Growing up gay in a hetero world


SHAME SPIRAL | Author Alan Downs, Ph.D., has revised his book about gay shame, ‘Velvet Rage.’

The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs, Ph.D (DaCapo Lifelong Press, 2012) $16, 252 pp.

Velvet-Rage-2nd-EditionTo out or not to out? How do you know if you’re at the point in your life to fling open the closet door and get your share of love and acceptance? In the completely revised, updated edition of Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage, you’ll find a road map for the journey.

Is self-destruction inherent in gay men? Downs believes so, and he thinks he knows why: shame. Shame, he says, is the “fear of being unlovable.” It’s “not embarrassment over being gay; it is the belief that being gay is a … symptom of your own mortally flawed psyche.” And perhaps because it’s a “secret [a man] cannot reveal,” it often leads to self-destructive habits including suicide.

Shame starts in childhood. The first man you loved, says Downs, was your father. If he withheld acceptance, you turned to your mother and were “drawn to the feminine.” This all led to a change in family dynamics, which might have taught you to hide “ugly realities” as a means of survival and avoidance, resulting in shame’s accompanying rage.

To live a life of happiness, Downs says, there are three stages gay men must endure: The first is characterized by being overwhelmed by shame, which is often coped with by “splitting,” or leading two discordant lives. Splitting helps to avoid shame, but it leads to a breakdown in relationships and a crisis in identity.

Stage 2 is marked by compensation for shame and a “belief that there is something fundamentally flawed,” internally. This is where addiction and depression often appear, especially when former validation is no longer enough to “soothe the gay man’s distress.” Resolution of this takes “all gay men” to the next stage.

In stage 3, a gay man “seeks a better life for himself.” Old self-destructive behaviors no longer hold interest. Relationship trauma (betrayal, abuse, abandonment and relationship ambivalence) is healed. Joy becomes possible.

Aside from the necessary generalizations, The Velvet Rage is pretty good. The beginning chapters may make readers feel like a bobble-head doll — nodding, nodding, nodding. That’s eerie, because it may be very hard not to see yourself in at least some of what Downs portrays. What was most appealing about this book, though, are the last chapters. There, Downs helps readers along with his “Skills for Leading an Authentic Life,” which are good strengths to cultivate, no matter where you are (or are not) on Downs’ continuum.

Meant, perhaps, for a younger man who’s just starting this journey, I also think this book has words of wisdom for older gay men, too.  Its ultimate message is search for comfort and a more peaceful life. That’s never too late to pursue.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

The Truth is Bad Enough: What Became of the Happy Hustler? by Michael Kearns. (CreateSpace 2012) 294 pp. $16.

TruthIs...First he was a precocious boy, acting in and directing plays — and reveling in sex with older men — before he finished high school. Then he was a serious actor, a serious drunk, a serial sexaholic, and, in the mid-1970s, a celebrated hoaxster, doing the talk show circuit as “Grant Tracy Saxon,” alleged author of a fake memoir, The Happy Hustler, all the while selling his body to eager johns (and appearing in a couple of episodes of The Waltons).

Next came hard-won sobriety, AIDS activism, HIV infection, a series of searing one-man performances and of shimmering collaborations with his professional colleague, the late James Carroll Pickett.

Now, still acting and directing (and surviving), Kearns is reveling in his finest role — father to an African-American child he adopted more than 15 years ago. Kearns is unsparing in recounting his addictive days, candid about how his queer and AIDS activism impacted his Hollywood career and — in the final chapters — luminous in imparting the love he shares with his daughter, who now aspires to be an actor, just like dad. This multi-textured memoir shimmers.

— Richard LaBonte

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 2, 2012.