Anthony Carter explores the personal costs and gains for gay men who wait until they are older to “come out.”
During the course of my first relationship, I dealt with the coming out process, AIDS, and developing relationships in a way my sexuality would not cause anyone problems or upset.
I also learned all the lies required to survive: distancing myself from flamboyant queens, switching pronouns when speaking in mixed company, avoiding family gatherings and the question – do you have a girlfriend? – coming up with great reasons that some guy and I were always palling around.
I tried to “pass.”
There are gay men who not only can’t pass, but don’t even try, and I applaud their courage. These brave individuals take to the streets, get in the face of our oppressors and often demand and institute change. There are others who quietly go about their lives cloaking themselves in what society deems appropriate and move about undetected, and many would say safe.
When people come out is another tool used to divide an already divided community.
While I am familiar with the power that accompanies “coming out,” I also understand the fear and trepidation this engenders. Many of us learn to lie early and often via our parental units. We are encouraged to manipulate and psychologically disappear. Is there any wonder so many of us enter chronological adulthood while remaining intellectual infants?
When it is demanded that we, as noted psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden would say – “play dead,” – there is little impetus to stake the claim that being gay requires.
Folks who come out later in life are awarded many privileges for bowing down at the throne that is patriarchal domination and assimilation. While no one will address the effects this has on the individual who denies who he is at the core, it often leads to some serious acting out. I have had more than one conversation with men who are constantly cruising for action, and who are willing to risk death and sex offender status for sexual contact with other men.
When men come out later in life, it is typically not without some thought as to what will be lost and what will be gained. What our older gay community needs is not a barrage of questions regarding why it took so long to come out, or the always helpful – stay in the closet and ride it out. What we need is not only support for them but also ways to as bell hooks would say, create strategies for survival and dare I say thriving.
Recently, I was invited to facilitate a group of gay men.
We began with one topic, and it became very clear to me that the greater need and the most powerful focus could be “thriving amidst all the things that conspire to “take us out.” Nobody wanted to hear this and I was disappointed and dismissed for even suggesting this.
My disappointment came from the lack of importance that we place on how people come out and what skill set they mastered during their time of self-imprisonment. I pointed out (on three occasions) that as men in our 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, we had survived and figured out ways to support ourselves and offer self-care in the process.
I wanted to hear from those of us who had very different experiences.
If a black guy in the 1970s came out with his white partner, what did this mean to them? What were the consequences? If a white gay man in the 1980’s was diagnosed with this new “gay cancer” and watched his friends die, then had to nurse his partner until his death, what did that create?
Men that come out later in life have a knowledge base that is vastly different than those that got started early. What must happen is not an either / or response to when someone came out, but a sharing of resources that in no way invalidates or gives one set of life decisions more value than another.
I often find it personally difficult when dealing with white partners who have had access to everything because of either their whiteness or their assimilation into straight culture. As a person who was only allowed entry into this identity denying malaise (assimilation and self-denial) between the ages of 14-19, then was given a not so subtle pink slip when I claimed my gay identity, my struggles with those who “wait” for the big reveal often upset me.
After talking with several folks who came out later in life, it is clear that although on the surface it looks as if things were simpler and access was a plenty, it had a cost. Everything has a cost. Nobody gets to live life consequence free.
A better solution is to combine the best of all worlds.
My experience of having to fight to be who I am and left the hell alone from age six onward can be combined with all of the financial know-how and possibilities that come with the larger, mainstream culture.
Having to survive and offer a finger to the culture that wants me dead has provided me with the opportunity to determine what truly matters and how to consistently and unapologetically trust my mind and instincts.