At first, the thoughts crept in slowly. I’d try to shake them, but I soon found myself haunted by voices growing ever louder.
I could hear Chris Messina on the red carpet at the 2019 Golden Globes whispering. Riz Ahmed in the 2019 film Sound of Metal seemed to be speaking directly to me. By the time Ryan Gosling appeared in his first image as Ken for the upcoming Barbie movie, the voices were practically screaming.
It was time to go blonde.
Bleaching my hair felt like an opportunity for fun and frivolity. After a grim few years for the world, here was something I could do to signal a new era. Maybe I could create some distance from the lurking feelings of grief, depression, and concern about aging that I was navigating as a 34-year-old with something as simple yet radical as a hair change. I too could be hot and carefree. Like therapy, but cheaper!
Soon, I was talking endlessly about my dark, or rather light, desires with friends while playing around with photo editing apps on my phone to see if I’d look as good as I hoped; sometimes, I’d share the results on my Instagram story, as if to throw out a fishing line for encouraging compliments.
But instead, what I got was a multitude of variations of the same question: Are you OK?
“If a gay guy bleaches his hair. . . check on him,” RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen tweeted in 2019. “He is going through something tough.”
Among the gay community in recent years, bleached blonde hair has become a signifier — or at least a meme — for poor mental health. To be clear, heterosexual men have also been known to seek happiness at the bottom of a bottle of hair dye, but it’s gays who have embraced it as a widely understood cultural marker for chaos.
Amid a spike in guys going blonde or gray, which appeared to have been supercharged by Messina’s smoldering red carpet appearance, there have been a bunch of viral tweets about blonde gays in crisis.
“When a gay man bleaches his hair, it’s a sign he’s going through a crisis,” culture writer Joseph Longo wrote in Mel Magazine during a personal spiral he experienced in the first pandemic lockdown of 2020. “Broke up with your boyfriend? Go blond. Dog died? Bleach your hair. Feeling wayward at work? Become a baby silver fox.”
“It’s a right of passage for queer people, specifically naive white gays like myself, to reach for the peroxide bottle when facing a minor inconvenience,” Longo said. “It almost always makes things worse.”
As a terminally online gay man, I knew all this. I knew that dyeing my hair would be broadcasting a message to others — the gay equivalent of an anxious dog wearing one of those “Please give me space” vests. And yet, I still felt compelled by the siren song. It’s as if I were powerless, stuck on a conveyor belt in the Gay Cliché factory.
The realization felt somewhat alarming to me. Why was I about to do something that others before me had openly labeled a cry for help? What exactly did it mean to be a gay man in crisis? And if I was exhibiting all the symptoms, was I in one?
From the outside, my life seemed fine — blessed, even. After struggling last year with feelings of depression and impatience related to the thought that the pandemic might never end, my life had largely returned to normal.
I was going out feverishly with friends and finding immense happiness in small things like being able to run on a gym treadmill without a face mask. I was even able to make it back to Australia to see my family for the first time in two years, attending long-delayed celebrations for my brother’s wedding and niece’s christening.
But I still felt hollow and exhausted, as many of us did after such a traumatic few years. I had felt lost at work, zigzagging between bouts of intense, frantic productivity and periods where I felt creatively sapped and unmotivated. We said goodbye to colleagues in a drawn-out round of buyouts. Years of reporting on mass shootings and threats to democracy had left me jaded. Now, here was monkeypox and “Don’t Say Gay” laws. What fresh hell was next?
Coming to define myself less by my job seemed to trigger something of a reckoning in my personal life, too. I remained somewhat numb from the sudden death of my dad in 2019, and I continued to reel from the effects his absence was having on my family. But my relationship with my boyfriend was also in a difficult period. We’d both changed in the pandemic — who hadn’t? — and I felt more angry than I had been in the past, but I didn’t know why.
So I did what any intrepid reporter seeking to probe the recesses of their own mind would do: I called up the soon-to-be leader of the American Psychiatric Association.
Elected earlier this year, Petros Levounis became the first openly gay psychiatrist elected to serve as president of the APA (a role in which he’ll officially start in 2023). I figured he’d be perfect to talk to about the existential crisis I appeared to be having.
“I’m not your therapist, so I’m not going to weigh in too much about that,” Levounis said with a laugh when we talked via Zoom in September.
So much for that idea.
What Levounis did feel comfortable talking about was the mental health crisis in the broader LGBTQ community, which experiences exponentially higher rates of mental illness than heterosexuals.
Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals have at least a 1.5 times higher risk for depression and anxiety, while transgender individuals face even higher rates. There is also evidence that gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to die by suicide. The numbers are also particularly distressing for young queer people aged 13-24, with the Trevor Project finding this year that 45% of the LGBTQ youth the organization surveyed had considered suicide within the past year.
When Levounis and his colleagues first began studying LGBTQ mental health, he was stunned by how similar the nature of psychiatric disorders appeared to be across both LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. There is something universal in mental illness, he mostly believes.
“This being said, there are some unique things for us,” he added. “First of all, the coming-out experience is rather unique. Same-sex marriage is also unique. And, of course, there’s also the umbrella of discrimination and homophobia that we all live in that colors a lot of our lives, and therefore, it does have mental health repercussions.”
Experts have long pointed to this discrimination as the leading factor to explain these trends, as part of what psychologists call minority or social stress theory. Under this model, developed by psychologist and scholar Ilan H. Meyer at the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute, mental health among gay people is framed through the conflict between “minority” and “dominant” community values.
As Levounis explained, this can manifest in three primary ways: actual anti-gay discrimination, perceived or expected discrimination, and internalized self-hatred, which he called the most sinister part. “The fact that little by little this idea that we’re second-class citizens has seeped in, and we end up hating ourselves or devaluing ourselves,” Levounis said.
From the day they’re born into what is still largely a heteronormative society, queer people thus find themselves in conflict. The closet is, as the name suggests, a restrictive place that can have long-lasting effects.
“Anytime you bring in secrecy and anytime you bring in hiding, that goes hand in hand with shame. And being ashamed is not a good state to be in,” Levounis said. “It’s very tightly connected with resulting in depression, poor self-esteem, and so on.”
The minority stress theory feels particularly compelling in 2022, given the sharp rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from right-wing politicians, who are leading a state-by-state legislative assault that is demonizing queer people. The most evil manifestation of this has been Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which is quite literally aimed at erasing the existence of gay people from young minds, as if we were a contagion. In June, media watchdog GLAAD found a shocking 70% of LGBTQ people it surveyed felt that discrimination had increased in their daily lives over the past two years.
As a reporter, I’d spent what felt like most of the year writing about this regression in our rights, and I too was beginning to feel the toll of endless stories about hate crimes and so-called groomers. The day the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights and Justice Clarence Thomas signaled he was coming for us next felt unimaginably foreboding.
And yet, gay people are also more widely accepted than ever before. More than 7 in 10 Americans now support same-sex marriage, while media representations of LGBTQ people have also reached record levels. It’s this ballooning acceptance that the right seems to be railing against in what feels like a last-ditch effort not to surrender in a war they know they are losing.
There has been a lot of progress, Liam Concannon, an Ireland-based independent research scholar and sociologist, told me. In many ways, society is much less oppressive for gay men that it was in the past. “There's same-sex marriage, gay men can adopt children, and so on,” Concannon said.
Concannon, who previously held positions at the English colleges of Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths, published a paper in July that explored why mental illness had endured among gay men despite social progress. Drawing on research from others, Concannon points to a destructive competitiveness within the gay community and its various subcultures, each of which prizes different forms of capital to determine one’s status. Most obviously, that includes one’s physique and appearance — the emphasis on which has only worsened, Concannon believes, because of social media — but it can also include things like race, income, and even HIV status. He notes one American gay man who was quoted in a 2017 HuffPost piece on gay loneliness: “The bullied kids of our youth grew up and became bullies themselves.”
Concannon, 61, experienced the pressure of one of these forms of social currency — age — during a seven-year period, from 2011 to 2018, that he spent living in Sitges, Spain.
Surrounded by young, tanned surfers, he was called fat and old on more than one occasion. So he did something to his hair that sounded pretty familiar: “I dyed it blonde — oh god — to fit in, I suppose, to look younger, to not be one of those old creepy men that you see in the corner of the gay bar,” he told me.
Aging as a gay man can be different than as a heterosexual man, both Concannon and Levounis believe. Many queer people experience something of a delayed adolescence if they weren’t out when they were younger that might be full of sex and queer joy, but as they do age, the emphasis on appearance in large parts of the community can cause crises in self-esteem and body image.
“For me, when I aged, I had nothing to gauge it against,” Concannon told me. “So I have no children. I’m at the age now where I should have grandchildren. And in my head, I’m still ready to party.
“So it’s a really difficult thing to meet head-on,” he added. “In the sense that as you age you still feel young and great to go out, and it's when you go out and you get comments about age or weight or something like that, then you suddenly realize.”
For Levounis, 60, his thoughts on aging began to change in 2012 after therapist and writer Bob Bergeron died by suicide. The 49-year-old author of a self-help guide, The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond, Bergeron had left a suicide note in which he’d drawn an arrow to the book’s title and called it a lie.
“That really stopped a lot of us in our tracks,” Levounis recalled, “and we said, ‘Are you serious? Is that for real? Do we really take our own lives because we’re not quite as young as we used to be?’
“I think a lot of us have evaluated this whole thing about aging. Back in my 20s, it was a boogeyman that one day you’re going to grow old and nobody’s going to look at you and you’re going to be just so unattractive just because you’re old. That has changed, and I’m absolutely glad it has,” Levounis said.
Maybe my urge to dye my hair really was as simple as being a gay man who had entered his mid-30s. It might just have been, as Levounis suggested to me during our non-therapy session, that I wanted to belong in a crowd of people that I was attracted to. I associated blondeness with youth and sex and fun, all of which sounded great after what felt like an eternity locked in my apartment. But truthfully, I was also thinking differently about my future.
After my niece was born last year, I had found myself suddenly wondering whether I wanted kids and if I could be happy if I were just the fun uncle. For the first time in my life, the answer felt more like yes, I could be. It was a small but radical shift in how I thought about what my life would be like as I aged, and I felt comfortable with it.
So why was I about to do something that appeared to be a cry for help?
Going blonde felt like an opportunity to scorch both the earth and my scalp. After a tough few years, I could reinvent myself without the cost of a therapist. After all, if our hair is one of the chief elements of how we present ourselves to the world, a drastic change can feel like the easiest way to transform how others see us — and how we see ourselves.
“Sometimes getting a haircut is kind of manifesting your ideal version of yourself,” student Molly Glick told Northwestern University’s daily online magazine for a 2020 piece on LGBTQ students and their expressive hairstyles. “You’re seeing it out in the world.”
So earlier this month — on National Coming Out Day, no less — I arrived at a salon in downtown Manhattan where I sat for about 90 minutes as a patient stylist walked me through each step of the bleaching and toning process as they stripped the pigment from my hair, in a procedure that slowly transformed it from brown to orange to blonde.
When it was over, the photographer who accompanied me for this story said the best thing possible: “You look younger!”
I had wanted to see a stranger in the mirror, then was confused when I did. I didn’t really feel different at all.
Riding on the subway back home, I realized I had already made peace with something more powerful than I’d imagined a makeover could provide.
It was a change, yes. A drastic one, even. A bottle of hair dye can be a starting gun and a pair of scissors, a lifeboat.
But taking that leap also meant reckoning with time. It meant coming to terms with the idea that it would grow back or fade out, that underneath I was the same person. That this too shall pass.
The next day, I had my first therapy session in over a decade. ●
Dial 988 in the US to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. Find other international suicide helplines at Befrienders Worldwide (befrienders.org).