An excerpt from psychiatrist Loren A. Olson’s memoir on coming out as an adult.
“Why would a forty-year-old man come out, anyhow? He’s too old to have sex.” I was speaking to someone at the Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE) office in New York City where I had gone to discuss my book. She said that one of their young male staffers had asked that question during a discussion of older LGBT who are just coming out. The young staffer was unaware of three things:
- Forty is the infancy of old age.
- Men and women have sex well into late life.
- Being gay is about far more than just having sex.
Over and over through the years, I have said to my patients, “All of life’s most important decisions are made without enough information.” As I have reflected on the two questions I’m often asked—“How could you not know you were gay?” and “Wasn’t your marriage just a sham to protect yourself?”—I can say confidently that my marriage was not a sham. I did not use my wife and children as a shield from the possible consequences of my being gay. I loved her as much as I was capable—just not enough for either of us. I simply didn’t have all the information I needed to make a different decision. I do not regret my marriage or my children; my only regret is the pain my being gay has caused them. I do not wish I had done it all differently, nor could I have done it differently. Many aspects of the heterosexual life I left behind brought me great joy.
Those of us who enter midlife before coming out have only begun to confront the cognitive complexities of paradox, ambiguity, and uncertainty in our lives. We discover the world is no longer black and white as we once believed. Mortality becomes personal as we experience the liver spots and erectile changes. By midlife we have discovered that loving someone and bereavement are two sides of the same coin. Social status and religious support may be threatened while we seek the emotional freedom and release of coming out. The depths of sexual intimacy may appear elusive. A man who comes out in midlife or beyond must tack his ship in heavy winds and high seas, sailing from port to port as he off-loads the heavy baggage of the straight world he lived in.
N.B.: Loving someone and bereavement are two sides of the same coin.
Justin Spring, in his book about the life of Samuel Steward, wrote:
Each generation of writers reinvents its perception of sexuality through novels, poetry, and autobiographical writing, and in the process rebels against the perceptions and experiences of the generation before. For male homosexuals in the twentieth-century United States, these shifts in perception have up to now been largely described merely as “pre-Stonewall” and “post-Stonewall.” But clearly there have been other equally significant generational breaks between pre–World War II and post–World War II; pre-Kinsey and post-Kinsey; pre-McCarthy and post-McCarthy; pre-AIDS and post-AIDS; and, most recently, pre-Internet and post-Internet.
At sixty-seven years of age I have lived through all of that and more. I would add to Spring’s list pre-DNA and post-DNA and pre-brain-imagining and post-brain-imaging. We now know that DNA and the human genome function as a GPS that guides development in universal ways from the point of conception until our return to dust. On a global level, our brains are all alike, and yet the intricate networks that develop in our brains make us all unique. Little by little scientists uncover secrets about our brains, and more will be revealed as the study of the brain dominates science in the twenty-first century. But will they answer the question, “Why do some stars shine brighter when I see an attractive man and not as brightly when I see an equally attractive woman?” Life cannot be defined by genetic codes, neurotransmitter substances, or hormones. We do not connect with the entirety of humanity on a purely biological level.
Pre-Freud and post-Freud might also be added to Spring’s list. Sigmund Freud was an extremely good biologist, but the embryonic nature of biology constrained his exploration of the mind. Perhaps the unconscious isn’t the mystical id, ego, and super-ego, but simply all of the truths about the brain that are not yet known. Fear of disapproval from family and society and observance of the canons of religious establishments help explain why some gay people “live straight,” even though compliance to the dictates of family and religion make them feel guilty and worthless. Studying Freud, much like studying the Lutheran catechism, served me well. But it served me better when I became mature enough to understand that I could challenge the dogma and unlearn some of what I had been taught. Not all truths have been revealed.
N.B.: Perhaps the unconscious is simply all of the truths about the brain that are yet to be revealed.
I have grieved my father’s death and I have sought out male mentors to figure out how to be a man. But I now understand that it wasn’t my father’s death that made me gay. Of course his death was a tremendous loss for all of my family and impacted each of us in various ways, but I no longer feel I need to try to be a better man than he was just to feel as if I am his equal. I can also understand that my mother held me close after he died because she needed someone to touch and hold on to, especially after my grandfather took his own life. And it took me a while, but I finally learned that I would never lose her love simply by making choices for my life that were different than the ones she would have made for me.
The question, “How could you not know you were gay until you were forty?” is much easier to answer now. I was a child in an era when the Nazis were performing experiments on homosexuals in Germany. I was an adolescent when our own government associated homosexuality with Communism and believed that gay men and women needed to be exposed and eliminated. I had a therapist who suggested that my homosexuality might lead to jumping off a bridge, as it did so tragically for Tyler Clementi, a young Rutgers student. I have experienced the AIDS epidemic and hearing people say that my friends deserved to die because God was punishing them for their abominations. I have had a friend murdered by someone who felt that killing a gay person might bring power to his powerless existence. Living in a world so hostile to homosexuality inhibits development and creates contradictions and dissonance that demand repression. In fact, it seems almost surprising—even heroic—that anyone comes out at all.
Mature men who have sex with men but who have not yet come out have asked me, “Is it too late for me?” Author Carlos Castaneda wrote, “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong, the amount of work is the same.” In my lifetime, older gay men were once thought to be poor, to live in the Bowery, to seek oblivion in cheap alcohol, and to regress to a point where they preyed on small children. But a new image of mature gay men is emerging. Having confidence in what we think and feel, and responding to our own perceptions in a positive way, allows us to move out from behind the mask of concealment and live life authentically.