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The Velvet Rage was first published in 2005 and in that time the book has become notorious within the gay community as one of, if not ‘the’ book to guide gay men toward fulfilment and self-actualisation. The 2nd edition blurb states that The Velvet Rage has “helped shape the identity of an entire generation of gay men.” If that is the case, what does the book have to offer the community now? If the identity of gay men has already been altered, do the insights offered within the book still have relevance today?

Alan Downs is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. One of the principal theories that he outlines within The Velvet Rage is that a gay man’s life can be broken down into three stages. This three-stage concept appears to be an original one constructed by Downs himself, based upon his work with gay clients. Downs explores the characteristics of each stage and the associated contributing life experiences.These chapters are filled with insights gathered from his work as a psychotherapist and each are scattered with quotes from his clients. These quotes serve to demonstrate the theories that he outlines in each chapter.

Essentially the three stages chart the course from denial and rage into authenticity. In the latter part of the book Downs offers a toolkit of skills with the promise that the reader can draw upon those skills to cultivate a life that is authentic. Although Downs largely writes about a universal gay experience, there are welcome extracts from his own personal story that bring honesty and humanity to what can sometimes be generalised and prescriptive.

Recognising oneself within the pages of a book can be a wonderfully validating experience. The Velvet Rage is filled with insights about the lives of some gay men. Downs expounds upon tropes associated with the community and why gay men may be drawn toward particular attitudes or behaviours. He walks a delicate line between the 90s stereotype of the gay man and behaviours so general they could apply to anyone in western society. Downs regularly uses the plural, “we” when explaining why certain behaviours or attitudes might exist. I found this occasionally jarring, especially when the behaviour was far from my own experience. Conversely there were times reading the book when I was filled with excitement as Downs described something that I had lived through, and his reflections brought new insight to that experience. In chapter 4 Downs explained why a gay man might fly into a rage if he were questioned about his sexuality before he had ‘come out’. I remembered that rage. I had felt conflicted about it for many years. Recognising this as a common experience released some of the guilt that I had been feeling about my behaviour.

One of the major issues with The Velvet Rage is diversity. In the introduction Downs makes it clear that this is primarily a book for gay men. In my opinion, he is right. I would go further and state that this book is largely for white, financially privileged, cisgender gay men. Throughout the book Downs writes about growing up in a straight man's world but the world he presents is one of opportunity- one where a gay man can compensate for his shame through lavish parties, sexual conquests, or beautiful objects.

One of the greatest sins in modern culture is exclusion. I believe it is wonderful that we are encouraged to be considerate of those who are marginalised. That being said, to write off The Velvet Rage because of its narrow view of the gay experience would be to deny its usefulness. This book is undoubtably a helpful resource and I've spoken to many gay men who have found it to be transformative. It is striking to notice the absence of other members of the LGBTQ+ community or any memorable acknowledgement of poverty or race. This is not a book that I would recommend to all my gay clients. I might recommend it to a middle class, white gay client.

Aside from the obvious therapeutic benefit of recognising oneself and understanding some of the psychological challenges of growing up gay, the toolkit of skills that Downs offers are a helpful resource. Downs outlines over 20 different skills and suggests that if practised with regularity those skills will lead toward a more authentic life. It's very easy to be cynical about these skills, especially as many of them are common pieces of advice that can be summarised in a sentence (‘try to forgive others rather than hold a grudge’), but I imagine that if anyone did work through these skills and applied them to their life conscientiously it likely would lead to a more authentic existence. In no obvious way are these skills specific to gay men and would likely be helpful to any individual.

In summary, The Velvet Rage is a Book that I regard with ambivalence. In the last five years alone there has been radical social movement leading to a change in the way that most of us think about marginalised people. The Velvet Rage was published 18 years ago and has been an insightful and transformative resource to many marginalised gay men. The absence of intersectionality is undeniable. This alone does not mean that The Velvet Rage no longer has relevance or purpose. The book makes blanket statements about ‘us’ and the gay experience. These statements do not apply to all gay men, they apply to some. Rereading the Velvet Rage, I recognised myself within its pages. I suspect this book was written with men like me in mind. It has offered beautiful insight to experiences that I had in my childhood and early adult life. I can certainly imagine that the toolkit Downs presents continues to be a helpful resource to many. The prescriptive nature of the text will be too much for many readers, especially those that do not recognise themselves within its pages. I recommend this book tentatively and acknowledge that for many queer people The Velvet Rage may leave them feeling further excluded from what is presented as the gay experience.

  • THE VELVET RAGE by Alan Downs, PhD is published by Hachette Books ($17.99 U.S.)


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