Hot Mess - just another gay man with issues Words by Stuart Haggas | @GetStuartPhotography by Chris Jepson: www.chrisjepson.com Wasted (again) in public? Making out with a hot stranger? Dressed to reveal underwear and excess flesh? Doing lewd dance moves on a nightclub podium? Another private sextape gone viral? Is this Britney’s latest relapse – or is it yours? The higher you get, the harder you fall – which is why the fails of stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus fuel tabloid newspapers and gossip blogs around the world. But they aren’t the only ones prone to making dubious and potentially damaging life choices.Britain’s gay scene is populated with guys who dedicate time, money and energy to looking hot – but no matter how good we look and feel, we can all end up in a messy state at the end of the day, particularly if disinhibitors like drugs, alcohol and sexy men are involved. But where’s the harm in that? It’s just a bit of fun, isn’t it?PARTY EXCESS “I’m kinda shallow. If I look good, I feel good,” says Paul from Stockwell. “Getting trashed and forgetting parts of the night, or waking up late with a massive hangover is always a risk. But the excitement usually balances it out. If it didn’t, why would you carry on doing it?” “I think it’s partly about liberation after being in the closet. When I first moved to a city from a village in the rural north-west, I made the most of it,” says Matt, who now lives in London. “For a time my drinking was a major problem. I’d end up in bad situations all the time. I remember being asked about my sexual history in a GUM clinic and I couldn’t remember most of it.” “I have drunk too much and ended up in hospital,” admits Matthew from London. “I have taken photos during sex – everyone does – and had them published by an ex on a revenge porn website. The scene relies on drinking and partying to exist. Non-alcohol related gay activities are rare.”“I regularly binge drink,” adds Ollie from London. “I’m nearly 30 so this is not an age-related thing. I have also made bad choices when it comes to relationships and sex. Too many to count! I’ve ended relationships which would have been good for me but at the time I wasn’t emotionally ready, or didn’t know how to cope.” “I regret sexual encounters with certain people, but I’m sure most are guilty of that,” says Alexander from Liverpool. “God gave men a brain and a penis, but only enough blood to use one at a time.” “Sex with people’s boyfriends, cheating on my boyfriend, pulling someone really hot then being awful in bed as I was so pissed, acting like a dick, spending too much money, making an idiot of myself in front of work colleagues, ruining plans for the next day due to hangovers,” says James from London. “I could go on.” HOTNESS VS HEALTHINESS The experiences of Paul, Matt, Matthew, Ollie, Alexander and James are not unusual. We as a community may value looking hot, but we can also have lots of unresolved issues. Stonewall’s Gay And Bisexual Men’s Health Survey from 2012, the largest survey ever conducted into the health needs of gay and bisexual men, showed that gay men are more likely to be physically healthier than our straight peers – we exercise more, eat healthier food and generally look better. But it also showed that we’re likely to smoke more, drink more alcohol, do more drugs, and be more likely to partake in riskier sex, more likely to attempt suicide, self-harm and have depression. Why do we as a community get so enthusiastic about working out, eating healthier and looking good, yet fail so badly when it comes to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, riskier sex, mental health and wellbeing? “I think we ‘super-groom’ as a survival skill,” says 56 Dean Street’s David Stuart. “Growing up feeling different, fearing been found out, fearing being judged, rejected for being gay, fearing earning our families disapproval, fearing being bullied at school, feeling ashamed of any campness or femininity; a young gay man can learn that fooling people with outward appearances can be a successful tool in coping with perceived or likely rejection. This internalised homophobia can manifest itself in many ways, including an urgent need to develop an immaculate, un-judge-able façade. We look good, we ‘perform’ confidence, but we’re vulnerable underneath. Hence the higher levels of mental health problems and drug use.” “Being made to feel that you’re different from a very young age may well make some people more inclined towards rebellious behaviour as teens and adults,” adds GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “Being less likely to have children than our heterosexual brothers means that there are fewer brakes to a drunken, hedonistic lifestyle. Being among other gay men, who also booze, smoke and take drugs means that these behaviours are entirely normal within our social circle, and this becomes self-perpetuating.” THE GAY CONUNDRUM It’s all about how we are perceived by the outside world – we long to be accepted, lusted after, seen to be successful and fashionable,” says Michael from London. “Growing up we feel that we don’t fit in, we’re ostracised and scared of people judging us. If we can project the image of success and happiness then people will believe it – underneath it all though we are still the same people we once were. Not seeking help or not fixing those issues causes depression and the need to use drugs and alcohol.” “I think it’s rooted in how we come out,” adds Mike from Merseyside. “If it has had to be hidden and has been traumatic, there is lack of self-worth. These things make one ‘feel better’ albeit temporarily.” “We’re concerned with attracting each other and seeking validation – hence we spend more time on our bodies,” Pete from London says. “But then because of our insecurities we self-medicate to take the pain away. I’ve got very drunk in the past and regretted it the next day.” “Gay men are more self-centred,” Dariusz from London believes. “They are unlikely to have dependants so they can spend more time and money on themselves, and can take risks where they are the only victims of the repercussions.” “It’s the gay conundrum. We want to look our best so we can feel good and be admired and get laid,” says Christopher from Edinburgh, “but this often masks underlying issues from growing up gay and feeling, or being made to feel, less than normal. The drink and drugs help medicate that crisis of self-worth.” AFTERMATH Enjoying excess partying, alcohol, drugs and sex can lead to less-than-enjoyable consequences – anything from a stomach-churning hangover to an incurable viral infection. “We all make bad decisions regarding alcohol, drugs and the people we sleep with,” admits Michael. “With drugs, my mum found out and it broke her heart, and I had to deal with a change in our relationship that I didn’t want to happen. With sex I have placed myself in positions where I wasn’t safe and had to get tested and be prescribed a course of PEP.” “PEP multiple times and a lost job as result of partying hard,” says Scott from Birmingham. “Taking too many drugs, and as a result not being able to function at work or do day-to-day things,” adds Tammas from London. “Having unprotected sex and having to take PEP. But I don’t necessarily think these things are inherently bad – they have many positive consequences too, and open your mind to new experiences and understanding of people.” “I have become drunk and ended up having sexual encounters that, on sober reflection, I wouldn’t have agreed to,” says Mike. “I used poppers during sex and then engaged in bareback sex because it felt better, and was later diagnosed with HIV.” “As one consequence, I’m HIV-positive now,” says Christopher. “I’m healthily medicated so my CD4 count is high and the virus is undetectable, but I’ll live with this passenger for the rest of my life.” “I fell in with a crowd and spiralled out of control,” adds Scott from Sheffield. “It started off going out drinking every night, and then that wasn’t enough so I started on drugs to get a better high. It worked for a while and then I had to take more and more to get the same feeling. Sex-wise, you never think it will happen to you – you think that you are immune to everything and you’re invincible, but you’re not. My friend was always having tests and still not getting the message that safe is best. I have had bouts of chlamydia and herpes, also genital warts.” “I’m 36 and drugs were a problem for at least 15 years,” says Tristan from London. “This impacted on work, study, relationships and my general mental health. My safer sex practice used to be sketchy so I’ve had quite a few of the STIs.” “How ironic, I’ve just been to the GUM clinic today,” admits Jordan from Fife. “Herpes. Not nice! An old friend that moved away messaged me to meet up. After hearing about many very horny sexual encounters, and after a couple of lines, we did the deed. Now I have tablets and cream. Beware of handsome men with good stories and drugs.” BEAUTIFUL IMBALANCE With gay men focusing more on outer appearance, and less on sexual health and emotional wellbeing, this imbalance can impact on us as individuals and as a community. “It’s a good thing that gay men are more inclined to take care of their bodies. But a super-fit body doesn’t mean that you’ve got a super-healthy mind,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “A lot of the men you see at gyms started going there because they felt insecure about the way they looked and, truth to tell, no matter how hard you pump your pecs there’s always going to be someone bigger, sleeker or more toned than you. The insecurities that drive so many men to the gym usually don’t evaporate, even if they do manage to acquire killer abs. It’s easy to get insecure, especially on the scene. Insecurity itself is usually unattractive so it can become a vicious spiral.” “Unless we learn to prioritise our wellbeing over the façade, the polarity of these conflicting needs may lead us to self-destruct,” warns 56 Dean Street’s David Stuart. “Attempts to reconcile this hyper-vigilant fear of rejection with our super-groomed façades is leading to a culture of self-medication with sex and drugs. Chemsex has become the greatest public health concern amongst gay men in LA, New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, Sydney, London, Berlin and more. We can deny it, leave it to others to address, we can say it’s just a certain ‘type’ of gay man. Or we can say it’s us, ourselves, our community that this is affecting and deal with it.” WAKE-UP CALL People often talk about a moment in their life when they have an epiphany, when all of a sudden they see things from a new perspective. GMFA’s Matthew Hodson says; “Personally, I’d say that getting diagnosed with HIV helped me to rethink what my priorities were in life, and in some ways helped me to become a healthier, saner person,” he says. “Of course I wish I’d been able to have that insight without the incurable viral infection. The truth is that sometimes it takes a traumatic event to stop someone in their tracks and help them think about what direction they want to go in. The same is often true for people who realise that their drinking or drug use has got out of control. There’s a moment when they wake up and think, ‘hold on, I shouldn’t have done that. What do I need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ “Getting people to the same point without that ‘wake-up call moment’ is tricky. But ensuring that gay men have access to information, that they are able to make strong and confident decisions, and that they are encouraged to value their lives are all necessary steps in that journey.” THE WAY FORWARD “Public Health England are currently working on a strategy to address gay men’s health from a wellbeing perspective,” says David Stuart. “I know the Antidote drug/alcohol service at London Friend is pro-actively addressing harmful alcohol use amongst LGB&T people. And at 56 Dean Street, we have developed a robust sexual wellbeing programme for gay men, as well as chemsex support.” “Obviously I believe that gay men’s sexual health is really important and this is one of the most striking of the health inequalities that gay men face – but other health inequalities also need to be addressed,” adds Matthew Hodson. “GMFA’s Stop Smoking workshops were more successful than the standard NHS courses, probably because the men who came on them were more likely to come back week after week, which shows that targeted work for gay men can be effective. Public Health England have just released a report looking at some of the broader aspects of gay men’s health – and it’s really important that local authorities get behind this now and ensure that gay men are equipped with the knowledge, the skills and the motivation to take better care of their health.” ROCK BOTTOM As GMFA’s Matthew Hodson says, a lot of gay men don’t tackle their bad habits until they hit rock bottom. For many, rock bottom is becoming HIV-positive. For others, it’s dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. But it doesn’t have to be like this – nobody needs to be a ‘hot mess’. “Unfortunately, as a gay community we think that having a hot body will get us compliments. Sticking a picture of your abs on Grindr tends to get a lot more messages, so we instantly feel better about ourselves. What this teaches us is that a hot body equals attention. This does nothing to help build up our confidence and inner strength to deal with the emotional issues which lead us to make bad decisions regarding sex, drugs and alcohol,” says FS editor Ian Howley. He adds: ”Ask yourself if you are happy with who you are. If the answer is ‘yes’ then there is not much you can do. Just be aware of your drinking and/or drug habits. If the answer is ‘no’ then it should be obvious that the way you are leading your life is not working, and you should do something about it before you get to the point of no return.” BREAK THE CYCLE “It’s way too easy to get in to a cycle of abusing alcohol and drugs, having lots of random hook ups and thinking to yourself that you are fine” says Ian Howley. “Before you know it you are in a situation you can’t control and feel that there is no way out. But everyone, and I do mean everyone, has the power to change their life for the better. If you want to change the path you are on then do so. Having a ‘yes I can’ attitude will help but ultimately until you admit that you have a problem, or there is a problem, then you will never break the cycle.” FS SAYS: How do you get gay men to care about HIV when they don't care about themselves? Sometimes at FS we get so carried away with giving you facts, figures and tips on how to remain HIV-negative that we fail to mention that there is a lot more to HIV prevention that just recommending that you wear a condom while having sex. The way you view yourself and the way you value who you are as a person has a HUGE impact on whether you care if you use condoms for sex or not. Whether you care about remaining HIV-negative or not. Body image, alcohol, drugs, depression, relationship problems, work problems, loneliness… the list goes on. The battle against HIV doesn’t start and end with finding the right condom size or getting you to think condoms are the best thing since sliced bread. HIV prevention isn’t even about getting you to the clinic to test for HIV. There is a lot more to it than just that. Frankly there is not a lot this magazine can do if you don’t care about yourself and your health. We can just ask that if you do care about your health and want to remain HIV-negative then you do the following: If you want to remain HIV-negative the best way is to use condoms with every new partner, whether they tell you they are HIV-negative or not. Up to 80% of new HIV infections come from having unprotected sex with gay men who don’t know they have HIV. In 2012, one in three new HIV infections were in gay men in their teens and 20s. Test regularly for HIV and STIs. If you have something then you can get treated so you don’t pass it on to anyone else. Gay men who are HIV-positive and on treatment are less likely to pass on HIV. This is because their medication works to suppress the virus, making it difficult to pass on. If you have learnt one thing from this article it should be that self-worth is the key to a happy and healthy life. This goes for everything and not just remaining HIV-negative. Self-worth brings confidence, and confidence will help you stay in control of your life. SUPPORT Counselling: London Friend – offers counselling to LGB&T people dealing with alcohol, drug and social problems, living in London. For more information, visit www.londonfriend.org.uk. Helpline: London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – providing free and confidential support and information to LGB&T people throughout the UK. Call 0300 330 0630 (open daily from 10am – 11pm). Information: GMFA – provides gay men with sexual health information such as ‘How risky is…’ to basic HIV and STI information. Visit www.gmfa.org.uk. GUM clinic To find your nearest GUM clinic, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics.