Coming Out & Turning 50
Richard's going to be 50 in a few weeks. Two years ago, after someone called and offered him a new job in a new town, his life started to twist in strange and unexpected directions.
"I got those calls pretty often because I'm pretty high profile in the industry I'm in," he tells me. "But I always just said I wasn't interested because I didn't want to uproot and move the family." This new offer sounded good, though, so he decided to give it a go. "It would not only be a really good opportunity to move into another area of the field, but it would shake my life up a little bit?but believe me, I had no idea."
It took some doing, but he finally convinced his wife and kids that it was a good idea. They decided that he would move first, but the rest of the family would stay put for a year, until the youngest child finished high school.
"The first six months or so, it was okay. Everyone buckled down to this new routine. The key turning point for me, really, came a month after I moved here."
That's when Richard found himself laid up in the hospital, hooked to a variety of machines, while doctors tried to flush an evil and potentially life-threatening parasite from his system. It took them some time, and while he was there, he says, he had a lot of time to think. At first, he started thinking about how much he was enjoying living alone, and how nervous he got whenever the subject of his family rejoining him came up. Then he started thinking about why.
"I was aware that I was sexually interested in men. That had come up, on and off, in the two-year period before the move, but I was pretty good at compartmentalizing it. I...just put it away. I said, 'I don't want that part of me to be there, I don't want to act on it, so I'll just deny it.' In the hospital, I had this epiphany that it was really there, and it was probably driving my anxiety about reconnecting with the family. What if they moved up here and I had to tell them then?"
So many gay people these days seem to proudly declare that they knew they were gay when they were 10, or six, or still in the womb. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Richard, however, found himself in a bit of a pickle?he'd been married for 23 years and had kids to think about.
While still in the hospital, he was visited by the chief of psychiatry from his new job. During the course of the conversation, the news came out (so to speak).
"He said that I looked terrible, and asked what was going on, so I told him. He said that I really needed to get some help with this, because it was going to get more confusing before it gets clearer."
After leaving the hospital, he went to see a therapist who specialized in men who come to realize they're gay in midlife.
"What I realized is, number one, once you really accept it about yourself, you really have to deal with it. I didn't want to get into a big 'sneaking around' thing, I didn't want to get caught and embarrassed. I didn't want the information to go out in any other way except the way I wanted it to go out. So I decided I would come up with a process. That's what I've spent the last year doing."
First, to test their reaction, he told a few friends, who, he says, "were very accepting, and most of them not very surprised. Well, surprised, but not surprised." The next step was to figure out how, exactly, to tell his wife.
"I knew I needed a fair amount of time with her to work out this information. She was planning to come up and spend a week with me to start house-hunting. I decided about two weeks before she came up that that would be the time. I was scared to death. But I started to get a little creeping-in of relief... I owe it to her, which is what it really boils down to. It just wasn't fair to keep that big of a secret, especially now that I was actively thinking about it."
When he finally did tell her, well, I guess he got the reaction most of us would expect.
"Complete and total shock. Total shock. Now, I'm not the most butch guy on the face of the Earth. I'm the first to admit it. But I did well managing my life in the straight world... In some ways it was shocking, but in some ways it helped explain some things to her. Her immediate reaction was to pack up and go home. But I talked her into staying for the week, because I thought it was really important. We cried a lot, and we yelled a lot and worked on it."
At one point, he remembers with a laugh, she told him she should have known earlier, because he was "so much better with houseplants."
The next step was figuring out how he was going to tell his kids.
"For them it's two losses," he explains. "Their parents are separated and their dad is gay?which, for a late adolescent, is one of the worst times. They have a preconceived notion of who you are their whole life, and they don't want anything to rock it... I sat them down the day after Thanksgiving and told the both of them together."
Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, his children didn't take it so well.
"They're just furious... They don't like the idea at all, and they don't want anyone to know. That's been a real tightrope walk for all of us. It sets up this interesting dynamic of wanting the truth, but not wanting to hear it, and not wanting to tell anyone else." Now, however, with the passage of time, they seem to be slowly coming to accept it.
"I wasn't going to let anything keep me from having a relationship with them, no matter what it took. So I've been in the process of trying to figure out how to do that. I have likened this experience to the reaction often expressed by the family survivors of suicide. There's a lot of anger, mystery, sadness and abandonment. It's like I killed myself, but didn't die?now they really don't know what to do with me!"
Once his family and most of his close friends knew, Richard was free to start his new life. I ask him how familiar he had been with the culture beforehand.
"I had a lurking interest," he tells me, "but I had no idea that it was as interesting and bizarre and complicated as it really is... It was such an eye-opener... The best way to explain it is that while many of the rules remain the same around social interactions between two people, there are a lot of them that are completely thrown out the window. Just in the day-to-day things that go on in meeting someone. The first two or three times you meet them, it's flowers and candy and thoughtfulness. As soon as you have some connection, it all reverts to this other form of interacting that's much more a matter of pushing the envelope to see how far I can freak you out. Not like 'I'm crazy, I'm gonna freak you out'; it's 'Here's-who-I-am-and-don't-try-to-change-me, I'm gonna freak you out'?and how much of this can you stand before you go away?"
While he admits that he's generalizing, he says it's also been his experience that most gay relationships are of a very transient and superficial nature.
"There's a lot of sadness and hurt and rejection in the culture," he says, "because everyone's had their heart stomped 25 times."
Among the things that most surprised him as he learned his way around was the prevalence of fuck-buddies.
"They're safe, you can trust them, they're reliable, they're exciting, but you don't want to live with them. You don't want to date them. You put up no expectations, no airs. Just, 'Hi, you wanna have sex?' 'Sure, I'll be over in 15 minutes.' Everybody has them. Everybody. It's how you get off without having to go through the hassle. Even people in long-term relationships have them. I have only seen one couple in the last year who seemed to have a monogamous relationship."
One of the things Richard's done to assimilate himself is join a support group for gay fathers. He tells me there are chapters in most major cities?and some cities host more than one?revealing a phenomenon that is much more widespread than most people would probably realize. Again, though, it wasn't exactly what he expected.
"I thought I could meet people who've had a common experience," he recalls. "But most of them have come out earlier than me, most of them have immediately partnered. As soon as they got out of their marriage they found a guy and moved him in."
He recently went to the group's annual dinner, to test the waters. "I was one of about six unpartnered people there. With a few exceptions, the average age discrepancy was 10 years. Sometimes 20. I felt like I was in an HBO special. They were dancing with their partners and their kids and their fuck-buddies all at once. I interviewed everybody. I talked to the older and the younger men, which was the part of the phenomenon I was most interested in that night. My suspicions were pretty well confirmed?the younger men offer the older men nurturing responsibilities that they're used to; there's a parenting aspect to it. There's a financial aspect on both sides. There's a sense of 'I didn't have sex with men for 25 years, and when I could I got the hottest one I could find, no matter what it took.' It was very clear and very open.
"I've also been to talks on parenting," he goes on, "talks on dating, talks on how to become a leather aficionado. I went to a talk one time on the best lube to use. Ahem. Part of that discussion was how to use a female condom when you're a gay man, and how they're so much better, because they don't break. Part of it was about cock rings?the kind that can hurt you, the kind that can't, the velcro ones, the steel ones, the leather ones. We had visual aids. Harnesses, paddles... I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm in The Twilight Zone.'"
He goes on to explain the dynamics?and mechanics?of the dating scene, as he's found them so far.
"Sex is completely and utterly available, either online or through phone chat lines or through having buddies. A lot of it is tied up in regular, athletic, adventurous sex. I was not really into that. I'm 49, I'm not 23 and buff?I had a little concern about body image and safety and all these things I had to learn about. So I wasn't into gratuitous sex at the drop of a hat. So for me, I wanted to meet somebody, exchange a few phone calls, have coffee, go out to dinner, the movies. But that all takes too long for people. They want to come back and sleep over the first night you go out with them. If you're not up for that, then you don't get them."
He says a lot of other things have gotten in his way, so far as dating is concerned, too?specifically his former married status, the fact that he has kids and his age.
"[My age] automatically eliminates me from 70 percent of the dating pool. But for that remaining 30 percent, they're either my age or they're 30. They either want companionship and equality, or they want a daddy?in the broadest sense of the word... I'm not up for that, either. I need that for my own kids. But a lot of gay men who don't have kids fall right into it because it's a very nurturing thing to do for somebody.
"The ones that are more my age are looking for somebody to step out on their partner with. Or they've just come off of a 15-year relationship and they need a rebound person. That's been my experience so far. And then there are a few who are pretty solid people, but boring. There are boring gay people just like there's boring anything else. To me, if somebody's too much of an anachronism, I can't deal with it?the ones who raise orchids and read Martha Stewart. I mean, when you arrive at their house and you see the lace half-curtains, my immediate response is, 'Oh, I don't think this is gonna work.'"
And then there's the whole gym scene.
"If you don't belong to a gym or have a personal trainer, you obviously don't think enough of yourself to be worth anyone's time. I've gone to the gym for 10 years, but I've never been a gym rat. I go because I know it's good for me. I go to a small gym with a mixed crowd where I'm not distracted. I tried a gym that was primarily gay for three months and couldn't wait for my membership to run out, because it was just posing and loud music and people hooking up in the steam room. I couldn't deal with it. That's part of the whole culture. I know I'm generalizing, and there are lots of people who don't participate in this stuff, but that's the accessible part of the culture that you really have to get used to."
Given all that?the various frustrations and problems?I ask Richard if, in the end, he thinks he is happier having made the decision to come out.
"I was actually just thinking about that," he admits. "I'm really, really sad at the loss of the relationship I had with my kids, because it's something I'll never regain in the old form. I miss it every single day. Was it worth it? I believe so at this point, because I'll survive. I think I may not have, had I not dealt with it. I think I would have found some way to self-destruct. I feel more of a sense of peace because I feel like I'm able to be really honest with myself and almost everybody else in my life. That's a real relief. And I feel that in the last year I've reached back and found some sort of courage that I never knew I had. I'm a little proud of myself because of that."
He will admit, however, that his timing could have been better.
"I only wish I had done it 15 years ago," he sighs. "The kids would've been younger. I would've passed through all of these crazy transitions when I was younger and probably dealt with them better. I would probably have been able to salvage more of my relationship with my wife, because we're probably always going to be pretty estranged now.
"I think it's been worth it, though," he concludes, "because I think I've started to see the other side. But wow, no one prepared me for how hard it was going to be."
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