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There is something ironically saddening when members of an oppressed group mistreat other members of that same group.  I have recently been observing the phenomenon of intra-community mistreatment in the case of gay men, who I have come to realize can, at times, be adept at being unkind and even cruel to each other.

I have been an out gay male for quite some time and, for most of the time since coming out, I have found gay men to be largely supportive and kind, at least to me.  Sadly, that has changed for me in recent years.  I had always heard unpleasant stories of gay men abusing other gay men, but I didn’t give them much attention, as the stories were largely outside of my experience.  But when I recently remarked to a gay fellow whom I have known for a number of years about how surprised I was that gay men could be so cruel to each other, he looked at me in disbelief and responded, “Well, yeah!  You’re just realizing that?”

I recognize that there is some risk in my criticizing other gay men.  Many members of oppressed groups believe that group members should always be circling the wagons and that criticizing members of the group make the group look bad, can sow divisions within the group, and is verboten no matter how justified the criticism might be.  But, as my readers know, Prometheus Speaks does not shrink from controversy or inconvenient truth.   Mistreatment of gay men by other gay men is not only harmful to the victims of such mistreatment, but also makes the group look bad to those who are aware of the mistreatment.  And nothing is as divisive within the community as gays mistreating each other.

The phenomenon is especially ironic, because the LGBTQ+ community, particularly gay men, often portrays itself as a bastion of acceptance, unity, and mutual support.  While it is true that the gay community can provide a sanctuary against the external forces of homophobia and discrimination, the unsettling undercurrent of mistreatment within the community itself often goes unnoticed.  Why is that, you may wonder.  The phenomenon of gay men mistreating other gay men is a complex issue, intertwined with internalized homophobia, societal pressures, and the diverse spectrum of identities and expressions within the gay community.

At the outset, we need to recognize that at least some of this mistreatment stems from the stress and anger that has been baked into the psyche of some gay men.  These conditions have nothing to do with being gay and everything to do with how society regards and treats gay people.  Research has shown that gay men are already at a higher risk for mental health issues due to external homophobia and societal rejection, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation.  Gay men experiencing stress and anger will sometimes externalize them onto others.  Unfortunately, the most convenient and available target for this externalization will often be other gay men.  When the external pressures on gay men are compounded by internal community mistreatment, the impact can be devastating, exacerbating the already vulnerable mental health condition of some gay men.

Related to this notion, one of the most significant factors contributing to mistreatment within the gay community is internalized homophobia.  This concept refers to the self-hatred and negative feelings that some gay men harbor towards their own sexuality, usually as a result of societal stigma and discrimination.  When these negative feelings are not addressed, they can also be projected onto others in the community, leading to various forms of mistreatment.

For example, some gay men may reject or belittle others who display stereotypically “feminine” traits.  This form of discrimination, known as “femmephobia,” stems from the same societal norms that devalue femininity in general.  By distancing themselves from these traits, some gay men attempt to conform to heteronormative standards, believing that this will make them more acceptable or “normal” in the eyes of the broader society.  And it is undeniably the case that transgender people come in for an even greater share of mistreatment than do members of the lesbian and gay LGBTQ+ sub-groups.  These behaviors perpetuate a harmful cycle of judgment and exclusion within the community.

Body image issues and unrealistic standards of beauty are pervasive in the gay male community.  The pressure to conform to an idealized image—often characterized by muscularity, youth, and specific racial traits—can lead to exclusion and mistreatment of those who do not fit this mold.  Men who are overweight or who do not conform to these beauty standards often face body shaming and rejection, both online and in real-world social settings.  A Gay Men’s Health Crisis survey found that 42% of gay men reported discrimination from other gay men due to body type.  This phenomenon is exacerbated by dating apps and social media platforms, where visual appeal is often the primary criterion for interaction. The hyper-focus on physical appearance can lead to a toxic culture of comparison and competition, where men are valued more for their looks than for their personality or character.  The resulting body dysmorphia and low self-esteem can have severe mental health consequences, further straining the sense of community and support.

As in society-at-large, racism and ageism within the gay community is another critical issue that contributes to mistreatment among gay men.  Despite the community’s overall stance on inclusivity and diversity, racial minorities often experience discrimination and exclusion.  This can manifest in overtly racist behaviors or subtler forms of prejudice, such as fetishization or the exclusion of certain races from types of social interaction.  Likewise, many in the gay community harbor prejudice against older gay men, creating a sub-culture that accords younger types a monopoly on attractiveness.  The Journal of Homosexuality has reported that some 60% of older gay men felt excluded from the broader gay community.  In this regard, some years ago, I contacted a guy on an app who was significantly younger than I was.  Instead of taking it as a compliment and just saying that he was not interested in older men, he hurled invective at me for approaching someone who was much younger than I was and told me that I was “old and would be dying soon.”  It shocked me that a gay man could be so cruel and insensitive to another gay man.

The prevalence of phrases like “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” on dating profiles highlights a disturbing trend of racial and body-type discrimination. These exclusionary attitudes perpetuate a hierarchy within the community, where certain racial and body types are deemed more desirable than others.  Such discrimination not only harms individuals but also undermines the solidarity and mutual respect that the LGBTQ+ community strives to embody.  It bears noting that even gay men who consider themselves relatively enlightened can be prone to the sorts of prejudices described above, as such attitudes can dwell in the unconscious and be sources of what is referred to as implicit bias.

Sadly, as if they did not have enough to deal with, HIV+ gay men experience discrimination by non-HIV+ gay men, with shunning and exclusion being some of the more painful forms of this.  The National AIDS Trust has reported that 43% of HIV+ gay men have experienced stigma from other gay men in one form or another.

Social hierarchies and cliques within the gay community can also contribute to feelings of exclusion and mistreatment.  Like any other social group, the gay community is not immune to the formation of in-groups and out-groups, where certain individuals or subgroups are deemed higher status or more influential.  Members of in-groups will sometimes abuse outsiders in order to assert the in-group’s dominance and distance outsiders from the group’s social circle.  This dynamic can lead to the marginalization of those who do not fit into these cliques, fostering an environment of judgment and exclusion.  In some cases, these social hierarchies are reinforced by venues such as bars and clubs, where certain patrons are given preferential treatment based on their appearance, social status, or connections.  This can create a sense of elitism and exclusivity that alienates those who do not conform to the expected norms or who lack the social capital to gain entry into these circles.

Addressing the mistreatment of gay men by other gay men requires a multifaceted approach, focusing on education, awareness, and support.  It is complicated by the fact that much of such mistreatment is insidious and subtle, as opposed to overt and readily apparent.  To begin with, gay men need to be made aware of, and open their eyes to, the occurrence of this sort of mistreatment.  Gay men need to call out those engaging in mistreatment and let the perpetrators know that it is not okay to behave in this way.  Those on the receiving end of mistreatment must be encouraged not to allow it to affect how they feel about themselves and to refuse to give in to the pressures it creates.  Furthermore, gay men need to feel a responsibility, not just to refrain from mistreating other gay men, but to affirmatively support and stick up for each other, especially those on the receiving end of mistreatment.  Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright recognized such a duty among women during the 2016 presidential campaign when she declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”  The same ethos should prevail among gay people.

Encouraging self-acceptance among gay men and increasing access to LGBTQ+-affirming mental health resources are crucial elements of a strategy to combat internalized homophobia and the resulting mistreatment.  Counseling and support groups can help individuals process their feelings and develop healthier attitudes towards themselves and others.  In this regard, ensuring access to resources for substance abuse and mental health support is critical.  Outreach programs and partnerships with healthcare providers can help individuals who are struggling with these issues find the help they need.

We also need campaigns that challenge unrealistic beauty standards and promote body positivity to help reduce body shaming and exclusion.  Highlighting diverse representations of gay men in media and community events can also foster a more inclusive environment.  LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have a particularly important role to play here.

Education and open dialogue about racism and other forms of discrimination within the community are also needed.  Workshops, forums, and initiatives that promote racial diversity and inclusivity can help combat prejudices and foster a more welcoming atmosphere.  Moreover, creating social spaces that prioritize inclusivity and reject elitism can help reduce the impact of social hierarchies and cliques.  Community centers, inclusive events, and support networks that welcome all members, regardless of appearance or social status, can help build a stronger sense of unity.

The mistreatment of gay men by other gay men is a phenomenon that reflects broader societal pressures and internal community dynamics. Addressing this problem requires a concerted effort to promote self-acceptance, challenge discriminatory attitudes, and create more inclusive and supportive environments.  However, I would hasten to mention that while I only have limited information as to just how prevalent cases of mistreatment within the gay male community are, I do not believe that instances of such mistreatment are very frequent, and it is undoubtedly the case that the vast majority of interactions between gay men are pleasant and not at all abusive.  But even one incident of victimization is one too many, and the community should have zero tolerance for it.  (This is especially the case when the mistreatment takes the form of violence, with the American Journal of Men’s Health reporting that as many as 46% of gay men having been the victim of intimate partner violence.)  And, of course, gay men are, unfortunately, not alone among oppressed groups when it comes to mistreatment by group members of other group members.

Finally, it bears emphasizing once again that there is nothing inherent in homosexuality that causes mistreatment within the community.  Rather, the phenomenon is a product of the homophobia driving a larger, dominant culture that oppresses, rejects, and demeans gay people.  By acknowledging and addressing these issues, the gay community can move towards a future where all its members are valued and respected for who they are, fostering a greater sense of unity and solidarity.  It is incumbent upon all gay men not to allow the anti-gay prejudices of a heteronormative society to deform us into beings that feed upon our own kind.  Whatever anger gay men harbor as a result of the prejudice we experience should, instead, be directed in a productive manner at the sources of such prejudice.