Seven years ago, I met with my first gay-specialized psychologist. I was on a path of self-destruction I no longer wanted to be on, and thought this person could help. I had already been radicalized for a few years; I was decidedly “not gay as in happy but queer as in fuck you” but I was also definitely “gay as in miserable.” I was infatuated with a gay man on a similar path, went to gay spaces to meet other gay men in the gayborhood, was seemingly out as gay to all of my friends and, increasingly, most of my family, and I hated all of it.
When I mentioned how much gay culture annoyed me, and how I saw it not as a refuge but as part of a world crashing down on me, the doctor handed me a book that I would come to find was a staple amongst gay psychologists to give to their new patients. The book’s title, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World  alone was enough to challenge my view. “What could this book possibly tell me about being gay,” I thought. “I don’t hate myself for being gay.”
I was soon overwhelmed by how much the book described my life. The book demonstrates the cycles of shame which plague the lives of many gay men. In Downs’ view, growing up with a secret which could, if known, make one unworthy of love or respect, inflicts a particular psychological burden, and this is repeated as we navigate a homophobic society. Both inside and outside the closet, this shame, consciously or unconsciously, drives us to compensate and overcompensate, by filling our lives with inauthentic validations. Our drive for these inauthentic validations and other manifestations of our shame rule the lives of even the loudest and proudest of us, as deep inside of us lives “a little boy with a big secret,” which is an epistemological concept I borrow when writing about the history of gay politics.
The book is definitely onto something, but its prescriptions for overcoming the shame come up very short, along with its description of gay life as very white and American. The book is particularly polarizing for gay people who have always felt like they had one foot in the gay urbanite world described in The Velvet Rage and one foot seemingly “outside” of it. Regardless, I found Downs’ theories somewhat valid, and definitely illuminating of my personal self-loathing. However, over the years, I have also felt extremely challenged by what Downs presents as the goal in the book of “authentic gay life,” which I think is centered around the clinical criterion of “functionality.” Some of the prescriptions, such as learning to love yourself and fill your life with people who truly love you, aren’t “bad,” but also probably wouldn’t be out of place in a Jordan Peterson book.
When looking at the DSM-5, the standard reference book of criteria for mental disorders, one would think the hallmark of mental illness is “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning,” as this is almost always the final criterion. I have long thought that, in that phrase, we can see the entire field of US clinical psychology subordinated to the dominating ideology of the historical epoch.
But it’s not as if everything is just fine. Mark Fisher provided a useful analysis: “…Depression is endemic. It is the condition most dealt with by the National Health Service [in the United Kingdom], and is afflicting people at increasingly younger ages. … It is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness. This pathologization already forecloses any possibility of politicization. By privatizing these problems – treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/or by their family background – any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.” 
Homosexuality is not a clinical or pathological category in US psychology and I presume that, elsewhere, this would be very controversial. “Being gay” has always seemed (for me at least) to be a more historical (and therefore political) category. However, Downs is also keen to explore the relationship that gay men sometimes have with their fathers. I knew even from the standpoint of the closet that my father would easily be able to deal with me being gay. However this didn’t preclude intense feelings of inadequacy and failure to him, in other words, how my father felt really didn’t matter. There was some force outside our father-son relationship which compelled me to feel negatively and hopeless about it. If homophobia is not socialised and learned in the direct household, it will be sourced from elsewhere. However, the tendency for psychology and psychiatry, in Fisher’s understanding, is to view our mental anguish as private concerns rather than social ones. For me, this was difficult to reconcile with my own experience, as it seemed to me that the world outside my so-called “private life” was capable of inflicting pain and difficulty upon it.
This may not have been what Fisher meant when describing “privatizing … problems…as if they were caused by…family background.” He may have been referring to theories which propose hereditary causes; however, the tendency for psychologists to relate pathology to childhood trauma seems clear as well. Many people have traumatic and unhappy childhoods which do not result in trauma-related pathology. The process by which the phenomenon Downs describes persists provides a possible explanation of how this might be located beyond “the private.” There is no natural force in society which has made heterosexuality so dominant.
There is also no natural force which creates a free labor market which allows for the possibility of people living gay lives, be they closeted, semi-closeted, or completely “out.” However, it is in this historical era, wherein the primary form of labor is organized as that of a commodity, that gay social life has emerged . The ability to be gay has come about as a direct result of the ability of millions of proletarians to reproduce themselves by selling their labor independent of their family of origin, or accessing capital by some other means. NYC and San Francisco became urban centers of gay life for a number of different factors, but one important one is that they best provided amenities for a childless adult. 
Going back to Mark Fisher: “Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia [pleasure]. Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia [inability to feel pleasure], but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.” 
Why is sexuality, desire and a drive for pleasure such a barrier to our functionality, and, as Downs puts it, “authentic validation,” and therefore a life of passion and genuine fulfillment? I don’t think it is simply because sexuality is so important to gay people, but because our sexuality seems so important to the rest of the world. Downs’ prescriptions are good for those who want to navigate this world by making as little trouble for themselves as possible, knowing it is very homophobic In this way, it has helped me greatly at moments. The “mysterious, missing enjoyment” which can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle that Fisher describes, is not that different from Downs’ “authentic validation”. For the worker, this is precisely the part of our being that is stolen from us by the capitalist. Beyond just the product of our labor that the capitalists try to take from us, they also take away our ability to write, to make music, and to have sex with the people we want to, etc.
French queer writer, Guy Hocquenghem, said: “It is not enough to say that shame and homosexuality are closely connected. One only exists in the movement of the other.”  In reality, we understand being gay as more than simply homosexuality but, in a historical context, it produces gay geographies, gay economies, gay psychologies, specific social customs and cues, etc. We built the gayborhood in a genuine and valid desire to live freely but in an inauthentic way for, as for long as it is a refuge from a world that hates us, it will be in its image. It will push us against other queers and against ourselves. How fulfilled and authentic can we be towards ourselves in a world with heterosexuality? With capital? Can shame possibly not exist alongside these things? To relegate this to the private realm, as Downs does, is to overcome the straight man’s world in an inauthentic way.
If we truly love ourselves, we will understand that there is not enough space for trans people and all queers in what we have seemingly carved out for “us”. I cannot emphasize enough how far backwards transphobia takes us. For as long as we have existed as “gay” people, it has been along the side of the rest of those we call queer today. I suspect it is due to our own shame of being gay that we reject our trans comrades, and I say “comrade” not to simply mean my fellow communist militants, but to mean a people to whom I feel historically indebted. Our chauvinism is most tragic as our fates are bonded so deeply.
In terms of a truly authentic overcoming of the pain of growing up gay in a straight man’s world, I’m not so much calling for us to burn it all down as an alternative. However, admittedly, I am without many. We can only know the truth of our ideas by putting them into practice. There are walls for us break down with our other queer comrades: there are clinics we frequent which are capitalist enterprises which should be run by their patients; there are pride committees which betray our history. I think it is in the struggle contained in these things where we can further imagine a world where we can truly be fulfilled. We have to take our Velvet Rage out from “the private” and back to the world which produced us.
 Downs, Alan. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. Da Capo Life Long, 2012.
 Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2010, 21.
 D’Emilio, J. Capitalism and Gay Identity from Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality edited by Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, & Sharan Thompson. 1983.
 D Black, G Gates, S Sanders, L Taylor. “Why do gay men live in San Francisco?” – Journal of Urban Economics, 2002.
 Fisher, 22.
 Hocquenghem, Guy, et al. Homosexual Desire. Duke University Press, 88.