the blessed circle must sort out their own mental wellbeing. It is somehow not the responsibility of those who don’t suffer from this loneliness and isolation to help out their friends who do. The situation reeks of the kind of short-sighted libertarian selfishness that is causing so many problems in the US at the moment.

  2. says

    Yeah, I also got the sense that Hobbes was focusing on experiences similar to his own.

    From a big city perspective, it seems strange to me to look for connections among straight married couples. Parenting is a big deal. It seems like socializing with parents is a bit like undergrads socializing with professors–we’re just very far apart in terms of where we are in life. But I can see how it would make more sense in a small town.

  3. cartomancer says

    It’s not so much looking for new friends I’m talking about (I don’t do that anyway), more keeping in touch with your old friends and making time to see them. There seems to be this unspoken idea that when you get married and have children you are somehow supposed to exclude everyone else in your life and stop seeing them regularly. Which may or may not be psychologically healthy for the married people in question, but when it means that the one single person in the group has effectively had their social life excised by this stupid custom, it is certainly not benign.

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