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Midlife and beyond: ageing in the gay community

Thu 28 May 2015 In: Our Communities View at Wayback View at NDHA

Counsellor and therapist Paul Letham Five years ago I turned 40. Around that time, I was speaking to my father on the phone. He asked me what it felt like now to be, effectively, middle-aged. I replied “Dad, it’s strange – I still feel 25”. His sixty-something response? “Oh, that never changes…” Ageing is an aspect of our lives that can creep up on us with a certain disquieting inevitability. Anxieties may fester. Life’s meaning may be reviewed. Ours bodies start to change. We can even deny its insidious progress. How relevant is this to the LGBT community? What expectations are placed upon us as we age? Are there cultural rules we’re supposed to adhere to? And should we take any of this seriously? Technically, I am now “an older guy”. That feels strange to say because, as mentioned earlier, I still feel psychologically rooted in my twenties in many ways. I’m a little wiser, yes, and I have some experience under my belt, but I still have the same hopes and expectations that I’ve always had: to love, to be loved, and to live a fulfilling life. So, to paraphrase my father’s statement, the engine is essentially the same, but the chassis is changing. When I turned 30, I had friends around me who laughingly referred to it as “gay death”. As the internet dating phenomenon grew in the 2000s, I found that, disappointingly, this had more than a grain of truth to it. Even in my mid thirties, I was regularly rejected on the basis of age by potential online suitors. My self-image was largely robust enough to take these knocks (their loss, right?), but nowadays in my private practice as a counsellor dealing largely with the LGBT community, I often meet men that infer from these rejections that they somehow simply don’t measure up. The subject of age frequently enters these conversations: I’m old, I’m overweight, I’ve been unsuccessful in life, I haven’t done enough with my life, my time has run out, and so on. A profoundly sad example of the subject of ageing as a gay man can be found in the case of New York therapist Bob Bergeron. Handsome, successful, and 49 years of age, he was on the cusp of having a book published. It’s title? “The Right Side Of Forty: The Complete Guide To Happiness For Gay Men At Midlife And Beyond”. The book was actually never published as, sadly, Bob took his own life shortly before it was due to be printed. His suicide note, left beside a copy of the book (and with an arrow pointing to the book), said simply “it’s a lie based on bad information.” The article detailing Bob’s life and death affected me deeply. To my mind, his story only serves to demonstrate the overwhelming power of our culture’s edicts: it’s not ok for your looks to fade, and beyond forty you can expect mostly rejection as older men are unattractive. You get the picture. As gay fifty-something Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys sang a few years back, “it's queer how gradually I've become invisible”. "Online dating profiles abound with 'no-one over 35 and 'no creepy old guys'. Gay male culture conflates beauty and desirability with youth. Self-worth is therefore centred on appearance. Our community’s older members are often destined for the aforementioned invisibility. Perhaps this is what Bob Bergeron encountered and felt conflicted about: his feel-good-about-yourself-beyond-forty book may have begun to seem unwieldy and unrealistic given the powerful waves of youth-focused material our gay culture produces. In our forties and beyond, we continue to seek acknowledgement, but our community largely abandons us. Online dating profiles abound with “no-one over 35” and “no creepy old guys”. So, even coming from a position of apparent expertise in the subject of gay men’s mental health couldn’t save Bob Bergeron’s life. I occasionally feel these resonances myself: I’m wiser, but I’m now required to come to terms with a vanished youth whilst watching pitiless gravity do its thing. Vague bouts of loneliness do occur upon occasion, and with this, a certain sense of grief. As Jungian analyst James Hollis suggests, I’m beginning to realize that the things that served me well in my youth are not necessarily serving me any longer. To Hollis, this is simply one aspect of negotiating “the middle passage” towards becoming a more fulfilled mid-lifer. It’s inevitable, and the sooner we process it, the sooner we become fulfilled. There are obviously exceptions to all of the above, and perhaps I am running the risk of over-generalising here, but the pressures are very real. One younger friend of mine actively seeks older men as partners, but not due to any latent “sugar daddy complex” or for any fetishistic reasons. He simply enjoys the relative stability, support, and wisdom that older men tend to offer. Different strokes, and all that. So how do we, as gay forty-somethings and above, overcome the youth-obsessed culture we find ourselves a part of? It’s important that we find ways not to run from ageing, but to face it head-on. Here are some pointers that might assist: 1) Realise that your sexuality is still valid. Sexual expression doesn’t end at midlife. In fact, some studies suggest that it’s at its best around this time and beyond. 2) Keep yourself fit, healthy and active, but acknowledge to yourself that your looks will change over time, despite any gym regimen or vitamin supplement. Don’t fight it – nobody escapes this! 3) If you feel you’ve hit middle age and haven’t achieved much, don’t despair. Nowhere is it written that you have to have all your ducks in a row before the age of 40 (or 30, for that matter). You can reinvent yourself at any time. 4) Learn to laugh at the images we’re shown in the gay media, if you can. Or get angry. Those images are largely over-stylised, unrealistic, and potent thieves of self-esteem. They’re designed to sell you things: underwear, jeans, and hair product. They’re phantoms. Reject them as much as you are able. 5) If you’re feeling as though middle age is triggering some discomfort within yourself, perhaps consider talking to a counsellor. Therapy can help you discover what these emotions are telling you, and ways that you can deal with them productively. Having said all of this, perhaps it’s time for the different generations of gay men to start talking to one another more, and honouring the experiences of each. How much could be learned from the older generations if they were given a voice? If they were judged not so much on their ageing chassis, but on the vital engine that is still contained within? How many stereotypes might be busted? I’ll leave that perhaps to a future article. Paul Letham is a counsellor and therapist at Auckland’s Mind Your Head Counselling, who has written a number of columns for GayNZ.com. He specialises in depression, anxiety, identity issues, sex/sexuality, relationship problems, GLBT issues, self-esteem, and existential concerns. You can find him on Facebook hereand on Twitter here.  Paul Letham - 28th May 2015    

Credit: Paul Letham

First published: Thursday, 28th May 2015 - 10:23am

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