In January I set out on a mission to interview a diverse group of young gay guys between the ages of 17 and 35. I wanted to broaden my understanding of our shared experience before I set off on the whirlwind of principal photography for I’m Not Gay. While they were similar in their sexual orientation, I wanted them to be unique in as many other ways as possible. Where they grew up, their body type, their demeanour, how they express their sexuality, what interests them, and even how comfortable they were about homosexuality were all used to try and capture their unique perspective.
'The participants’ scores were plotted on a graph, confirming that there was an adequately diverse spread of the experience of comfort.'
I devised a brief survey in an attempt to quantify the subjective experience of ‘comfort’ towards one’s sexual identity. The questions covered a broad range of topics, including one’s experiences as a teenager all the way through to whether you could easily imagine yourself as an older gay man with a partner. The participants’ scores were then plotted on a graph, confirming that there was an adequately diverse spread of the experience of comfort. I believe that this - combined with all of the other variables taken into account - was a necessary step to ensure that a truly diverse experience was captured.
Whether the participant was a muscular white guy that loved footy and was essentially ‘one of the boys’, or a lean asian guy who enjoyed dressing up in drag on the weekend, I noticed a few recurring trends:
'There appears to remain one undying question for young guys: why aren’t I the same as them?'
When a 17 year old’s experience is compared to a 35 year old’s in light of the rapidly changing public opinion on homosexuality, you would think that there would be a significant difference between the two. While growing up gay in the 90s is distinctly different from growing up in the 2010s in that the law and general public opinion is on your side, there appears to remain one undying question for young guys: why aren’t I the same as them? This is no doubt true of anyone’s childhood, but many guys at this stage of development seem to ruminate on this to the point of their own detriment. Their ability to cope with being different affects how much it messes with their head. This is where teachers and parents play a very important role.
Almost all participants were able to easily list off a number of memories from their childhood where a negative association with homosexuality was reinforced, even between 2000 and 2019.
One participant recalled being on a bus with their football team when a their teacher decided to change his shirt. The boys proceeded to wolf whistle the teacher in jest, to which he replied with something along the lines of ‘come on guys you sound like a bunch of poofs’. But the participant wanted to look at the teacher’s body. It wasn’t a joke to him. Is wanting to look a bad thing?
Another memory came up involving a time in PDHPE class when they were being taught about nocturnal emissions (wet dreams). The teacher made a passing comment while describing how it works: ‘When you’re having a nice dream - hopefully about a girl…’. Hopefully? What do you mean by that?
'Yeah but you're not a real guy.'
I myself was once offering advice to a family friend about how to approach dating and relationships as a straight 19 year old girl. When I tried to guide her on how men think, she replied with something along the lines of 'yeah but you're not a real guy'.
Many participants were able to list off a variety of questionable and challenging experiences with their parents. While young gay teenagers today are less likely to be rejected by their parents, it doesn’t mean that parents are doing as well as they could be.
Let me start this point by saying that most of the participants had very warm parents that didn’t reject them for their sexual orientation. I believe that most of those types of parents have been generationally phased out through social progress, which is fantastic. However, this doesn’t mean that it was all smooth sailing.
'It was revealed that nearly all parents had a difficult time helping their child to navigate their identity.'
It was revealed that nearly all parents had a difficult time helping their child to navigate their identity. That navigation extended much further than just sexual orientation, but you can understand how straight parents aren’t immediately equipped with the life experience to guide their child along that path. I think one of the most damaging things that parents said to nearly every participant upon their child ‘coming out’ to them was ‘are you sure?’. Your child feels something that is coming from deep within them, an instinct built into their cells - and you ask them to question that?
Try this instead: ‘It’s great to see you discovering who you are. You might start to have feelings for other guys at school, and that’s completely fine. They won’t mind if they find out. There are other guys who feel exactly like you do, but there may not be a lot of guys who feel the same way about you as you do about them. They may be attracted to girls instead. A lot of guys are, but not all, so it can be a bit tricky’. Your child isn’t lost, he’s learning. Parents just need the tools to teach.
'The issue of body image for men is incredibly insidious.'
The issue of body image for men is incredibly insidious. It sets in when guys hit puberty, and then gets progressively worse. It appeared that most participants found themselves at an eventual three-pronged fork in the road in their 20s: love what I have, keep what I have, or change what I have.
Some guys began training at the gym when they were a teenager. This continued into their early to mid 20s. At this point, they’ve convinced themselves that the changes in their body between the ages of 15 and 25 have been because they trained at the gym, completely disregarding that their body has gone from that of a boy to a man (regardless of the gym). The guy then develops anxiety around missing a training session because he’s convinced he’ll lose the shape of his body. It’s bizarre, but entirely understandable. These guys are stuck in a concerning cycle of trying to ‘keep it’.
Then there are the guys we know quite well. The ones trying to change their body because they aren’t happy with it. Many of the participants would refer to the ‘ideal’ guy as being muscular. They didn’t mention how the ideal guy should act or the ideal content of their character - just that they should have a big chest. Many of these guys struggle with the concept of control and understanding what they can’t change. We all do.
The final minority are those that are happy to just shrug their shoulders and say ‘eh, it’ll do’. That’s not an easy place to get to, but I believe it’s absolutely crucial if they want to maintain a healthy relationship with another guy - let alone themselves.
The first step towards the young men of tomorrow being able to love themselves and who they are is to talk. Talk. Talk. Talk. The more we can discuss how we’re feeling, the more we can do something about it.
My advice? Don’t run away alone. Walk forward together.
Nathan helps people to express themselves at home, at school, and in the workplace, all around the world. He's passionate about thinking, and engages in it regularly. He's not overly fond of writing in the third person though. It's weird. Connect with him on Facebook to continue the conversation, make a video at colourbeat.com, or even share a dance with him at movewithcolour.com!
Teachers and parents play a very important in teaching boys how to cope with being different.
Parents struggle to help a child with an identity that is different to their own.
A distorted body image is a major issue among young men.