Anti-gay bullies gave me an eating disorder. It took years for me to discover I’m far from alone.

LGBTQ Entertainment News

I don’t remember the first time I purged. But I do remember the relief – the cathartic feeling that made me want to do it again and again. I knew absolutely nothing about bulimia. Like the word “gay,” I wasn’t aware of its meaning in the early 2000s. As far as I was concerned, it was making me feel better, and I didn’t think it was harming me. 

My eating disorder began at thirteen years old due to homophobic bullying at school. I became a target due to my mullet-like hair and squeaky voice. I also was not interested in “boy things,” so my classmates thought I might be “queer.” In an effort to protect myself, I would run out of lessons and find sanctuary in the boy’s toilets, as it was the only place I knew I wouldn’t be found. I’d lock myself into a cubicle and comfort eat the contents of my lunch box. Over time, these sessions evolved into binging, and then I would make myself sick. 

In 2009, I entered a Google search that would change my life forever. I typed the words “men” and “eating disorders.” At 22, I was on the tentative road to recovery from bulimia, and I presumed there would be a group or an organization out there for men like myself. To my surprise, there was nothing – apart from a blog run by one male anorexic in Minnesota.

His name was Jeremy Gillitzer. He was a 36-year-old male model and anorexia awareness advocate. He had been in and out of treatment for some years. When we began speaking through Facebook, he had recently been discharged from a specialist clinic and was still unwell. He was too weak to do anything without assistance. I remember him putting out a status asking for someone to support him to go out for essentials and carry the shopping. If only I could pop across the pond. It brought home to me the lonely and isolating nature of enduring an eating disorder. 

While Jeremy and I had different eating disorders, the one thing we had in common was where they stemmed from. He said his earliest episode was at the age of 12 when he was verbally abused by his stepfather while also enduring the stigma of being a closeted gay man. He was also bullied at school for being “chubby.” His story did not only resonate with me but years later, I realized it contained the key ingredients that gave eating disorders life. 

After speaking with Jeremy, I had an idea to set up a website called “Men Get Eating Disorders Too!” It was apparent to me that the barriers men faced were due to the myth that they couldn’t have eating disorders. To think I found out I had bulimia from reading an advice column in one of my mom’s magazines at 15. When I attempted to get help at 16 and 18, I was dismissed by my physician. At the time, my condition was considered something that affected only younger women. I wanted to address the lack of information, awareness, and support available.

Troy Roness was the second man I spoke to with an eating disorder. He was based in North Dakota. He came to my attention when he appeared on the Dr. Phil Show in 2009. Following his emotional interview where he bravely shared the reality of living with anorexia, he entered an 80-day treatment program. In recovery, he committed to sharing his experiences by joining the junior board of the National Association of Eating Disorders. He gave a TED talk about his experiences and wrote his memoir, Unbroken: Journaled Reflections of Recovery. Similar to me, he realized that conquering his eating disorder was just the beginning of his recovery journey. Nowadays, he is a clinical therapist and doctoral student at Minot State University. 

In 2009, I set up my website with Fixers UK, and the response was overwhelming. After I gave a string of interviews for the BBC and other media outlets, men all over the world contacted me. I even interviewed my dad for a feature on ITV News about what it was like to have a son with bulimia. Annoyingly, the terms “manorexia” and “boylimia” had been conceived by the press, but at least people were finally speaking about the issue. The “Men Too” movement – as it was dubbed – was born.

Until this point, it seemed incomprehensible to some people that men could have the same issues women had. In 2010, the website became a charity and consumed the next eight years of my life. I set up online and face-to-face peer support groups, organized several UK-wide tours where I delivered training for professionals, and spoke at many conferences, including Beat’s International Eating Disorders conference.

My organization also created the 2015 independent film, Millstone, about men’s experiences of eating disorders, as well as their experiences with their parents/carers.

While all of this often felt like a one-man band, I couldn’t have done it alone. 

Jeremy’s untimely death that same year spurred me to campaign relentlessly. After a week of radio silence, his normally prompt replies stopped. Following a search online, I found a news article announcing his death due to complications from anorexia. It was tragic and shocking; I couldn’t process it. I knew he loved to share his experiences to alleviate unnecessary suffering, including through the TV report “Boy Interrupted.” Like Troy and I (and many others since), he did everything he could to raise awareness. Upon reflection, he inspired me to focus on my own recovery when I left my charity in 2018.

In the United States alone, 6.6 million males will experience eating disorders in their lifetime. One in three folks who suffer from eating disorders are men, an increase from one in ten a decade ago. It is believed this rise could be because more men are coming forward. However, Jeremy’s death is a stark reminder of a brutal and harsh reality: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is also a reminder that we still have a lot more work to do. The risks are especially large within the LGBTQ+ community. Research shows adults in this community are 2-4 times more likely to experience an eating disorder than their cis-hetero counterparts.

It has been seventeen years since I last binged and purged. There were bumps along the way, of course. In my twenties, I swapped abusing food for alcohol but I eventually found recovery from both eating disorders and addiction. The key was to address the issues at the root cause, and for me that was trauma. 

There’s a popular meme that states, “If the version of you from five years ago could see you right now, they’d be proud.” Well, I could extend that to my thirteen-year-old self – who no longer needs to lock himself inside the bathroom. 

Sam Thomas is a writer, campaigner, and public speaker. He is working on a fiction book series for LGBTQ+ youth on sex positivity codenamed ‘The 1989 Project.’ His Twitter and Instagram handles are @sam_thomas86 & @samthomas8186 respectively.

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