As he turned 50, Joe Bondi found himself increasingly isolated, depressed, and drifting back into a largely closeted lifestyle. Living in Modesto, Calif., nearly 100 miles from the gay mecca of San Francisco, he became consumed with his work as a real estate agent and slogged away the hours among colleagues who might’ve known he was gay but around whom he felt uncomfortable sharing much about himself or his sexuality.
After joining the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, he began to make a turnaround. Firstly, anxieties about his advancing age began to dissipate.
“We’re kind of like big and little brothers through the universal gift of music,” Bondi says of his singing brethren. “And when I go into the room, I don’t look at older and younger.”
Now 53, Bondi says he can be himself around his work colleagues.
“I was sharing with the others how much fun I was having in the chorus,” he recalls. “And then I got brave and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m going to start putting up the posters for the chorus performances. The more I talked, the more comfortable I felt. Now, every time there’s a new performance, I’ve got the poster up in the window and people asking me, ‘Can I get tickets?’”
“Depression is a disease of isolation,” says David McDowell, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan, “anytime you can get a depressed person to affiliate, or to do something, or to join a group that will have a purpose—whether that’s fun recreation or some greater purpose—that’s going to significantly alleviate symptoms of the depression and the cause of isolation.”
As a socially stigmatized group, gay men may particularly benefit from an affirmative sense of belonging to a larger community. Stigma can accentuate feelings of isolation and alienation and put a dent in self-esteem. Research has shown that a sense of “collective self-esteem” comes when people feel that their membership in a larger group has value.
Jack Drescher, the author of Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, said that many of the men he counsels are reluctant to hit the bar scene to meet people—in his mind, for good reason.
“Bars are there to sell liquor,” he says. “They’re not there to help people with socialization. Often they’re very alienating places. There are other ways in which people can organize themselves: around sports, around politics, around professional interests.”
Jeff Kagan, the cofounder and director of the New York City Gay Hockey Association, touts the benefits of joining a sports team.
“Some gay men might feel excluded in their lives from their own families,” he says. “This fills in that gap and gives you a feeling of brotherhood. It makes you feel like you have another home.”
A sense of victory can’t hurt either. One of his teams, the Lions, is a consistent league champ.
“They play against the straight teams and they beat their butts!” boasts Kagan.
Gay teens in particular, perhaps facing difficulties with homophobia as they negotiate their way out of the closet, and who as a demographic are at high risk for suicidal depression, can benefit immeasurably from a sense of inclusion. According to Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based in San Francisco, there are an estimated 4,000 GSAs in U.S. high schools and even middle schools.
“There’s no question that for young people all over the country access to a gay-straight alliance club can be lifesaving,” Laub says. “In particular it helps you know as a young gay person that you’re not alone in whatever your struggles may be regarding coming out or facing harassment at school. The gay-straight alliance club can be a safe haven and a place to feel supported, to have a connection to your community, and to have allies.”