SZA, Sexual Health and the Stigma of Gay Loneliness

Miguel Garcia Jr.
Miguel Garcia Jr.
Selfie by Miguel Garcia Jr.

As a twenty-something gay Latino man living with bipolar disorder, I can't help but feel understood when SZA, who is actually the 26-year-old Missouri-born singer/songwriter Solána Imani Rowe, sings on her super hot new album Ctrl, "We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/I'm so ashamed of myself/Think I need therapy-y-y-y." As both a mental health worker and a longtime psychotherapy patient, I can say from both sides of the equation that her lyrics remind me of conversations usually protected by therapist-patient confidentiality laws.

Yet, it's precisely her refreshingly unguarded lyrics, along with her hypnotizing sound, that have struck a chord with me and my friends -- especially queer men of color. Her album lays bare the woes of angsty millennials wrestling with life's contradictions, searching for control and in need of weed and good sex. Ctrl invites us to confront a question that haunts lonely young people everywhere: "Am I alone because something about me is inherently unlovable?"

I'm no stranger to this question. And judging by the crowd at the gay club last night chanting along with SZA, "Gimme another Valium, gimme another hour or two with you," I'd say I'm not alone. SZA knows what it's like to let loneliness trample your self-esteem. She knows why you let that "masc for masc, Neg4Neg" Grindr guy come over. When she sings, "The dick was too good/It made me feel good/For temporary love," you know she's not judging. She helps us humanize bad choices such as being the "weekend boy" for a partnered man or using drugs to prepare for sex and cope with pain.

When she lightheartedly sings, "Lately you've been feelin' so good/I forget my future, never pull out/Shame, shame on me," SZA speaks to gay men of color in a way that prominent safe-sex campaigns rarely do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC)'s "Doing It" campaign, for example, uses our faces to "combat complacency" and our "lack of knowledge." But we're not complacent or uninformed; it's just that sometimes homophobia, racism and life collide in ways that make us feel hopeless and lonely.

By pointing to "cultural issues" and "lack of knowledge" as prime contributors to the alarming HIV epidemic among young black and Latino gay men, the CDC stops us from talking and perpetuates the shame and stigma we already experience.

On the flip side, SZA's honest and raw lyrics about the very real connection between shame and unhealthy behaviors, such as substance use and mental illness, are something public health experts can learn from. Rather than pointing to our deficient cultures, which include higher rates of substance use, depression and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), supposed experts on black and Latino gay men's health disparities must first understand why we don't talk about our loneliness.

When I say loneliness, I mean the inevitable feeling of social isolation we experience as we carve out spaces to exist and love within a society still threatened by our presence. Not talking about it keeps us from understanding the toll this experience takes on our mental and physical health.

A few months back, The Huffington Post published an article by Michael Hobbes detailing "the epidemic of gay loneliness." It uses interview snippets with gay men and recent health studies to argue that social isolation and anxiety impact every aspect of health, including mental health and sexual behaviors. In the article, one gay man says he self-medicates "with lots and lots of sex ... [since i]t's our most accessible resource in the gay community."

Among my gay male friends, reactions to the article ranged from objecting to the stereotype of gay promiscuity to acknowledging its elements of truth. As for me, though I agree that the article lacked nuance, it actually provided a relief I didn't know I needed. The idea that there was an "epidemic of gay loneliness" made me feel I wasn't alone. Exploring how our unhealthy behaviors are influenced by loneliness helps unwind our identity from our behaviors. This is why it's important to destigmatize gay stereotypes, such as the insatiable power-bottom and or the drug-using "party and play"-er.

Let's talk about the word "stigma" for a minute. In the world of sexual wellness and mental health advocacy, it's uttered more than "Yaaasss!" at a gay club. It has become a social-justice buzzword that carries weight, especially within "woke" spaces. For this reason, I was initially uncomfortable with the HuffPost article deeming gay loneliness an "epidemic."

But, as I've thought about it since, I have to admit that stigma around expressing loneliness dominates how my friends and I talk (or don't talk) about our experiences of mental illness and substance use -- especially with regard to our sex lives. We present our drunken hookups as "sex positivity" and call our bodies "slim-thick" when we really mean unattractive. Perhaps the present age of Instagram flawlessness and Taylor Swift feminism has equated our need for validation and intimacy with unenlightened weakness. Empowered young people, everybody knows, are not ashamed of their bodies and don't need a man to be happy.

Part of what's impressive about SZA is her refusal to play victim. She's both depressed and in charge. But she owns it and asks to be "called on [her] bullshit" and "grounded when tumblin', spiralin' and plummetin' down to earth."

This duality is important when discussing gay loneliness, which usually provokes feelings of failure, inadequacy and hopelessness. If the gay community is truly being plagued by an epidemic of gay loneliness, its primary side effect is stigma -- an unease with talking about it. And like all forms of stigma, the stigma of gay loneliness thrives on the idea that something or someone is inherently disgraceful, abject.

Even with my relatively stable health, rewarding job and ride-or-die friends, I sometimes feel ashamed and turn inward when bouts of loneliness strike. I'm often embarrassed to tell my therapist that I've strayed from my self-improvement goals. Nobody, including me, wants to be the "messy gay" stereotype in their friend group.

Many of us even come to accept our lonely, "messy" circumstances as "just part of being gay." Like my friends, having memorized the facts about HIV and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) doesn't keep me from reaching for the extra drink or agreeing to sex I would otherwise pass on. This loneliness, our overwhelming desire to be seen and loved, deeply impacts how we treat our bodies.

As someone whose job involves tailoring wellness services to the needs of LGBT individuals, I've become convinced that HIV and STI prevention efforts must abandon rigid "right-or-wrong" approaches for models that make room for SZA's method of Ctrl: acknowledging how much control we presently don't have -- and why we've given it up.

But we don't always have channels to work out these feelings. So, we make do with singing along to songs that do it for us. Art that speaks our complex truths cracks open a door for us to scribble out our own. Listening to SZA makes me more comfortable admitting that I, too, sometimes fear that my real self is unlovable, that I sometimes have sex simply because I want to be held, that feeling alone makes me want to chug wine and call the boy who lies to me about being in an open relationship.

When I'm lonely and depressed, I'm less likely to refill my medications -- and, yes, to use condoms. These feelings can lead someone who prefers using condoms to have unprotected sex in a room full of them. Traditional HIV prevention efforts ignore that facts mean nothing to someone who's caught "the fuck-its."

And, as hard as it can be to drag these emotions out of the closet with friends, I sometimes derive value from them. Sometimes, instead of lecturing me, my friends will share an even more embarrassing chronicle. Perhaps sensing the embarrassment in my voice during a recent confession, a close friend knew that relating a story about vomiting on her ex's penis during oral sex would soften my unease. I then told her the parts of my own story I'd initially left out.

So, by being real with my friends about my worst days of gay loneliness, I'm able to plan on my better days for future bouts. I know that the key to managing it is taking preventative measures before a crisis arises -- even when those measures seem excessive.

That means showing up to my therapy appointment even when I have nothing new to say and taking my meds even on days when I feel I don't need them. My Zoloft is to depression what my PrEP is to HIV: You have to take it before you're in a vulnerable spot. Both drugs are tools to use before our judgments get hazy. Even as a public health worker, I still have to remind myself of this. And I'm OK with that.

Because I know how mainstream LGBT health campaigns can omit the experiences of gay men of color -- and not provide spaces that allow us to be vulnerable together -- I've started facilitating a social support group, specifically for gay and bisexual men of color, called "SHADE." We've already penciled in a session on shame and health featuring Brené Brown's "The Power of Vulnerability" and SZA's Ctrl. One 18-year-old participant suggested we read and discuss a recent Fenway Institute health report on LGBTQ youth of color. He said it's made him consider going to medical school.

As for me, I'll be hitting SZA's concert with friends later this month in Detroit. Because I know that listening to her gives me "the feels" and that going out often triggers my weakness for Long Island Ice Teas, I've been taking both my PrEP and lithium as prescribed, just in case I meet a fellow lonely gay millennial that night. For now, that's what Ctrl looks like to me.

Miguel Garcia is a public health coordinator and writer based in Detroit. He's written for Bipolar Hope Magazine, The Gran Varones Project and the now defunct H-Bomb student sex-magazine at Harvard. He spends his days providing LGBT-affirming health services at a community health center. After dark, Miguel spends many hours intending to write the imaginative book he promised to his literary agent. He writes about HIV prevention because he's tired of campaigns that don't speak to people who look like him. Miguel has a crush on Empire's Jussie Smollett and still doesn't understand how Trump happened.