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Book explores how gays construct identities

by Brian Bromberger

Author Walt Odets, Ph.D. Photo: Dianne Woods
Author Walt Odets, Ph.D. Photo: Dianne Woods  

Walt Odets, Ph.D., a gay man and clinical psychologist in private practice in Berkeley, has worked with, and written about, the psychological, developmental, and social lives of gay men for more than three decades. His new book, "Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men's Lives" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) is an exploration of how gay men construct their identities, fight to be themselves, and struggle to live authentically.

His seminal book, "In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS," published in 1995, was a groundbreaking look at the lives of HIV-negative gay men who survived the epidemic yet had to deal with issues of guilt, grief, loss, anxiety, and isolation.

Odets' latest book uses personal stories, case histories and testimonies of patients, and social commentary to focus on the psychological aftermath of the HIV epidemic. He also looks at long-established childhood and adolescent stigmatization and trauma experienced by gay men, and the conventional idea of "the homosexual" and its negative influences on gay identities, self-realization, and relationships between men.

Odets, 72, spoke with the Bay Area Reporter in an email interview.

Having worked with only a handful of lesbian clients over the years, Odets said that he doesn't feel he has enough professional experience with women to make similar confident statements, though his intuition suggests that developmentally, through childhood and adolescence, their lives are somewhat easier because there is less social stigmatization of "masculine" women than there is of "feminine" men, especially public displays of affection, he wrote in the email.

He added that he was inspired to write his new book as a follow-up to his earlier work. The current book is about gay life 40 years later. Even as the epidemic is not over, its role in many people's lives has shifted.

"The new book is a very different kind of exploration of gay lives, from childhood forward," Odets wrote in the email. "I've now worked with gay men for over 30 years, and gained a sense of the issues that affect us. We are mostly people who have experienced at least some stigmatization from immediate family, the larger society, and adolescent peers.

"My therapy clients are not usually people with 'emotional problems,' they are people who have been marginalized and are trying to find ways to live as themselves, both internally and within communities," he added. "And they are seeking relationships that work. So after listening to, and talking with, other gay men for about 24,000 hours, I felt that a discussion of the various issues that come up in gay lives would be useful."


For Odets, the elephant in the room remains the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, despite the fact many have relegated it to history, even as it still ravages the LGBT community, especially the most marginalized: low-income people, people of color, and transgender people.

According to www.hiv.gov, an estimated 38,700 Americans became infected with HIV in 2016.

"Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men bear the greatest burden by risk group, representing an estimated 26,000 of new HIV infections per year," the website noted.

African Americans remain the highest racial/ethnic group among the newly diagnosed, followed by Hispanic/Latinos. Researchers have said that AIDS, despite breakthroughs in treatment and prevention, still stigmatizes those affected by it, both directly and indirectly.

Three generations
Odets divides gay men into three generations based on their relationship to the AIDS epidemic: older-group men, born before 1971, including those who were out and active in gay communities before the introduction of highly active anti-retroviral therapy, or HAART, in 1996; middle-group men, born between 1972 and 1988, those who were out and active in gay communities after 1996, but had no direct, personal contact with the early epidemic; and younger-group men, born after 1988, who have never known HIV as almost inevitably fatal and did not experience the trauma and loss that the other two groups have, yet live with the consequences of the disease.

Odets noted that these groups don't always get along, are suspicious of each other's motives, and make faulty assumptions, whether it be shame about surviving while others died, shame about not adhering to the "Condom Code" (the universal use of condoms in sex to reduce HIV transmission, every time for a lifetime regardless of the HIV status of the two partners) or shame about using PrEP, with some young men calling others who use PrEP, "whores" and "sluts."

With young gay men coming out earlier and more readily today, Odets writes in his book: "Simply coming out is a poor predictor of the quality of the internal life that follows. People who have come out often still experience shame and self-doubt, and usually experience some ongoing measure of stigmatization, real or imagined."

Odets contends it is still not easy to be gay in the U.S., "unless one comes from the relatively rare insightful family, or one of a handful of educated, socially progressive (urban) enclaves." Most still struggle with a legacy of early-life stigma, especially bullying, and a deficiency of self-acceptance, which can fuel doubt, regret, and even self-hatred.

Odets believes that the effect of all the political and legal successes for LGBTQ people has been greatly exaggerated.

"Shame still often lurks unconsciously behind the most successful of gay lives," he wrote in the email.

"I do not know that there is a way to 'uproot' shame, but very broadly speaking, changes occur when one acknowledges the shame, understands its origins, recognizes when it is at play, and attempts not to play it out," he added. "There is not a single gay man alive in America who has not sometimes felt self-conscious or fearful about touching a lover in public."

Odets has received some criticism that most of his patients and case histories are white affluent men and have limited applicability to other diverse LGBTQ populations.

"I can only write from what I have experienced and know," he wrote in the email. "I would add that most of the men I talk about began life in limiting families, and if they later became 'affluent' this was something they accomplished on their own. I don't believe that 'most' of the people I discuss are white, but I know that in the U.S., non-white people are underrepresented in psychotherapy because of the cultural norms with which they grew up, and sometimes because of the costs.

"But the histories and psychological lives of the men I do discuss are applicable to most LGBTQ people," he added. "Race and finances are often a handicap, but they do not significantly alter the psychological issues of being gay, even as they often exacerbate them."

Homosexual versus gay
Odets, in his first chapter, draws a distinction between homosexual and gay. Homosexuals are men who have sex with other men. Gay means attracted to other men, but rather than a single, objective behavior, the gay man encompasses an entire life of feeling.

"The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex, but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity. In today's gay assimilationist politics, gay men often explain themselves to heterosexuals with the idea that they are 'attracted to men, but otherwise just like you,'" he wrote.

For Odets, gay men are accepting the heterosexual perspective on who they are, which is not the whole truth.

"For us as individuals, and for the larger society, the idea that one is defined by the label homosexual implies that our sexual lives are a complete description of who we are. This is nonsense, for we are obviously much more complex and inclusive," he wrote. "If I were to ask someone to describe Donald Trump, he or she would never respond with the assertion that 'He is a heterosexual.' If I asked the same question about Mayor Pete [Buttigieg], many would answer that he is a homosexual. All human beings are born with the need for emotional and physical attachment to others, and sex is only one important expression of that attachment. But by itself, sex is not a complete life."

Odets postulates that for gay men, there is a gay sensibility, "which describes both the man's internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others."

"The idea of a gay sensibility rejects the narrow internal emotional life that is dictated by traditional ideas of male and female sensibility," he wrote. "Many gay men experience an internal sensibility that blends those traditional ideas. It is true that many gay men are frightened by some measure of both internal and expressive female sensibility — and some are hyper masculine — but I believe they are repressing otherwise natural feelings and expressions that, if allowed, might broaden their internal and interpersonal experience.

"Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves of societal and internalized stigma, much of which stems from the conventional idea of the homosexual," he added.

This is why Odets argues that for gay men, this search for authenticity won't be found in accommodating heterosexual institutions, such as marriage.

"If acceptance is predicated on 'normalizing' gay relationships by molding them — at least in appearance — into conventional heterosexual forms, the change will become a significant additional source of hopelessness for gay men. Mimicking and misrepresentation are inauthentic, and inauthentic lives feel hopeless," he wrote.

Odets believes that gay men have always had to invent their own relationships with no help from the larger culture.

"I am not, per se, critical of gay men who marry, value monogamy, or try to assimilate," he wrote in the email. "I am certain that, for many men, these desires are an authenticate expression of how they think and want to live. But if, as two examples, men are marrying primarily for societal approval or the lifelong 'ownership' of a partner, then I ask that they think through their motivations."

For Odets, this lack of authenticity makes it difficult for gay men to form lasting relationships: a connection of friendship, companionship, romantic feelings, and sex.

"I am inclined to think of successful relationships as a balance between two conflicting requirements: mutual support for each man's individual needs and personal growth; and the fundamental relationship requirement of being emotionally bonded and together. The former relies significantly on complementarity, the latter on symmetry, and a relatively happy relationship allows some measure of both," he wrote.

The diminished sexuality among long-term gay couples is often due to "sport sex," sex for fun and pleasure that is "focused on novelty, orgasm, and demonstrations of prowess and performance," Odets writes in his book. Such sex largely excludes — often even forbids — the expression of emotional intimacy, which is precisely what is needed to sustain sex in longer-term relationships.

"A beautiful, potent body engaged in hot sex with the beautiful body of an idealized stranger is what all men, but particularly gay men, have been acculturated to believe is the definition of 'good sex,'" he wrote. "Long-term partners usually know way too much about each other — and each other's imperfect bodies — to buy the 'I'm hot, you're hot, let's fuck' approach that characterizes most gay-adolescent, and much adult-singles sex. When the male sensibility cannot make any transition from pure sport sex to relationship sex, both gay and straight couples experience a 'loss of sexual interest.' Thus, sport sex is a behavior but relationship sex is a communication of feeling."

Odets does see some positive evolution in both personal lives and the gay subculture, especially the trend of gay men not to see themselves as victims, but as resilient innovators.

"Yes, I do see improvement, but the degree depends on the individual and the early developmental experience, particularly with the immediate family," he wrote in the email. "I don't think that, as a community, we are any longer united by single purpose such as gay liberation or the epidemic, but this diversity is a sign of progress. As I said somewhere in the book — I don't remember where — simply being gay is not much to have in common with another man. Different people will make different choices. The idea that many — probably not most — gay lives are still an uphill struggle is hardly a gloomy prediction. Without acknowledging our histories and lives as they are, we cannot change anything.

"I do think that, very slowly, the societal and familial influence on gay people have, and will continue to, improve," he added. "It's still a long road. Think of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by Lincoln about a century and a half ago. Today, are the lives of African Americans without uphill struggles?"

Odets hopes readers will take away his main message: "to find ways to be, and live, as yourself, to find our own ways to invent honest and loving lives. In my experience, gay men have done admirably with lives that have usually been forced to navigate an obstacle course of destructive social influences. That so many have persevered in simply living as gay men is remarkable and moving.

"Being gay in an adverse society is a sometimes-daunting, sometimes-lifelong task," he added. "But millions have found ways to have lives that authentically express who they are: the realization of gay lives is all around us. I hope for such self-realization to take root and flourish for as many men as possible."


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