Table of Contents
What readers are saying about
The Velvet Rage
“What a great book! I felt as if a window had been opened to the hearts of so many people I have known and loved in my life.”â
“As I read [
The Velvet Rage
], I kept bumping into myself and, hopefully, my former self.Â .Â .Â . I felt that [this book was] talking specifically to me and I'm sure all gay readers will have the same reaction.”â
“Alan Downs has opened the door to the heart of every gay friend I have ever known. As a 76-year-old straight woman, for the first time I feel I have a better understanding of the gay life. Anyone who has ever dealt with or is dealing with shame will benefit from this book.”â
“This isn't just a social commentary or self-help book aimed at a minority population. Every reader will learn from a journey through cultural values about human flaws and perfection to arrive at a place where real and authentic human hope may be found.”â
“My partner and I have read [
The Velvet Rage
] twice, and I really think it has changed our lives. Sometimes, we'll read a page or two to each other out loud just to remind us of what we've learned.”â
The Velvet Rage
is a book that will help so many people, those who are gay and those who are not. I admire [the author's] ability to write in a casual style that reads with depth, warmth, and humanity.”â
“This book should be a âmust read' for any gay man who is committed to becoming his absolute best self in an increasingly crazy world.”â
“[Dr. Downs] hasn't pathologized homosexuality. He's described, with eloquence and intelligence, the natural consequences of what amounts to soul murder.”â
“This book offers a human perspective on how American culture affects gay men in the twenty-first century. As a clinical social worker, I was moved by the vulnerability Downs allows himself by sharing some of his own life story, ideas, and experiences.”â
ALSO BY ALAN DOWNS
Beyond the Looking Glass
Seven Miracles of Management
The Fearless Executive
Why Does This Keep Happening to Me?
Secrets of an Executive Coach
The Half-Empty Heart
Blake Hunter and Bob Ward
May I grow as young in spirit, as wise in life,
and as steadfast in love as you.
Preface to the 2012 Edition
It's now late August and another summer is quickly slipping away. I'm sitting on the patio in front of the weather-worn, shingle-clad cottage that my good friend, Randy, has rented for the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where every summer evening he gives an entertainingly realistic performance as Cher to eager sun-drenched and alcohol-infused crowds. As the noon sun is peaking just overhead now, my heart is full of gratitude, for I've been so lucky in life. Good friends, work that I love and am passionate about, andânot the leastâI am alive. Next year I will cross the half-century mark, and my mind wanders back through all those winding corridors of years in San Francisco, New Orleans, Key West, and New York. I remember all those beautiful masculine faces that grace the walls of my memory. Some didn't survive the AIDS crisis, and countless others didn't survive the angst of knowing they wouldn't die, that HIV was a chronic, manageable illness, and so they dove deep into the darkness of crystal meth, alcohol, and the like, dancing their way into the arms of death. Just last night came word to Randy that yet another old friend had drunk himself out of existence. I, like so many gay men, have savored the highs and trudged through the lowest of lows in lifeâand we are truly fortunate to have survived when so many others did not. At moments like this, when
I glance backward and feel the tide of life and memory rushing forward, I am torn between gratitude for what was given and longing for what was lost.
Dancing through the night last night, my heart was full of joy. Randy and I were joined by a delicious assortment of men of all varieties. There was Paul, who as the minister of one of the largest Unity Churches in America is fundamentally changing the way that denominationâas well as many othersâaccept and embrace gay men. At one point in the evening, we encountered a handsome man who described himself to me as a writer, and despite my misinterpretation of Randy's raised eyebrows, I sipped my drink and casually asked what he had written, only to discover to my embarrassment that the man who stood before me was one of my most revered writers. His novel
has never ceased to inspire me to dig deeper as a writer, and maybe one day, I might write something so truly touching, raw, and authentic. It was a night of bliss that ended with all of us sitting on the curb, eating pizza and basking in the warm ocean breeze that caresses the streets and whisks away the cares of all those who travel those centuries-old cobbled paths, which were initially tread by the Pilgrims on their voyage to freedom and acceptance.
It is here, in this dialectical paradox, suspended between joy and tragedy, freedom and shame-induced bondage, great talent and squandered existence, that
The Velvet Rage
lives. As gay men, we have been anything but ordinary and predictable. Everywhere you turn, and no matter what age, station in life, and economic status, the lives of gay men of all shapes and sizes contain this polar mix of pain and ecstasy. Our problems and successes in life are truly no different than any other man's, and yet we are uniquely identifiable in our waysâthere is no mistaking gay culture when you see it. We are in no way more pathological
or deviant than any other man who has walked this planet, present or past. And yet, we are clearly different. When you love a man, it fundamentally changes youâand we have all been shaped by our love of men; the heavy caress of his hand, the brush of the hair on his forearm, and the powerful kiss that at once dominates and deconstructs our defenses. These things enliven our days and fuel our dreams.
In the years since
The Velvet Rage
was originally published, so many men have been generous with me and shared their stories and struggle with shame. It is the concept of shame, in fact, that has enlightened so many of their lives. Prior to reading the book, they felt they had long ago been done with the ravages of shame over their sexual orientation. Some actually have no memory of feeling shame over being gayâthey marched out of the closet at a young age and never looked back. It is here, at this point, that a truly life-changing insight emerges. Most of us have not felt the emotion of shame for many yearsâsince we first came to terms with being gay. For the majority of gay men who are out of the closet, shame is no longer
What was once a feeling has become something deeper and more sinister in our psychesâit is a deeply and rigidly held belief in our own unworthiness for love. We were taught by the experience of shame during those tender and formative years of adolescence that there was something about us that was flawed, in essence unlovable, and that we must go about the business of making ourselves lovable if we are to survive. We were hungry for love, and our very existence depended upon it, as the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing noted: “Whether life is worth living depends on whether there is love in life.” The lesson of that early, crippling shame was imprinted on our lives.
If you are to be loved, you must hide the truth about yourself and work at being lovable.
The days of feeling shame over being gay passed by us like the last days of summer, slipping into our memory as we moved on with life and went about the business of openly living as gay men. Shame became embedded into the trunk of our ever-expanding personalities, affecting everything about us, and yet so minutely close to the core of our being that we are helpless to see it as different than “me.” As the eye cannot see itself, we cannot see or feel this embedded shame. But make no mistake, the shame is thereâand it is very real.
Of all the comments readers have shared with me over these past six years, the one that comes up most often is: “I don't
shame.” Very few of us feel the shame, but almost all of us struggle with the private belief that “if you really knew the whole, unvarnished truth about me, you would know that I am unlovable.” It is this belief that pushes us, even dominates us with its tyranny of existential angst. In our own way, young and old alike, we set about the business of “earning” love, and escaping the pain of believing we are unlovable. It is this damned quest that pushes us to the highest of highs, and simultaneously brings us to the brink. This is both the creator of the fabulous gay man and his destroyer.
Shame is not the same thing as homophobia. Homophobia is the fear of being gay, and shame is the fear of being unlovable. You can relatively easily cure the homophobia, but the shame, without vigilant care and attention, will last a lifetime. Gay shame is not embarrassment over being gay; it is the belief that being gay is a mere symptom of your own mortally flawed psyche. You can treat the homophobic symptom, but the underlying disease persists until acknowledged and treated.
From this perspective, I have come to understand why
The Velvet Rage
continues to touch so many younger gay men,
many of whom never experienced the protracted coming-out process that others of us lived through during a time when there was far less social acceptance of being gay. Even though they may not have experienced embarrassment over being gay, they grew up with the knowledge that they were different from their parents (who are typically straight) and much of the world around them. Knowing they were different in such a significant way led them to internalize the beliefs of shame. The statistics continue to bear out that gay men in their early twenties are increasingly likely to struggle with addiction, depression, and even suicideâall symptoms of the man who bears the pain of feeling unlovable.