There are few parts of the human condition as misunderstood as loneliness. People find it hard to talk about, and harder to hear. By definition, loneliness is a kind of sadness that manifests in the absence of friends or company, yet the recommended cure contradicts the nature of the condition itself, with internet guides essentially telling you to get out more, get more friends, get ‘better’ at social interaction.
While loneliness is a hugely under-discussed topic in reality, there’ve been a lot of revealing studies about this particular type of ‘no friends or company’ loneliness: studies which say 3.9 million Brits consider their television their main source of company, or which send the lonely among us to an early grave, claiming that socially isolated people are 30% more likely to suffer a stroke or develop heart disease.
While the problem of loneliness is seemingly dealt quite evenly across different social groups, a Stonewall study from 2011 points out that LGB people over the age of 55 are three times more likely to end up un-partnered, two times more likely to live alone, three times less likely to have children, and twice less likely to see biological family than their heterosexual peers. Indeed, since 2011 there have been marked improvements in the way we talk about, uplift, profile and positively legislate for the LGBTQIA+ community, but in the same breath violence against us has increased, our spaces are closing en masse (a 58% decline in London since 2006, no less), and our world leaders seem hellbent on making the world a more hostile environment, in which our maltreatment and social denigration are only reified by the speeches they give and policies they push for.
Hence the LGBTQIA+ experience is lonely for all the reasons why others suffer with loneliness. But it’s also amplified by things like legal inequality, painful daily abuse, disconnection from family and friends (whether that’s literal cut ties or a severe sense of misunderstanding). Often it can feel like everywhere you look — on TV, in films, on billboards, in card racks on the high street – there are messages celebrating any lifestyle other than the ones you might find under our acronym. While many of these aspects are liveable — with many in our community seemingly thriving — collectively they thrust upon us a feeling of loneliness by making it seem that we do not fit in anywhere, really — and there’s no lonelier feeling than that.
“It’s got worse for me I think,” Steven* tells me over coffee. “I’m technologically illiterate, because I’m 68, and I don’t really understand the way the whole gay community socialises now. I lived in a radical commune back in the early '70s when London felt exciting, although indeed violent for us, but now I wouldn’t really know where to go. It’s not their fault, it’s the fact that nobody outside of our community — with the power — saw the desperate need to foster an environment for us to be together in. A lot of my friends are dead, and the connective friends we had I can no longer get in touch with. So there’s loneliness, mixed with grief, mixed with… I don’t know… sexual frustration!”
I spent a week dropping questions about loneliness into conversations I was already having with various LGBTQIA+ friends to see if any of them self-identified with feeling lonely. To my surprise, each one — perhaps nine or 10 in total — had experienced some sort of loneliness, linked not necessarily to being gay, or queer, or transgender per se, but more to how lonely it can feel moving through a world dominated by the cis-heterosexual experience.
“I feel pretty misunderstood in most spaces, and often fetishised in romantic or sexual spaces too,” Eva reveals. “My experience as a trans woman has been both lifesaving and deeply enriching for me, but a lot of that experience has been lonely too, because a lot of people don’t understand me.”
Eva goes on to explain the paradox that social media has provided: a virtual space in which to meet other women like her, but when projected into reality she explains that she is “often left feeling more isolated because when I see these friends I have here, there, together or with other friends, I am reminded I’m not there, then I’m back to self-pitying again. It’s a give-take kind of scenario.” It seems that in the climate of increasing connectivity brought to us by an endless array of social apps, our networks expand, yes, but in truth, perhaps become a little flimsier.
While the factors affecting our experience of loneliness vary from person to person, between generations, and across subdivisions in our wider community, there exists a ubiquitous loneliness that is often felt, but very hard to explain.
Last year, Michael Hobbes published a long read entitled “Together Alone: Why didn’t gay rights cure gay loneliness?” in which he talks about the gay male community’s tendency to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, to seek more temporary sexual interaction rather than long-term intimacy, to suffer much more acutely with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts than heterosexual men. In the end, he puts it down to the harshly detrimental effects that years in the closet can have on a person — how years of hiding behaviours that might put you in harm’s way can have long-lasting effects on your mental health and your ability to form significant relationships. Hobbes concludes that a potential cure for gay loneliness — and the patterns of erratic or unhealthy behaviour that might stem from it — could lie in affirming your difference as a gay person by working with your outsider status rather than vying to be accepted by the “norms”, as my friends and I call them.
Hobbes’ suggested mechanism is definitely a positive step — as I discovered when I found a family of queer people who would celebrate my non-binary gender identity and my homosexuality. As my friend Gen said: “Having a person tell me they really, really loved me the way I am has been essential to my feeling less anxious.”
So perhaps, as those unhelpful internet guides might suggest, the cure for LGBTQIA+ loneliness is to find people who can reflect and validate your experience, whether that’s URL or IRL. Not just so you’ve got company, but so you’ve got company who understands you and the triggers and stressors that come with being different. For those struggling to meet people like themselves, there are online forums like TrevorSpace and 7 Cups, which offers trained listeners. You can call the LGBT+ switchboard to find out about socials and gatherings; the volunteer group operates from cities across the country and is the oldest information and advice point, providing callers with anything from local listings to a friendly ear. There are projects like the Hackney-based Out and About which aim to use lottery and public funding to get people out on the ground. I spoke with Katharine Collins, who manages the project.
“We know that social isolation is a growing problem. Connect Hackney has been set up to distribute Big Lottery money to projects in Hackney aiming to prevent and reduce social isolation. Out and About is working specifically with the LGBTQ community and offering a combination of life coaching and peer support to help people overcome the challenges they are facing in their life at the moment.”
The service is offered to members of the LGBTQIA+ community aged over 50, who, as the 2011 Stonewall study showed, perhaps suffer the most social isolation.
“A lot of our clients feel that as they have aged, they have been pushed to the wayside," Katharine says. "Between them they have an incredible pool of experience, skills and wisdom, but instead of being valued they feel overlooked or patronised. The LGBTQ community has lost many of our queer spaces over the past few years and older LGBTQ people are telling me that they don't know where they can meet people. There is a lot of disconnectedness and loneliness. And it's only since I started running this project that I have really realised just how inaccessible much of London is. The toilets of restaurants and cafés are often upstairs or downstairs and the music playing is so loud that those who are hard of hearing have no chance of making conversation. This sends a clear message to people that their needs have not been considered. We are gathering people's stories to raise awareness of this issue, and we want to change public perceptions of ageing through a wallpaper art installation which will be displayed at the Hackney Museum during LGBT History Month.”
That’s a good place to conclude: LGBT History Month, which we’re nearing the end of now. We may be afforded moments, anniversaries and big legal ‘wins’ but the story on the ground for so many LGBTQIA+ people often involves isolation and the anxieties which come with that. As we fight the battle to be ‘out and proud’ (an overused phrase, yes, but perhaps one which works here), we must remember the value in others who are doing the same — those who can mirror our experience, and whose experiences we can mirror in return. If you’re feeling lonely, try to reach out; it’s likely the person you’re reaching out to has felt something similar. If you haven’t heard from someone in a while, try to reach out to them. For someone feeling lonely, a small act of care can prove to be a big game-changer.
*All the names in this article have been changed at the request of the subjects.