Matthew Todd: Straight Jacket: London: Penguin: 2016
UK Attitude magazine editor Matthew Todd has written an excellent, thought-provoking look at how gay men live their lives in the contemporary United Kingdom. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but...
First, though, let's examine the premises that I do agree with. One of them is that since the birth of the modern LGBT movement in the late sixties, successive generations of gay men (lesbians, bisexuals and transpeople) have not had normal adolescences. From the beginning of our lives, we are bombarded with messages that our emerging sexual orientation and gender identity is 'abnormal' or 'deviant', although due to changes in social attitudes, there may be welcome developments in domestic environments that promote health and wellbeing at home. However, the next problem is school culture, which leads one to the question of comprehensive anti-bullying programmes and their enforcement. Without LGBT youth group access and firm school anti-bullying policies, LGBT adolescents won't be free to grow up, enter intimate relationships, have boyfriends and girlfriends and develop at the same pace as their straight counterparts.
Instead of that, what happens is that the gay male adolescent leaves school, goes to university or their first job, and then finds themselves free from direct parental control, leading to much wild oat sowing. Added to which, if they haven't done so already, they encounter sex on site venues and the commercial scene, as well as the ready availability of alcohol and drugs. In the United Kingdom, chemsex (multiple drug use-reinforced unsafe sex) is a major problem. We don't know its extent in New Zealand and it is to be hoped that the New Zealand AIDS Foundation and AIDS Epidemiology Group tackle this. We do know that P/crystal meth is a pervasive problem in New Zealand society, and it may be the case that it is making inroads within our communities, sabotaging HIV prevention still further, given what we know about that scenario in the United States, Australia and Western Europe. While New Zealand's smaller population, enduring recession and consequent diminished general disposable income may have hampered these unwelcome developments, it may be a matter of time before they also occur here. In the United Kingdom, polydrug abusing gay men in their thirties and forties are dying from heart attacks in gay sex on site venues.
There are some countervailing signs. Gay pubs are closing down, perhaps due to online sex hookup services, but perhaps also due to mainstreaming. Even given the existence of 'home loading' excessive alcohol consumption, are we drinking less alcohol these days? Some of us were never into alcohol and drugs in the first place- although, as Todd correctly notes, there are other consolatory traps awaiting us. Anorexia and bulimia are serious problems among LGBT youth, and conversely, so is overeating comfort food- which can lead to Type 2 diabetes if you're genetically susceptible- and I speak from personal experience of that scenario. There's also an excellent section on white gay male racism, which does reflect the UK experience but may have some parallels here.
Let me make it clear that as the above paragraphs suggest, there is much that is good about Straight Jacket. There is one problem, though- Todd seems to be gearing his book toward gay male professionals or those in secure accommodation and waged work. While he makes some mention of the Cameron/May administrations and their austerity policy impact on UK LGBT charities and community service groups, and the LGBT youth homelessness Albert Kennedy Trust, there isn't a corresponding analysis of how growing economic inequality, uncontrolled housing cost spikes, welfare cutbacks and NGO funding shortfalls have all impacted on the lives of more economically marginal gay and bisexual men. I am aware that Attitude has an article on the subject in a forthcoming issue which hasn't reached New Zealand yet, but perhaps Todd could tackle that particular issue in subsequent editions, or better yet, a new book.