Look inside and you might find “The Outsider Trigger.” Many people fear being alone and socially isolated. However, due to early experiences of feeling different from their families and classmates, gay men may be especially vulnerable to the wounding of this trigger.
One of the most enduring societal beliefs about gay men is that they will “grow old alone”. Look even deeper at the culture and you may find a classic stereotype of the gay man: an old, pale, lonely, creepy looking guy who might be a pedophile. The visual of this looks something like Monty Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons.
This is dark material. On a conscious level few American gay men believe this stuff anymore. However, on an unconscious level it may have seeped in more than anyone wants to acknowledge.
Straight men also worry about being accepted in groups. But they have cultural stories and structures that can soften this anxiety. They are supported by the myth of the straight outsider who is cool. Think of Clint Eastwood. Or James Dean. The Marlborough Man.
A gay man who spends a lot of time alone is not considered cool in any movie I’ve seen. In fact, they are usually under suspicion for doing something nasty.
As an LGBTQ affirming therapist I sometimes see the destructive behaviors that can be linked to the Outsider Trigger. Compulsively searching for sex as a validation for being attractive – which is really a desire to fit in – can be the cause of a lot of pain and drama in a life. Overdoing recreational drugs can be a problematic result of needing to be accepted by a group. Overachievement is sometimes another strategy to fight off fear of loneliness.
What are some healthy responses and coping mechanisms for the Outsider Trigger? Here are few ideas:
- Acknowledge that the development of a strong group of supportive friends is an important and sometimes difficult task that is worthy of more of your time and attention. In our isolating society it doesn’t always “just happen.” You may need to take some strategic steps to build the community you want. The best way to make new friends is to join an organization. Look at gay sports groups, political action groups, spiritual organizations, sobriety groups, and hobby and non-profit volunteer organizations to begin this process.
- Most of us understand that finding a boyfriend is a bit of a numbers game: we have to go on many unfulfilling dates until we find someone we click with. The same is true for building a friendship community. It takes time. Some people you like may not be available for friendship with you, and you might not be available for friendship with people who are reaching out to you. Keep reminding yourself not to take it personally when an email or phone call goes unreturned. Refocus your attention on finding people who are open to you.
- If you have a few leadership skills, use them. Be the first to organize a group activity rather than waiting for someone else to do it. See what happens. Keep your expectations low and then be pleasantly surprised when a few people do respond.
- If you spend most of your social time in clubs and bars, don’t be surprised if most of your friends need alcohol or drugs to have fun. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because the clubs are the most visible form of gay social organizations that they are the only form. They simply are the most promoted and profitable.
- All humans want to see themselves reflected in others. That’s why we seek out friendships and lovers. And that’s one reason we watch movies and read books. Make sure you find yourself reflected in some of the art and media you consume. You may not find yourself in Hollywood’s most recent romantic comedy, but somewhere out there is a character in a book, play, or movie that is a lot like you.
If you have come out of the closet as a gay man then you are already an expert in unpacking cultural baggage. There is always more work we can do to uncover, reframe, and move beyond societal messages that limit and hurt us.