“The Velvet Rage”

Alan Downs

Somehow I thought this book was a history of the gay rights movement, and I didn’t so much as read the subtitle to disabuse myself of that notion, so once I got into the book proper, it was a heck of surprise. Although, really, “the book proper” is the wrong way to put it, because, out of everything, I found the preface to be maybe the most powerful part. It certainly made for an effective hook!

For the majority of gay men who are out of the closet, shame is no longer felt. What was once a feeling has become something deeper and more sinister in our psyches—it is a deeply and rigidly held belief in our own unworthiness for love. We were taught by the experience of shame during those tender and formative years of adolescence that there was something about us that was flawed, in essence unlovable, and that we must go about the business of making ourselves lovable if we are to survive.

It was at about this point in the book—you know, a handful of pages into the preface, not even the introduction yet, that I realized I may have been wrong about what the topic of the book was.

Very few of us feel the shame, but almost all of us struggle with the private belief that “if you really knew the whole, unvarnished truth about me, you would know that I am unlovable.” It is this belief that pushes us, even dominates us with its tyranny of existential angst. In our own way, young and old alike, we set about the business of “earning” love, and escaping the pain of believing we are unlovable. It is this damned quest that pushes us to the highest of highs, and simultaneously brings us to the brink. This is both the creator of the fabulous gay man and his destroyer.

The thing that it brings to mind most, for me, is my favorite article of political coverage I have ever read—that description of Pete Buttigieg as the Best Little Boy In The Whole World. And it really is the same concept:

What would you like me to be? A great student? A priest in the church? Mother’s little man? The first-chair violinist? We became dependent on adopting the skin our environment imposed upon us to earn the love and affection we craved. How could we love ourselves when everything around us told us that we were unlovable? Instead, we chased the affection, approval, and attention doled out by others.

I’ve selected quotes, almost exclusively, from the preface. It was unquestionably the most powerful part of the book, and, again, an immensely effective hook. Which isn’t to say that the remainder of the book had no value—it’s just less quotable, and less immediately impactful. It’s a great example of one of the key points the book makes, actually: here’s the problem, and here’s the much more drawn-out solution. As with most things, solving the problem is a lot harder than just identifying it, and is the sort of thing that takes lots of small changes over a long time.

All in all, I am very glad I read this book. It opens with so accurate a summary of the gay experience that, as I said to someone, “I thought I was going to read this book, but instead it read me.” Or, to go with the more memeable syntax, the text message I sent to someone with the first quote, above: “this book walked into my living room and shot me”

If any of the quotes above hit for you like they did for me, go read this book.1 Right now. There’s no immediate, change-your-life-by-snapping-your-fingers advice in there… but 1% better, every day, adds up real fast. Or, as the last line of the book says:

I invite you to consider making a change for the better.

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.