Gay Loneliness Is Real—but “Bitchy, Toxic” Culture Isn’t the Full Story

Are gay men really in an epidemic of loneliness?


If you are gay or know many gays, chances are you saw “Together Alone,” Michael Hobbes’ longform essay on what he calls an “epidemic of gay loneliness,” show up in your feeds late last week. After seeing the article shared approvingly by many friends, I skimmed and dutifully posted it myself. It’s unsettling, full of resonant descriptions of isolation, drug addiction, and self-hatred among gay men; and it’s ambitious in its attempt to name, outline the contours of, and prescribe solutions for what it argues is a cultural and social crisis among gay men hovering between youth and middle age. But later, as I read the article more closely, I began to feel uneasy.

Something in Hobbes’ portrait—more specifically, in the words of the group of gay men he chose to interview—reminded me of a kind of conversation that I encountered when I’ve worked in offices with large gay populations. The conversation happened frequently enough that I began to be able to predict how it might unfold. An older gay male colleague, typically white and trim and successful, would set off on a lament about the impossible meanness and pettiness of gay culture. They would speak heartbreakingly about loneliness and feelings of inadequacy. Then, strangely, the conversation would turn to the idea, expressed with varying degrees of confidence and anger, that there was a subgroup of gays who had the wrong goals: too much sex with too many people, going to drag bars on a Tuesday night. These sorts were holding the good ones back from finally merging into the mundane—and, it was suggested, more fulfilling—everyday of bourgeois life.

Maybe, I would suggest, the root of their unhappiness wasn’t evil sex radicals or unreconstructed sissies but the impossible situation contemporary gays find ourselves in: the promise of acceptance and tolerance if we force ourselves into relationship models that often chafe; the way that rights of access to straight institutions like military service and marriage have divided us from our queer and trans sisters and siblings; the gentrification of our community spaces out of major urban centers; and the ingrained misogyny that leads to a drive towards hypermasculinity and thinness. (Side-eye at the fact that the people starting these conversations were often the same ones who loudly began their “Fire Island diets” in February, in preparation for summers at the notoriously judgey gay beach enclave, and asked why I wasn’t joining.) No, the colleague would insist. It’s just that bitchy, mean gay culture. It’s toxic.

Not to be a bitchy gay whose meanness is making our community toxic, but I have grown tired of men whose engagement with their queerness is so basic; who almost never associate with fat, of-color, and/or working-class people; who actively reject love and friendship that don’t fit their narrow molds, blaming their identity—and all gay people and culture with it—for their epidemic of low self-worth. Unfortunately, Hobbes’ article is no exception. Let’s break down where it goes wrong:

It focuses on a very specific sub-group, and leaves out everyone else.

The first thing we hear about the article’s first subject is that he is “trim, intelligent, gluten-free,” and that he does CrossFit. A scientist is approvingly described as monogamous, “wearing jeans, galoshes and a wedding ring.” One man is “a Brit living in Portland”; another “a fitness instructor”; another, a business consultant, is “27, 6-foot-1 and has a six-pack you can see through his wool sweater.

In the community, we have a name for these people: A-gays. They enforce the social rules of a certain kind of urban gay space, implicitly or sometimes explicitly excluding other types of gays (and almost all queer people) who don’t fit their strange standards. They are the donors and board members of the big gay nonprofits, the setters of the mainstream gay agenda.

Crucial to understanding the A-gays is seeing their cultural and economic complicity in the systems that both benefit them and, ironically, make them feel miserable. Please do not misunderstand: No one is responsible for suicide or mental illness—these are both complex phenomena that deserve to be addressed regardless of who’s experiencing them. But part of taking a problem seriously is understanding where it comes from. If I’m rolling my eyes at Hobbes’ piece, it’s not for lack of sympathy; it’s just the same way I might roll my eyes at an article about miserable hedge fund managers that didn’t interrogate their exploitative profession and the way it might contribute both to their sadness and their privilege.

Mental health and substance abuse issues cut across the entire queer community, and A-gays are arguably best-situated to deal with them; but even putting that aside, the blind spots of this article are enormous. Except for one man who is Asian-American, all of Hobbes’ sources appear to be white and live in high-rent cities. Their status doesn’t necessarily invalidate their struggles, of course, but focusing on the melodrama of the secret failings of the elite—especially amid an epidemic of murders of trans women and in a political moment full of profound and immediate threats—comes off as a bit obscene.

It misunderstands how and on whom minority stress works.

“…there’s still something unfulfilled,” a researcher marvels in the article regarding gay life post-marriage equality. It is, putting it gently, myopic to expect marriage equality alone to have solved, in less than two years, the mental health challenges of a generation of gay men raised in a cultural climate in which we were political punching bags and in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic—an epidemic that the article does not acknowledge is getting worse in many Black and rural working-class communities.

I grew up gay in a liberal Massachusetts town during the height of the fight for marriage equality and its backlash. Even there, the language used by the then-mainstream opponents of marriage rights, language used freely on the news, often made me feel hated and feared. I yearned for the dignity promised by the pro-marriage advocates. Many gay men my age and older have shared this feeling—and the expectation that marriage might transform us. It took years of studying the history of queer identities and movements for my views on marriage to become complicated, queered: While I’m glad we won it, marriage does not have the power to magically erase our difference or to make people feel whole.

An uncomfortable byproduct of the monomaniacal quest for marriage equality has been the creation of a new form of minority stress—the stress of the gay man who does not find a husband, or who doesn’t want one, or maybe wants two, and therefore cannot participate in this new and strange celebration of conservative values we’ve constructed as the ultimate goal of gay life. At their best, queer ideas about romance could help undo (for everyone) the poisonous idea that long-term unbroken monogamy is the only way to happiness. But now, many gays have bought into that lie. This is what happens when a civil rights movement values the banality of traditional romance over proud assertions of individual and collective identity, when the desire to enter a system supersedes the desire to change it. As an Asian-American friend said to me, not long after the Obergefell decision: “It feels like someone I don’t know gave me something I didn’t want, and now I feel like I have to use it or feel ungrateful.”

And then, of course, there’s the issue of compounding stressors: Many minority groups beyond gays face daily indignities and traumas, often magnified by physical and economic attacks. This trauma is intensified by overlapping experiences of oppression: blackness and poverty and queerness, for instance. This article uses as an example of minority stress a teen deciding whether to major in art or finance. That decision could certainly cause stress, especially when accompanied, as it is in the article, by disapproving parents. But there are gay men (and lesbians and trans and gender-nonconforming people) living in poverty, being fired for their identity, being murdered, living in conservative and rural areas they cannot afford to leave where other queer people are difficult or impossible to find. Minority stress among gay men is real; some, according to one study Hobbes cites, experience the same degree of trauma as rape victims. This is caused by oppression, not by the choice of a major.

It ignores decades of thought about gay and queer lives.

Gay people have a rich tradition of telling stories about our lives, our loneliness, our sex, our cultures. We do it in fiction and poetry, in films and theory. Some of us even enjoy our lives, our gayness and queerness, our queeny communities. But you wouldn’t know it from reading Hobbes’ weepy article, which prefers to rely on psychological studies—the design, scope, and relevance of which he treats uncritically.

A wiser article about gay loneliness might have discussed, even briefly, alternative ideas about gay life. Some have argued that queer people present a radical opposition to traditional ideas about family and community, that we can tear down oppressive ideas about what relationships and sex are supposed to mean. Others have replied that our uniqueness lies in our ability to spend the time straight people spend raising children on creative and intellectual work. Queer people have established many modes of sisterhood, of kinship. At a drag show, watch the queens quietly support one another, fixing the sound and adjusting the lights on the wall backstage. Or just go see this year’s Academy Award winner for best picture, Moonlight, the end of which features a devastating conversation between two gay men transitioning from lovers to friends.

What is needed to address the epidemic of gay loneliness is unlikely to be found in a psych study. We cannot think about how we might be better to each other without thinking about who we are, and who we have been, and who we might become. The various epidemics of queer loneliness and drug addiction and suicide will not be solved by the A-gays, or by a movement that focuses only on the personal happiness of individual people. We need a politics of solidarity, of standing up for ourselves and with other threatened communities. Working and thinking together, as any longtime queer activist will tell you, is a great way to start feeling less alone.