Around a year ago, triggered by a gay-themed movie or play that I watched, I decided to challenge myself to write a story where the protagonists were gay, but without the usual plot points of a gay narrative: bullying, suicide, coming out, sex, drugs and alcohol, HIV, religion, self-destruction, or violence of any kind. I wrote the main parts of that story, but I’m yet to finish it. In fact, I’d forgotten all about it until this past week.
A few days ago, I went to see a musical called Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, the story of a 16-year old boy who wants to grow up to become a drag queen. It was such a fun, as well as emotional, show! But it reminded me of the story I started writing, because at one point in the narrative, there was the coming together of a few of the plot points listed above: bullying, violence, coming out, alcohol, self-destruction. I rolled my eyes because yet again I was watching a gay narrative about the same old things. And whilst I can really appreciate different narratives, sometimes I get quite upset by them, because there’s never an alternative. Where is our freaking happy ending narrative? A recent example of this was Call Me By Your Name. Yes, it’s a beautiful film. I, too, got caught up in the lovely fantasy of a summer romance in Italy, but that ending?? C’mon! I saw it coming miles away, and it still annoyed me! Gay romances tend to always follow this narrative: a passionate and beautiful connection, which never lasts, because someone goes away or dies. Seriously!
But as that scene in the musical was followed by a lovely uplifting song, my cynicism withered away, and that’s when it dawned on me: gay narratives in film, media, literature, performance, etc. always have those plot points because most REAL LIFE gay stories include all of the above as well! Which is a terribly sad thing to admit. And maybe, perhaps, that’s why I always felt a bit annoyed by stories depicting the same plot points over and over again! Or maybe, like I mentioned above, I would like to see a happy ending every now and again. Not that I believe in the Disney-fantasy of happy endings, but a few examples would be nice. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few recent changes on this front: movies like The Way He Looks, Boys, 4th Man Out, the series and movie Looking. Apparently, this new upcoming movie Love, Simon is meant to reinforce more positive experiences of gayhood.
However, predominantly, many gay narratives will deal with bullying, HIV/AIDS, substance misuse, heartache, and yes, even early death, because guess what? Such is the gay experience for many people. I not only have the personal insight of some of these matters, but I also worked professionally for many years in the frontline of this kind of lived experience, as a youth worker and as a therapist. Different studies from the British Psychological Society, British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, the former LGBTQ+ mental health charity PACE and National Institute of Mental Health in England (amongst others), highlight LGBTQ+ people as experiencing a raised level of anxiety, depression, internalised shame, isolation, addiction, suicidal ideation, and early death. This is not hyperbole. One only needs to pay closer attention to the current subculture of chemsex in cities like London, to get a glimpse into the perfect storm created by all these factors. Where does one even start? I remember always feeling great trepidation when dealing with gay men involved in chemsex in my former substance misuse practice, because I honestly never knew what to address first: the substances, the sex, the self-esteem, the abuse. I feel great admiration for those who continue to work in those frontlines – it is no easy task! It is hard to maintain empathy and boundaries, when so many of the experiences we see trigger our own.
I believe there is much hope, however. I believe in finding a balance. And I believe this, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in former clients who have recovered and been able to maintain balance in their lives, in current clients who are making a genuine effort to know more about themselves and find healthier ways to live. I’ll never forget a few years ago, when exploring archetypes in the life of a gay man, one of my clients ended up choosing an overwhelming number of positive archetypes. The type that focused on creativity, connection, even spirituality. I remember how surprised we both were, that his unconscious actually perceived gay men as possessing more qualities than demons. I know how that sounds. Really, I do! But the thing you need to understand is that when one is born in an environment which constantly tells you that there’s something wrong with you, inevitably, you will end up believing parts of that message. If not the whole message. And so, actually, it is always profoundly surprising and revolutionary when a gay man awakens to the insight that they are much more than those wounded parts, and that those wounds can be healed, and that a new way of living is possible. A life where there is love, visibility, inclusion, acceptance. A life where, even though the darkness may still emerge every now and then, the light will be the default.
I recently had a major breakthrough in my own therapeutic process. I was exploring different internalised beliefs that I held about myself, or scripts – we are Dramatherapists after all! – and as I was describing the two main ones, my therapist asked me: “Are they yours? Did you come up with them, or were they given to you by others?” And it dawned on me: all the life scripts that I carry with me and which basically prevent me from living a more fulfilling life, belong to other people. They were things other people told me about myself, and which over time, I started believing. There was great power and freedom in that slight shift in perspective: these scripts are not mine! Therefore, I am under no obligation to follow them, or even give them any attention.
And this is where the narratives we see around us matter: if we only get access to a set number of stories, that ultimately reinforces those same stories and the fact that they are the only stories. But they are not. There are many other stories out there. Stories of triumph, love, compassion, authenticity. What if we all worked a bit harder on focusing on those narratives?
Ryan Campinho Valadas