Although legal and social equality for gay people is further
advanced in the Netherlands than in most other countries, Dutch gay men have
much higher rates of psychological distress than heterosexual men, Sanjay Aggarwala
and Rene Gerrets write in the February issue of Culture, Health & Sexuality. Their study suggests that some of
this can be explained by the continued privileging of ‘normal’ masculinity,
both in wider society and on the gay commercial scene.
Previously, a large, representative study of Dutch adults
found that gay men were three
times more likely than heterosexual men to report a mood disorder or
anxiety disorder, and ten
times more likely to report suicidal thoughts. While similar results have
been reported in other western countries, the Dutch findings are especially
striking given the country’s good record on equality for gay people.
In order to gain a better understanding of this paradox, the
researchers used ethnographic methods to gather data in Amsterdam – principally
over 400 hours of participant observation in gay social settings, in private
homes, and on social media websites, and interviews in which twelve gay men
recounted their life histories.
Many respondents had grown up in family environments that
were accepting of gay rights, but had nonetheless heard derogatory jokes about
gay men and were keenly aware that homosexuality was not ‘normal’. The Dutch
term gewoon came up frequently in
interviews – it can mean ‘usual’, ‘customary’, ‘common’ or ‘normal’.
Individuals can be instructed doe gewoon!
(behave normally!), while not acting or feeling gewoon could lead to feelings of discomfort or shame. One
“I was raised that gay
rights are a good thing and that everyone is equal. But for me it was
different, because I didn’t want to be part of that group.”
Several aspects of gay life were not gewoon – images of gay men as effeminate and flamboyant; the difficulty
of having children and a stable family life; the risk of HIV infection. Few men
were concerned about outright rejection from their families, but they were
anxious about not living up to expectations.
“You’re afraid that
you’re going to disappoint your parents. You’re not measuring up to what other
people think you should be. It makes you feel insecure, doubt everything you
Many informants raised the issue of having a steady partner
during the research – a long-term relationship was perceived to offer increased
psychological stability, emotional resilience and social acceptability. However,
many found it difficult to form and maintain relationships, and some experienced
sadness and loneliness as a result.
When asked why it was difficult to find a steady partner,
most explained it in terms of not having gained experience of dating during
adolescence, when most respondents were ‘in the closet’. This interviewee began
to visit gay bars in his late twenties:
“Although I was 28, I
was an adolescent. My body had matured but I was like an adolescent, developing
crushes on guys. I think it’s because you grow up straight.”
However, the researchers suggest the manner in which gay men
interact with each other also contributes to problems forming stable
relationships. They describe informants ‘shopping’ for the ideal man on dating
websites and in gay venues. When it became clear that a partner was less than
perfect, informants were often quick to switch their focus, with one
interviewee putting it like this:
“Amsterdam is like a
big pond of fish. One day you catch a beautiful fish and it looks good and it
tastes good. But instead of keeping it and being happy with this beautiful
species, you just throw it back because you don’t know what bigger fish you
could catch the next day. There are too many fish out there in the pond.”
Gay bars and clubs were an important part of many men’s
social lives, especially those who were single. They had become more important
for some men as they got older and their lifestyles diverged from those of
heterosexual friends who had children. One respondent explained the appeal of circuit parties:
“It’s a kind of
tribalism. It distinguishes you very much as a different group . . . giving
people a really good feeling about being gay, being gay together… I like dancing, being in this group of men,
the friendly atmosphere, the sexual atmosphere, the flirting, the music.”
Men who were considered to be physically attractive said
that gay venues provided an ego boost, while individuals who had difficulty
meeting those ideals recounted experiences that eroded their self-esteem. This
could be a particular issue for older men.
The authors note that different body types are valued by
different men and in different gay subcultures – a man unappreciated in one
setting might receive considerable attention elsewhere. Nonetheless, a man’s bodily
appearance remained a vital currency across the gay scene; respondents were
keenly aware of other men judging their physical features.
Men with a more typically masculine body type and behaviour
were often seen as particularly attractive, and many respondents wanted a man
who was ‘straight-looking’ or ‘straight-acting’, while some described themselves
as such on internet dating profiles. Many interviewees also valued
self-confidence – it was the quality that made some heterosexual men especially appealing.
Many respondents worked hard to create and project a
masculine self-image, with some suggesting that they felt more pressure to do
so than their heterosexual peers. But the researchers note that their interviewees
rarely challenged mainstream, taken-for-granted ideas about gender and
masculinity. “The behaviours and stories of many respondents testified to
potent practices of self-regulation as they endeavoured to reach and uphold
ideals associated with gewoon and
heteronormative masculinity,” they write.
They also suggest that ideas of stigma and self-stigmatisation
can provide insights, citing the sociologist Erving Goffman: “Given that the
stigmatised individual in our society acquires identity standards which he
applies to himself in spite of failing to conform to them, it is inevitable
that he will feel some ambivalence about his own self.”
The authors suggest that these factors can help us
understand the higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide experienced by
gay men, even in settings of legal and social equality.