Before starting Create Space Retreats with his brother Angus, Michael Edward Stephens spent over 10 years working in various leadership positions for some of the world’s most respected British brands within the retail, fashion, and travel industries, including Vice Media, Ted Baker, Liberty London, Virgin Atlantic and is-D Magazine.
After a series of life-altering events, Michael’s priorities changed, so he switched career to become a mental health and wellbeing advocate, with a focus on prioritising self-care, specifically within both the LGBTQ+ and the creative communities.
Since then, he has held true to this calling, and continues to do this through contacts and networking, by orchestrating relevant conversations between key people or groups, as well as through Create Space Retreats, the retreat and workshop business he co-founded with his brother.
Steven Smith talks to Michael about his identity, what it is like to be gay man in 2020 and introduces a new virtual retreat, ‘Who am I?’.
Do you find that when you wake up, you are happy to have done so as a gay man? If so, has this always been the case?
Yes, I think so. I always was a very positive, upbeat, and jolly person, even when I was clinically depressed! So, I am aware that sometimes my ‘happy’ exterior was merely acting as a protective armour.
Now, I know that the real joy takes effort, and in fact has very little to do with my sexuality. I definitely wake up grateful that I can be whoever I put my mind to being. That wasn’t always the case though, and for many other people, it sadly still isn’t.
You found yourself in the corporate world. Do you feel that people who identify as LGBTQ+ are treated fairly in business?
Not in all cases. That’s why continual education is necessary and setting-up networks and groups in business that can act as support mechanisms is crucial. To be honest though, I have always been blessed by working at Virgin. It is such a diverse company, and I believe it can act as a sort of prototype for how companies should treat their staff.
Who have been your role models?
That’s a difficult question, as everyone who is LGBTQ+ has been on a very personal journey, so are, in a way, role models themselves, so I find it difficult to pick a particular person out. For me however, my mum has been an excellent role model. She has consistently put her family first and has had a wonderful impact on me and my journey.
How did you tell your family and friends that you were gay?
My brother and I were both living and working in Copenhagen at the time. I came out to him first and he was exceptionally understanding. After that I told my mum. She was definitely not over-the-moon at first, but over time, she became very supportive, and we are close. I was quite worried about telling dad, but he actually beat me to it and rang me first, to tell me how much he loved me and was there for me. I was lucky. I do suspect he always knew though, as my hobbies and passions when I was a kid were not the ones he might have expected.
You have previously said publicly that you struggled with an eating disorder, and that is was very difficult to come to terms with this. Do you have any words of wisdom for the many men out there who are also battling an eating disorder, particularly if they feel alone in it?
Reflecting back, I needn’t have been ashamed to admit that I was struggling, but I was. I think it was probably the stigma attached to eating disorders that was stopping me from seeking help.
I clearly had a lot of suppressed stress from childhood that I was unaware of. One of the ways that played out was through the eating disorder. It acted like a coping strategy, but it had negative consequences and affected a lot of the decisions I made at the time. Work also became an escape from the inner turmoil, until I realised that I had become a workaholic. I was trying to prove something to myself and others. Don’t get me wrong, there were good things around that time and about work, but my motivations and the excess nature of it were unsustainable.
So, I suppose my advice to those in a similar situation to the one I was in, would be not to be scared to seek help or too ashamed to go to your GP. They are a good starting point, and even if they can’t help in that appointment, they can recommend someone or refer you to a place where you can hopefully access help.
One of the themes of your online retreat is body image. A large proportion of the LGBTQ+ scene is known for being obsessed with appearance, and maybe even narcissistic. Also, a lot of attraction is about physical appearance. What is it that attracts you to a guy? Would you date someone who was overweight?
It might not be narcissism. Many gay people develop an acute attention to certain details after feeling that they have to hide their sexuality for so long. When you live with the constant fear of your secrets being exposed, and what may happen after that, but you keep suppressing it, there are often external unconscious self-controlling behaviours you adopt. So, for me this suppression manifests as an ability to spot flaws in myself very easily, both physically and otherwise.
The first thing I notice in other men are their eyes and smile. I also have gone for taller men in the past. Maybe it’s because they make me feel protected? I am single now, so maybe that’s not worked for me and it is now time to meet someone a bit different to before? We shall see.
Okay. So, tell me more about your business. What does a Create Space Retreat involve?
Well, it is a retreat series exploring identity, and who you are as an LGBTQ+ person. The different workshops aim to help you understand yourself better and on a deeper level, and help you develop more as a person. The idea is that as people progress through the series, they will be able to develop and help themselves, as well as then use that new wisdom to help others.
Who should come on the course?
Anyone who identifies as a gay man really. Often, the embarrassment and fear we experience as we grow and develop has defined our worldview, ourselves, and those around us. Once we understand why we act a certain way, that knowledge can be used as fuel to initiate positive change. We them become the ones control the choices we make and things we do, they don’t control us. Then when we actively shape our own lives, others will also be able to find a way.
How has lockdown been for you?
It has given me valuable time with my parents, who I love, and I managed to get out of London for a bit.
What one thing would you change if you were mayor?
I would put in more cycle lanes in the roads.
Japanese or Chinese?
Do you have a favourite restaurant?
Yes. Nobu in London.
What do you think is the most romantic place to be?
I went on a road trip around Italy last year, all the way up from Sicily to Venice. I was actually traveling on my own, but it still felt super romantic! I’d definitely like to go back at some point, maybe with someone else?
Are there any books that, as a gay man, you think are important to read, and what makes you pick them?
If you haven’t read yet The Velvet Rage, that is a good place to start. I am also a big fan of the authors Eckhart Tolle and Dr Gabor Maté. Their books aren’t specifically for gay men, but they are well worth reading.
What is the biggest turn-off for you when meeting someone in-person?
It has been great meeting you and best of luck with the retreat.
For more information about Create Space Retreats, please visit the website at, https://www.createspaceretreats.com