AANE’s Support Group for Gay Men: Building a Community of Learning & Support

Guy Ronen

I am honored and privileged to facilitate the Gay Men Support Group at AANE. 

Ten years ago, my husband and I hosted a dinner for a group of 12 gay men on the autism spectrum at the AANE building in Watertown. It was the initiative of a social worker who met two gay men at an AANE event and spoke with them about their interests and needs. Based on their conversation, AANE advertised our dinner in their newsletter, and to our surprise, people arrived from all over New England, including Rhode Island and New Hampshire. One guy even drove four hours from Maine to attend. 

At the end of the dinner, we did a brainstorming exercise, asking the group what they would like AANE to create or help them with. The overall feedback from the group was a request for AANE to organize a regular meeting for gay men on the autism spectrum, where they can feel safe and comfortable speaking about their lives.        

For the first six years, we met in person in a conference room in Boston. The subjects of the conversations were usually about communication and relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and spouses. We focused a lot of the conversation trying to understand the differences in communication style between Autistic people and neurotypicals. Over time the group grew, and we had about 30 members, with about 14 to 18 people attending our monthly meetings.  

Only people who identify as Autistic gay men are part of our group. It provides participants with a safe space to speak about their partners and sexual preferences without trying to explain themselves or feel that they are the only one who is different. We also do not need to explain our internal language. Like many minority groups, we have our own internal language with queues and jokes that only people who live in our community understand. The members of the group are able to say things without trying to explain themselves or wonder if it’s appropriate for other people.   

One of the highlights of the group is going out together after the meeting. One subject that came up over and over in each meeting was the difficulties of interacting with people in a large setting and in a loud environment. We decided to experiment and go out to a bar one night after the meeting. We wanted to see how everyone felt about talking to each other as friends outside of the support group. After the first time out together, I received two requests: one was to continue the experiment, and the other was to find a place with less noise. We found a different bar that had music, but you could hear each other without shouting and created a tradition of going out together after each meeting. We sat at a round large table and had friendly conversations. For me, it was incredible to see the guys who spoke about their difficulties meeting in this environment, taking their guard down, talking with each other, smiling, and looking relaxed and happy.  

When COVID started, we moved the meeting to Zoom. We also realized that people were suffering from loneliness, being stuck at home, and we started meeting every two weeks instead of once a month. Meeting on Zoom opened the group for people outside of New England and within a few months our list grew to 100 members, and we had meetings with over 30 people. It was great to have so many people join the group but also difficult to facilitate a group that large. The group decided to split into two rooms when more than 24 people joined to make sure that all the participants had an opportunity to speak and be part of the conversation. 

One of the subjects that has come up a lot throughout the years is masking, and how exhausting it is to live in a world that is not built for you and your needs. Participants speak a lot about social survival strategies and the different things they do to ‘pass’ in their jobs and other social environments. This is even more difficult for our group because sometimes we need to mask both neurodivergent thoughts and behaviors and also being gay. We also speak about times when it’s good to be honest with people and how to take care of yourself after an exhausting day of masking. 

The members of our group are articulate, passionate, caring, and show an incredible amount of empathy for others. Each time someone in the group brings up a difficult situation in their lives, the members are respectful and try to understand the situation from the person’s point of view. They share advice and try to help. They find solutions and provide each other comfort and tools to work with. We had a few instances when people from the group were hospitalized. In these cases, members visited them, called to check on them, and wrote them messages. I could not be more proud of how the guys care and help each other.

We end each meeting asking each person to share one positive thing that happened to them in the last few weeks. We all have something good that happens to us, even though it is often hard to think about the positive things in our lives. It can be a small thing like a nice walk, a cup of coffee, or a conversation with someone. 

As the group facilitator, I always learn new things, a new point of view, new ways that members articulate a situation, or a new way to see the world that I was not aware of. This is the highlight of my week. After each meeting, I feel encouraged and more hopeful about the world we live in because of the wonderful people I meet each month in AANE’s Gay Men’s Support Group.

If you would like to join the group, please register for one of our upcoming meetings here.

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