Paul Smit lives in New York and was born and raised in South Africa. As a gay man, he notes that after arriving to america ten years ago, he felt compelled to discuss the dark coping mechanisms of the gay community.
At a recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Philadelphia, where more than seven thousand attendees descended to immerse themselves in all things literary, the ending statement of a male-to-female speaker struck a chord with me:
“Our queerness is not enough to define us anymore.”
Was it ever? I asked myself.
No, technically it wasn’t, but escaping a vortex of generational and personal pain became the cornerstone of so many lives that asking the question has always felt like a betrayal.
The speaker’s ending statement, if taken within the context of her entire interview, was aiming to unpack identity politics in LGBTQ relationships; particularly, when they unravel due to the "queerness" of the two individuals being anchored at different depths.
When one partner weighs anchor and goes in search of new frontiers while the other refuses to leave the shore of the promised land, it causes deep philosophical discord in relationships. The speaker maintained that, for some, their queerness still exists separately, like a brutally severed limb floating in a bell jar, yearning to be reattached, and for these people the concept of moving beyond their queerness is more so a dream than an option. But where to for those who have found restoration in safe spaces? What role should they play in society when undiscovered spiritual worlds and the ruins of old social bastions are beckoning, daring them to inject new life into the human trajectory?
Change is already here: in the workplace, in healthcare, in the shuffling of global superpowers. While new social frontiers come with the possibility of hope, they also come with the possibility of getting lost. And if history has taught us anything, new frontiers might also come with a long tail of violence.
Do we set sail?
Some of us are just waiting for the wind to pick up, for that innate suspicion wafting between the dancing feet at the parades and marches to carry us away with its quiet message: innocence does not preclude freedom, and the road to happiness is not paved with hedonism. To unpack these statements is to acknowledge a spiritual spectrum we all explore as we endure the vagaries of life.
Out of all the minority groups, the LGBTQ community has arguably chiseled the largest number of liberties out of its prison walls. Are we free then? In big cities, yes, seemingly so. Yet, we still seem to be wrestling with an identity crisis. Why’s that, you ask? Because out of the ashes a phoenix should have risen; not a bear, not a twink, not an otter… but a phoenix—hence why the zoo suddenly finds itself in need of a horse whisperer.
Scores of men have been herded towards one hunting ground: dating apps. When did men in their mid-thirties, coming into money and physical prowess, lose the thrill of hunting with a weapon other than their thumbs? Hunting at night under the glow of the stars has quickly been replaced by cellphone light bouncing off moisturized foreheads. Some would argue this migration to depersonalization happened while we buried our spiritual impotence under piles of sequin, and while we muffled the sounds of crying men with circuit music. In seeking to live as free spirits we somehow stripped choice of its mystery. What began in the name of convenience ended up diluting the integrity of a movement.
This is what I mean:
So, what do I look like? A 7 in daylight, 8 in incandescent. Better naked than fully clothed. What’s that you're thinking? Of course, an angry 7 is writing an article about the spiritual decline of his people! And to that I say, no shit Sherlock; the 9s and 10s are too busy sucking dick to ponder about life. Only a 7 has the right mix of heartache and joy to provide an objective opinion. The 8’s are all delusional, desperately clinging to the so-close-you-can-taste-it allure of the 9s and 10s, and the 6s and below have been decimated by the savagery of the dating apps. The 7s who think they’re an 8 find themselves so embattled that they’re more likely to show up on Crimewatch than they are for a heart-to-heart about our community.
Eight hours a day, minimum, to make money. At least another six a week for exercise. That’s true for most gays, from the Hell’s Kitchen youngsters to the Chelsea veterans. The money and body in turn entitles us, in theory, to freedom of choice. Free to travel wherever we want, free to love whomever we choose… free to define life however we see fit. Why does it all seem so binary then, even for a group that’s very name suggests a smorgasbord of possibility? It’s because freedom within our community has bias in its definition, encouraging above all else experimentation and indulgence. Freedom for Jewish people after the holocaust was safety and peace. For emancipated black people it was respect and dignity. For the gays it should have been authenticity, that exiled virtue so many of us were forced to leave for dead in the early years of our lives. Now that we’re free, thanks to the efforts of activists and allies, has our authenticity been reclaimed? The creeping sense of doubt you feel when asking the question answers it.
Trust the feeling.
Trust, an elusive virtue for people who grew up trusting nobody.
The human psyche is broadly built upon three pillars: what we believe, what we think and what we feel. Arguably, it’s the last of the trifecta that, if harnessed properly, could prevent the splitting of the human species. Where faith was once the sole domain of belief it is entirely possible, largely thanks to the void left by waning religious ideologies, to marry faith to what we feel. Faith in what? In mankind, and why how we live our lives matters. Limbo is defined in Roman Catholic theology as the border between heaven and hell where souls who, though not condemned, must dwell, deprived of the joy of eternal existence with God in heaven. Limbo, in gay culture, could be defined as the border between a life of indulgence and purpose. That definition doesn’t seem overly complicated until you understand that indulgence has covertly been linked to connotations of emancipation, of desire, of expression and of health; whereas purpose has very covertly, unless in cases of philanthropy, been linked to something slightly less appealing. Not derided or condemned, but the direct link to freedom has been severed.
Purpose is seen as something to strive towards, freedom is seen as something we can, and should, access now. Why then, if the state of freedom, as defined currently, is so liberating, does it not seem to nourish the souls of those who unapologetically embrace it as their True North? While waiting in line for the bathroom at a recent circuit party in Brooklyn I was told by a handsome man that, "Everyone is on something," before he kindly offered me cocaine.
“No thank you,” I replied, “I’m on molly.” Later, I saw him on the dancefloor again, brimming with energy as he danced topless with his friends. He looked happy. I felt happy. We danced; we had fun. But in the moments of that night when I was looking around, I couldn’t escape the feeling of a subtle undercurrent of emptiness swirling around me, lording over the space from the shadows. I wondered if I was being unnecessarily judgmental, knowing that many people view these parties as a place of refuge, as a place of release. Was I finding fault because I wasn’t the dominant energy, possibly projecting my own feelings onto the space? In the ten years I’d lived in New York I’d only been to about six or seven circuit parties. Maybe what I was witnessing was collective vulnerability, and not emptiness: That could be.
When I ask the question, "If the state of freedom is so liberating, why then do we feel the need to alter that state before we dance?" I am not asking the question to convey judgement; I was there, I enjoyed myself. I’m merely asking to explore the question and answer in the same way we question religion and the status quo of society. It’s not only the circuit queens grappling with questions about life; many, many clean-cut professional men I know, extremely successful in their fields, are on anti-depressants and in therapy, to the point where someone has to ask, "What’s really going on here?"
For some readers, a psychological wall will instinctively have been raised following the preceding paragraph. They don’t know what I look like, so they cannot, and will not, give any credence to my opinion. Until they have my mugshot, my words will float in a no-gravity space. Conditioned by the profile pictures and statistics of social media and dating apps, our feelings now tend to follow an image, not words. Our natural state to not trust another gay man, in any capacity, until we’ve seen what he looks like, has been reinforced by the filtering process applied by these apps. As a practical survival tactic there’s arguably nothing wrong with that. As a contributing factor to the overall spiritual regression of a group of people it warrants further analysis.
Aesthetic filters have caused a seismic shift in society, leaving an indelible mark on those navigating sexual and social adulthood. Many men adapt to successfully utilize the filtering process, failing to realize the tradeoff in this adaptation is the shelving of authentic elements that make each of us unique. Inroads made by RuPaul’s Drag Race and people like Caitlyn Jenner making the cover of Vanity Fair are no doubt welcome, but even in these cases the definition of authenticity isn’t above reproach, or debate. In the aforementioned examples of progress there is much emphasis on presentation, the underlying message being that through presentation we can get closer to our true selves. Empowerment has a face, and that face is anything but the one we were born with. You’d be wrong if you think I mean any disrespect to RuPaul’s Drag Race or Caitlyn Jenner; on the contrary, I have much respect for both and for the way they’ve inspired many to come into their own power. Their burst of creativity and flair is a welcome swing of the pendulum. But authenticity as a collective species is more than the needs of only the previously oppressed.
Staying with the queer group, let’s turn our focus to the less pleasant developments in our community, those corrupting principles that found fertile grounds in the wake of our ever-expanding liberties. I’m talking about the rise of narcissism in its most clinical sense, not the diluted term incorrectly applied to callous and selfish individuals. I’m talking about the rise of compulsive lying and obsession with image. Almost all of us have been complicit in creating the issue.
Scott Peck, a psychiatrist made famous by his book The Road Less Travelled, wrote another, less famous book titled People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. The book came to me on a recommended reading list issued by a healing retreat in Costa Rica. The retreat is run by Westerners who deeply embrace Eastern philosophy. I’d flown to Costa Rica with the goal of dissolving the cognitive dissonance I was firmly stuck in after tangling with a covert narcissist for almost a year. When I finally began to accept the magnitude of the dishonesty embedded in my failed relationship, I desperately wanted, and needed, to understand how an individual that presents so well to society could be so spiritually impoverished. It bothered me to the point that it felt like an existential crisis. The retreat and the plant medicine work I successfully completed were intended to help me understand my role in the abuse I’d endured. The dark truth about those who have endured narcissistic abuse is that it can only occur when a person enables the abuse; a healthy individual will automatically repel a true narcissist.
Scott Peck’s work, and other literature, can been used to understand the growing dishonesty in the gay community. From People of the Lie: “There can be a state of the soul against which love itself is powerless because it has hardened itself against love. Hell is essentially a state of being which we fashion for ourselves; a state of final separateness from God which is the result not of God’s repudiation of man, but of man’s repudiation of God, and a repudiation which is eternal precisely because it has become, in itself, immovable. The varieties of people’s wickedness are manifold. As a result of their refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness, the evil ones become the uncorrectable grab bag of sin. They are, for instance, in my experience, remarkably greedy people. In The Road Less Traveled, I suggested the most basic sin is laziness. In the next subsection I suggest it may be pride—because all sins are repairable except the sin of believing one is without sin. But perhaps the question of which sin is the greatest is, on a certain level, a moot issue. All sins betray—and isolate us from—both the divine and our fellow creatures. A predominant characteristic, however, of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image to perfection. Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world, they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. In The Road Less Traveled I define evil “as the exercise of political power that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion—in order to avoid…spiritual growth.”
The very mention of heaven or hell in the context of gay men makes people uncomfortable; understandably so, if you consider how religion has been used to justify oppression. As a defense mechanism, we learned to associate these references with conservatives and an overarching—rightly or wrongly—theme of bigotry and unsophisticated individuals. Most gay men that I know aren’t religious and those who are do not speak vocally about it. That in itself is not a problem. If you must, you can substitute "God" with ‘the source’ or ‘life’ and Peck’s claims will still resonate. An atheist can focus on the psychological concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ without aligning either concept to religious origins. With a growing nonreligious population, it’s high time we define what is good and what is evil when there’s no heaven and hell to mark the beginning and end of the spectrum—the future of the human species depends on it. If we fail in this, the evil of our species will eventually become the dominant members of our species. Remember, true narcissists are cut off from the divine, and to reconnect them, in the words of most clinical psychologists, is virtually impossible. But what they lack in authenticity and empathy, they make up for in cunning, deceit, cruelty, intelligence and charm. They are well positioned to control society, and some would claim they already do.
Religion, for all its well-documented faults, was also the face of the ‘good’ in society for millennia. That doesn’t mean the 'evil' of society wasn’t there. It was evolving too… in tandem with our definitions of spirituality and morality, waiting for the day it could show itself. And now it has shown itself, as us, shackled to short-term validation addiction and instant gratification. One theory links urbanization and the removal of delayed gratification to the rise of narcissism because there were no repercussions for lying in the cities, and only a small chance of being caught, people unconsciously adopted the mechanism as a survival tool, not understanding the long-term impacts. In times when people lived in small villages, reputation mattered, and there were repercussions for bad behavior. You had to invest in people and the land for survival. Cities removed the need for this with instant gratification, and, with no repercussions for bad behavior, they quickly became breeding grounds for dishonesty to grow. The recently developed Metaverse is expected to compound these problems, allowing the darker leanings of our unconscious to stretch its legs. Think of it as yet another barrier between mankind and the 'source.' An initial study of users pointed to an alarming number of them violently abusing their virtual partners.
In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reports of rape and sexual violence have been received in large numbers. The rape in Ukraine, and the use of Soviet era tanks to invade, while abominable, is the old face of evil, that which you can readily classify and identify. Cyber-attacks and cognitive dissonance are the modern version of tanks and sexual assault. Cognitive dissonance is the Trojan horse of narcissism used to rape spirits, delivered by unconscious individuals who abandoned a life of authenticity in exchange for charm and powers of manipulation. In many cases, most are not even aware the swap is being made; there are communal aspects to narcissism that catch people unaware, ergo why civilized society finds itself downing handfuls of anti-depressants, fighting for its own inner spark. Going on anti-depressants and then making no changes to your lifestyle makes no sense, and the growing forces of spiritual annihilation wouldn’t have it any other way.
Make no mistake, evil is here, and evolves in its own way.
It knows we don’t want to define it, or even acknowledge the scale of its existence, and so has cleverly embedded itself within our façade. The only way to unmask it is through the sheer power of authenticity. Authenticity is the only conduit between the conscious and unconscious and aligns the true purpose of humanity with its destiny, without knowing what that is. Why is it worth pursuing something without knowing what the end goal is? Because it’s the only state powerful enough to align the three pillars— what we believe, what we think, what we feel—of the human psyche. On an instinctual, primal level, every species fights for survival. For humans, survival has two prongs: physical and spiritual. Were that not true, depression would not exist. The greatest chance for prosperous survival comes with the alignment of our collective psyche; for that very reason there are forces moving in opposition to that goal. That is, if you believe in good and evil, and believe that, generally speaking, good is the power of creation and evil is the power of destruction.
Innocence does not preclude freedom, and the road to happiness is not paved with hedonism. In the same way people can be emancipated, so can concepts. Innocence – in gay adults—has long been tied to repression, as if to say, ‘you haven’t lived,’ if you haven’t tried this or that. The converse of this is that you aren’t free until you have tried this and that. I disagree wholeheartedly with these sentiments. In having seen friends inject Kybella into their chins to shrink imaginary necklines, in having seen friends sway on the dancefloor on molly, in having to hold a friend, a man who has sex almost daily with different men, in my arms while uncontrollable sadness rolls out of him, in having to endure a barrage of lies from a partner, the lies growing increasingly more bizarre as time progressed, I had to conclude that something was amiss. The age-old adage of ‘To each his own’ now feels like an intellectual cop out. This so called ‘freedom’ doesn’t appear to be the bill of goods it was sold as, or perhaps it just needs to be refined further. Hedonism, or ‘You do you, Boo’ also needs to be reined in.
We don’t live in silos, and to endorse a way of life that quite often comes at the expense of others is irresponsible. It’s precisely because we have left accountability in the clouds and the definitions of why we are here alone that we find so many gay men floundering spiritually. The discord will only grow until we place the same value on ourselves that we do on our desires. The best food is free of chemicals and pesticides; the best gemstones have no heat treatment; their inclusions add value, not detract from it; the best sex is with someone comfortable in their own skin. Why then do we go through lunches not challenging our friends who are already beautiful but signing up for Botox? At most we might say, ‘You’re already very attractive, there’s no need for this.’ While we value natural forms of life we seem to run from our own natural state at every turn. Our holidays must be elsewhere, our bodies must be better or different, we must make more money, we must have sex with someone other than who we are dating. Anything but what we have and are. There’s no denying that we are in the throngs of a deep illness.
Successful men in their mid-thirties should be nurturing younger men and introducing goodwill into their communities. Take a critical look around the brunch table next time you’re out and decide for yourself if this is happening.
Let me share additional background information on the crying friend, a Frenchman with a wolf-like demeanor and a smile that promises nights on the wild side. We’d met at a birthday party two months prior. He arrived late and sat at the end of the table, introducing himself to everyone but me. He made his advances on Instagram the next day, eventually asking me out on a date. After a few dates I called him and told him I couldn’t see him anymore. Post plant medicine retreat had left me wary of anyone with too much charisma, and the Frenchman seemed to fit that bill. I knew something was not right. Because I’d committed to not ignoring these initial signs (a necessary practice for anyone coming out of narcissistic abuse), I told him I’d prefer to be friends. He pursued me jokingly for weeks thereafter, until finally settling into a light-hearted friendship. One night, after dancing for a few hours, the Frenchman suddenly started crying uncontrollably and buried his face into my chest as he sobbed. I held him and encouraged him to just let it out. A good cry is something Eastern and Western philosophy agree on. In Eastern philosophy, vomiting, crying, yawning, and even diarrhea can be viewed as healthy purging. Through purging you release negative feelings and energy. While the Frenchman bawled I tried to imagine myself as I’d done at the retreat in Costa Rica: a floating ball of essence, the very makeup of my existence, who I am, all the years I have spent on Earth, what I cannot change about myself and what I can, a source of energy that knows its own True North, and to transfer as much of that energy to him in the hopes that it might serve him in some way. Delusions of grandeur? Perhaps ("For sure!" said one friend).
I couldn’t help but wonder why so many of my ‘successful’ friends were living with a baseline of melancholy. You’d never know it by looking at their Instagram pages: trips to Greece, summers in the Hamptons and Fire Island, the best restaurants in New York. On paper, these men with lots of money and the freedom to have open relationships or sex on demand seem to have it all. Throw in their political convictions about what’s right and what’s wrong and you can easily conclude that life should be easy for them to navigate. Sheryl Crow’s lyrics come to mind: if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?
Here’s why, at a granular level, I believe the baseline melancholy sets in. After men come out, some of them don’t leave the lying behind. It is so ingrained that they don’t even question whether it still serves them or not. How can such a useful survival tool be anything other than helpful? If you don’t use the lying to hurt anyone, there’s nothing wrong with it, right? Wrong.
Being honest is uncomfortable, but it brings us closer to authenticity.
Even white lies pull us further from our core essence, and it’s this pull that I believe generates the baseline unhappiness flowing through so many in our community. The self-deprecating humor we often try and pass off as honesty has been hijacked by our collective neurosis as it tries to suck more people into the growing cesspool of toxic behavior. Stop commenting on your friend’s weight, stop asking if a man is a top or a bottom before you go out with him, stop trying to show everyone how much money you’re making. When you aren’t attracted to someone, tell them so. Respect the human you’re engaging with by being honest with them. Don’t dilute your romantic interactions by juggling ten men at the same time. Put your Hinge profile on pause as you follow a lead or two through to conclusion. Move with humility and intention. Breathe.
You can still have fun, but you can do it with clarity and awareness. There’s a grace that enriches your life when you adopt these principles. More importantly, if you act with intention and care, you stop contributing to the meaningless indulgence that poisons the water for everyone else. Through reduction we can, and will, find restoration. Skiing in Aspen doesn’t make you somebody, nor does dancing at Burning Man. Enjoy these places if they bring you healthy joy but renounce your lust for an image if that’s where the appeal lies. By acknowledging the sacred spirit that essentially defines you, recognizing it as the sovereign power in your life, even if you can’t feel the value of that definition yet, you start moving closer to your true essence, and therefore, inner peace. If everyone could command their lives from a platform of inner peace, imagine how much more room there would be for us to focus on elevating the human condition. Western culture can only benefit from the holistic approach of the East.
When I first heard about plant medicine six years ago, I dismissed it as the last frontier for recreational drug users chasing a new high. But as they say, ‘It calls to you when you’re ready.’ My opinion now is that plant medicine makes Western therapy seem barbaric by comparison. I also predict that in the very near future plant medicine will be integrated fully into Western healing programs. I only hope that the very subtle, gentle nature of the medicine isn’t twisted and corrupted by our demands for instant gratification.
From the Talmud, the book of Jewish law: “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.” The only way to combat the rise of evil that looks just like you and me (because it is you and me) is to connect to our authentic selves. This breed of broken human can only exist in the vacuum we have left for them to occupy. While they control the narrative and what we see, the truth is something we can be. It is absolute and more valuable than anything we frequently encounter in Western society. But it requires work and honesty to be this way. Like the most valuable gemstones, the more natural your truth is, the more beautiful you are.
Buddhists follow teachings that help lessen the pain of others. By being authentic, just by being dedicated to being true in what you say and do, you help lessen the pain of others. Those who abandoned their true selves as children and remain stunted cannot be expected to move towards authenticity when the supposedly healthy members of society aren’t doing it. You can either be an uncorrectable grab bag of sin, as Peck puts it, or you can be a light in the world. One is more difficult to be than the other, but it’s also more rewarding. As someone who has been both, I know this to be true. In a very neutral sense, I think it’s reasonable to ask those of us who don’t have children and who have had a modicum of success (in the Western sense) to at least engage in practices that might help heal the obvious pain that is permeating through our ranks. It’s a call to arms, requiring only of you to sit with yourself and the feelings that make you uncomfortable.
It’s no secret that the insidious shadow of our psyche is on the move.
This fight isn’t about oil or borders, it’s about virtue and the spiritual expansion of good, and evil, however you may define those concepts. Wake up, take notice, and act. Living right matters. If you’re the only person in the room who thinks gays should adopt instead of using surrogates, don’t be scared to say it. But say it with the intention to share your reasoning, not to wound or to make yourself seem intelligent. Don’t be held ransom by the successes of social movements that once benefitted you but have now morphed into voracious vehicles of dishonesty. What was right yesterday isn’t necessarily right today. It’s not us vs them. Don’t tolerate misogyny when a gay man hurls slurs at a girl just for being too drunk at a gay club; becoming the bully just because you can is not a good look.
Casting our eyes across the pond and judging everyone else served us well as we struggled to climb to higher ground. We have that ground now, at least in major urban cities. From our vantage point we can clean house and straighten up the behavior that needs correcting. Having this opinion doesn’t make you conservative or self-loathing. It’s merely self-correcting to create a healthier space for all of us. Try it. In the same way recycling was a pain in the ass when we first started preaching about it, most of us are now on board and agree that it’s best practice. Best practice is uncomfortable at first, and then it becomes a source of pride. Isn’t that what we’re all about?