Gay men and mental health have an often precarious relationship. On the one hand, gay men’s poor mental health is both obvious and well-evidenced. As a gay man, you are more likely to suffer depression, suicidal thoughts, and other forms of anxiety. If you think of the shame endured by many gay men through the generations, fuelled by the Aids epidemic, the rise of hate crimes, and the existence of the now redundant Section 28 here in the UK (legislation which banned any form of discussion and education around “homosexuality” in schools), it’s hardly surprising gay men’s mental health suffers.
On the other hand, some gay men are among the most enlightened, self-aware and self-care-oriented people that walk the Earth. Scroll through Instagram, for example, and you will see guys practising yoga or meditation, taking up a new gym regime, or cooking up a storm to support their plant-based diets.
With societal expectations on gay men always on the increase – to secure the perfect partner, a job promotion, or to have a gym body – it becomes a perpetual cycle of poor to improved mental health, and then back again.
There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. A generation of professional gay coaches has emerged in recent years globally to help support other gay men navigate some of life’s most difficult challenges.
This diverse group of coaches comprises people from all backgrounds, ages and stages of life, but all with a common goal in mind: supporting people (particularly gay men) to live the life they want to live.
Many of these coaches are part of the Gay Coaches Alliance, which is a unique association of professional gay coaches, who have formed an active community of practice where they lend each other their expertise and experience to better improve coaching outcomes for clients worldwide.
Coaching Wisdom: Voices of the Gay Coaching Alliance is a new book which has been compiled and published by members of the Alliance. For readers, it is filled with insights, methodologies and case studies to support professional practice in coaching. The book’s appeal is also to a wider range of audiences: anyone with a broad interest in health and well-being, and what interventions work.
As a collection of short essays and chapters, one of the threads of the book is about exploring the use of gay men being coached by other gay men. For some clients, seeing your own reflection staring back at you in the coaching room in the form of your coach (i.e., another gay man who you can relate and identify with) is important for psychological safety. A must for any successful coaching relationship.
The coming out process while traumatic for many of us, can in fact build our resilience, as well as our ability to take on whatever life chucks at us. As Tony V. Zampella, one of the book’s authors, puts it:
“As gay men, we may take for granted the fundamental lessons, skills and practices revealed by the coming out process. Since we do not have the visible markers such as skin colour or sexual organs that identify us as gay, we are what we say about ourselves. We affirm our dignity in the face of society’s hostility. Our unique experience of inquiry and integration supports our work as coaches to serve others in their pursuit of becoming whole.”
A big part of the coaching process is the ability of the coach to constructively provide often challenging and honest feedback to their clients. One of the joys of coaching is the ability to be able to give that one bit of feedback that the client’s friend, partner or colleague would not dare to.
For gay men, however, often feedback is heavily associated with previous events in their lives where they have been traumatised. As Jeff Nally explains:
“Gay coaches and gay clients have experienced the emotional scars of unsolicited feedback about who they are as humans. Bullies verbally or physically abused gays, and family members shared their disapproval of a gay person’s identity and sexual orientation. Messages from the media, religious leaders and institutionalised discrimination generated ‘feedback’ that gays are less than other humans, excluded, and demeaned.”
The author goes on to provide insights into how to co-create the feedback experience, again related to psychology safety in the coaching relationship.
The challenges facing gay men differ through the generations. The recent London Westend production of Cruise, written and performed by Jack Holden, depicts life in 1980s Soho during the Aids crisis and makes a poignant remark about how sometimes the younger gay generation does not appreciate what “older gays” have endured. It does, of course, go both ways.
In Coaching Wisdom, authors Patrick Boze and Gerry Schleifer wanted to “see the similarities, differences, and progression of gay lives over many generations”. Their book chapter on ‘four generations of coming out’, includes a simple yet impactful table of four different gay men showing what role models were present for them or not, what support they did and did not have, and what laws on LGBTQ+ equality have existed through their lifetime.
Role models for gay men, and the wider LGBTQ+ community, are vital for better health and well-being and a sense of belonging. Often discussions about role models come up in coaching conversations.
In years gone by, there has been a distinct lack of role models for LGBTQ+ people but thanks to new campaigns and organisations emerging, such as It Gets Better are promoting LGBTQ+ mental health, particularly for young people through positive role modelling, things have the potential to improve.
Coaching Wisdom: Voices of the Gay Coaching Alliance is a great and accessible read for anyone interested in the role that coaching can play in improving the health and well-being of gay men.
Mike Findlay-Agnew is an LGBTQ+ life and career coach, writer, and third-sector leader based in Glasgow, Scotland.