Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage was brought to my attention by Buzzfeed’s ’27 must have queer summer reads’ standing at number two. Intrigued I decided to buy a copy and see what the fuss was about, having done a little psychology at school made me wonder what Downs was going to discuss. I was slightly concerned about the ‘self help’-esque style, but as the Observer recommendation on the cover states The Velvet Rage is “[a] touchstone in gay culture just as Goodbye to Berlin was in the 30s…” I thought it would be worth a read.
Unfortunately, I could sense from the first page that this book was not aimed at me, and even less so, actually of interest to me. As I pushed through the first 130 pages, bemused, yet oddly willing to read on, I finally gave up, however, when I just couldn’t take any more. I finally put the book down on the commute to work as I read:
“It is rare that a gay man makes it from young adulthood into middle age without suffering at least moderate relationship trauma. The odds are stacked wildly against the possibility that even the most well-adjusted gay man would choose to be in a relationship with another well-adjusted gay man. It rarely happens. And so, two wounded men come together in what starts as a loving union and often ends in a traumatic and heart-wounding separation.”
For me, that was it. I had really tried to make it through this book, taking what was said with a pinch of salt and hoping it would somehow save itself from being hyperbolic and chronically reductive. From the very first pages, this book only talks of gay stereotypes, focusing on ‘scene queens’, drug abuse and promiscuous sex. The book is hugely sweeping, assuming that all gay men have a mother who ‘mothered’ too much and a father who didn’t care enough, which, for a start, reinforces gender stereotypes. It goes on to say all gay men have amazing jobs and houses and live a life of luxury. I felt as if the book was constantly trying to tell me I was damaged and could therefore never seek happiness, despite the fact that I live a perfectly happy life.
Of course, the book does lead up to a climax that I guess tells you how to live a happy/happier life, and that happiness is achievable, but this is a climax I never reached and frankly couldn’t be bothered too. After being constantly bombarded with reasons why I should feel shame and trauma, I realised the ‘happy ending’ wasn’t even worth reaching. It isn’t worth crawling through this book for a solitary chapter at the end that claims everything is going to be fine. Throughout Downs seems to be offloading his own shame and trauma onto the reader, like he has become tired of practising psychology and finally wants someone else to take on this burden.
This book isn’t only anything but enlightening, but it also risks being damaging. With campaigns like ‘It Gets Better’ striving hard to, quite rightly, tell teenagers that being gay is okay and that it does indeed get better, this book risks reversing this. I can’t imagine that a teenager struggling with his (or her, although Downs does open by explaining this book isn’t aimed anyone who identifies as a lesbian) sexuality would find much comfort in this book, unless he pushes through to the end, which if he is seriously doubting his sexuality seems unlikely. The first 130 pages (at least) would, if anything, almost reinforce the negative or confused feelings he might be having. This book doesn’t celebrate homosexuality, it promotes gay stereotypes. This book is very narrow in its target audience and doesn’t include the “entire generation of gay men” it sets out to.
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