A single, gay friend who lives in another part of the country recently told me he had three Amazon Alexa dotted around his home. Three seems a little excessive. I was surprised at how he’d embraced this fairly new technology.
‘I like to be able to speak with someone when I’m home alone,’ he confided. ‘It feels less lonely.’
I was struck by this revelation. It made me think of an old song: The Things The Lonely Do, by 80s British girl group, Amazulu. Written long before technology introduced slightly scary new ways for us to combat loneliness, it’s an underrated and simple paen to how empty life can feel when one feels isolated.
Loneliness is a universal human emotion, and yet it remains taboo.
It’s something most of us don’t want to admit to experiencing. However, despite the wealth of ways in which we can now connect digitally with others, loneliness is something most of us can relate to. In the UK, there are now more people living alone than ever before. Experts believe the figure will rise.
Loneliness doesn’t just accompany physical isolation. Work can feel lonely if you don’t feel you fit in with your colleagues. A relationship can feel lonely if you feel you’re never allowed to voice your opinion.
The ‘lonely old homosexual’
Loneliness and isolation can be particularly suffocating for LGBTI communities. If you’re in a situation where you cannot be your true self, fearful of coming out, the sense of isolation can be acute. It’s why Gay Star News’ Digital Pride festival this year is exploring loneliness and isolation.
Growing up, the trope of the ‘lonely old homosexual’ was a common one. In fact, I think I remember one or both of my own parents, when I came out in the 80s, expressing the fear that I might end up lonely when older.
I can’t blame them for feeling this way. It was a different age: years before same-sex marriage was legalized or long-running same-sex couples featured on TV shows.
However, like many myths and stereotypes around gay men, it had its impact on my psyche.
The cure for loneliness is company, companionship and intimacy. We are social creatures who need to find our own tribe – however big or small that tribe may be.
But knowing the cure doesn’t necessarily make it easy to locate. So instead, we sometimes go for the quick fix: The things the lonely do that are not often talked about. Or which distract us from realizing we’re actually lonely in the first place.
‘Casual sex. Lots of it,’ one man on Twitter, Leon Fleming told me when I asked recently about what people do to avoid loneliness: things they might not readily admit to doing.
‘Sometimes because I like it, but often because I’m craving physical human contact. I’ve done lots of things I’m embarrassed about to get it, but have also done the same things and not been embarrassed because it was fun and not because I was lonely.’
He was not putting casual sex down, but acknowledging that sometimes it’s a quick fix for intimacy. And as gay and bisexual men, if you’re not too fussy, finding sex is not that hard in a big city. Bathhouses, backrooms and hookup apps don’t just fulfil sexual needs.
That’s not to say everyone who goes to a sauna is lonely. In fact, some will have loving partners at home. But more may feel lonely than will easily admit.
Human touch, grooming and pampering
Bathhouses not your thing? In an age when physical contact is increasingly fraught with complications, one of my colleagues recently visited a ‘cuddle club’ for gay men in London. I’ve heard of other such initiatives around the world.
Similarly, I’m sure that the reason some people have a massage is not purely to alleviate tired muscles. We just want to feel the touch of another human. A trip to the barbers or a pedicure can offer the same benefits, even if we don’t like to admit that’s part of the pleasure of being pampered.
Anaesthetizing ourselves from loneliness
A less healthy approach is simply to anaesthetize ourselves from loneliness.
‘I engaged in loads of stuff I’d rather forget,’ said another Twitter follower. ‘Self-esteem, long work hours, low wages, language barriers and cultural differences all contribute!’
A recent study in London found that many men who engage in chemsex often report loneliness plays a part in their actions. The problem was particularly acute amongst those from other countries, further highlighting how the aforementioned language barriers can heighten feelings of isolation.
And it doesn’t have to be heavy drugs people opt for.
It’s very easy to ‘eat’ on one’s feelings, turning to snacks and sugar for comfort. It’s also well established that LGBTI people are more likely to have alcohol abuse problems or to smoke. This can be for a multitude of reasons, but loneliness is certainly somewhere in the mix.
Cigarettes and solitude
I used to be a heavy smoker. One of the reasons smoking felt so very hard to give up was that cigarettes felt like my best friend. They were always there for me, ready to take the edge of any feelings I struggled to handle. Cigarettes felt reliable and dependable.
That may make little sense to anyone who has never smoked. How can a drug be your ‘friend’?
Yet, it’s a common feeling. One of the most famous cigarette adverts of the mid-20th century in the UK was titled, ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’. It depicted a man alone on a street at night, taking comfort from the mild hit he got from his cigarette.
Too busy to stop, think and feel
There are other ways we can distract ourselves besides sex and drugs. Another man, 48, wrote to me saying he missed true intimacy in his life. He said friends and family were his ‘saving grace’, yet he remained aware of wanting more but realizing it might not be on the cards for him.
Indeed, a survey last year found that the majority of gay men in the US over 45 are single.
‘I’ve recently realized that I’ve “copped out”,’ he told me. ‘My last relationship ended five years ago, and I’ve not been able to put myself back out there.
‘The odds of meeting someone kind, good, respectful, respectable, with positive morals and values is slim enough. To meet a single gay man who fits that bill seems to be an impossibility. So I’ve copped out.
‘I’ve poured myself into my work, to the tune of an average 60-70 hour work week. That’s essentially been my way of dealing with loneliness.
‘As challenging and stressful as that life has been, it’s easier than dealing with the dynamics, possibilities, and impossibilities of a personal life.’
Owning up to the problem
When I told work colleagues about my friend and his Alexa devices, they were aghast. But in terms of coping mechanisms, if talking to a computer helps slightly alleviate the pain of loneliness, who are we to judge? It’s safer than taking a load of drugs and engaging in risky sex with a bunch of strangers.
And at least my friend was aware that he was being driven by loneliness and wanted to do something about it.
By contrast, making one’s self too busy to ever sit down and realize one is lonely… well, it’s harder to fix an issue if you’re not even aware it exists.
Follow David Hudson on Twitter: @davidhudson_uk
What is Digital Pride?
Digital Pride is the online movement, by Gay Star News, so you can take part in Pride whoever and wherever you are. Even if you are from a country where being LGBTI is criminalized or leaves you in danger – it’s a Pride festival you can be a part of.
In 2019, Digital Pride is tackling loneliness and isolation with articles and videos connecting LGBTI people. Join us by reaching out to someone who needs it. The festival takes place on Gay Star News from 29 April to 5 May 2019. Find out more.