Former Attitude editor thinks gay men have demons to beat, and the first step is to talk more openly about our problems
TEN years ago, I stood in a newsagents in Waverley train station, Edinburgh, as a nervous gay teenager and paused before buying the gay lifestyle magazine, Attitude, thinking it too embarrassing to take to a till operator.
Fast-forward 10 years and I am interviewing the recently-retired editor of that same magazine, in a bar in Edinburgh around the corner from Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence, Bute House. Times have changed, but has everything changed for gay people in Britain?
Todd recently retired from the top post at Attitude to take a back seat role, going out with a bang with a Prince William interview and cover shoot. But after eight years of editing the UK’s most popular gay lifestyle magazine, he has observed the slow, incremental changes in gay culture – and he sees a problem, putting his views together in his new book, ‘Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy’.
“When the Chemsex thing came round I just felt so frustrated, because we’re seeing a lot of damage happening to people.” Matt Todd
Some have criticised the title of the book for implying that gay people are inherently unhappy, that being gay is an inherently unhappy state, but Todd is explicitly clear in his book that many gay men lead perfectly ordinary, contented lives – but there remains a pattern which he can’t ignore.
He thinks there was a moral urgency for the book. “I felt anger in writing it. There are some bloggers who are too sex-positive and unwilling to talk about when sex is problematic.” He says, too, that there is empirical evidence that gay people suffer disproportionately from addictions and other mental health problems: “There’s quite a lot of studies, the PACE report, which shut because of government cuts. But the majority of studies across the world seem to show that gay men are high risk.”
His book is published as people become increasingly aware of the Chemsex scene: “When the Chemsex thing came round I just felt so frustrated, because we’re seeing a lot of damage happening to people in London from the drugs situation. Lots of people come through it, but lots of people don’t come through it.”
A central point in the book is that as a community we’ve not done enough to name the demon – shame – which hangs over us like an albatross hanging from our collective necks.
Some of the stories he has come across have shocked and alarmed him: “Some young guys telling us stories about overdosing, people panicking, and people pushing them out of their flats in case they died in their flats. One guy was stumbling around on the rooftop of a building, completely naked and out of his head. It’s a miracle he didn’t fall off.”
A central point in the book is that as a community we’ve not done enough to name the demon – shame – which hangs over us like an albatross hanging from our collective necks. We have somehow done things backwards: discovering the remedy of pride, before giving the diagnosis of shame.
“It’s painful to talk about, and doesn’t fit with how we want to present ourselves. [Someone] might not consciously think they have shame, they might be depressed because shame has all these different effects. Gay culture has been so obsessed with pride, pride being the word. There’s been no cultural space to talk about shame.”
“I think objectification is a massive problem for gay and bisexual men.” Matt Todd
The shame that gay people inherit while growing up is, he thinks, subsequently compounded by the hyper-sexualization and objectification of gay people. “I think objectification is a massive problem for gay and bisexual men. Because I think on many different levels gay men objectify everybody. Sex sells, the same as it does with straight society. But if you have an emotional wound and you want to have a relationship with somebody it involves connecting that sensitive, real part of you and that is painful. And so it’s much easier just to have sex with somebody.”
Todd is quick to accept some responsibility for this himself, as the editor of a magazine which routinely put topless men on its front cover. “I don’t want to be seen as being a hypocrite because I objectify people as much as anybody else on an individual basis. I am also aware that a lot of the covers of Attitude were these sexy, fleshy men. On the one hand it’s just a magazine, but on the other hand I know that sometimes people look to the gay press for a sense of identity, and that can be problematic.”
But he also lays some of the blame on the fabled “pink pound” and commercial pressure: “Gay businesses and the gay media – businesses want people to be out in their pubs and clubs, getting drunk. So much of our culture is about sex, that’s the thing which unites us all, so so much is focused on that.”
Such objectification contributes, perhaps, to a culture in which gay men can be ferociously nasty to one another. “The amount of vitrol and viciousness I see,” he says, and highlights the racism and shaming of feminine men in particular. “I find it really painful when I go onto apps with profiles saying ‘I’m only interested in real men’ and you think every gay man on that app will have some kind of conflict about their own masculinity. I can certainly understand if people find masculinity attractive, nothing wrong with that. But to talk about it in the way we do, to shame people for not being masculine is such a sore.”
“It’s incredible that we’re still in a place where such a narrow male filter filters everything. I would really love it if more TV companies and publishers told gay stories.” Matt Todd
As a child, Todd was, in his own words, “obsessed” with The Wizard of Oz. “It has a very specific place in gay culture. The Stonewall riots kicked off after Judy Garland’s funeral. That connection has gone on for decades and decades, and no-one ever really talks about why. I figured out eventually that it’s about co-dependence, and to some degree mental health – about a young girl who doesn’t feel loved, going on this journey finding some kind of resolution.”
He quotes Over the Rainbow in his epigraph for the book: “Over the rainbow, somewhere you can never find, it doesn’t really exist. You have what you need already.”
Such escapism, he argues, is partly necessary because the rest of artistic culture fails us so badly: “I think it’s a problem that all culture comes from middle-class, white people. There’s not much of anyone who’s not white, there’s not much experience of gay people, not much experience of women. It’s incredible that we’re still in a place where such a narrow male filter filters everything. I would really love it if more TV companies and publishers told gay stories.”
Todd’s book can, in some ways, be regarded as a British follow up to Alan Downs’ book The Velvet Rage. But while that book lit a big spark among many, it has come in for strong criticism for focusing on a very narrow gay demographic of rich, high-flying, affluent types, who spend their time in swanky gyms and have expensive therapists.
He regards poverty as an elephant in the room for gay people: “It seems to me that a disproportion number of gay are people struggling.”
It’s an image which is unlikely to resonate with teenagers living in rainy former industrial towns, or elderly men alone in their retirement. He regards poverty as an elephant in the room for gay people. “It seems to me that a disproportionate number of gay are people struggling, rather than the other way round.”
Fitting this analysis in with how austerity policies have affected gay people, he argues we need to remember that the Tories have never been true friends or allies of the gay cause: “So many young people I know of who believe that because David Cameron implemented equal marriage and that became a big, visible thing, a lot of them don’t know the history, they don’t know about Section 28, they don’t know that a majority of Tory MPs voted against equal marriage and every equality measure over the past 30 years, and they think the Tory Party is the party of gay equality. You can take your equality for granted, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Looking to the future, and the capacity for things to get better, he says part of the answer is for gay people to simply be kinder to each other. There is a need, perhaps, for us to rediscover what pride means, to rediscover what solidarity means: “If we want to demonstrate gay pride then being nice to each other is the most important direct thing you can do. I wanted to start a campaign for gay people to smile at each other and talk to each other. If you catch someone’s eye, you look away, or you want to reject them before they reject you. There are times when we need less of that and more warmth and friendliness.”
“Most men I have spoken to say they find Grindr brutal, harsh and depressing.” Matt Todd
He champions alternative ways for gay people to meet each other, rather than through the grim void of Grindr: “Most men I have spoken to say they find Grindr brutal, harsh and depressing,” he writes in his book. He lists off a reel of gay sports clubs and other groups people can go to: Frontrunners, Leftfooters, Unscene, gay bookclubs – there’s plenty there if you’re looking for alternatives.
He would also like professional therapists to have a better understanding of shame and gay issues generally. “I think a huge amount of therapists haven’t got a clue, wouldn’t know about shame. There’s [a] school of thought about childhood stuff, co-dependence. If you start addressing things you can evolve the experience of it.”
And recognising, too, that gay people suffer disproportionately from addiction problems: “Just talking about 12-step recovery would be really important. The crystal meth addicts group is one of the fastest growing fellowship groups in London. They reduce anxiety, they give you a sense of community, they stop you obsessing about yourself.”
Inevitably, he sees schools as a key battleground. His book is full of harrowing and tragic stories of teenagers who have taken their own lives after bouts of bullying. “There is a growing movement to at least talk about it, teachers unions talking about it. I don’t think that seeps through to all teachers, I know lots of schools that really don’t care.” But he does see glimmers of hope. In his book, he quotes Stonewall statistics showing that 90 per cent of teachers support addressing LGBT+ issues. In Scotland, the Time for Inclusive Education (Tie) campaign have been blazing a trail – offering free training to teachers.
At the heart of it all is a need to rediscover community as a way to achieve a better future: “I do think there’s an urgency for bigger funding for groups that help people on the ground. Normal people feeling isolated. Focus on helping those people and supporting them. Just get people out of the house and interacting with each other.”
Matt Todd’s book in hand, we’re a bit further forward on that long and winding path.
‘Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy’, published by Bantam Press, is out now.
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