Recently a local buddy of mine showed me an online exchange he had engaged in with a potential sex partner he met on Grindr. What started off as a friendly conversation between two consenting adults quickly turned into an over the top read session that in hindsight was quite unnecessary. Here’s how it started: My buddy noticed that the guy he was talking to had two people in his default pic. One of the people in the picture appeared to be a man while the other appeared to be a masculine looking women. My buddy politely asked which of the two he was speaking with and the guy went ballistic. It was an honest question considering the guys default pic had two people in it (which by the way is not proper social app etiquette for a variety of reasons). However the response he got was defensive, mean-spirited and bitchy to say the very least. This made me wonder, why are we as gay men so quick to go to shade?
In his book “The Velvet Rage” clinical psychologist Allan Downs asserts that gay men are particularly hypersensitive to invalidation. Growing up in a society that has demonized their sexuality, gay men have internalized an aversion to criticism and have struggled with overwhelming feelings of toxic shame and deep inner rage that manifests itself as cynical humor and sharp tongued acerbic wit that stings to its receiver. Being full of toxic shame and quieted rage creates in one feelings of inadequacy that are expressed in negative and unhealthy ways. In other words we as gay men have been taught to hate and devalue ourselves. We have unwittingly subscribed to the belief that we are inferior causing us to treat each other as less subordinate sub par individuals.
Even among close knit circles of friends we tend to use biting humor as a way to release the pent up rage that swells deep within the inner recesses of our troubled psyches. We express our own self-hatred under the guise of ki-ki and read sessions. In some ways this has been a functional saving grace for us as it provided us with a thick suit of armor and taught us how to for one not care so much about what others thought of us and two how to verbally defend ourselves from the constant attacks of our heterocentric counterparts. But what initially started off as a way to purge shame and rage as well as a way to protect our identities as men who love men is now becoming a deadly culture that is undermining our ability to connect with one another on a real and humane level. We are hating each other to death and subsequently murdering and dismantling the very systems of support we need thrive as gay men.
It’s like these days we as gay men suspect genuine compliments and have to ask for deep clarification as to the true intent of a compliment before we can graciously accept it from one another. I’ve seen many gay men accept compliments hesitantly with a snide side eye because of this underlying belief that any compliment or kind word you receive from a gay man must be laced with shade. It’s like the tea we like to spill is secured in a beautiful cup yet is scolding hot and laced with corrosive acid when poured out. Our culture of shade, while on the surface comes across as playful innocuous banter, is really just a cleverly disguised means of spewing and redirecting our internal junk thus supporting and perpetuating the internal and external destruction present within the gay community today.
So it’s time to examine the roots of our shade-loving past and begin to uproot the toxicity that threatens our bond as gay men because as a community, I feel that we can be closer. Our need for intimacy does not always have to be sexualized. It can be reclaimed and privatized as a resolve to be kinder to one another. It can be a means to build bridges not walls. And that requires us to acknowledge, accept, address and reconcile the many ways in which toxic shame, inferiority, rage has influenced our treatment towards ourselves and others.