Friday, March 12, 2021

45. "It’s Like Something Is Choking Everybody. Only They Don’t Know They’re Choking."

I was 13-years-old when I went to see 1984’s “Footloose” in theaters four times.  Kevin Bacon plays Ren McCormack, a hip 1980s Chicago music-loving teen (skinny ties and all) stuck in rural Bomont, Utah, where it is illegal to dance. Ren makes it his mission to Fight The Power and liberate the oppressed adolescents of Bomont so that they might jump, shake, shimmy, and twirl rhythmically at their own will. 

Throughout the film Ren is verbally harassed, physically assaulted, set up on false drug charges, and ultimately suspended from school for his activism. He finds himself baffled that his attempts to legalize dancing would be met with such resistance. After a brick is thrown through his family’s window he laments to his forlorn mother, “I don’t understand this town. It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking.”

Five years later I began exploring the world of men and bars in West Hollywood. I thought I was going to enter a new world of brotherhood, community, friendliness, kindness. Instead it seemed to be laden with antipathy, affectation, alienation, and at times brutality. People were generally not very nice to each other and certainly not welcoming to strangers. It seemed gay men were frequently unhappy, defensive, more interested in posturing than connecting, and didn't fully realize how much they were suffering.  “It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking.

Twenty years later I worked with Project Achieve in New York City, doing education and outreach for the current HIV Vaccine Trial (HVTN 505).  Part of my work was going into gay bars and nightclubs throughout the city and talking with potential participants about sex, vaccines, and the possibility of taking part in end the HIV epidemic.  So often I would see young men enter a club space and look lost.  As a sympathetic face offering condoms and yo-yos they would often tell me their struggles and woes of the evening.  Many shared feelings of not fitting in, needing sex to feel worthwhile, and a general fear of being alone their entire lives.  Even when they had money, privilege, and a full social life in New York City so many gay men told me how they hated their bodies and feared being lonely.  “It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking."    

When I began publicly speaking and teaching about PrEP in the media, I naively thought that people would be happy about this revolution — that the ability to prevent HIV and have mind-blowing sex at the same time would bring a sense of relief and joy to the community that had been traumatized for the past two decades. Indeed, there were some who expressed happiness upon hearing the news of this scientific breakthrough. But more often in the beginning I was hearing from people who were upset about developments in medicinal interventions. When I responded to their challenges with empirically-based data their attacks and accusations would intensify, all of which boiled down to prioritizing anti-sex morality over medicine, dogma over data, fears over facts.  They couldn't feel grateful that we had a significant way to save lives.   “It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking.”

In 2015, a Brooklyn-based lawyer named Bruce Richman invited me to join the Founding Task Force of the Prevention Access Campaign. This began as a health initiative that ultimately evolved into the U=U campaign, so that anyone around the world could learn the science that validated and verified that a person living with HIV could not transmit HIV sexually when they had an undetectable viral load. It proved medically that “undetectable” = “untransmittable.” 

Again, I naively thought people would be thrilled to hear this news, that it would open new vistas of pleasure, connection, and intimacy between people of different HIV statuses. Instead Bruce was villified mercilessly for his efforts in ways far worse than I ever was for PrEP. He was bullied, he was threatened, he was publicly maligned and continues to be disdained today by several so-called activists.  They don't seem to think helping people connect through science is a cause for celebration.  “It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking.

Meanwhile, despite these biomedical innovations, many of my clinical colleagues have found that not much has changed on the therapy couch. Yes, PrEP and U=U are allowing people to experience unprecedented sexual freedom. But the increased quantity of sexual partners are not automatically resulting in improved quality of connections.

Furthermore all the other emotional issues gay men suffer through related to sexual performance, penis size, STIs, body image, ageism, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and domestic violence are not changing. Our clients are still sharing feelings of crippling insecurity, self-doubt, fears of getting older, impulsive rage, alienation, and loneliness.  They still believe their sense of value comes primarily from a husband or partner.  “It’s like something is still choking everybody...And they still don't know it!" 

When is it our turn?  When do we get to stop choking and start breathing in the joy of aging, connecting, working, and playing with dignity and pleasure? 

I don't think there is any reason to wait.  As our community ages up in historically higher numbers than ever, I am even more interested and inspired to find pathways for gay men to stop choking, stop holding back, stop waiting for approval, stop doubting our inherent beauty and worth, and start enjoying our hard-earned life victories.  We worked so hard to make it this far, we survived two pandemics, and now it's time to reap the benefits of our resilience and endurance.   Just as the town of Bomont threw off the shackles of their oppressive conditioning in Footloose,  I believe now is our time to follow Ren McCormick's final declaration,  “LET’S DANCE!!”  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

No comments:

Post a Comment