“I never felt lonelier,” said Joseph in a confessional video uploaded to TrueLove.Is’ Youtube channel. Despite meeting countless men for casual sex, Joseph said he felt a void that no man could fill.
After struggling to find happiness as a gay man, a chance encounter with a Christian friend led him to pursue a different path. He decided to renounce his homosexual identity and strive to resist his feelings of attraction towards other men. He now lives his life in pursuit of celibate holiness in the belief that only God—not another human man—can fill the emotional void in him.
Joseph is one of numerous individuals who have publicly shared their experiences as Christians struggling with same-sex attraction as part of the TrueLove.Is campaign, which seeks to provide a platform for Christians struggling to reconcile their faith and their same-sex attraction.
While most of the public discussion about TrueLove.Is has focused on whether it’s merely conversion therapy with a better marketing strategy, much less attention has been paid to the experiences of the individuals they’ve featured.
It was loneliness that prompted individuals like Raphael and Joseph to turn away from living out their sexuality as they returned to the church in search of comfort and community.
Same-sex attracted Christian men like Joseph seem to share similar struggles with loneliness when living as gay men. Raphael, another same-sex attracted Christian who’s part of TrueLove.Is, shares how he was “struggling a lot with loneliness and turned to unhealthy ways of coping: drinking, sex, looking for relationships”.
This issue of loneliness raises important concerns for the LGBTQ community. It was this loneliness that prompted individuals like Raphael and Joseph to turn away from living out their sexuality as they returned to the church in search of comfort and community. And this crisis of loneliness isn’t unique to gay, bisexual and queer (GBQ) men who struggle to reconcile their faith and sexual orientation.
Sean Foo, founder of the online LGBT publication DearStraightPeople, has written about how “the isolation that defined me as a closeted gay man continued to haunt me as someone who was out and proud”. Tim Burch, the founder of Out in SG, a community-building initiative for fellow GBQ men, has also said that he was motivated by his personal struggles with loneliness to start the group: “I know I’m not the only gay in the village to ever feel alone or lonely.”
My loneliness is killing me: The harmful effects of gay loneliness
GBQ men in Singapore aren’t the only ones grappling with loneliness. In his essay, “Together Alone”, journalist Michael Hobbes examined what he called the “epidemic of gay loneliness” in the USA, which results in higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviour among GBQ men.
Though queer women also struggle with social isolation, GBQ men seem to have disproportionately turned to unhealthy ways of coping with feelings of loneliness. For instance, a 2012 study reported that loneliness can lead GBQ men to engage in more risky sexual behaviour out of a desire for social and emotional connection. According to the researchers, substance use also served as a “temporary distraction” from loneliness, while amplifying the individual’s desire for social and emotional connections.
Leow Yangfa is a registered social worker and the executive director of Oogachaga, a community organisation that works with the LGBTQ community in Singapore. “Many of our clients described being made to feel ashamed because they are gay. This, coupled with the actual or perceived fear of being rejected by their family, friends and social and religious communities, ultimately, lead to their feeling lonely as gay adults, often in the absence of positive role models,” he observes. This social isolation is exacerbated by the lack of opportunities and platforms for GBQ people to meet others like themselves outside of sexualised spaces like nightclubs and dating apps.
These feelings of shame and unworthiness are worsened among LGBTQ people in Singapore by the discriminatory laws and policies that enshrine their marginalised status in the country. For instance, Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises male same-sex sexual conduct while media censorship regulations prohibit positive portrayals of LGBTQ people.
Research has pointed out that such institutional discrimination is killing gay men by fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, mental illness and suicide. But with the ruling People’s Action Party reluctant to move on such a controversial matter, policy changes are unlikely to arrive anytime soon to ameliorate the negative impact that such structural violence has on the health and well-being of LGBTQ populations.
A recent local cohort study of 570 young GBQ men—conducted jointly by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and Action for AIDS—found that experiences of discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation was positively associated with depression severity. According to public health researcher Rayner Tan, who carried out the study, this in turn leads to higher rates of suicide ideation and attempt.
Feelings of shame and unworthiness are worsened among LGBTQ people in Singapore by the discriminatory laws and policies that enshrine their marginalised status in the country.
The study didn’t consider the impact of loneliness on the mental health of GBQ men, but it’s likely that feelings of social isolation and the lack of community support would exacerbate these effects. In one of TrueLove.Is’ videos, Jason reflected on the suicide of a friend who’d struggled with being gay alone: “Would things have turned out differently if he had someone or a community that he could share all that pain, guilt and shame with?”
The sense of shame and trauma associated with growing up gay can also result in serious emotional baggage, which adversely affects GBQ men’s ability to forge strong and healthy relationships. Alan Downs, a clinical psychologist who has worked with many GBQ clients, has even coined a term for this: “velvet rage”. In Downs’ words, “Velvet rage is the deep and abiding anger that results from growing up in an environment when I learn that who I am as a gay person is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable.”
As a result, he explains, “This anger pushes me at times to overcompensate and try to earn love and acceptance by being more, better, beautiful, more sexy—in short, to become something I believe will make me more acceptable and loved.” This leads GBQ men to strive for an unachievable perfection, whether in terms of their appearance or in their relationships with others, placing them within what Downs describes as an unbearable, unliveable, and unsustainable culture.
Take me to church: Sexual repression as a means of coping with gay loneliness
Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that Raphael and Joseph felt so deeply dissatisfied with their lives when they were actively seeking out same-sex relationships. While others may turn to other coping mechanisms like casual sex and drugs to fill the void, their unhappiness ultimately led them back to the church, which offered a ready explanation for their frustration: it was wrong to be gay.
In a letter to his younger gay self, Raphael wrote, “Getting into a gay relationship will not make you feel complete; it will only deepen the wounds you have. Trust me, I’ve been there… [B]ecause your gay desires aren’t a natural part of you, pursuing a gay relationship won’t actually bring you true happiness.”
What TrueLove.Is offers men like Raphael and Joseph is an alternative paradigm for understanding and relating to their sexual orientation. Instead of condemnation and scorn, the church is presented as a source of support and solidarity for those struggling to successfully repress their same-sex attraction in pursuit of holiness through celibacy and hopefully, a heterosexual relationship.
But LGBTQ advocates and researchers have emphasised that suppressing one’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful.
“At Oogachaga, we don’t refer to this as ‘conversion therapy’, as they have already been denounced to be anything but therapeutic in nature,” Leow says. “We prefer to use the term ‘conversion trauma’, as we’ve supported many such clients who clearly exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, intrusive thoughts, triggers, many linked to their experiences of such practices being imposed on them.”
Furthermore, for some women like Jaime who shared about their struggles with same-sex relationships, it is uncertain whether they have “overcome” their same-sex attraction or if their experiences simply speak to the fluidity of sexual orientation. Coined by developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond in her book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, the concept of sexual fluidity refers to how a majority of women have reported experiencing significant shifts in their sexual attraction or sexual identity over time.
While TrueLove.Is has clarified that it doesn’t employ any coercive practice to change a person’s sexual orientation, it doesn’t deny that the journey towards holiness through repression and celibacy is a difficult and potentially painful one.
However, as Raphael explains in an essay in the book Walking With Same-Sex AttractedFriends, his loneliness has been transformed from an empty and insatiable feeling into a meaningful struggle on the “path towards the abundant goodness God has in store for us”. The loneliness that same-sex attracted Christians struggled with doesn’t disappear upon participation in TrueLove.Is, but is now seen as part of the process of getting closer to God. “No matter how much I’m struggling… God sits with me in my pain,” Raphael says in his video.
Some might say that this is utimately a pointless and damaging endeavour fuelled by internalised homophobia, as demonstrated by countless examples of “ex-ex-gay” Christians. Raphael acknowledges that others may “think that I’m not being true to who I am” but explains that it’s nevertheless a conscious choice he’s decided to make based on his personal beliefs. As Ian Toh, the pastor leading TrueLove.Is and the 3:16 Church that it’s affiliated to, argues, “[it] is the prerogative of each person to pursue what they believe is true”.
We belong together: Addressing the crisis of gay loneliness
Though the dangers of conversion therapy and repression have been established, other coping mechanisms that GBQ men turn to in their loneliness can also be just as troubling.
One such outlet to which some GBQ men have resorted is drug use. According to the researcher Rayner Tan, the local cohort study by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and Action for AIDS found that those with weaker feelings of connectedness towards the LGBTQ community were more likely to engage in methamphetamine use. Another study Tan conducted also found that the desire for peer acceptance, and the fear of peer rejection, may lead some GBQ men to engage in drug use during sexual encounters. It also found that the religious rhetoric against homosexuality contributed to the epidemic of substance abuse among GBQ men, some of whom relied on drug use as a means of coping with rejection from their religion.
Rather than view drug use or conversion trauma as distinct challenges facing the LGBTQ community, it may be useful to address the underlying crisis of gay loneliness that has led individuals to these unhealthy coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, the continued criminalisation of male same-sex relationships and the state’s ambivalence towards the plight of LGBTQ Singaporeans only add to the difficulties in addressing these issues.
“While there are community groups like SGRainbow which try to organise social activities for the community, we’re often hindered by a lack of support and funding.”
While some groups like Out in SG have sought to provide safe spaces for socialisation, they’re often constrained by limited resources and restrictive laws from reaching those who are isolated and most vulnerable. But efforts are ongoing: one example is gayhealth.sg, an outreach initiative by Action for AIDS. The initiative runs Pink Carpet Y, a drop-in centre for GBQ men that provides peer counselling and HIV testing. There’s also SGRainbow, another group run by volunteers who organise personal and social development programmes for GBQ men. This includes workshops, gatherings and an annual adventure camp.
According to Adam, a volunteer with SGRainbow, “While there are community groups like SGRainbow which try to organise social activities for the community, we’re often hindered by a lack of support and funding. This sometimes leads to poor publicity and as a result, our groups are unable to reach as many people as we wish we could.”
Social activities can also only do so much when people are still captive to particular mindsets, such as heteronormative ideals that emphasise monogamy and nuclear family units. “An uncomfortable byproduct of the monomaniacal quest for marriage equality has been the… poisonous idea that long-term unbroken monogamy is the only way to happiness,” writes the Berlin-based writer and researcher Ben Miller. In Singapore, the prevailing definition of “family” refers to a nuclear unit of married parents with children—an impossible ideal for many to achieve in a state that refuses to recognise same-sex relationships.
“Loneliness becomes difficult for many GBQ men when it is only defined as the absence of a relationship with another gay male partner, which in itself is a very narrow definition of relationships,” says Leow.
It’s no wonder then that gay loneliness remains so prevalent despite the proliferation of dating apps and platforms: many GBQ men believe that their lives are unfulfilled in the absence of a romantic relationship. This explains why, as psychiatrist Jack Turban found, apps like Grindr have exacerbated, rather than abated, the problems of gay loneliness and mental illness.
In concluding her piece on TrueLove.Is, journalist Grace Yeoh remarked, “If you lock yourself in a prison long enough, you’ll convince yourself it’s paradise.” This was meant to describe same-sex attracted Christians who have coaxed themselves into resisting their sexual orientation, but it may be equally applicable to those who are “out and proud” but take for granted the burden of gay loneliness.
No one should have to choose between these two unenviable choices. Since faith-based campaigns like TrueLove.Is are likely to stay around for some time, it may be worthwhile for LGBTQ advocates and allies to move beyond condemning the religious rhetoric of repression to also reflect on how to combat the crisis of gay loneliness and its adverse public health impact.
In addition to advocating for reforms to Singapore’s laws and policies that perpetuate the marginalised status of LGBTQ individuals, it’s also important to foster a stronger network of solidarity and support within LGBTQ communities. This can range from creating new social spaces to facilitate community-building, to volunteering or donating to existing LGBTQ organisations.
After all, while we may not be able to abolish the prison of religious repression anytime soon, there’s still much more that can be done to make the lives of GBQ men a less unbearable experience.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Jaime was in a heterosexual marriage. A correction has been made to the text. We apologise for the error.
Daryl Yang co-founded and served as the inaugural Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network. He was also an intern with ILGA World and a summer law clerk at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.