Why do so many of us who live in cities feel lonely?
It’s a clichéd concept, really: being surrounded by people and yet feeling distant. Huge tower blocks filled with other human beings and no one makes eye-contact, no one says hello. The only touch you feel is the angry weight of another person on the tube.
Because it’s not just the big, complex feelings of emotional fulfillment or finding your soul mate that’s lacking. It’s the very fundamentals of existing as a human being. Touching another person. Looking into another’s eyes. Hugging each other.
In London, one of the biggest and loneliest cities on Earth, there’s one small club tackling this problem for gay and bisexual men.
(I visited as part of Digital Pride. The event, run by Gay Star News, is dedicated to making sure everyone across the globe can be a part of a Pride, whoever they are and wherever they live in the world. For this year’s event, running from 29 April to 5 May 2019, we are focusing on tackling loneliness and isolation. Find out more.)
Discovering someone’s touch
Miguel Chavez, 43, started the Gay Cuddle Club to reconnect the city’s disaffected men to the concept of intimacy.
It’s a two-hour long session of meditation and controlled touching, including cuddling and massages. For many who attend the sessions, it’s the first time they’ve felt a friendly touch in years.
Meeting Miguel, originally from Mexico, for the first time in an attic space five minutes from Tottenham Court Road, he told me: ‘Being a gay man, I noticed the lack of connections I had. We gay men are the worst enemies to one another. We are sometimes not so nice to each other and we don’t connect to each other.
‘Then add in applications like Grindr where what is important is how big your cock is, or whether you’re a top or bottom, rather than the connections.
‘I started this as a space where we can connect differently – where it doesn’t matter if you’re a top, or bottom, or masc or skinny.’
It’s tempting to raise your eyebrows and dismiss the Gay Cuddle Club as a pretense for an orgy. In fact, in the beginning some people did – but this is not the environment Miguel wanted to create.
‘When I first started, people genuinely thought it would be an orgy. I had one person take his penis out and start wanking.
‘In the beginning [of the club], I turned the lights off to make it more intimate, but then things started to happen. With intimacy, people think it has to come with sex. Because all the time you have intimacy, you have sex.’
Like many single gay men in London, loneliness is not a foreign concept to me. Friends start to fall into relationships and your friendship is no longer as all encompassing to them as it is to you.
I can meet any man within throwing distance of my flat interested in sex with just a few taps on my phone. But that kind of touch only makes me feel further apart from the world. I can get as much out of playing a video game as a Grindr fuck.
So the idea intrigued me. I needed to see for myself if what Miguel promised is possible – to separate the intimate from the sexual, to have genuine connections with other people without the phallic sword of Damocles hanging over us.
Inside the Gay Cuddle Club
Walking into a room where people expect to touch you and be touched by you is a weird thing. I arrived after the beginning meditation session and felt the weight of two dozen eyes fall on me at once. I stepped into the dimly lit attic and began the exercises.
The session began with us walking – in any direction – through the room, a soothing playlist singing unobtrusively in the background. Bodies weaved through each other. No one touched at this point. People only looked. I could feel the embarrassment crawling up my spine as one thought pounded through my head with every footstep: ‘Why am I here?’
Then Miguel asked us to stop and close our eyes. He told us to find the center of the room, and stop when we touch bodies.
A pause, followed by a few apprehensive steps. Miguel’s calm voice guided us through each step, deep and ethereal. It was hypnotizing. A mass of humans formed in the center, bodies leaning on each other, arms squeezed in. The heat from all these men radiated out as the sound of mismatched breathing brushed across my ears. He asked us to start touching each other.
With my eyes closed and the room dark, my skin lit up with the touch of another human being. The bodies were so tightly packed it was impossible to tell which fingers slid across my biceps, squeezed my shoulders or grazed against my hip.
My mind became hyper-focused on the sensation. I reacted in the way you’d expect in that situation. But the calming voice of Miguel lorded over all. Eventually we separated, then told to come together again – sometimes just two of us, sometimes four at a time.
The meaning of the touch began to change after so much of it. The electricity faded, replaced by something soothing. It washed over my fears and caressed something in the back of my mind.
I ended up in a pair. I followed the instructions, feeling the smooth crevasses and hard hills of his hands. His hands ran through the forest on my arms. Chavez’ voice told us to move closer and so we did – until our bodies, front-to-front, pressed against each other.
We embraced. He rested on me then I rested on he and I gave the best cuddle my body and soul could manage. When we untangled we stared deep in each other’s eyes, saying our thanks. I cried.
To embrace another
Why did I cry? I hug my mum. I hug my friends every time we meet. Why did this one embrace have such a profound effect on me?
For some of it, it’s a cultural aspect. The world is becoming less intimate by the day. Our phones contain the power to bring us together but instead they separate us, to the point where people flinch away from one-to-one conversations, let alone physical contact.
London is the epitome of this attitude. Just think about the atmosphere on the tube.
‘I think because it’s a big city with a lack of communication. The city of London is very big and very fast,’ Miguel said.
‘You go to buy a coffee, you can’t even talk to the person serving you the coffee.’
Many people felt the same. When we gathered outside, I spoke to the other cuddlers. Many of them were here for the same reason. People in the LGBTI community felt trapped in a world that rejected their touch.
‘They’ll suck your dick and bum you, but they won’t talk to you,’ Sean, one of the cuddlers, said about the gay scene in the city.
One person from India – who I have chosen not to name for privacy reasons – believed the seeming repulsion against contact was racism. He told me: ‘I thought it was to do with my skin color – but it was just a cultural thing.’
The Gay Cuddle Club breaks through this sensibility. It’s not that intimacy and sexuality are separate; they are eternally entwined, existing on a spectrum. We need both, just not always in their extremes.
As we begin to raise these screens up as barriers between us; as extended working hours mean we’re trapped for most of the day in an environment that forbids intimacy; as we turn sex into a game and friendship as a side hustle; the Gay Cuddle Club offers an opportunity to embrace something our bodies and souls crave.
Only by entering this oasis of sensual touching do I now realize how thirsty I am – how thirsty we all are. It shows the most obvious and difficult thing to enact: we are the solution to our loneliness problem.
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.