★★★★ | Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy
There’s a problem with gay men. There’s definitely a problem with gay men. We’re legal now with an equal age of consent. We can get married and adopt children, dance in the streets at Pride events and hold hands in Central London. We even pop-up on television dramas from time to time looking as far removed from the stereotypical 1970’s mincing queens as is possible. Yet, we have higher than average rates of mental illness, addiction and suicide; often struggle to maintain relationships and many are filled with corrosive self-hatred.
I’m a self confessed gay man with issues. Like a lot of people, gay or straight, I’ve cycled through a few addictions before reaching middle age. Prescription medications, a car-crash relationship with alcohol and a lot of not always fun casual sex were my main vices. I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety and am an expert at obsessive thinking who’s had a shed load of therapy.
When I heard about this book by Matthew Todd (the witty and wise ex Attitude editor and writer of the play Bells and Whistles) I embraced it with open arms. Luckily, it definitely hugged me back.
Todd certainly knows his stuff. He uses statistics, case studies, anecdotes and interviews to present his argument and it’s a compelling one. Intermingled with this is Todd’s own story and the book is part memoir, part discourse on the problems facing gay men in 21st century life. Todd grew up in 1970’s Croydon, escaped and lived to tell the tale.
He also struggled to rein his life in after becoming too dependent on alcohol to numb the pain of his darker thoughts.
Todd’s main premise is that our culture and society leads gay men to live with deep-seated feelings of shame and then offers wonky solutions such as casual sex and alcohol. He examines the ways this affects us and focuses on how having low self-esteem can lead to problems such as over-eating, gym addictions and drug abuse. His scope is wide ranging and it’s a fascinating read. This isn’t a dry tome and is never preachy but is compelling and readable with a perceptive gaze. It’s a warm and caring book but one that’s also disturbing.
There are frequent reminders too that it’s not all issues and problems. Lots of gay men are happy and healthy. We don’t all indulge in risky behaviour and walk around under black clouds. Some of us enjoy drugs and alcohol in moderation. There’s no disapproval or moralising here. Even if you’re one of the luckier ones and are beautifully balanced, it’s an enlightening study.
The final portion of the book loses focus and momentum a little but is still worth perusing. Overall this is an important book and is relevant, resonant and reassuring. I’d recommend this to every gay man or to everyone who knows one.