Coping with COVID-19 for Gay Men: What Type Are You?
Now that many weeks (months) are going by since the initial “lockdown” or “quarantine” conditions due to novel coronavirus/COVID-19, I’m seeing a number of patterns emerge among my clients of my therapy and coaching practice, as a long-term (28 years!) gay men’s specialist. Whether it’s my therapy clients local to Los Angeles, or my coaching clients in other states and around the world, it seems like guys are generally falling into several categories in terms of their reactions and coping strategies – some good, some bad, some mixed. Mostly, mixed.
Just like signs of the Zodiac, the “types” are recognizable. Below is a discussion of those types, and some general guidance about how we all can cope with the challenges (and some rewards) of this historically-unprecedented “Covid-19 Era.”
The challenges that I see among clients, emotionally, are falling into categories of the predominant mood. These are:
- Anxiety – Since gay men have a history, in their current generation and historically, of societal, legal, and cultural oppression, COVID-19 is just “one more thing” that might stress out a gay man as part of the larger LGBT+ community, in the United States, or really anywhere. The reaction to this oppression can be a certain pressure, often called “minority stress”, which can play havoc with out sense of trust and put us on edge of when we might be discriminated against, harassed, bullied, denigrated, criticized, bashed, killed, or “just” socially invalidated and ignored. So when COVID-19 came along, especially viewed in the context of the entire history of HIV/AIDS, gay men already knew that coping with the vague or even imminent threat of a deadly virus was something that was just part of our daily life, whether it was taking a “drug cocktail” for HIV to get to undetectable levels and stay alive and healthy, or taking “PrEP” (pre-exposure prophylaxis, usually Truvada or Descovy) for HIV prevention. But despite this frame of reference and familiarity with medical self-care of some kind, the COVID-19 threat creates an extra layer of fear and burden. The anxiety manifests in the questions I hear often: will I go back to work in an office? Do I have antibodies? If I have antibodies, does that really mean I’m immune? When can we have a social life again, since much of gay life is centered around bars, clubs, and activity in groups? When can I safely “hook up” again, or even go on a dinner date to sit-down restaurant? When I go to a movie theatre, or see a play again? I take all these precautions, but I am just going to get it anyway? How will I cope with reduced or eliminated work and income? When I can see my friends or family again? What’s the “new normal” going to look like, and how long until we go back to the “real normal”? How can I plan my future when things change so fast? All of these questions, while varied, are really different manifestations of expressing uncertainty, or the “fear of loss”, that we call anxiety.
- Depression – Some other guys are not so much anxious as they are simply depressed, expressing a sad mood due to an almost countless number of losses during this COVID-19 era. The loss of socializing with friends. The loss of our previous income or job/gigs. The loss of being able to plan a future work project, vacation, or holiday celebration. The loss of travel. The loss of gay male peer relationships due to so much local and national “distancing”. The loss of confidence in our government and political leaders, especially at the highest levels. The loss of feeling secure in our health, or the health of our loved ones, particularly anyone older and more at-risk.
- Trauma – For gay men who are already the survivors of incest, sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse, sexual assault, violent crime, life-threatening illness, accidents, war combat, domestic violence, discrimination, or other trauma, the descent of COVID-19 on us all creates one more traumatic event in life that demands a psychological adaptive coping response.
- Guilt – For some of my gay male clients, somehow the effects of COVID-19 are not affecting them as much; they have retained their jobs, they are enjoying their nice home, relationship, or surroundings; they have preserved their income, and they have remained robustly healthy. For these guys, the predominant emotion can be guilt, that by some strokes of luck (and perhaps privilege), they are as yet relatively unscathed by the COVID pandemic, and they are more concerned about the hardships of others.
The subsequent behavioral responses to these (and perhaps other) common primary emotional reactions to this COVID crisis manifest as “roles” that we tend to adopt. I was especially inspired by roles mentioned originally by one of my clinical social work and coaching colleagues, Lynn Grodzki, LCSW, MCC, an inspiring mentor to me who coaches psychotherapists to have robust practices, under all kinds of economic circumstances. I think her work inspires people of all professions, especially the self-employed practitioner of the healing arts. It was Grodzki who “coined” these roles (below) that I have adapted for coping with COVID-19 among gay men. We might be primarily one of these roles, or a combination of them:
“The Educator” – This type helps inform others through Facebook, Instagram, or other social media posts about the current public health guidelines from reliable sources like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or various state public health authorities. They cite and repeat information about numbers of cases, numbers of deaths, and current guidelines of what is permissible to do, or not do, in various state, county, or city jurisdictions. They are a source of information, and therefore comfort, to their friends and family, and are good researchers and “curators” of various news sources, and they are appreciated as a source of everyday guidance. (City Councilmember John Duran of the City West Hollywood is one gay male source, and has continued to be a “local hero” (which he was to many) via his daily Facebook posts.)
“The Advocate” – This type creates and shares postings that can inform (like the “Educator”) but also amuses, inspires, and comforts others in the pandemic. This type might share or publicize stories that hold our political leaders accountable, or encourage others to cope with “stay at home” by offering practical tips or cajoling others into a collective sense of mutual self-care, like putting a bumper sticker on your car to influence others as you merely drive around town. This type strives for social justice, which is important as we face the National Election this Fall, as well as recognizing that the summer Pride season is almost upon us, which will look different this year when large public gatherings still aren’t allowed, and we have to practice advocacy and activism in alternative ways, such as online influence.
“The Resource” – I’ve seen many of this type on the NextDoor app; this is the type of person who announces where valuable resources, commodities, products, or services are available, such as, “Hey! The Ralphs on Third Street had a huge supply of toilet paper this morning at 11 am! Hurry and get some before they sell out!” or “Mao’s Kitchen on Elm Street has awesome takeout Chinese!” They might be a purveyor, as a volunteer, of information about COVID testing, food, guidelines, hard-to-find information about goods or services, or a resource for leaning new ways to have at least some fun during all this. Sharing information might help someone navigate the bureaucracy of accessing public benefit programs like state unemployment, or the Small Business Association Paycheck Protection Program, which I’ve tried to help others access after I got mine through Kabbage.com with relative ease.
“The Model Citizen” – This person might use Instagram stories or IGTV, or Facebook/Twitter/etc., to be a living model and behavioral example of coping, such as depicting themselves taking precautions, doing something clever around the house (like a new cooking skill), finding an innovative way to exercise when gyms are closed, wearing a mask outside, or trying to embody in concrete, behavioral terms what “optimal coping” really looks like for the long term (which might vary for everyone based on their personality, location, and family circumstances (single vs. relationship, having kids or not, having elderly parents nearby or not). Gay men are often “model citizens”, not because we have to somehow “make up” for being gay, but because since we are so often victims of others’ selfishness and bigotry, we strive to be models of generosity, cooperation, fairness, and progressivism for the collective good.
“The Striver” – Surprisingly, many of my clients have fallen into this category (maybe it’s because they’re my clients, and we are working on taking them to the next “level” in life, whether through Positive Psychology goals or through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or through Career Coaching customized for their field, phase-of-life, and local culture. But these guys are determined not to let a temporary or even prolonged “crisis climate” or “new normal” thwart them from their dreams, goals, skills, and accomplishments, especially professionally but also personally (in relationships, or in personal growth and self-insight). They strive to maintain some adherence to the goals for 2020 that they set themselves at the new year, before COVID came along in basically the end of the First Quarter. While this usually requires a stable job or income, even some who have lost jobs continue to pursue their goals in different ways, perhaps on a slower timeline. This can be antidotal to the pitfalls of anxiety or depression, as action can help with symptoms of each of those. Even taking action like starting therapy or having a medication evaluation can begin to address anxiety or depression symptoms, enough to function and be on your way, even if COVID presents a rougher road than the road would be under “normal” circumstances.
There is also another type that we all see on the news or social media, and that’s “The Obnoxious Denier” type. These are the types who ignore the expertise of public health officials, science, logic, and certainly cooperation among people, and just cope with their fears, boredom, losses, and frustrations with the primitive defense of denial, and end up endangering themselves and certainly others may taking the attitude that if they ignore all COVID-related risks and inconveniences, it will all just go away, as if by magic, Divine intervention, or that the pandemic is, like, just sooooo two months ago. Don’t be this type. We can understand that infantile or hostile, selfish, maladaptive coping responses can exist, we need to recognize that that is the opposite of the “Model Citizen” above, and just makes a bad situation even worse. We see few gay men among these types, because this type is often among the ranks of those who are racist, homophobic, trans-phobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, etc., and we can just ignore them in favor of focusing on much more positive, adaptive coping approaches that will work in the long run.
So, no matter what kind of stressor you are primarily experiencing (anxiety, depression, trauma, guilt), navigating the different types of coping (Educator, Advocate, Resource, Model Citizen, or Striver) can help you defend against the notion of a certain helplessness or complacency that the presence of COVID-19 must mean a diminished quality of life.
If you need some personalized help to take your coping to the next level, consider services from me or my associates at GayTherapyLA. We offer online sessions and various schedules and fee rates, and would be happy to help. Call/text 310-339-5778 for more information, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com. Be the type of “Covid Coper” that you want to be!