Last week, at my 40th birthday party no less, a friend told me that I’ve passed my “sell by” date. I think he’s right. I’ve never been much of a success as a gay man, because I’ve never fit the image that seems to define what a gay man should be. I’m not skinny, I’ve been balding since my 20s, casual sex holds no appeal to me, I don’t like alcohol or recreational drugs and I’m bad at one-liners, catty conversation, fashion and fabulousness in general. So I’m pretty much a wallflower at bars and parties.
Now, with this aging thing, I feel more and more excluded from the club to which I thought I had a guaranteed membership, but which has never really accepted me. I’d love a boyfriend, companionship and some decent gay friends (who don’t insult me at my own birthday party). But given that I’m apparently a dull round peg where a sleek skinny peg is required, should I just give up?
Your experience of feeling marginalized in the gay male world is common, shared by many who don’t fit a certain narrow age-body-beauty demographic. If you, like most gay men, have grown up in a gay-unfriendly culture, your present sense of not fitting in can easily re-activate old trauma and feelings of worthlessness. The result: when you stand on the sidelines at a party or get snubbed by some glamour boy, you feel as bad as you did at 14 when you were picked last for the baseball team. Other past experiences of feeling “less than,” not directly tied to being gay, can also get activated by present-day feelings of rejection and lead to your feeling as rotten about yourself now as you did way back when.
I urge you to start challenging your own negative view of yourself. Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” You have accepted a notion of what it means to be an ideal gay man that is based on appearance and behavior, but there are countless ways to be a perfectly fine gay man that have little to do with what is on the surface. Every time you disparage yourself, you are reinforcing those old pathways in your brain that make it easy to see yourself as a loser. Conversely, if you would consistently make the effort to find (and cultivate) attributes that you respect about yourself, then seeing yourself in a positive light would become easier and more habitual. Another reason to work on your self-esteem: when you walk around believing that you are a failure, other people are likely to pick up on that energy and see you in much the same way as you see yourself.
Would you also consider reducing the time you spend with people who do not welcome you or who put you down? Be aware that you may have a hard time giving this up: Experiences and ways of thinking that are old and familiar, even painful ones, can feel somewhat comfortable, so they are difficult to abandon for something new and unknown. But if you will widen your lens, there are many gay men out there who are generally friendly and accepting of others. Challenge yourself to find and spend time with people who share your values and interests. This will be a powerful antidote to your ongoing experiences of rejection.
Reading these words may give you some ideas for new ways to see yourself and your situation. But one advice column is unlikely to deeply alter your negative view of yourself or help you become more hopeful in a lasting way. Such changes are absolutely possible. But they take time and ongoing effort. Therefore, I urge you to find a good therapist to help you challenge yourself to create a life that consistently affirms your worth as a gay man and a human being.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT individuals and couples in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.