As someone who’s an effeminate gay man, my sense of identity was always something that I struggled with. It was hard to know where I could fit in within a society where everything around me sternly bullied me into believing that life was about meeting a person of the opposite sex and coupling up. Life taught me that as a man, I should be masculine, ideally with a love of sports and an innate ability to do DIY. I just didn’t feel that way and carving out my own niche was never going to be easy.
I eventually found a tribe of people who affirm me, found love/lost love (I did that one a few times) and grew a career in a profession that suited my abilities, where the prejudice wasn’t too overt or rife. My world was sent reeling in 2020 when I was diagnosed with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. What did this mean for me as a gay man and was my experience going to be different because of my sexuality? How would this change my view of myself?
I’m sure some people reading this are thinking ‘But it’s 2021. It’s fine to be LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) nowadays.’ It really isn’t. Things might be easier but we still face discrimination and misunderstanding.
The British Social Attitudes Survey from 2018 found that a third of people still believe that same sex relationships are wrong and they noted that this was also an increasingly vocal minority. In the same year, the National LGBT survey showed that 40% of LGBT people had experienced a negative incident outside of their home environment, such as verbal or physical abuse due to their sexuality, in the previous 12 months. Rates of mental illness such as depression and anxiety are significantly higher, as are issues like substance misuse and self-harm or suicide.
My first reaction on being diagnosed with MS was to trawl the internet for information (from reliable sources, of course). I found lots of stories about or by people with MS, many of whom were inspirational and fascinating. However, there was no one who was like me. Is that important? It really is. Being represented is useful and to see someone you can identify with is a powerful thing. If there’s no one like you around then it’s harder to feel that you belong or have a voice.
Even within the liberal environment of health care, assumptions are constantly made about gender and sexuality. LGBT+ people don’t just come out once to their friends and family. If you get sick then you may have to do this to health care professionals again and again. Unless you want to pretend that your same-sex partner is your sibling or friend then you’re probably going to have to point out who they are and specify your sexual identity, endlessly. Coming out: it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Also, imagine if you’ve lived your life hiding your sexuality or facing abuse when you’re out and about and then have to accept carers in your own home. How do you know that they’re not from the third of people who think that your lifestyle is wrong? It’s a daunting proposition to open the doors to your private sanctuary to people who may be judging you. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the fact that my persona and mannerisms aren’t appealing to everyone and that this is probably always going to be the case. I’m not sure how I’ll feel if there comes a time when my home is no longer such a private place where I can be myself.
I’m not speaking for everyone. This is my lived experience as just one variety of gay man. For some people, their sexuality might not factor into how they feel about having a serious chronic illness. However, for many people it does. Their sexuality is a facet of their personality and identity on which illness is then overlaid.
If you want to read more about the experiences of LGBT+ people facing serious and advanced illness then look at the work done by King’s College London in the ACCESCare Study. They found commonality in experiences and formulated ten recommendations for both individuals and for organisations.
As for me, I’m coming to terms with the MS. At least it’s a perfectly valid excuse not to participate in ‘manly’ sports or do DIY.
I'm a full-time hospital-based nurse who lives in London with my partner and spoiled dog. I'm an avid theatregoer, fiction writer, and obsessive reader. I was finally diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS in 2020 after having had twenty years of symptoms.