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The Misery of Romance

Gay men as old as me can truthfully say that in the last 50 years, our freedom to love has expanded far beyond what we imagined. We sat on the beds of our lovers as they died from AIDS while congressmen advocated corralling all of us into concentration camps. Indeed, it was still illegal to have sex with other men in most places. True, Bill Clinton allowed us to serve in the military but only as long as we stayed in the closet. Many people regarded the long-unthinkable notion of gay marriage as our priority.

Today, you can legally be a married gay man in the military with children. Our celebrants of the normal preached that once such goals were achieved, we would no longer need a gay rights movement. But the reality is that gay men continue to be suicidal and otherwise miserable in outsized proportion to the rest of the culture. I haven’t seen data in the last year, but a few years ago, studies showed that many gay men suffered PTSD as severe as war veterans.

Why? Well, you could be a second grader attending story time at a library almost anywhere in America and watch Proud Boys shut down the event because drag queens are in charge. Then you could be at church with the fam and hear the preacher demonizing homosexuality. You could be on the school playground at recess and get bullied by an asshole because you’d rather be making fashion TikToks with the girls. Legal protection exists because we need protection, not because we aren’t at risk.

I’ve seen a ton of gay men as clients since the early ‘90s. Granted, the fact that they are all seeking help means they have problems, but it also means they are independent enough to want to change. With few exceptions, their predominant complaint has been difficulty finding platonic friends and romantic partners. In groups I facilitated, participants repeatedly asked where they could go to meet other gay men and the options usually amounted to bowling clubs, bars, and gyms. Now, I frequently read, gay men’s interactions with other gay men are mainly online. If you’re 13 and living in rural Alabama, that’s probably mainly a good thing. But it also subjects you to ghosting and humiliation.

For adult gay men, hook-up and dating apps remain a common cause of ecstasy and misery. I fairly frequently hooked up online so long ago I hesitate to mention the site, but okay, America Online. This was a welcome alternative to the so-called personal ads that you could place in newspapers. Newly sober and avoiding bars, a friend and I did that while I was editor of Creative Loafing in the ‘80s, and we’d meet at Piedmont Park to sunbathe and review the surprisingly large number of responses. I got so jaded that I’d ask my suitors to meet me on the patio of a restaurant. I’d drive by, take a look, and usually keep driving. AOL made the process even crueler. The door opens and the dude turns out to be a trembling cadaver with a wilted rose in one hand and his dick in full bloom in the other hand. “Nope!” I’d squawk and shut the door.

Clients today, straight as well as queer, tell me stories of their adventures on dating apps. Usually, after the expectedly lifelong romance crashes, I convince them to stay off the apps for a few months. But I’ve learned that the apparently implicit reward for practicing such abstinence is returning to the apps. The dramas are virtual reenactments of the emotional traumas that have blocked the client for years. I don’t mean romantic traumas necessarily. I hate to tell y’all this, but many people can sign onto a dating app with thousands of wannabe soulmates, and they manage to entrap someone very like the abusive parent who made their youth miserable. Of course, you don’t need a dating app to do that, but it seems to make neurosis more efficient.

So, queer people are mainly free to love now, despite the objections of the MAGA maggots. Unfortunately, it ain’t no storybook quest. I would love to give an amen to RuPaul’s advice that you can’t love somebody if you can’t already love yourself. The fact is, though, that the lucky among us learn to love by being unconditionally loved, and if you didn’t get that from your family and immediate culture, it’s unlikely you can willfully hug yourself and open your heart fully to your Valentine du jour. Fortunately, the misery of love is so widespread that it’s spurned an industry. In addition to the often-outrageously expensive treatment of psychotherapy, there is a self-help industry churning out books and hosting peer-support groups, including 12-step programs that help people cope with love-related codependency and sex addiction. The great thing about such support groups is that you get feedback from multiple people besides, say, a lone therapist who is always having to decide whether to confront your distortions. Another source of help is your friends, if you have some you can be completely honest with. Or get a kitten. They’re adorable, playful, and they grow up to hate you half the time. Yes, men are kittens.

Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist who now practices collaborative life coaching. He specializes in creativity. 404-518-4415,,