The Velvet Rage

Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World


By Alan Downs, PhD

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This groundbreaking and empowering book examines the impact of growing up and surviving as a gay man in a society still learning to accept all identities.

In The Velvet Rage, psychologist Alan Downs draws on his own struggle with shame and anger, contemporary research, and stories from his patients to passionately describe the stages of a gay man's journey out of shame and offers practical and inspired strategies to stop the cycle of avoidance and self-defeating behavior. The Velvet Rage is an empowering book that has already changed the public discourse on gay culture and helped shape the identity of an entire generation of gay men.


What readers are saying about The Velvet Rage
"What a great book! I felt as if a window had been opened to the hearts of so many people I have known and loved in my life."—Joey
"As I read [The Velvet Rage], I kept bumping into myself and, hopefully, my former self. . . . I felt that [this book was] talking specifically to me and I'm sure all gay readers will have the same reaction."—Thomas
"Alan Downs has opened the door to the heart of every gay friend I have ever known. As a 76-year-old straight woman, for the first time I feel I have a better understanding of the gay life. Anyone who has ever dealt with or is dealing with shame will benefit from this book."—Katherine
"This isn't just a social commentary or self-help book aimed at a minority population. Every reader will learn from a journey through cultural values about human flaws and perfection to arrive at a place where real and authentic human hope may be found."—Karen
"My partner and I have read [The Velvet Rage] twice, and I really think it has changed our lives. Sometimes, we'll read a page or two to each other out loud just to remind us of what we've learned."—John
"The Velvet Rage is a book that will help so many people, those who are gay and those who are not. I admire [the author's] ability to write in a casual style that reads with depth, warmth, and humanity."—Jeff
"This book should be a 'must read' for any gay man who is committed to becoming his absolute best self in an increasingly crazy world."—Steven
"[Dr. Downs] hasn't pathologized homosexuality. He's described, with eloquence and intelligence, the natural consequences of what amounts to soul murder."—Barbara
"This book offers a human perspective on how American culture affects gay men in the twenty-first century. As a clinical social worker, I was moved by the vulnerability Downs allows himself by sharing some of his own life story, ideas, and experiences."—Beth

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Dedicated to
Blake Hunter and Bob Ward
May I grow as young in spirit, as wise in life,
and as steadfast in love as you.

Preface to the 2012 Edition
It's now late August and another summer is quickly slipping away. I'm sitting on the patio in front of the weather-worn, shingle-clad cottage that my good friend, Randy, has rented for the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where every summer evening he gives an entertainingly realistic performance as Cher to eager sun-drenched and alcohol-infused crowds. As the noon sun is peaking just overhead now, my heart is full of gratitude, for I've been so lucky in life. Good friends, work that I love and am passionate about, and—not the least—I am alive. Next year I will cross the half-century mark, and my mind wanders back through all those winding corridors of years in San Francisco, New Orleans, Key West, and New York. I remember all those beautiful masculine faces that grace the walls of my memory. Some didn't survive the AIDS crisis, and countless others didn't survive the angst of knowing they wouldn't die, that HIV was a chronic, manageable illness, and so they dove deep into the darkness of crystal meth, alcohol, and the like, dancing their way into the arms of death. Just last night came word to Randy that yet another old friend had drunk himself out of existence. I, like so many gay men, have savored the highs and trudged through the lowest of lows in life—and we are truly fortunate to have survived when so many others did not. At moments like this, when I glance backward and feel the tide of life and memory rushing forward, I am torn between gratitude for what was given and longing for what was lost.
Dancing through the night last night, my heart was full of joy. Randy and I were joined by a delicious assortment of men of all varieties. There was Paul, who as the minister of one of the largest Unity Churches in America is fundamentally changing the way that denomination—as well as many others—accept and embrace gay men. At one point in the evening, we encountered a handsome man who described himself to me as a writer, and despite my misinterpretation of Randy's raised eyebrows, I sipped my drink and casually asked what he had written, only to discover to my embarrassment that the man who stood before me was one of my most revered writers. His novel The Hours has never ceased to inspire me to dig deeper as a writer, and maybe one day, I might write something so truly touching, raw, and authentic. It was a night of bliss that ended with all of us sitting on the curb, eating pizza and basking in the warm ocean breeze that caresses the streets and whisks away the cares of all those who travel those centuries-old cobbled paths, which were initially tread by the Pilgrims on their voyage to freedom and acceptance.
It is here, in this dialectical paradox, suspended between joy and tragedy, freedom and shame-induced bondage, great talent and squandered existence, that The Velvet Rage lives. As gay men, we have been anything but ordinary and predictable. Everywhere you turn, and no matter what age, station in life, and economic status, the lives of gay men of all shapes and sizes contain this polar mix of pain and ecstasy. Our problems and successes in life are truly no different than any other man's, and yet we are uniquely identifiable in our ways—there is no mistaking gay culture when you see it. We are in no way more pathological or deviant than any other man who has walked this planet, present or past. And yet, we are clearly different. When you love a man, it fundamentally changes you—and we have all been shaped by our love of men; the heavy caress of his hand, the brush of the hair on his forearm, and the powerful kiss that at once dominates and deconstructs our defenses. These things enliven our days and fuel our dreams.
In the years since The Velvet Rage was originally published, so many men have been generous with me and shared their stories and struggle with shame. It is the concept of shame, in fact, that has enlightened so many of their lives. Prior to reading the book, they felt they had long ago been done with the ravages of shame over their sexual orientation. Some actually have no memory of feeling shame over being gay—they marched out of the closet at a young age and never looked back. It is here, at this point, that a truly life-changing insight emerges. Most of us have not felt the emotion of shame for many years—since we first came to terms with being gay. 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. We were hungry for love, and our very existence depended upon it, as the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing noted: "Whether life is worth living depends on whether there is love in life." The lesson of that early, crippling shame was imprinted on our lives. If you are to be loved, you must hide the truth about yourself and work at being lovable.
The days of feeling shame over being gay passed by us like the last days of summer, slipping into our memory as we moved on with life and went about the business of openly living as gay men. Shame became embedded into the trunk of our ever-expanding personalities, affecting everything about us, and yet so minutely close to the core of our being that we are helpless to see it as different than "me." As the eye cannot see itself, we cannot see or feel this embedded shame. But make no mistake, the shame is there—and it is very real.
Of all the comments readers have shared with me over these past six years, the one that comes up most often is: "I don't feel shame." 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.
Shame is not the same thing as homophobia. Homophobia is the fear of being gay, and shame is the fear of being unlovable. You can relatively easily cure the homophobia, but the shame, without vigilant care and attention, will last a lifetime. Gay shame is not embarrassment over being gay; it is the belief that being gay is a mere symptom of your own mortally flawed psyche. You can treat the homophobic symptom, but the underlying disease persists until acknowledged and treated.
From this perspective, I have come to understand why The Velvet Rage continues to touch so many younger gay men, many of whom never experienced the protracted coming-out process that others of us lived through during a time when there was far less social acceptance of being gay. Even though they may not have experienced embarrassment over being gay, they grew up with the knowledge that they were different from their parents (who are typically straight) and much of the world around them. Knowing they were different in such a significant way led them to internalize the beliefs of shame. The statistics continue to bear out that gay men in their early twenties are increasingly likely to struggle with addiction, depression, and even suicide—all symptoms of the man who bears the pain of feeling unlovable.
Some have asked, if the world becomes more accepting of being gay, won't that lessen the relevance of shame in gay men? Ideally, yes, it will. However, what is equally true is that as homophobia diminishes in society, it is not a given that gay men will no longer experience the isolation that comes from feeling different than one's peers and family. It is in this experience of differentness, being the one who doesn't fit in, that shame takes root in our lives. So it follows that even as homophobia begins to wane in our world, gay men will still need to do the work of acknowledging all the ways in which we have accepted our unlov-ableness and actively do the work required to obliterate such heinous beliefs from our lives. In the decade and a half since Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on national television and the openly gay sitcom Will and Grace first aired, much has changed throughout the world regarding the acceptability of being gay. During this same period of time, addiction and mental health issues among gay men have continued at alarmingly high levels, and all indications are that they continue to rise. While social acceptance of gay men, gay rights, and gay marriage is critically important to the well-being of gay men, these things are not sufficient to inspire us to do the deeper work of healing the tight grip of shame on our lives.
This revised edition of The Velvet Rage contains an expanded final chapter with practical information on how to live an authentic life as a gay man without the influence of shame. It is a struggle to live authentically, without the need to compensate for our inadequacies or to escape the pain of our emotions through addictions. Much of what I write throughout the book is influenced by my own training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to psychologist, researcher, and Zen practitioner Marsha Linehan, who created DBT. DBT was recently listed in a Time magazine supplement on "100 New Scientific Discoveries." For those who might be interested in doing further psychotherapy on the issues of shame and emotion regulation, I recommend that you find a therapist who practices DBT. While not all DBT therapists are familiar with the issues specific to gay men, I find them to be generally well-trained and highly consistent with the approach taken in The Velvet Rage.
As this summer fades into autumn, and I leave the windswept dunes of Cape Cod and return to my practice in Los Angeles, I reflect back on the thousands of letters and e-mails I've received from readers of The Velvet Rage. Most gay men and their families found the book to be helpful, and a few have been enraged by it; but it is difficult, if not impossible, to be neutral about the gay shame of which I write. The book has reached far beyond what I ever dreamed possible, touching the lives of tens of thousands of gay men around the world. It is my sincere hope that this revised edition will continue that tradition and breathe life into a message that I believe is desperately needed among gay men.
No other group of people on this planet is better equipped to bring the message of self-acceptance and authenticity to the world than gay men and women. Many of us have struggled mightily with shame and learning to access the power of authenticity and honesty that lies within us. Whether it was the killing of eight million Jews; the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City that took 168 lives, including nineteen children; or the heinous act of hijacking and flying commercial aircraft into heavily populated high-rise buildings, the lives of nearly all destructive perpetrators are intertwined with, and in many cases motivated by, rageful reactions to personal shame. The devastating effects of shame are ubiquitous, and the message of self-acceptance is universally craved by a world that has in large part been taught that you aren't young, thin, holy, rich, or successful enough. It has taken me nearly fifty years to understand the enormous importance of overcoming destructive shame in healing our lives, and even in healing an entire planet that seems to be flirting all too closely with calamity.
As gay men, we are uniquely qualified to bring the message of compassion, forgiveness, and self-acceptance—for we have been there and know how important it is to be proud of who we are. The destructive influences of shame are everywhere in our world, and it is my sincere hope that this book will start a movement that takes us beyond this current age of gay self-indulgence and overcompensation and instead pushes us on the world stage as the leaders of self-acceptance and awareness. Although some may see this as too grandiose a vision, I do not. It is the natural outcome of our own struggle with shame that we would share our insight with a planet that desperately needs it. In this spirit, it is my dream The Velvet Rage will bring a deep change within you and every reader who picks it up, and together we start a movement that frees our world from all the ways in which shame blocks people everywhere from experiencing the joy and contentment that lays just beyond those dark walls that imprison the human spirit.
Because this hard-won message of self-acceptance is so critically important, not only to gay men but to all, I offer this revised edition. While virtually all of the original material from the book remains both in this text and, more importantly, in practical relevance, I have added new material that I believe is essential. Chapter 14, which describes the skills important to overcoming shame and living an authentic life, has been revised and significantly expanded. While understanding the origins of shame-based wounds is important, this alone is not sufficient to bring needed change into our lives. Change comes by choice and practice, not from insight about our past. This is, I feel, the most important chapter in the book.
This edition closes with a newly added epilogue about my life and my own struggle with shame. I thought long and hard before including this, as the telling of one's own story always seems to have a tinge of self-absorption and even grandiosity, but two reasons pushed me to include this brief memoir of my adult life. First, I find that I often learn best through stories that help me to develop a mental picture of a complex issue. The Velvet Rage is filled with stories from the lives of my patients, so I thought it only appropriate to offer my own story, for whatever value the reader might find in it. Second, and of great importance to me personally, I discuss my experience of being HIV-positive for almost a quarter of a century. I have held great shame about being HIV-positive, and for the first time in these pages, I share with you as honestly as I am capable my experience of living with HIV. For so many gay men, the shame over being HIV-positive runs a deeper and more destructive course than the shame over being gay. It becomes something of a lifelong reminder that we are flawed and enlivens the deeply held, sinister belief that perhaps HIV is physical evidence of our own unloveableness. In the telling of my story, I hope to reach out to all—straight, gay, HIV-POSITIVE, and -negative—to offer compassion, acceptance, and, most of all, the hope that comes from knowing that no matter who you are or what you have done, you are worthy of love.
Alan Downs
Los Angeles, California
August 2011

The experience of being a gay man in the twenty-first century is different from that of any other minority, sexual orientation, gender, or culture grouping. We are different from, on the one hand, women, and on the other hand, straight men. Our lives are a unique blending of testosterone and gentleness, hypersexuality and delicate sensuality, rugged masculinity and refined gentility. There is no other group quite like that of gay men. We are a culture of our own.
It is upon this important and undeniable cornerstone that this book was written. Understanding our differences, loving ourselves without judgment, and at the same time noticing what makes us fulfilled, empowered, and loving men are the forces that converged in the conceiving, planning, writing, and publishing of this book.
While we are different, we are at the same time very similar to all others. We want to be loved and to love. We want to find some joy in life. We hope to fall asleep at night fulfilled from our day's endeavors. In these aspirations and appetites we are like all men and women. The problem is, our path to fulfilling these basic human needs has proven to be fundamentally different from the well-worn paths of straight humanity.
Some have said that we must blaze our own trail and not be lured into the ways of the straight man. We must be brave enough to honor rather than hide our differences. We must stand up and fight for the right to be gay and all that it means.
In this book, you will find an honest and more complete picture of what it is to be a gay man in today's world. Yes, we have more sexual partners in a lifetime than any other grouping of people. And at the same time, we also have among the highest rates of depression and suicide, not to mention sexually transmitted diseases. As a group we tend to be more emotionally expressive than other men, and yet our relationships are far shorter on average than those of straight men. We have more expendable income, more expensive houses, and more fashionable cars, clothes, and furniture than just about any other cultural group. But are we truly happier?
The disturbing truth is that we aren't any happier, by virtually any index measured today. Much the opposite is true. Psychotherapy offices the world over are frequented by gay men struggling to find some joy and fulfillment in life. Substance abuse clinics across the country—from The Betty Ford Center in California to The Menninger Clinic in Texas to Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City—are filled with far more gay men than would be indicated by our proportions in the general population. It's safe to estimate that virtually every gay man has wondered on more than a few occasions if it is truly possible to be consistently happy and a gay man.
When you look around it becomes somewhat undeniable that we are a wounded lot. Somehow, the life we are living isn't leading us to a better, more fulfilled psychological and emotional place. Instead, we seem to struggle more, suffer more, and want more. The gay life isn't cutting it for most of us.
Some ill-informed, closed-minded people would say that it is our sexual appetite for man-on-man sex that has made lasting happiness illusive. If we would just be "normal," find a good woman and settle down, then we'd discover what life is all about.
That's just crazy. Our struggles have nothing to do with loving men per se. Substance abuse, hypersexuality, short-lived relationships, depression, sexually transmitted diseases, the insatiable hunger for more and better, and the need to decorate our worlds to cover up seamy truths—these are our torments. Becoming a fulfilled gay man is not about trying to become "not gay," but has everything to do with finding a way through this world that affords us our share of joy, happiness, fulfillment, and love.
In my practice as a psychologist, this is my goal: to help gay men be gay and fulfilled. The lessons I've learned from the profound teachers in my life—my gay male patients—are collected in this book. Their struggles, disappointments, and ultimate achievements are chronicled here. While names, identities, and geographic locations have all been changed to protect their rightful anonymity, I have made every possible attempt to be faithful to the relevant facts.
The book is arranged into a simple three-stage model that describes the journey of virtually all gay men with whom I have worked. I suspect that this model, or some modified version of it, is likely to be universal to all gay men in the western world and perhaps across the globe.
The stages are arranged by the primary manner in which the gay man handles shame. The first stage is "Overwhelmed by Shame" and includes that period of time when he remained "in the closet" and fearful of his own sexuality. The second stage is "Compensating for Shame" and describes the gay man's attempt to neutralize his shame by being more successful, outrageous, fabulous, beautiful, or masculine. During this stage he may take on many sexual partners in his attempt to make himself feel attractive, sexy, and loved—in short, less shameful.
The final stage is "Cultivating Authenticity." Not all gay men progress out of the previous two stages, but those who do begin to build a life that is based upon their own passions and values rather than proving to themselves that they are desirable and lovable.
The goal of this book is to help gay men achieve this third stage of authenticity. It is my experience that gay men who are not ready or willing to work toward this goal have a difficult time acknowledging their shame and the radical effects of it on their lives. Until a gay man is ready to reexamine his life, he may not be able to realize the undercurrent of shame that has carried him into a life that often isn't very fulfilling.
My own trek from shame to authenticity as a gay man has mirrored that of many of my clients' stories that I share with you throughout the book. Having grown up in a Christian fundamentalist home in Louisiana, I entered my adult years struggling with my own sexuality. After being married for several years and spending even more years in therapy, I began to accept myself for the man that I am, not the one that I or my family had wished for.
When I came out of the closet, I stepped right into the middle of the gay explosion in San Francisco during the 1980s. It was an exciting and horrible time—there were more men than I'd ever seen before and so many of them were dying from AIDS. Since then, I've lived in some of the gayest cities in the country: New York City, New Orleans, Key West, and Fort Lauderdale. There's not much that I haven't seen and tried.
Early in my career, I abandoned clinical psychology to become an executive at Hewlett Packard. It was the go-go '80s, and everyone, including me, was hoping to strike it rich in Silicone Valley. Part of my own journey toward authenticity forced me to confront my career choices and return to my real passion: clinical psychology. So I did, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. My life and my work have taken on a depth of meaning and fulfillment that I would have never known otherwise. I spend my days, among other things, helping gay men to heal the wounds of being gay in a straight world, and in so doing, realize their own authenticity and fulfillment. They have been my teachers and mentors, reminding me daily of the importance of staying true to myself regardless of how others may view me. It is their stories, not mine, that fill these pages. What wisdom is contained between these covers is theirs, and anything less is more than likely my doing.
It must be noted that what is written here is in many ways applicable to lesbian women, too. While I do work with many lesbian women and find their journey to be similar, the ways in which it is explored are often very different. For example, lesbian women aren't known to frequent bathhouses, sex clubs, or driven to decorate their lives like gay men. They express their struggle with shame differently and in a uniquely female way. So it is out of respect for lesbian women that this book is written about gay men only. To be more inclusive of the lesbian experience would undoubtedly result in a book that does the lesbian experience an injustice. The stages of their lives are the same; however, the way in which they unfold is often very different.
Finally, a word about the differences between straight and gay men should be included. Often people will ask me, "Isn't the struggle with shame similar for straight men?" To this, I would


  • Bestseller, 5/11/12 "A groundbreaking examination of the psychology of homosexuality, why it leads to shame over one's identity, and how to overcome it.... This book has remarkable staying power."—Philadelphia Gay News
  • "The clearest, most succinct delineation of the origins and consequences of internalized homophobia, and how to address them."—Artvoice
  • "Those familiar with gay men will find a good deal of honest reporting here. Without being maudlin, Downs, himself a gay man, writes movingly."—Library Journal
  • “Dr. Downs has already changed the public discourse on gay culture and helped shape the identity of an entire generation of gay men.”—Google Books
  • "Peppered with deeply personal reflections... There's no doubt that the men profiled in this sober call for "owning the injury" of growing up gay in a straight world were helped by their counseling, or that there are certainly some readers who will find their own lives reflected in that healing."—Q Syndicate
  • "[An] excellent new book...The Velvet Rage is a chronicle of furtive pathos, anger, compensatory fabulousness, despair, sex addiction, and flickerings of hope as its wounded actors make their way by uncertain stages toward a light of authenticity and self-acceptance their culture does not want them to find or even see. In its pages, through anecdotal moments and analytical passages, one is constantly catching glints of people one has known, behaviors one has seen and heard firsthand and often been baffled and hurt by."—San Francisco Bay Guardian
  • "Dr. Alan Downs has some words of wisdom....Although unnerving at first, readers might feel kinship with the case study subjects and ultimately, become empowered by the lessons learned and by the self-realizations experienced."
    New City Chicago
  • "While we can all hope that the collective experience will change in time, Downs' perspective is still all too relevant."—AOL's Book Maven

On Sale
Jun 5, 2012
Page Count
272 pages

Alan Downs, PhD

About the Author

Alan Downs, PhD is a clinical psychologist and the bestselling author of seven books. His work is acclaimed internationally and has been published in more than twenty-seven languages. He is a sought-after conference speaker, workshop leader, and frequent media commentator on the psychology of gay men. He has more than 25 years of experience in working with individuals from all walks of life, and is currently in private practice in Los Angeles, California.

Currently, he consults with individuals and couples in his Los Angeles office as well as over the internet worldwide. In addition to his expertise in working with gay men, he is an intensively trained Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) therapist who has worked with individuals as well as therapists who are seeking to learn the mindfulness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills which are so effectively taught within the DBT therapeutic framework. Most recently, Dr. Downs has been quoted in Vogue, The Guardian, and The New York Times.

Learn more about this author