Why are there so many hair stylists who are gay? Why are our homes so often featured in interior design magazines?
Why are we often the tastemakers of the fashion industry?
Why is there an entire décor resale website named “Previously Owned By A Gay Man”?
Is there a special gay “taste” gene yet to be discovered?
Alan Downs, in his popular book The Velvet Rage, argues that the reason that gay men are overrepresented as leaders in these industries is that we’ve had to become masters of hiding. As kids our true selves did not get validated, and so we learned to create the appearance of beauty as way to hide our “unbeautiful” selves from the world. “We’re experts in making things and people look good,” writes Downs.
It’s an interesting theory, and one that would be hard to prove or disprove. I have no idea if it’s true. However, I do think The Velvet Rage is the most important book we have on gay men’s development.
What I love about the book are the first several chapters where he validates, with hard-hitting language, the challenges of growing up as a gay boy in a straight family. You will feel seen and heard in these chapters. They won’t minimize your experience. And reading your feelings described on the written page is healing.
The Shame of Being Gay
Essentially The Velvet Rage is a book about shame. Shame is universal. All people, LGBTQ and straight, feel shamed by life. However, LGBTQ individuals get served an extra large helping of shame. And with our shame comes the problems of self-sabotage, avoidance of risk, or the exhausting efforts of overcompensation or seeking validation.
No book is perfect, and the middle chapters of The Velvet Rage may not resonate with everyone. In these chapters, without actually admitting it, Downs is focused on what happens when the shame of being gay merges with someone who has a tendency towards narcissism. (He writes about his clients and friends who are wealthy gay men living in Beverly Hills.)
He ignores what happens when our shame leads to other common traits that I see in my psychotherapy practice, such as codependency.
The book ends with smart tips about how to overcome shame by moving towards greater authenticity and empowerment. Check it out.
The Horror of Femininity
Perhaps a more likely reason for the success gay men have had in the worlds of beauty and design is that gay men have been willing to enter these historically more “feminine” realms.
Unfortunately, our culture typically doesn’t “allow” straight men to express parts of their personality that could be perceived as feminine. It’s sad. I hear straight men (quietly) complain about it.
By coming out as men attracted to other men, gay men have already rejected one of the most central cultural “definitions” of masculinity: that to be masculine one must be sexually attracted to women. Once we break through that wall, it’s much easier to walk over the arbitrary “rules” that require men to resign their masculinity if they style hair or arrange the furniture.
At its core, gay male homophobia is caused by a fear of the feminine. Perhaps the worst insult given to a young boy is being called a “fag.” Even today, over forty years after the beginning of the modern women’s movement, boys are terrorized by the threat of being labeled feminine.
If you grew up being perceived as “too feminine” then you may have internalized this cultural belief that feminine is bad. If so, it’s never too late to rewrite the script.
What “feminine” expressions are you hiding from the world?