CSher_076-819x1024Writer Christopher Sherwood (pictured) offers a practical solution for those who feel they haven’t yet found their tribe within the wider LGBT community…

When we don’t feel like we belong somewhere, we usually remove ourselves from that situation. The extreme version of this is suicide. Conversely, to be surrounded by people like us, who value us and appreciate us for who we are, is one of the greatest feelings there is.

It was coming away from last weekend’s Being A Man Festival at the London Southbank Centre that got me thinking about this. The subjects of suicide and depression amongst men repeatedly reared their heads, as symbols of the difficulties faced by today’s men in the UK. Male suicide has been increasing consistently since 2007. Suicide is the greatest cause of death amongst men aged between 20 and 49 years old. Looking to gay men, the statistics on suicide and depression suggest that we have it even harder.

This trend makes intuitive sense when you come back to the concept of belonging. The economy has changed. The structure of our workforce has changed. The manual and industrial jobs, traditionally the socially accepted preserve of men, have been in decline thanks to technological advancements. A person’s profession is a huge part of their identity. We’ve all defaulted to, “So what do you do?” as an opening question.

Typically that is followed by “And are you in a relationship?” My answer of yes is invariably followed by the first question again, “Good, and what does she do?” Gay people never stop coming out, never quite knowing how a person will react when they do. “Well, ‘she’ is actually a he,” I reply. I see the cogs turning and various new opinions about me being formed on the strength of that single revelation, and I feel a little less like I belong.

Despite legal equality being achieved, homophobia is still rife, gay people are still a minority and are still subject to gross stereotyping and labelling, which when heaped on top of the social and economic pressures that all men face, makes the statistics on depression and suicide in our community quite understandable.

Chris Football

This idea of belonging and isolation was echoed during a fascinating panel discussion on ‘Being a Gay Man’, ably chaired by Stonewall’s Wayne Dhesi at the Being a Man Festival. I was struck by a comment from a fellow observer who said that being in the closet was hard because he felt isolated and alone, and that being out of the closet was just as hard because he still felt isolated and alone. Despite being ‘out’, he couldn’t identify with the gay community as he saw it. He certainly wasn’t welcomed with a fanfare and rows of open arms.

The gay community of which we theoretically become a part when we come out is in reality as rich and diverse as the straight community, but is not perceived or presented as such. The overt physical manifestations of it – bars, dating apps, clubs, sex shops – do not help our cause in this respect. It’s no surprise to hear people coming out or moving to London and not finding their place within the ‘scene’. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that there is an important role for these outposts of the gay community, and the fact that so many such venues are closing down across London is heartbreaking for me. I still mourn the closure of the King Edward VI pub in Islington. It felt good to be gay in there, to pop in on my way home from work. I found some sense of belonging, but by no means enough.

When I really found myself in the gay community was when I discovered the existence of the invisible gay scene, the existence of groups and clubs based on common interests and pursuits. Sadly this scene gets limited coverage in the media, presumably because it’s not commercially driven. Its freedom from the commercial is its beauty, however, and the focus is very much on community and shared interest.

Being involved in such groups has removed my sexuality from the equation and has allowed me to meet people based on some other mutual interest. Not wanting to sleep with me does not stop the people I meet from wanting to get to know me. I made more good friends and felt a far greater sense of belonging joining one such group than I did in the whole of my gay bar-going days.

Chris Golf

Ironically, I have a gay bar to thank for my discovery of this invisible scene. I was chatting to someone in the King Edward VI one evening when I told him of my interest in golf. In response he asked if I was aware of the gay golf society known as The Irons. I wasn’t, but went straight home and signed up.

I then figured that there must be other gay groups I could join. I was right. Playing sport without being ‘the gay one’ was such a joy. It wasn’t necessarily about avoidance of homophobia, but the avoidance of being defined by my sexuality. It was about feeling like I fit it, like I belonged.

Soon after joining the irons, I joined Graces, the world’s first and only gay cricket club. One of the things I enjoy about this club in particular is the integration of all members, fans and players alike. Not being able to play cricket is no barrier to becoming part of the tapestry of the club.

The same goes for Stonewall FC, who also welcomed me with open arms…though mostly because I am an experienced goalkeeper and they were desperate for goalkeepers.

Chris Cricket

Discovering this hidden gay scene gave me all the sense of belonging I could ever need – I made instant friendship groups of like-minded people. Sport is not the only area covered by this invisible scene. Nearly every interest is covered somewhere in some way. There is the Gay Photographers Network, the Polari Literary Salon, the London Gay Men’s Chorus (many other cities across Britain have gay choirs as well), The London Gay Symphony Orchestra, the Gay Reading Group, to name but a few. I really could go on and on.

The point really is to encourage people to think about what they are interested in, and see online if a gay group exists that might be of interest. The Meetup Website is another starting point if you are stuck for ideas.

The gay scene is far richer and far more diverse than Soho or Vauxhall would have us believe and as that scene regrettably diminishes in prominence, the role of the invisible scene grows in importance. Cement your place in the gay community and get involved. Cement your sense of belonging. Cement your happiness.

Words by CHRISTOPHER SHERWOOD