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[561] The Velvet Rage – Alan Downs


” Becoming a fulfilled gay man is not about trying to become ‘not gay’, but has everything to do with finding a way through this world that affords us our share of joy, happiness, fulfillment, and love. ” (Introduction, p.3)

The snappy title that slips ironically into gay lexicon and the little boy in pink tie catch my attention of this book, but I have very mixed feelings about how Downs sees gay men as being inherently shame-driven. Anything a gay man does is because of an underlying motive rooted in shame. The Velvet Rage is aimed to help gay men rid of the shame and cultivate authenticity. It is based on the specific anger Downs encountered in his gay patients—whether it was manifested in drug abuse, promiscuity or alcoholism and whose roots are found in childhood shame and rejection by peers and parents.

We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival. The naked truth about who we are wasn’t acceptable, so we learned to hide behind a beautiful image. We learned to split ourselves in parts, hiding what wasn’t acceptable and flaunting what was. We learned to wave beautiful, colorful scarves to distract attention from our gayness . . . The truth is that we grew up disabled. Not disabled by our homosexuality, but emotionally disabled by an environment that taught us we were unacceptable, not “real” men and therefore, shameful. (Ch.2, p.21)

According to Downs, “velvet rage” is the deep and abiding anger that results from growing up in an environment, predominantly one in which heterosexuality sets the norms, when one learns that who he is as a gay man is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable. To gain such validation a gay man has to chase affection, approval, and attention doled out by others, and in so doing, he often has to hide his real self. This is valid point. I have my share of fear and shame as well growing up being the chubby and quiet geek. But Downs has gone too far seeing homosexuality as a product of shame over inadequate masculinity. One by one he discredits attributes of gay culture, breaking its element and flipping it on its head. Seeing achievement as embellishment, he discredits gay men who are supremely knowledgeable of culture, fashion, arts, and books, and those in admirable physique.

Resolving the crisis of meaning is all about reaching the place of honest and radical authenticity. It’s about no longer needing to compensate for shame and living your life without needing to gild it with the extraordinary. (Ch.10, p.106)

This theory is both controversial and radical. The sole argument is that feelings of worthlessness can be created in childhood quite intentionally, and they lead gay adults to search for an unachievable perfection. This “perfection”, as Downs claims, is deeply awash in narcissism, because the drive to it creates a gay culture that is, in most senses, unlivable. To try to achieve that really makes gay men miserable.

While the author does make good and original point about foreclosure and resolution when it comes to coping with life (either foreclose on the present issue only to find us in a similar situation later, or act on resolving the issue), the sample he reviews, patients from his therapy practice (affluent, successful white men who can afford the therapy) is by no means representative of the larger population. Growing pain of being gay is shared by most gay men, but not all gay men will struggle in the ways that Downs portrays. Not all gay men are affluent and Greek gods, nor are all the men attending White Party cruising for sex. The book is too generalized and oversimplified. Many gay men will struggle for reasons that Downs overlooked or not addressed. The Velvet Rage is spot on about the pathology of the need to conform, and validation out of pretense, but Downs does not blast at the social homophobia that causes shame and stigma in the first place. The narrow demographic that the book’s analysis serves does not make the argument objective. Worth a read, but don’t shape your attitude entirely upon it.

212 pp. Da Capo Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. Interesting review. Thanks. I probably won’t be reading the review though. From your description, what Downs describes as the central problem for gay men could easily apply to most men I know, gay or straight, on some level. I think the truth is we gay and straight men are much more alike than people think.

    • Do you mean you won’t read the book?
      Downs does a good job identifying some of the obstacles gay men face growing up, but the argument is not strong. He attributes all gay men’s problems—relationship, drug abuse, promiscuity—to the fact that we have been raised in a society with heterosexual norms. That really breaks down his argument for me.

  2. This is a wonderful critique of a book that I think many gay men should read. As you mentioned, it’s a very generalised approach to analysing gay men as we come in so many different forms.

    I suppose the limitation of the book is the sample of gay men that Downs used to base his arguments – these were men that were seeking counselling and therefore had unresolved issues about their sexuality. The book doesn’t take into consideration gay men who have come to terms with their sexuality without the help of a psychologist.

  3. I liked the book as some of it really spoke to me. The foreclosure and the distinction between authentic and inauthentic validation. I appreciate the critique above of Dr. Down’s use of real life examples that seem more in place in an Anne Rice novel. Wealthy, powerful, monied white men from large urban centres in US. All Gay men seem promiscuous according to his experience but the Gay male experience is far more diverse than the Velvet Rage conveys. Helpful overall.

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