In his new book, A Gay Man’s Guide to Life: Get Real, Stand Tall, and Take Your Place, Britt East offers the type of wisdom and insight to gay men that he wishes he had access to earlier in life. Britt shares his own hard-won wisdom in hopes of helping gay men to unleash their true selves and live the life of their dreams. With this, he addresses critical topics that often go unaddressed, such as how to create a family without mimicking the norms of straight society, how to cultivate gay friendships, and how to find lasting love.
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today with Britt East, who is the author of the new book, A Gay Man’s Guide to Life: Get Real, Stand Tall, and Take Your Place. Britt, thank you so much for joining me today.
Britt East: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
Nikki Van Noy: Are you seeing in gay youth today any sort of movement towards parents learning to parent toward gay children, or is this something that remains not a thing in this day and age?
Britt East: It varies widely. It varies widely based on geography, based on parental upbringing, based on inter-generational family programming, and based on the intentions of the family. What we find is that, if gay youth have one adult in their lives who can show them the way at whatever level, it makes a profound impact. Now, things are definitely getting better. In fact, what we have witnessed in gay culture is nothing short of a miracle. Literally by any historical measure, the progress of gay rights outpaces any other social movement in the history of the world.
There’s a challenge with that. It is also outpaced our culture’s ability to subsume that change for the general public, who doesn’t maybe think about these issues because they aren’t directly personally affected by them, at least to their knowledge. They often feel left behind and confused. Left with great intentions, wanting to advocate for gay youth, wanting to be a friend and an ally, but afraid to say the wrong thing–not knowing how to be that ally.
Ironically, there’s a downside with such quick social change. To answer your question, in general, it’s getting much better, but the reality is, it will likely forever and always be a fractured environment if nothing else due to just the numbers. There’s such a disparity in the numbers, and gay people are a tiny fraction of the overall population. Because of that, as well-meaning as society might become, we will invariably get left behind a little bit and have to find ways to shore that up.
Nikki Van Noy: I am going to take us on a little bit of a tangent already, but I feel like I would be remiss not to ask you this. With all of that in mind, for straight parents who have gay children, what can they do to help their children navigate the life that they’re going to lead, which may look very different from their parents?
How do you do that if you don’t have your own experience?
Britt East: Let’s see, there’s a lot in that question, because the way that I use these terms and, believe me, there’s not necessarily a whole scale agreement in this, is maybe a little bit new and different.
I think of the word gay as a sexual cultural identity, not a sexual orientation. I think of homosexuality as a sexual orientation. Gay is a cultural identity, bisexuality, pansexuality, those are sexual orientations. Lesbianism is a cultural identity based, of course, on sexual orientation.
That’s a little bit into the weeds there, but the point is that it’s not necessarily a binary. We’re not all straight, we’re not all gay, we’re not all heterosexual or homosexual. The first thing that parents can do, before they even have children, is some self-reflection about their own sexuality.
Because that’s going to inform all of their choices, and communications, and parenting skills over the course of their lifetime. Now, when they have a gay kid and the child has not disclosed that they’re gay, I don’t believe parents should broach the topic directly until children self-disclose. When kids disclose that they’re gay, the single best thing that they can do is acknowledge the reality of their life.
Whether or not their kids are gay or straight or whatever sexual orientation they are, parents would do well to expose their kids to a wide array of diversity. Diversity of race, gender expression, gender orientation, sexual culture, sexual orientation. Diversity is always a good thing, it’s always beautiful, it always empowers and strengthens us. If you do just that, you expose your children to healthy people of all kinds, of all ages, then a lot of this stuff will take care of itself.
You won’t be able to go back and recreate necessarily the standard cultural rites of passage. You might have to get creative along the way but that act in and of itself will get you 85% of the way there, in terms of loving your kid and signaling acceptance and celebration of diversity, not just tolerance, not just a milk toast tolerance of diversity, but actually celebration and honoring of it.
Nikki Van Noy: I learned a lot from that answer, thank you and you delivered it in such a kind and patient way. I really appreciate that.
Britt East: Yeah, of course. You know, we as gay people, to live in this country, especially at this moment, to live successfully as a citizen in this country right now, is to learn how to harness and channel your outrage. If we cannot be generous and magnanimous to those who would love us, then as gay people or whatever minority group, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. We are doing ourselves a lot of harm.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. It does feel like, we’re recording this podcast at the beginning of June, right as we’re in the middle of protesting, and I feel like this has been such an issue. I don’t mean issue in a bad way, but it’s been something I’ve been really thinking about a lot is how to ask questions in a better way and to listen in a different way.
Britt East: Yeah, there’s such a delicate balance and we all have so much soul searching to do. In the same way that it is not up to African Americans to fix the racist actions, thoughts, and choices of white America, it’s not up to gay people to fix homophobia. That’s the work of straight people. If you know, like Tony Morrison said, “If you have to feel taller by standing on someone’s shoulders, that’s your problem, don’t drag me into it.”
The same thing applies to any marginalized group that lives with persistent, pervasive, extreme inequality. While I certainly don’t’ think it’s helpful to compare struggles, I do think that some of these larger principles, these broader principles apply.
We are all complex mixtures of adversity and privilege. I have the privilege of being gendered a man, I have the privilege of being labeled white, I have the privilege of being a US citizen, I have the privilege of having a steady job, of being able-bodied, abled-minded. I have so much privilege working in my life and I know adversity, just like all of us.
While I can never set down my privilege, because I do not confer it upon myself, it’s conferred upon me by society, I can acknowledge it and leverage it to lift up others.
A Wide Spectrum
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. Turning our focus to the book, you cover such a wide spectrum of topics here. You talk about body, mind, spirit, career, finances, family, friends, sex, community, service work. It’s all in here. I don’t know if it’s possible to narrow down, but I’m curious if in your own life, there were any areas that were particularly difficult for you to navigate, where you felt like you didn’t have guidance or mentorship that you could have used, that may have made things a little bit easier for you as you were coming of age?
Britt East: There are two threads in my life, which led to the adversity I experienced as a child. One of them was the abuse I endured at the hands of my family, which was only partially because of my sexual orientation and my gender expression. That was all magnified with the latent or active homophobia that I experienced growing up in the 1980s and in the South, in Tennessee.
Those are inextricably entwined threads in my life. That’s why the book is so broad, it’s hard to say I was missing this, or I had that. Frankly, I was kind of missing it all. My story is maybe a little bit different from the average person’s out there that might be experiencing some homophobia but grew up with a family that tried to be loving and tried their best and maybe wasn’t the greatest and that kind of experience.
Mine was a little bit different and so that’s why this book is part memoir and part personal growth and development manual, and I intentionally tried to cover every facet of a life, so that readers certainly could read it sequentially, but understanding that a lot of readers would dip in and out based on whatever challenges they are experiencing currently.
That would make it easy for them to say, “Hey, I’m having a spiritual crisis right now,” then I have a chapter on spirituality that attends to that. “I’m having trouble in my career, or I’d like to figure out how to invest in my career. I need some objective criteria to assess the landscape of the marketplace and my job and where I fit in it, not only as an employee but as a gay employee. How can I navigate those waters?” Well, I’ve got a chapter that attends to that as well. I just went sequentially – I’m a very logical person, and I went sequentially through all the facets of my life and tried to cover those in the book.
Nikki Van Noy: I always loved talking to people who have been through the experience of writing a memoir, because it can be such a powerful and impactful process. I’m curious for you what it was like going back through your life in this way?
Britt East: My story is my medicine. I spent years filled with envy and resentment about normal people and how I wish I would have had a normal life, but it turns out my story is my medicine. The more I engage with it, the more I am healed, and the more I can heal others. I am using my story as a catharsis, both for me as a writer, as well as the reader, but also as a way to credential my work. To show the path that I have trod that others might trod it as well.
If it worked for me, it can work for you because I am not special or unique. So, you can see exactly all of the mini-mistakes I made. I share that very candidly in the book. So, you can avoid some of those mistakes, or learn from them more efficiently and effectively than I did.
Nikki Van Noy: In my opinion, those are the most powerful memoirs, when people are able to find that vulnerability that you are talking about. Where you are owning your mistakes then letting the world see all of that because we can all relate to that. I think there could be an urge to polish over them in this format because, you know, you are laying yourself pretty bare.
Britt East: You know I came up in the 12 step system and that was the first time when I learned to get real. Before that I had been, like a lot of gay men, a lot of people, wrapping myself in a litany of lies to hide, to stay safe, to avoid being murdered, or beaten up, or denied housing, or denied a job, just because somebody thought I might be gay.
So, I wrapped myself in a series of lies called the closet. I certainly came out before entering the 12 steps, but there was a spiritual component that was missing that I found in those meetings. When I found myself in a group setting and sharing heart-to-heart, hearing other people’s stories, being moved by their vulnerability and strength, I felt inspired and I started to get real and that was a thrilling experience.
I know what you mean, it is thrilling to see somebody getting real. There is a power and strength in vulnerability.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, it lands and hits you in an entirely different way. You can just tell when that is present.
Britt East: Yeah.
Twenty Years in the Making
Nikki Van Noy: What made now the time to write this book and how long were you working on it?
Britt East: I started the writing process in April of last year, so it went very quickly. For those readers that maybe have never written a book or have been through this process that is pretty darn quick.
Nikki Van Noy: Very quick.
Britt East: Yeah, and I think it was because it was 20 years in the making. 20 years ago is when I started my process of recovery, the 12 steps, and various modalities, talk therapy, the Hoffman Process, and yoga and meditation, and all of these various modalities, and non-violent communication that I worked in. All along the way, people kept telling me, “Hey, you should write your story.” I have been a writer my whole life and so it has come very naturally to me.
People kept telling me I should write my story and I would always come up with objections. The largest of which was that I just wasn’t ready to get raw, and real, and authentic in this permanent format. I was so afraid of harming others and with my story, I was not sure that I could avoid collateral damage. You know I did not live in a vacuum. The people that made up my world are still all alive, walking this earth, and many of them are likely not thrilled with the words on the page.
I had to find a way of being honest and authentic without doing any harm. About telling my side of the story while honoring that the other sides of that same story exist in this world, and they’re all perfectly valid. My dignity, my story is not up for debate, but neither is anybody else’s. It just took me a while for me to wrap my head around it. Then I was working with a life coach at the time and he basically just said that I was going to do it.
He was one of those coaches who was like, “Okay, here is what you are doing next,” and I said, “Okay.” I just took it as a sign. I have been wanting to do it for 20 years, and never figured out how. I am just going to see what happens, and so I created this space for it. I created a container for it, and the process ended up being so effortless. In all honestly, it felt more like dictation than writing. As poetic as the book is, as raw and real and emotional as the book is, it all was so ready to be born that it just poured out of me.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, you were in the flow. There are few things more magical than that when you are writing. It’s not something that just happens. All factors have to be exactly right–that’s incredible.
Britt East: Exactly, yeah. I was very fortunate. I do not claim any credit for that.
Nikki Van Noy: Well, there is no fortune involved in that. Let’s be very clear. So, with all of that in mind, how does it feel now having this raw, permanent thing out there in the world?
Britt East: It is so different than I expected. I expected the writing process to be the most challenging and that was the most effortless. What has been the most challenging is the separation from your words, from your voice, that happens as part of the publishing process as other eyes are upon your work. I mean, invariably when you release art into the world, it is no longer yours. So, what I had guarded so preciously in my story is now other’s stories.
It is their story about me, whether that’s an editor, or a marketing manager, or people who are doing pre-reads, or friends who are doing initial reads. It is now their story as well. They have a part in it. They read it a little differently than maybe I intended and that’s all okay. It just feels really strange. It is not even that it feels over-exposing. I could have predicted that, and I made peace with that a long time ago. I just miss the voice.
I miss the flow of that writing process, where I was so intimately involved in the voice, and so I think partially because of that, I have already started my next book.
Nikki Van Noy: Right, I was going to say that’s what second books are for. You are already there. I feel like even in books where you wouldn’t expect it, so a book that on the surface is more technical like a finance book, it is, you invest so much in a book that there is that point you were talking about when it begins to belong to other people, or there are other people’s voices in the mix. It is very difficult to let go because it is your baby. No matter what, and especially when you are talking about a personal story like this.
Britt East: Yeah, it definitely changes as people add their thoughts and opinions to it. Editors come into play, and people give you advice, and it’s definitely different than when it first left you. I made peace with that process. The part that was surprising, because I expected that to happen, but the part that was surprising to me was that I would just so miss the voice. I don’t access that part of me in day-to-day life because you just get swept away.
It is almost like adrenalin or a rush, or it’s like playing in a symphony or being a professional athlete or something. In a way, you get this rush when you are doing the experience and I just miss that. I just miss that experience so much. That has been the most challenging thing actually in the whole process is missing that, that part of the creative process.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. I love that you dove right back in to get some more. So, what is your biggest hope for this book now that is out there?
Britt East: I just want to help people. I mean this is plain and simple as that. I just want to help as many gay men as I can, because we have a lot of healing to do and we have a lot of, not only wounds to heal, but we are still weaponizing our pain and harming others. We’ve got to get real as a community and, to be honest, a large portion of the book is taking our community to task. Whether it is racism, or misogyny, or what have you, it seems like those horrible traits are magnified in the gay community.
You know as much as we might like to think, like, “Well, how could a gay person be racist or sexists or whatever, because of all the prejudice they have endured and the bigotry they’ve endured?” Somehow in the mix of things, on average it seems to magnify it. When we speak with people of color or women that have spent a lot of time around gay men, when I speak to gay men, these things quickly become revealed, that we have weaponized our wounds as a way to feel strong, to garner proximal power from straight men, basically.
I think we are enslaved by that behavior. We are enslaved not only by the bigotry of society and straight people, but we are enslaved by our own bigotry as well. I am hoping to lift the lid on that, shine the light in, and then hopefully set us free a little bit, and help as many gay men as I can. So, as you said at the beginning, so I can be the family that they maybe never had.
Nikki Van Noy: Amazing. Britt, this is such powerful stuff. I really enjoyed talking to you the whole way through and I especially love that you had the experience you had writing this book. I don’t hear that from everybody. Writing can go a lot of different ways. So, it is really magical talking to someone who had that specific experience, and to me, it says this was time, which sounds like you’re already very well aware of.
Britt East: Yeah, thank you. It absolutely was.
Nikki Van Noy: Again, the book is, A Gay Man’s Guide to Life. The author is Britt East. Britt, is there anywhere else that listeners can find you outside of the book?
Britt East: The best place to find me is on my website, britteast.com. That is where you can sign up for an email newsletter or get all of the latest news on my book, which is coming out at the end of the month, and you can hear about any special offers associated with that. It’s really a central place. I have free articles, free blog posts there. It is really the best place to engage with me online.
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining me today Britt.
Britt East: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.