My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The quick review: the book is targeted toward gay men, but it’s a worthwhile read if you have any interest in reflection, self-help culture, and even philosophy (if that seems grandiose, just remember that philosophy includes the search for meaning and happiness, whether it’s Aristotle or a hippy dippy secular guru doing the philosophising). It’s not as ordered as it could be, it is more than a bit new-agey, but if you can get over that there’s more than a little here. And as a side note: if all of those right wingers who point towards risky behavior in the gay community are really concerned for gay men’s health, spiritual and otherwise, they may consider getting the other side’s perspective rather than merely thumping their bibles, etc.
The Velvet Rage jumps off from the reality that, while it is wonderful that gay rights have made so many strides in the past 100 years, mental health problems still affect a disproportionate number of gay men (in this sense the title is a little misleading; it’s not just about velvet rage, but also velvet depression, velvet hyper-sexuality, and velvet long term relationship problems). If you want to approach these problems rationally, you need to look for a root cause; along the way you just might find that this root cause could explain more than a few other things about gay men. (rigorously speaking, Downs isn’t being very scientific once he gets past the data about gay men’s health problems; in addition to the fact that he’s a therapist who specializes in treating gay men, and so is more likely than most to see many extreme cases of gay men beset by mental health issues, one senses that he is often writing about his own journey from denial to chasing extrinsic motivators to an eventual sense of passion and contentment).
Boiling it down to the simplest possible terms, Downs posits that shame is the root of gay men’s mental health issues. It’s easy to see this when you think about the closet case, a man who denies his own sexuality. It’s a little more noteworthy that Downs thinks the flamboyantly living, out-of-the-closet case is also motivated by a sense of shame; in his case he has accepted certain aspects of his sexuality, but still feels a sort of void, a sense that he is imperfect and must compensate for that imperfection. (I have to say that Downs tries to have it both ways here; his pride at the accomplishments of gay men is palpable, and yet he also seem to suggest that the drive to succeed is a sort of pathology). Thus the stereotype of the gay man who is highly strung, tasteful to a fault, and wont to blow up at the slightest imperfection, either in work or in his relationship (I feel like it is also possible to find this personality type in the straight population, and you could argue that this sense of perfectionism is a good thing, but that’s neither here nor there). Downs argues that a man who has left these two stages behind is ready to honestly look for authentic relationships that correspond with a sense of intrinsic value. While the details of the internal conversion (and it is a kind of conversion experience) are a bit fuzzy, a gay man in Downs’ third stage has managed flip the switch on his shame and look at himself honestly. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Downs’ observation that young gay men naturally look to the most visible, flamboyant members of the gay community as models; beyond the possibility that these people are more likely to engage in risky behavior, there’s a greater chance that they will be in Downs’ stage two, and so be unhappy themselves; to emulate someone who is himself keyed to external motivators and not an internal sense of worth is to perpetuate the cycle. It is unfortunate that older, well-adjusted gay men in stable long term relationships tend to stick out less.
My reaction to the book is that, while being gay seems to emphasize certain aspects of the journey and to make the path a little more dangerous for a gay man, the trip writ large is something that most people, gay or straight, take. Don’t we all want to work and to love in a network of authentic relationships? Aren’t we all, at some point, enchanted by external things—easy money, a cool look, a trophy—that look a little shallow in retrospect? Don’t we all face a moment in which we have to look for things and activities that are inexplicably, powerfully meaningful for us, not because everyone else in our community feels that way, but because of who we are? In the biggest perspective, the picture doesn’t look so different for any of us. And really it’s a pretty wonderful thing if gay people and straight people can realize that we’re much more similar than we are different.