Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1999

How to be a Happy Homosexual, by Terry Sanderson

reviewed by Andrew Armitage

This book ought not to exist. In a just society there would be no need for it. We do not live in a just society. I am glad this book exists.

Now in its fifth edition, How to be a Happy Homosexual is the seminal work in this specialised area. Books on healthy and happy lifestyles come and go, but there is only one I know of directed so skilfully at the gay male, and this is it.

Right there in the introduction, Sanderson is upbeat about the modern gay community. It is, he says, vibrant, creative and strong. Yet bigotry persists, and children grow up thinking their sexuality is “inferior, undesirable and even corrupt”. Back to the upside, though: tolerance is increasing. He cites some statistics to show that this is the case.

Being a happy homosexual means thinking about yourself positively, and examining your relationships with parents, friends, colleagues, siblings. Sanderson is unequivocal on one thing: don’t be invisible. Coming out is the best thing in the long run. It may hurt some people (notably parents) for a while, but to remain in the closet is to have to be constantly on your guard. And that’s no way to be a happy homosexual.

So you need to get to like yourself, and this is the subject of Chapter 1 (not listed in the Contents for some reason, but lumped in with the Introduction). Liking yourself means coming out to yourself as well as to others. We’re back to self-loathing here, a complication for many gay people even today. So liking yourself isn’t a narcissistic thing: it’s essential.

In a chapter that attacks the tabloid press with a delicious ferocity (he does this several times throughout the book), Sanderson explodes some of the more common myths: you can’t be “converted” into a homosexual (psychiatrists used to try to “convert” willing homosexuals into heterosexuals, so how the hell can anyone “convert” an unwilling heterosexual into a homosexual?); gay men are not child molesters; they’re not all effeminate; they’re not women trapped in men’s bodies; and so on. All sensible stuff – and yet the hetties who claim the moral high ground can’t (read won’t) see it.

Sanderson wants us to try to make a difference. He’s not overprescriptive about this, though: you can make a difference, he says, but he never tells us that we must write to our MP, must read the more serious and responsible press. However, you come away knowing that it makes good sense to try to make a difference, and to be visible.

The chapter on coming out puts what is an ordeal for many into perspective: it’s not often that difficult, for example, to come out. Often the thought of it is worse than the experience. He gives us anecdotal evidence from interviewees – and doesn’t hold back from giving us the bad stories along with the good.

Finding gay friends is important, too, but Sanderson warns (again, without saying thou shalt not) about such activities as cottaging, because it’s neither satisfactory nor fulfilling – and it’s dangerous. He doesn’t say it’s always easy to find gay friends. Some people have carried helpline ads in their pockets for weeks before plucking up the courage to ring. Once they have, though, the rest of the journey has been easier.

We have, says Sanderson – a Relate-trained counsellor and author of several self-help books for gay men – a new confidence now, leading to justifiable anger. We have even taken for ourselves the word “queer” and changed it from one that was used to hurt us to one we can proudly adopt as a positive adjective for ourselves.

Health is a crucial topic – ever more so since the onset of the AIDS crisis. And – even though combination therapy can control the illness in ways that were once not thought possible – it is no reason for complacency. Other sexual-health matters are discussed in a refreshingly accessible style that is both helpful and informative without being prescriptive. AIDS isn’t the only thing to be aware of, important though it is: there are many bugs cruising the scene looking for suitable hosts, and a sensible alertness to them is all part of happy homosexuality.

A chapter on the ethical way to happiness returns us to the subject of self-loathing. If you find nothing else relevant to you in this book – and that would be difficult – you will be left in little doubt that negative attitudes about ourselves are the cause of many of our woes. It’s not easy to give ethical advice without sounding overmoralistic, twee, schoolmarmish – but Sanderson does it with consummate skill.

I wish I had more space. There’s so much more to say. But £7.95 is not too much to pay to get the book yourself – either from a bookshop or direct from the publishers. One thing niggles me, though: the guys who stand to gain most from this book may not be able to bring themselves to buy it or to take it home. Any ideas, Terry?

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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