Matthew Todd, Straight Jacket: How to be Gay and Happy (Bantam Press, 2016)
I borrowed this book from my local library. I had it on reserve and so had to collect it from the reception desk. As the librarian handed me the book, she caught sight of its subtitle and looked a little uncomfortable. She was embarrassed, but I wasn’t; I found it rather amusing.
Matthew Todd is another gay man whom people might assume would be embarrassed but isn't. In Straight Jacket, Todd exposes some of the problems and pain that are prevalent in the LGBT community, admitting what many people have wanted to keep hidden. But Todd isn’t embarrassed. He’s also not amused, and rightly so.
Todd is a former editor of Attitude, the UK’s best-selling gay magazine. In this book, he faces head-on the reality of a major problem within the LGBT community: ‘Despite more LGBT people than ever before, thank goodness, leading happy, successful lives, it is becoming increasingly clear that a disproportionate number of us are not thriving as we should’ (p.9).
This failure to thrive is seen in ‘disproportionately high levels of depression, self-harm and suicide; not uncommon problems with emotional intimacy; people keeling over dead in saunas; the highest rates of HIV infection since the epidemic began in the 1980s; and now a small but significant subculture of men who are using, some injecting, seriously dangerous drugs, which … are killing too many people’ (p.10). Todd is careful throughout to remind us that this isn’t the situation for all LGBT people, but he’s honest enough to admit that it is a reality, and it’s a reality that’s far too widespread.
Straight Jacket seeks to offer a diagnosis and a cure to this problem. At the heart of the diagnosis is shame. Growing up in a society that has told, and sometimes still tells, LGBT people that they are disgusting or fundamentally wrong has led to an all-too-common, deep-seated experience of shame among the community. It is this shame, Todd argues, which underpins the unhappiness often experienced by LGBT people and which often leads people into unhealthy or even destructive behaviours. The solution, therefore, is for LGBT people to seek freedom from their shame and for all people to pull together to change the hostile environment which inflicts shame on LGBT people.
Todd outlines this understanding in three parts: part one explores the roots of LGBT shame, part two the unhealthy ways that LGBT people seek to escape the pain of this shame, and part three the road to recovery. In each part, Todd draws on his own experience, stories of those he knows, and interviews with various experts and practitioners.
I found Straight Jacket to be an engaging and eye-opening read. But what should Christians make of Todd’s perspective?
It would be easy for Christian readers to claim that the problems within the LGBT community and revealed by Todd are the inevitable consequences of rejecting God’s plan for sexuality. It would be easy to read Straight Jacket and stand in judgment over the LGBT community. But I don’t think that is a Jesus-like response.
It would be easy to read Straight Jacket and stand in judgment over the LGBT community. But I don’t think that is a Jesus-like response.
I think our first response should be compassion. Todd litters his writing with heart-breaking stories. There are stories of people made and loved by God, people who bear God’s image, who have been made to feel that they are degenerate or disgusting. There are stories of people who have become trapped in dangerous and destructive practices in their desperate attempt to deal with the pain they carry. And there are stories of people for whom the pain became just too much and the only solution they could see was to opt out of life completely. This insight into the experience of some LGBT people should break our hearts and move us with compassion, just as Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw sorrow and suffering.
We should also respond with action. Action is required to tackle the continuing presence of stigma against LGBT people, including in the Church. While Todd’s suggestion that shame is the main reason for the problems found among LGBT people is probably over-simplistic,1 there is no doubt that stigma still exists and that change needs to happen.
Alongside these, we should respond with care. Care is compassion put into action. Christians shouldn’t stand outside the LGBT community and look down on them in judgment. Rather, we should seek to step into that community and offer help, love, and care to those who are struggling. Sadly, Christians have often been part of the problem. Todd speaks very negatively of religion, and it is true that we have historically been among those who have told LGBT people that they are disgusting or degenerate. We have been part of the problem; now it’s time for us to be part of the solution.
We have been part of the problem; now it’s time for us to be part of the solution.
And we should respond by continuing to proclaim the better story. Todd shares about some of the routes to recovery that have been helpful to him and others, highlighting especially the role that Twelve Steps groups can play. It’s a good thing that Todd and others have found significant help in these various forms of support. Each form of support is an example of God’s generosity to humanity (what theologians call ‘common grace’). But as Christians we have better and even more powerful answers to offer.
So often as I read about the problems facing LGBT people – shame, loneliness, addiction, low self-worth, poor self-image, mental health problems – I was struck that we have a better answer. In Jesus, there is the offer of a new identity, a new family, true freedom, strength to face life’s difficulties, and fullness of life. We have a better story and better answers to the problems facing the LGBT community. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Christians and churches became known as those to whom LGBT people could turn to find freedom and healing? And why shouldn’t we be?
Wouldn’t it be amazing if Christians and churches became known as those to whom LGBT people could turn to find freedom and healing? And why shouldn’t we be?
Straight Jacket is a book that could easily be misused by Christians as ammo against the LGBT community. But we should actually approach it as an opportunity to learn about real-life experiences, to allow God to shape our hearts to reflect his, and to motivate us into being part of the answer to a serious problem. That’s why I think this is an important book for Christians to read.
- For an exploration of the various factors that seem to impact LGBT mental health, see Andrew Bunt, ‘LGBT and Mental Health: What’s the Link?’, Living Out.