In April, my workplace sexuality network was very fortunate to have a conversation with America theologian and activist Broderick Greer. With a nod to the author Alice Walker, he said: ‘We need gay-only spaces, until we don’t.’ That means spaces where we can drink, dance, kiss and love without fear. But more important are the spaces to talk freely about our identity and struggles, without explaining or justifying why.
Matthew Todd‘s book, Straight Jacket: How to be gay and happy is a heavy document that proves why those gay-only spaces are desperately needed in the UK. The outgoing editor of Attitude magazine grew up in the 1980s, when the horrific homophobia and misinformation around the Aids crisis sent a clear message: ‘If you were gay, your life was worthless. You were better off dead.’
Thankfully, the domestic situation is now better, but tragic deaths continue: teenagers bullied at school and grieving parents who also take their own lives, men passing out in gay saunas and chemsex parties, murderers on Grindr. Todd is clear that our society continues to be homophobic in a way that amounts to child abuse. It’s maintained a public health crisis in gay men who live with self-shame and often try to numb their desperate feelings with a dangerous mix of drink, drugs and sex.
This is a heart-wrenching book that compels you to read on and understand our homophobic society isn’t inevitable. Todd interviews and shares the stories of those who’ve hit rock bottom and struggled with anxiety, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and addictions to sex, alcohol and drugs. I winced reading the bleak truth of today’s sexual health crisis and rising HIV infection rates, fuelled by a gay scene that self-shaming gay men are complicit with.
Throughout, Todd emphasises this story isn’t everyone’s story, and points to the many happy gay men and couples. Yet so many of the stories he tells are of his friends and shared in part by our friends, if not ourselves. The final section, Recover, offers gentle and practical advice to change as individuals, as friends and as a society. Todd passionately details his idea for physical LGBT community spaces in cities across the UK, away from the bars and hook-up apps where most gay men meet. These would be the gay only spaces we need easy access to (for which there are already great models). These are the spaces to talk freely in, end self-shame and build a fully loving community.
Straight Jacket offers a wealth of information and insights to gay men’s troubled lives in the UK today. It’s a ridiculously well researched and referenced book, thankfully with an equally good index to revisit specific parts. Yet there is a clear message of self-love with a sense that change is coming if we are part of it beyond a #LoveWins hashtag. We, the LGBT community and straight accomplices, need to be the change and bring the change because the current systems of government, media, education and health aren’t working. Sex and relationship education still isn’t compulsory in UK schools.
Read Straight Jacket, whoever you are. Realise the homophobia (and transphobia, though discussed less in the book) that society collectively maintains. Recognise how you can and how you are challenging it. And make sure everyone knows they are as beautiful, dignified and worthy as any female diva, any hot gay actor, any straight person.
‘We are enough. You are. I am’. Matthew Todd
Straight Jacket is available now for £16.99, published by Bantam Press.