Personally, I don’t read a lot of self-help books. I am never comfortable with their implicit claim that they know who I am and what my problems are and how I can solve them, because they so often don’t. The Velvet Rage was no exception for me, but I’d heard numerous testimonials from other gay men that the book changed their lives, so here we are. In my estimation, this book assumes the reader is a somewhat financially successful (presumably white) gay man living in a big city, but of course it can still be valuable to other demographics too. Even while shaking my head at some of the assumptions Downs makes (no, I didn’t have a neglectful father and an over-validating mother), some others definitely struck home.
Downs asks the question: why, when gay men have made such important progress toward social acceptance and equality, do so many us engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, sex addiction, and even suicide? He locates the problem as stemming from a deep, enduring, and often unacknowledged shame about being gay, and The Velvet Rage is an attempt to guide gay men through the process of recognizing and cutting it away so that we can live more authentic, fulfilling lives.
The goal of any self-help book should be to encourage self-reflection in its reader, so even if it doesn’t get everything right (love you Dad!), if it’s making you think then it’s succeeding on some level. I think Downs’ focus on shame is very valuable to think about. When I came out, I insisted to myself and to others that it wasn’t a big deal, that my sexuality, and the years I spent repressing it, were just a small part of me and didn’t control my life. But as the years have passed I’ve come to realize how incredibly untrue that is (for me). It seems to me that everything I’ve done in the years since I came out can easily be seen as attempts to compensate or even just comprehend the shame of my sexuality. My reading, my scholarship, even this blog, all of these are part of this personal journey. So even if the journey Downs prescribes isn’t for everyone, it’s still worth reading and thinking about.