Grade school gym class. 1996. Its time for the weekly ritual of picking teams for dodgeball. No matter how often we do this, it will never cease to be humiliating. It’s not that I’m the fattest one, though I’m quite chubby. No, even the fat girls can throw better than I can. I stand there, hopeful, as it’s down to me and one other. Facing the toughest decision of his life, a weaselly boy named Tim examines me and the other remaining candidate, as if he’s choosing between an Indian Rug Burn and a Texas Titty Twister. I’m hopeful that this ti…never mind, last again! As the game commences in gloomy fluorescent lighting appropriate for an outdoor funeral service, I try to navigate the game while causing myself the least embarasment possible, which this time means hanging in the back farthest away from the other team. This approach works well until I suddenly realize there is only me left. I freeze. Half my classmates are on the attack. I know I’m going down. My team is watching angrily from the bleachers. They can’t come back in until I lose it for us. “Just get out, fat-ass!” Tim screams angrily. This hurts, but instead of crying I allow myself to daydream. I dream of getting out of podunk Farmer City. Right now I feel like a loser but I know something all those other fuckers don’t: that deep inside waiting to come out, is this handsome devil:
He’s gonna show them all! He’s going to be successful, he’s going to find love, he’s going to hire a personal trainer, and most importantly, he’ll live in a place where people “get” him. He’ll be warmly welcomed into a community of other gay men who appreciate and adore him in all his wonderful goofy uniqueness.
Suddenly, I feel the stinging sensation of a rubber ball smashing into my chubby cheek, causing my braces to cut my mouth. The fantasy is over. I remember that I’m left with this:
This boy does not yet know hes gay, but the bullies figured it out long ago, and they will make him pay. Every detail is subject to ridicule. The boy-boobs I can’t hide, the shiny polyester shirt from Gadzooks I think is super cool, my love of Madonna and Cher, I will be shamed for all of it. Sometimes I cry, but mostly I shove my emotions deep inside, speak in monotone and try to present the world a safe, neutered version of myself, an emotionless shell least likely to attract ridicule. To show my pain is perilous, but the greatest danger of all would be to show my joy. For if I get lost in joy I may laugh too girly, I may dance too freely, I may lower my guard so much that I’ll expose to the bullies parts of me I can never get back from them. No, I must save that vulnerability for the day I finally step off the bus and get swept up in that big gay utopia of acceptance, inclusion, and understanding.
Its no coincidence we often refer to other gay people as “family.” We’ve faced people who hate us, people who wish to hurt or kill us and entire political operations designed to shame and dehumanize us because of who we are. When our ability to safely let down our guard and be ourselves depends upon being able to distinguish who’s a threat and who isn’t, there’s a great sense of relief in knowing you’re in the company of other gay people. “Family.” “Whew. At least I’m safe here with them.” It can be heartbreaking when we discover that sense of security was unfounded. For many gay boys our deepest longing was to find community, to leave our small towns or circles that did not understand us, and be healed with love and brotherhood until we’re free to be the most complete, beautiful expression of ourselves. Most of us have gotten a hell of a lot closer but there have been some roadblocks. Imagine you found that utopia where you’re surrounded by others just like you, who should theoretically accept you for all that you are, and they rip you to shreds for all the same reasons your schoolmates did.
It’s time to talk about the Mean Gays…
You know the type. Let’s call him…Tim. Tim’s really nice once you get to know him, or so his friends say. His claws are sharp and his tongue sharper. He seems to thrive on cuntiness, on making others feel small. Tim could be a lone Mean Gay or he might run in a clique of others like him who always snicker after looking in your direction. The room grows colder when he walks in, adjusting its temperature to match his heart. If you cross him, you’ll know it immediately and so will everybody else. A soulless witch, he ferociously eats popcorn with no butter as he follows the latest celebrity twitter feuds. He’s got resting bitch face, laughing bitch face, sleeping bitch face, jogging bitch face…he just looks like a bitch, okay? He was almost nice to you once, but only because he thought you had drugs. He asserts his superior taste and judgement by hating or being unimpressed by nearly everything. To him, everyone is Basic. Especially you.
Chances are you know someone like Tim. Tim is a Mean Gay. Mean gays come in all shapes, sizes, and intensities. Not all Mean Gays are as mean as Tim. Some are just a little mean. Others Mean Gays are not mostly mean…just to people like you. It could be you remind Tim of a part of himself he hates and since he’s exhausted with beating himself up, you’ll make a fine punching bag. In reality, the gay community is full of wonderful people. We’re not a community of jerks, but we are a community of complex creatures who sometimes treat each other like jerks. We often encounter people that on paper should be brothers, but instead leave us wondering what we did to earn their scorn. Despite all this, there is something alluring about the Mean Gay. Perhaps we see in him the potential to heal our own childhood wounds. Perhaps if we win his acceptance we’ll find healing. But this is a fool’s game. We’ll only find emptiness in debasing ourselves to earn his useless approval.
Sometimes it’s better just to walk away, but sometimes a Mean Gay infiltrates our social circle or work environment and we need to find a way to restore harmony. We can’t just go around dropping houses on people, but we can deactivate their power, and from there we can even build trust and friendship.
It’s good to start with a serious self-inventory. Somtimes we project the bullies from our past onto people in our present. If, like me, you are sometimes too sensitive, you may be perceiving meanness where it does not actually exist. You may have a brief encounter with someone at a party who’s energy feels familiar. In your mind he’s already decided you’re fat, boring and unworthy when in reality all he said was, “Hello.” Sometimes it helps to ask a trusted friend. “Hey, is it just my imagination or was that guy kind of a dick? Just me? Okay good.”
Let’s say it wasn’t just you. He was kind of a dick. You’ve encountered an actual Mean Gay. More than likely he has triggered an old wound: now he’s not only the Mean Gay before you, he’s all the mean kids you were never good enough for. The worst thing you can do is put on an act and try to be cool for his sake. It never works.
Deactivating the Mean Gay, or shutting down his power to hurt you, requires you to stay grounded and confident. The Mean Gay’s power over you exists only in your mind, which is honestly the worst place it could be, but if you can eliminate your need for his approval you have rendered him powerless. A Mean Gay’s power over you is limited to your need for his approval.
If you struggle with confidence or low self-esteem, how can you eliminate your need for validation and approval? Understanding why the Mean Gay is so mean is key. Once you realize why the Mean Gay is mean, his approval becomes a lot less desirable; as I said before, if you don’t need his approval, you have deactivated him.
So why is the Mean Gay mean? In a word: Fear. The Mean Gay’s life is ruled by fear. He may seem frightening, but the truth is he’s more afraid of you than you are of him. Born an innocent child, at some point he came to expect cruelty from a world that thrust cruelty upon him. His whole life he’s been shamed for his clothes, his taste in music, his Wicca phase (admit it, you dabbled). He was not allowed to express himself authentically. To him, everyone is another potential rejection. Many of us had a similar experience but developed a different defense. I liked to make people laugh. Some try to to be overly nice as a defense. The Mean Gay learned to attack first. If he’s unkind to you, it will hurt less when you inevitably (in his mind) are unkind to him. When we hold core beliefs, even ones that cause us pain, we find comfort in seeking ways to confirm them. He believes the world is cruel and unfair, so he gets a perverse comfort in provoking cruelty in those around him. If you respond to his nastiness with nastiness, on a very superficial level, it feels good to him because you’ve proven him correct. He expected a bitch and you gave him one. Score one for him. Except that’s not how it really works. In reality you both lost because he tempted you to behave like a Mean Gay and you took the bait.
Quite often it’s his own imperfection the Mean Gay is most terrified of. Whatever he sees as a weakness is an invitation for others to exploit, shame, or humiliate him. This goes double if he’s above average in the looks department. His good looks are a double-sided coin. He’s 96% perfect and he knows it. His obsession with the other 4% is what makes his life a living hell. He’s done all he can to make sure you only see the flawless hair, the seductive eyes and the chiseled jaw, but he still feels naked and afraid that all you will notice is the scar, the blemish, the calf muscles that will never be as big as he wants them to. Take a closer look at his shirtless bathroom selfie…you can almost see the fear. If you flatter him, he’ll pity you for not being able to see through his facade of perfection, because he feels like an imposter. If you acknowledge the weakness, you’ve declared war. Neither hundreds of compliments nor thousands of Instagram fans will ease the pain of this paradox. Quite frankly, it hurts to be him.
The Mean Gay lacks warmth and has trouble experiencing intimacy, but he desperately craves it. His walls are always up. He built the wall because he, like you, was once an innocent child that was badly hurt. He learned that the greatest defense against hurt was not to feel it. Not feeling the hurt is not the same as the absence of pain. He doesn’t acknowledge the pain so he doesn’t realize how he carries it around like an invisible bag of toys slung over Santa’s shoulder. He doesn’t know this unprocessed pain and his rejection of it is what causes him to lack joy, to be cold and harsh. In protecting himself from all that he fears, he’s closed himself off from all that he desires. A wall is a wall, not a door, and the wall he’s built to keep out the pain has kept out companionship, intimacy, brotherhood, and love — all the things he requires to heal.
If you can stay nonreactive and non-needy when interacting with a Mean Gay, you can make him feel safe enough to let some of your friendship in. Not being needy is key because your neediness is a threat to his wall of defense, so he’ll push back. Neediness is the most repellant quality to many people, especially mean people. They feel you sucking what little energy they have and fear you’ll leave them with none. It seems counterintuitive, but the less you need the Mean Gay, the more desirable you’ll be to him. He may even begin to wonder why you don’t suck up to him like the rest of his friends. Now who needs who?
If you get defensive and react to his meanness with meanness, you’ve already walked into his trap by confirming his expectation that you, too, are a threat. He has no power over you if you refuse to react to his bad behavior. To deactivate a Mean Gay you must first be grounded in a state of confidence. It helps to remind yourself, “I don’t need to do anything. I can just be.” This may also sound counterintuitive but the more you lower your guard, the less the blows will sting. You must be Teflon to his negativity. This may not seem fair, but you are stronger than him. Only through repeated experiences of you being unmoved by his cruelty will he try another tactic.
Do not flatter a Mean Gay. Flattery is “nice” and “nice” is not kind. Kindness is genuine. “Nice” is a behavior designed to avoid conflict. We’re nice so we can get presents from Santa Claus or brownie points at work. We’re kind when we’ve got no agenda but to treat another person with the dignity they are inherently worthy of, which is precisely what the Mean Gay needs. As soon as the Mean Gay knows you’re kissing his ass — and he’ll always know — you’ve lost his respect. You’re no longer an equal, you’re one of his fans, subject to his manipulation. Sometimes it will be hard to know the difference, but kindness has an energetic quality of authenticity and lacks need, it may even feel neutral. When we’re kind, we usually leave the situation feeling dignified, even if it didn’t end the way we’d hoped. If you’ve been nice to a Mean Gay, you’ll probably leave feeling icky and drained. Compliment his blouse if you must, but only if you really like it.
So how can you be genuinely kind to someone who’s coming at you with hurtful energy? Well, now that you know the Mean Gay lives in a world of fear and pain, that gives you a lot to be curious and compassionate about. “Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like? What activities did you do in school?” are all noninvasive questions that open the door for deeper conversation. Curiosity is key. Ask questions and let him do most of the talking. Remember how much you have in common. Offer him unconditional acceptance. He may not be interested in talking to you, and that’s okay, these things can take time. Know when to back off. If you’ve managed to be nonreactive and non-needy, at the very least you’ve had an encounter with him where you’ve given him no ammunition, no reason to dislike you, and these positive encounters will add up little by little. There’s a chance you’ll find yourself bored or uninterested in what he has to say. Congratulations! He’s lost his power over you.
If you continue in conversation and it gets deep, you’ve successfully made him feel safe enough to lower his guard. Now you’re not a threat. Now he’s got no reason to protect himself from you by being nasty. If you’ve successfully gotten him to lower his guard, and you find that in this vulnerable place, you actually like him, you’ve both won. Only through repeated experiences of being seen in his essential goodness will he feel safe enough to show the world more of it. On some small level, you’ve initiated healing for both of you, and that is a great feeling.
The most significant thing you can do to combat the Mean Gay epidemic is to try your best not to behave like one yourself. We’ve all had bad days. We will all miss the mark sometimes, but today is a new day. If you want more kindness in your life, practice being more kind. I’ve witnessed a strange but beautiful phenomenon in my husband, who is naturally so kind that he actually lives all of the ideas I talk about. He is always in the vibration of kindness and rude people are not rude to him. Since he’s not vibing on that level, if they are rude, that energy can’t even touch him. While writing this piece, I asked him to name a Mean Gay. He couldn’t think of anyone he knows. That’s what happens when you live in kindness.
Our community needs healing. It’s up to you whether you’ll be the poison or the salve. Our ego tells us we’re weak if we don’t defend ourselves by lashing out at people who’ve wronged us, but it actually takes tremendous strength not to react when people are unkind. Nothing I’ve proposed here is easy. You may have to play the long game, but the grounded, confident state you must maintain to deactivate the Mean Gays in your life is the same state you must maintain to silence the Mean Gay in your mind. So even when it feels unfair that you must remain unshaken while facing the Mean Gay’s bad behavior, know that it’s you who will receive the greatest healing from your non-reactivity, detachment from need, and unconditional kindness. If you maintain those three qualities, you may not always win but you will never lose.
P.S. I apologize for all the times I shouted “FUCK, NO!” when you asked me to join gay dodgeball.
Lucas Bane and David Devora own a West Hollywood healing practice called Embrace. To find out more, visit embraceheals.com or check out their Facebook: @Embraceheals. Help us reach more folks: Like, share, and comment!