At a dinner in Atlanta, Georgia, I sat next to a slightly haggard British woman with an unlikely coif of grey ringlets who, having learned about my work, asked, ‘So tell me, then. Which do you find more burdensome: being gay or being depressed?’ I think I mustered a polite answer even as I imagined telling my husband later that his conversation partner could not have been worse than mine. But that was some fifteen years ago, before I began to question the line between identity and illness. Now, I have to admit that being gay and being depressed do have a certain amount broadly in common and a great deal in common in my life. Not because they are comparably ‘burdensome’, but because they have become my topics, both in my life and in my work. Not a day goes by that I don’t have unsolicited correspondence from someone who is depressed and needs help, or from someone who is gay and suffering for it.
Part of what my dinner companion would not have parsed is that most conditions contain two loci of trauma: their inherent, medical pain; and their imposed, social stigma. So being depressed is not a pleasant experience because it rages inside your head, taking away all access to pleasure and making you hate yourself. It is the very nature of the condition to feel miserable, drained of all vitality, convinced that your life is without value and will never have any value, often suicidal. You could resolve all the stigma in the world, and depression would still not be fun. However, it would be a bit more tolerable if we lived in a society that didn’t blame depression on its victims, that didn’t address it as a sign of moral turpitude, that didn’t refuse jobs and housing to people with mental illnesses. The problem is medical but there is much societal work to be done. That societal work is not predicated, however, on telling people to pull their socks up – which is a social solution to a medical problem.
Being gay, on the other hand, is not very inherently painful. For the moment, two people in a gay relationship cannot have children who manifest both of their genetic contribution; that’s our biggest inherent problem. But the stigma around being gay is acute. Gay people lack legal protections of many kinds, are routinely excluded from social contexts, and suffer the brute ignorance of judgemental clerics. They are often cast out of their families. They are killed more and commit suicide more. The challenges to family-making are narrowly medical, but the challenge of living a gay life is substantially social. The American vice president, Mike Pence, believes that gay people should be subjected to conversion therapies – effectively a medical solution to a social problem.
I’d fix my depression by changing myself into someone who no longer has it; I’d repair the difficulty of being gay by changing other people and their bigotry. Being depressed will always be burdensome, though social change has alleviated some of its proximate shame; being gay could mostly stop being burdensome – and in fact has grown less so in my life, though it seemed a heavy fate when I was younger. I’m grateful to the generations of activists who came before me, and who have made it easier to be open about my depression and to form a family in my own style. Of course, I wonder whether I would have become depressed if I hadn’t been gay – but to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been gay is to imagine another life entirely. The relentless cruelty of other children, unchecked by teachers, predisposed me to psychic fragility; the slowness of my parents’ accession to my sexual orientation broke my heart. I can’t unpick those realities from the fabric of my mental illness. Surviving depression, on the other hand, gave me some of the resilience I needed to assert a gay identity and to find my way to marriage and children – and those revelatory intimacies have done more to mitigate my depression than any other circumstance.
My nine-year-old daughter persistently confuses the words gay and happy. As in, ‘Did you know it’s illegal to be happy in Libya?’ So far as I can tell, she does not know much about the word depressed, the one that some people mistakenly, naively think of as the simple opposite of happiness. I won’t disrupt her innocence for now. May she celebrate her father’s gayness but know nothing of depression.