This article was originally published in the Dublin Inquirer on 16 January, 2019.
This article was originally published in the Dublin Inquirer on 16 January, 2019.
This interview was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, Issue II in October 2016. It was later published online.
David Monaghan sits down with author Matthew Todd, whose book Straight Jacket examines why disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ+ people suffer from mental illness.
IN 2005, Matthew Todd debuted his play Blowing Whistles to captive audiences in London, and later Sydney. The play, which deals with contemporary LGBTQ+ culture, became a sort of therapy for Todd. “I was in turmoil when I wrote it,” he informs OTwo. “I’d come out of a relationship and I’d been cheated on and I was really angry, and I was blaming it all on him.”
The play depicts a gay couple who, on the tenth anniversary of the eve of their first meeting, decide to make their relationship more interesting by inviting a young man around for a threesome. “I’m all three characters in the play,” says Todd. “The first half is an adult comedy about these two crazy guys having an open relationship. The second half is much darker and it becomes a critique of gay culture.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, the themes and ideas considered in the play – social media, sex, and monogamy – would be facets of life that would later reoccur in Todd’s writing. Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy, Todd’s new book, is the result of such ruminations about modern LGBTQ+ culture: it explores why a disproportionate amount of gay men suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts and behaviour. Using his own experience as a backdrop for research – the book is ‘part memoir, part polemic’ – Todd lifts the mask on contemporary gay culture to see what lurks beneath, and does so with poise and insight.
The title of his book refers to the restrictive, heteronormative culture that LGBTQ+ people are born into, a ‘cultural straightjacket’ of sorts. “This society presumes everybody is heterosexual and cisgender when they are born and there’s kind of very little room to grow or to evolve or exist if you are not that way,” he states. “Everyone presumes that you are heterosexual and that a boy will be attracted to a girl or a girl will be attracted to a boy. There just doesn’t seem to be very many parts of society…that are adaptable or ready to accept that people are different.”
Although Ireland has made significant strides in recent years on LGBTQ+ social issues – in 2015 we saw the introduction of both Marriage Equality and Gender Recognition legislation – there are still lingering threads of homophobia left within the country. On July 30th 2016, a gay man was assaulted in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. He was set upon by teenagers who yelled ‘you fucking whore. How much? We’ll kill you, fucking fag.’ Todd asserts: “And I think just growing up like that, being shamed by family, sometimes by friends, by other people’s parents, by wider family, by religion, by schools…and then we have all the religious institutions who spout what they say about gayness, it can be tremendously stressful.”
LGBTQ+ people deal with this ‘cultural straightjacket’ in a plethora of ways. The majority are, thankfully, able to move on and establish healthy lives and careers. Others, however, turn to drugs, dangerous sex and various other forms of destructive behaviour. International research suggests that LGBTQ+ people are two-to-three times more likely to be become addicted to alcohol than their straight contemporaries.
“I certainly wanted to get out of my head, and I did,” Todd says. “First by eating, because it made me feel better temporarily – I think compulsive eating is a massive thing for a lot of people – and then by fantasy, by pop music…and then getting lost in alcohol, and [others get lost in] drugs and some people sex, and it can easily spiral out of control and become a huge mess. And some people don’t come out of it.”
One way in which the worldwide community has been able to deal with this has been in putting on a ‘brave face,’ which Todd suggests has been necessary: “Even the term ‘gay pride,’ [which suggests] ‘we’re gay and happy,’ and to be almost obsessively waving a banner and saying ‘everything’s fine’ – and that’s been needed in some ways, to tell each other and to tell young people that it’s okay to be gay and that you can have a happy and successful life, which you absolutely can, and many people do, but that’s kind of… We’ve just rejected all of [the negativity] and not wanted to look at some of the problems in case it plays to a narrative of ‘oh look, you’re absolutely right, we are really unhappy.”
The fear of conforming to the negative and reductive perception of ‘gay-equals-unhappy’ could explain why a book like Todd’s has taken so long to be written. “It didn’t feel like I could have a conversation about any of these problems when I came out” Todd explains. “There was never any room to have any discussion, certainly not in gay press…it was just constantly, rabidly, going on about how wonderful it was [to be gay], and never looking at any of the problems…I remember going a few times to sexual health clinics and seeing therapists and they didn’t have anything to say about it either. I remember one time, and I talk about it in the book, where I went to see somebody and I went, ‘listen, I’m not in control of the amount of sexual behaviour I’m having,’ and they looked at me like I’d said something sacrilegious.”
Dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, which are used by people within straight and LGBTQ+ communities, have made access to sex and hook-ups easier than before; at a press of a button people can meet others and, after a brief exchange of words, can find themselves in the rough and tumble of a fleeting sexual encounter. Considering that sex is used as a coping mechanism by some, does Todd feel online hook-up culture exacerbates problems within LGBTQ+ communities?
“Absolutely, totally, 100%. I know lots of people use them, and I use them, and will probably use them in the future, and lots of people will say that they’re really great because you certainly see you’re not completely isolated…but it feels like a way of behaving where we objectify each other to an extreme extent…when you get onto to Grindr where people are describing themselves as a ‘penis’ or a ‘hole,’ I do think that’s problematic. And I know that’s a controversial thing to say, but I do think that’s problematic because we’re literally talking to each other like we don’t mean anything.”
In recent years, on social media and beyond, there has been a drive to promote positive attitudes to sex. This movement has been spearheaded by left-leaning feminists to eradicate the social stigma attached to women who transgress socially-constructed sexual boundaries. In many cases the word ‘slut,’ which has been used in the past to shame and demean women, has been adapted and transformed into a positive term; sex is now a thing to celebrate.
Gay men too have faced a similar stigma in the past, mostly through right-wing media during the AIDS epidemic. In the book Todd refers to a 1980s’ Mail on Sunday article that claims the ‘awful genesis’ of AIDS lay in homosexual sex itself. By highlighting the problems with promiscuous sexual encounters, does Todd fear he may fall into slut-shaming, or that he will undo the work of sex-positive campaigning?
“There’s nothing wrong with having casual sex, if that’s what you really want, and you’re in control of it,” Todd explains. “When I was writing the book and I was talking to friends that was something I was really worried about…[In the book] I’m doing the absolute opposite of shaming. I don’t shame people for the amount of sex they have or don’t have whatsoever because I’m not in a position to – I have had sex with quite a lot of people. I just want to open a discussion about it so we are able to talk about it if someone feels that they have lost control of their sex life…we can talk about why that may be, what may cause that, if you want to do something about it, what you can do about it.”
Of course, the media plays an important role in shaping the outlook of LGBTQ+ people. In the book Todd explains how right-wing media perpetuated social stigma in the eighties using flashy, homophobic tabloid headlines like one from the Sun which read: ‘I’d Shoot My Son If He Had AIDS Claims Vicar.’
Even today mainstream news outlets will neglect LGBTQ+ stories and issues. The assault in Phoenix Park, as has been described, was not covered by the press outside of theoutmost.com and GCN, Ireland’s premiere LGBTQ+ news outlets. “[Media] plays a really damaging role. I mean, maybe things are a little bit better, but essentially they are only interested in showing LGBTQ+ lives through a straight lens…For instance: the issue of why there aren’t many openly-gay professional footballers comes up and the media takes a lot of interest in that because it’s something that they care about because football is something they are interested in. It’s very hard to get the mainstream media to do coverage of my book about mental health and I consider this a really, really important issue. From my experience of gay people I’ve had from working at Attitude [a magazine edited by Todd] that it is the most important issue we face at the moment, specific to us, yet most of the media are just not interested. They think it’s niche…Like I say, it’s just through a very specific heterosexual lens that they see us and I think that’s really damaging.”
Later in the book Todd makes a clarion call to LGBTQ+ writers and creatives to create more positive LGBTQ+ narratives. Often in fiction that features queer characters we are left with unhappy endings, broken hearts, and more often than not, death: A Single Man, Lilting, Cloud Atlas, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour are recent examples that spring to mind. Praise for 2015’s Carol, a film with lesbian characters that also features a somewhat positive conclusion, is a welcome exception. Repeated negativity can be a drain on LGBTQ+ youth who are looking for positivity when coming out.
He continues: “We all need to see ourselves reflected in the world. We all need to understand ourselves through culture, and I think even more so for LGBT people because we do feel different and maybe we don’t have role models when we’re younger and maybe we don’t feel we can speak to our parents, and then not to see a very broad range of experience in film and TV… it’s really, really damaging…where are the nice gentle rom-coms, where are the big films with two big, famous Hollywood actors that is about a nice, gay love story?”
In 2015, while Todd was in the process of completing his book, the documentary Chemsex was released. The film, which is co-directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty, explores the subculture of ‘chemsex’ – that is, the dangerous practice of engaging in recreational drug use and sexual behaviour simultaneously – among gay men in London. It was an illuminating piece that shocked and bewildered viewers.
“I was very aware of them making it [while I wrote the book], but they were specifically looking at the whole chemsex thing. When I started writing the book I didn’t really know about crystal meth or methadone or G [shorthand for GHB, a psychoactive substance], what I really knew about was guys who were having problems with cocaine, and I was really shocked at how bad the situation was with crystal meth. Certainly I was surprised watching that film and it’s certainly a hard film to watch.”
Matthew Todd interviewed people for Attitude upon the film’s release: “[They] were talking about injecting blood into each other, fetishizing body fluids, which I think is tied up to our experience of HIV. There’s a real mess out there with a lot of people. It’s not just one or two, it’s a very small minority of people, but it’s too many, and enough for it to be a really serious problem, and I think it’s really important we talk about it, as painful as it is for people to look at it.”
In 2016, it was revealed that 498 people were diagnosed with HIV in Ireland within the last year, a 25% increase from 2014’s figure of 377. Half of the people affected were gay or bisexual men. Although we live in an age where information on HIV is readily available online and in print, rates of HIV transmission appear to be going up, particularly among young LGBTQ+ people.
“Young people are young and think they are invincible – who wants to sit there and wade through pages of information about safe sex? But I think they’re just not getting sex education, and they’re certainly not getting information about HIV. I think there was a whole thing in the early days of the AIDS epidemic where, because the right wing media were constantly saying ‘this is a gay disease,’ HIV organisations rightfully said, ‘well anyone can catch HIV, and across the world there are more straight people who have it,’ but they did this thing called the ‘de-gaying’ of AIDS, which I think has done us a disservice because I have met many young men, gay and bisexual men, who don’t understand or don’t accept or believe that we are more at risk in Europe and the West from HIV, and how we have higher rates of it…ultimately, this is the fault of the education system.” Those who do speak out about their diagnosis are often neglected, and there is an erasure outside and within LGBTQ+ communities.
Matthew Todd, who is currently setting his sights on filmmaking for his next project, hopes that this book will help start a dialogue about mental health within LGBTQ+ circles, and he reminds readers that mental health, gay or straight, is something that we should always be sure to keep in check: “If any of these problems do come up later, and they can come up later – I thought when I was younger that I’d dealt with all of the issues I had, and I hadn’t – there are places you can go to, be it therapy or gay groups, drug and alcohol supports…I’m saying these things as much to myself as I am to anyone else.”
Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy is available to purchase in all good book stores. If you are affected by any of the issues outlined in this article you can find help by reaching out to the following:
Mental Health Ireland
It is well-documented that Irish writer James Joyce once said, “No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.” Although the automatic and unthinking response of many to such a claim would be dismissal, the long, broad narrative of Irish history only reaffirms the well-known Dubliner’s witticism: our island has long been tinged by accounts of emigration, from the days of the Great Hunger up until the present.
This inescapable and unfortunate truth has also not eluded the nation’s writers, many of whom in the past sought to publish their works abroad. Joyce himself published his works in Paris after lengthy battles with conservative publishers in Ireland and Britain, and Samuel Beckett lived in the French capital for most of his life, writing in both French and English. Women writers, in decades past, have also had their works suffocated by a male-dominated printing scene and, up until recent years, did not have access to popular outlets through which they could publish their works. Although writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien enjoyed some success, it was limited when compared to their male counterparts.
“I suppose one of the key things in the twentieth century was censorship – ‘unsuitable’ literature just wasn’t going to be published in Ireland,” says Claire Hennessy, co-editor of the literary journalBanshee. Indeed, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board was established in 1929 in order to monitor literature in various forms, effectively banning any writing deemed ‘obscene’ or ‘inappropriate.’ Its power and influence has dwindled greatly in recent decades however, and very few works are blocked in the country. Although restrictions on what can be printed are now minimal, many Irish writers still look to the UK and beyond in order to publish their major works. “I think it’s a desire to reach a larger readership,” says Eimear Ryan, one-third of the Banshee team. “Ireland has had a lively literary journal and small press scene for the last few decades – there’s no shortage of outlets – and Irish people are great readers, but it’s still a relatively small market.”
In the last six years, however, indigenous publishing has undergone a transformation, with new literary journals appearing across the country. Irish writers, too, are beginning to win more and more prizes on the international front. Many Irish writers use small quality presses and journals, such asLilliput, The Stinging Fly, and Tramp, as a springboard before moving to bigger deals in the US and UK. She continues: “the likes of Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume published first in Ireland to great acclaim, and then got picked up internationally. I think small Irish presses have gained this reputation for being brilliant talent scouts and I think that the bigger publishers are keeping a close eye on what’s coming out of the Irish publishing scene.” So what has triggered such an incredible turn around? And how has this affected the quality and themes of Irish writing?
Although novelists and prose writers have enjoyed success in Ireland, the poetry scene has been met with some minor difficulties: many older presses have shut down. Jessica Traynor, poet and Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre, believes this is indicative of an emerging new wave in poetry publishing. She says: “we’re seeing a little bit of a recovery […] I think these things go in cycles: while we’ve lost older poetry presses like Doghouse, other presses […] like Arlen House tend to be outwardly going from strength to strength.” A huge concern for Irish publishers is funding, and this is intensified for poets; when budgets are tight, poetry is somewhat impaired by its smaller audience relative to prose writing.
Michael Naghten Shanks was the editor of The Bohemyth, a former quarterly journal publishing short fiction, poetry, essays and photography. A fervent poet, Shanks has also felt the figurative pinch of tightened budgets: “when it comes to the next stage of a writer’s career […] I do think that prose writers are in a much better position. Ultimately, one has to acknowledge the economic argument for why this is the case, but I still believe more could be done to correct the balance. It is not that the talent is lacking when it comes to Irish poetry, it is more to do with how the majority of poetry publishers in Ireland are lacking the funding they need in order to be able to take the necessary risks on finding and supporting new poets. Make no mistake it is the same case for fiction publishers, but they do seem to be less reticent when it comes to the crunch.”
Before its closure on August 8th 2016, The Bohemyth operated exclusively online. The role the internet has played in the recent resurgence of Irish writing cannot be understated: writers can publish their works online without fear of interference from middlemen, network with others on Twitter and Facebook, and experience greater, worldwide exposure, the levels of which might not have been attained otherwise. “If I were to think of a reason for why things seem, outwardly at least, vibrant, I think a lot of this has to do with the new lease of life the internet has given to poets” Traynor claims. “I recognise that the internet has been instrumental in building connections for Irish poets overseas. For poets, short story writers and novelists, the internet is a wonderful thing […] and I think having the internet there as a buffer has allowed some of the smaller publishers to think, ‘I can take a risk on this person.’” The internet has also influenced the writing of those working in literature in Ireland, leading many to discover artists and works they may not have happened upon in other circumstances.
The internet cannot be credited exclusively with shaping the character of contemporary writing. It is also worth noting that the new wave of Irish talent materialised in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, so one would not be mistaken in assuming that the economic, personal and political impact of such an event permeates the very pages of the writers most affected. “Sara Baume is really interesting on this,” Eimear Ryan notes. “She points out that the lack of jobs post-2008 sort of gave young artists permission to be broke and on the dole and writing, whereas during the Celtic Tiger years, there would have been much more social pressure to be earning big money, or to at least be in a job related to your degree.” Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, published in 2012, deals with the personal fallout of the economic crash; people are left stuck in unfinished ghost estates, contemplate emigration, and attempt to make sense of what is perceived as an unprecedented catastrophe. Such a book describes accurately the environment from which modern writers have emerged.
There is a sense in modern literature that Irish writers no longer subscribe to a mandate to write ‘in tradition,’ as Eimear Ryan elaborates: “In the work of Kevin Barry, Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray and others, the settings and characters are often Irish, but the influences aren’t. Contemporary Irish writers are being inspired by European and American fiction, comic books, video games, HBO shows, the internet.” Irish writing has traditionally been unified by overlapping themes and ideas: James Joyce wrote about Catholicism and sexual repression in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artistdecades before Patrick Kavanagh touched on similar subjects in his poetry, and the pastiche of staunch republicanism in Ulysses’ ‘Cyclops’ chapter is not entirely dissimilar to Martin McDonagh’s caricature of militant nationalism in plays likeThe Lieutenant of Inishmore. Joseph O’Connor, in Star of the Sea, reminds us of our history of emigration, while Kate O’Brien and Jamie O’Neill both deal with gay characters living in a new but wholly-suffocating Ireland, despite writing decades apart. As has been described previously, in recent years indigenous publishing has undergone a plethora of changes, but has this altered the common signifiers of what makes an ‘Irish’ text? “There are still some very traditional stories,” states Hennessy. “Disapproving mothers! Dead fathers! Abusive priests! The nuns! Funerals! Emigration! […] Often these appeal to an international audience, tying in to a certain notion of ‘Irishness’. But there are fresh themes and topics too – in Young Adult, for example, we’ve had a number of dystopias recently [such as]Eilis Barrett’s Oasis, Cecelia Ahern’s Flawed, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which was not something many Irish writers did previously.”
Young Adult fiction has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many adults now reading from the genre. Claire Hennessy has recently published Nothing Tastes as Good, a young adult novel that pushes the important issue of eating disorders to the fore. The writer states: “Annabel [one of the novel’s primary voices]came very much from reading several Young Adult novels which featured the same trope about the protagonist losing a friend to an eating disorder while in hospital, and this serving as the catalyst for their own recovery – how angry would you be, to be just a catalyst in someone else’s story?”
As such, the established canon of Irish writing has been altered and, in select cases, challenged, and so have the inherent biases of a male-centred publishing scene. The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing, was published last year to mass acclaim. The anthology’s editor, Sinéad Gleeson, aimed to fill a gap within the large narrative of Irish writing left by the exclusion of prominent female voices. The women writers that feature in the collection are wide-ranging and span decades – the gap between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection is 218 years. “There’s always been Irish women’s writing but it’s about what gets paid attention to,” states Hennessy. “Anne Enright published her first short story collection in 1991 and got critical acclaim […] but it wasn’t until winning the Booker sixteen years later that she became a household name. Emma Donoghue’s debut was in 1993, long before Room exploded onto the literary scene […] Irish women’s writing has always been there. It’s about what we take seriously – and what we dismiss.”
Hennessy, alongside Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy, established Banshee, a literary journal whose output is evenly split down the gender divide, an unusual occurrence in the Irish literary scene. “We’ve tended to publish more female writers than male” Hennessy explains, “but it’s not our intention to have the journal as a women-only publication that somehow provides a ‘safe space’ for female writers. The women writers we’re publishing don’t need that – they deserve to be read widely, as indeed do the men we’re publishing.” Eimear Ryan adds: “[alongside women writers]we’ve also published really brilliant work by the likes of Dylan Brennan, Dean Browne and Andrew Meehan. Issue #3 is shaping up really well and should hopefully be out in early September.”
Despite emerging liberal views regarding female voices within the male-dominated environment of fiction and poetry writing, women writers still experience certain gender-influenced difficulties in their line of work, as Hennessy explains: “Rob Doyle is lauded for writing about angry violent men, but when Louise O’Neill writes about the impact of male violence on women she gets hate mail […] Men are praised for subject matter that is more typically undertaken by women – Colm Tóibín’s Brooklynis basically a Maeve Binchy novel, in so many ways – not a criticism, I love her work – and it’s gotten infinitely more respect than anything she ever wrote.”
Gender bias is not the only issue contemporary writers must overcome: although externally the new Irish writing scene seems a safe haven for new talent, many minority writers – those within the LGBTQ+, travelling or immigrant communities, for example – will be quick to find that certain social biases still pervade the indigenous publishing scene. There is also a blatant lack of narratives that deal with issues of disability and mental illness. Michael Naghten Shanks discusses how to address such erasure: “As a straight, white male, my position in the literary community is undoubtedly one of privilege, whether desired for or not, and the least I, and others in my position, can do is to be conscious of that privilege, so that we can, whenever possible, readdress the balance.”
All scenes, movements and trends come and go – they enjoy their time in the spotlight before fading into memory. With little government support for literature, it’s uncertain how long the literary boom will last, or what shape Irish writing will take in the future. There are precautions, however, we can take to help ensure that there is a future for our literature: “It’s lovely that there’s a perception that there’s a groundswell of new work,” Jessica Traynor states, “it’s something that we need to try and protect, even in terms of buying books. If there’s an imprint you like, buy their books, go to their launches, get to know the people involved.”