In the days since its publication last week, Michael Hobbes’ article “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” has made such as splash that I’m hard pressed to find someone in the queer community who hasn’t at least heard about it. Its account of the psychological challenges faced by gay men—in many ways the most privileged segment of the larger LGBTQ community—in spite of years of progress toward legal and institutional equality struck a chord with many who have experienced or witnessed these struggles in our own circles. But what really seemed to catch people’s attention was Hobbes’ use of scientific research to look at gay “loneliness”—and the various mental health issues he conflates under that word—as a structural problem.
Hobbes cites a multitude of studies and interviews several researchers on the topics of minority stress—the idea that just being a member of a minority group causes extra strain—and common psychological stresses, such as body image or class status, salient in the gay community itself. He explains how negative societal attitudes toward homosexuality leave psychological scars on young men early in life, even the absence of explicit discrimination such as bullying, parental rejection, or violence. To make matters worse, when gay men come out, when they become adults and are finally able to immerse themselves in gay social settings, they face judgement and rejection on the part of their peers that serves to exacerbate this psychological damage.
While Hobbes’ account of the hardships faced by gay men resonated with many of us, and the explanations offered seemed important and insightful, the picture of ubiquitous “loneliness” presented also clashed with reality many of us know. And that reality is that while some gay men are struggling, many others are thriving on par with our straight counterparts and have found supportive communities of queer peers that build us up. As someone who works in mental health research focusing on gay men, who has worked with some of the researchers quoted in the article, and who is working on my own project around minority stress, I think it’s crucial to put the research Hobbes presents rather breathlessly in its proper, far more limited context.
To begin, the article focuses on particular study findings, which, significant and illuminating as they may be, necessarily fail to capture all the nuances of a phenomenon as complex as the relationship between broad social conditions and individual mental health. While these findings are grounded in statistically significant quantitative trends, they often ignore or minimize the significance of outliers—that is, data points (in this case, well-adjusted gay men) that don't fit or contradict the trend. So while they allow us to make empirically grounded statements about some of the general mechanisms at work with gay men and mental health outcomes, they will never capture the full complexity and multiplicity of human experience.
In spite of these inherent limitations on the scope of scientific inquiry, Hobbes fails to view the material critically at all. Rather than comment on these findings by offering human stories that both elucidate and complicate the picture, he limits himself to anecdotally reinforcing them in all their crudeness. I don't know if that's because they happened to fit his own experience, because he's not up to the task of writing a more complex and nuanced piece, or if he thought that the incomplete narrative of all-encompassing tragedy would be captivating. In any case, we’re left with a highly misleading picture.
Beyond failing to question the research findings he discusses, Hobbes doesn’t even offer a complete and inclusive account of them. As much as research on minority stress among gay men has revealed sobering outcomes and destructive patterns, some has also examined resilience in the face of these findings, asking how and why some gay men are, in fact, not depressed, severely anxious, addicted to drugs, suicidal, or otherwise poorly functioning. In professional terms, his survey of the literature is narrow and unbalanced.
All of which is to say that the very researchers the author quotes probably have a more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon than the article itself suggests. By failing to even hint at that fuller understanding, the author really hasn't done justice to the topic.
Psychological research on gay men and other minorities has come a long way in understanding the particular psychological stresses these groups face. In a discipline frequently dependent on outcomes measurable at the individual level, minority stress research represents a huge stride in understanding these issues in terms of social structures and broader conditions. But we have a long way to go in terms of scientifically understanding these social factors in all their complexity, and as with any scientific approach to the study of human experience, there are limitations to the extent to which we can capture all the nuances.
Any account like Hobbes’ that claims to present an overview of research on such a culturally loaded topic, especially outside the scientific community, should make an attempt to offer a complete picture and address these limitations. Otherwise, it risks encouraging gross generalizations and even reinforcing problematic stereotypes. There’s no question that some gay men are “lonely” and struggling in the ways Hobbes’ describes—but in not presenting a balanced view of the research or the diverse reality of gay experience, this article has the potential to elicit an unwarranted sense of hopelessness.