Coming Out & Turning 50

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:21

    Richard'sgoing to be 50 in a few weeks. Two years ago, after someone called and offeredhim a new job in a new town, his life started to twist in strange and unexpecteddirections. "Igot those calls pretty often because I'm pretty high profile in the industryI'm in," he tells me. "But I always just said I wasn't interestedbecause I didn't want to uproot and move the family." This new offer soundedgood, though, so he decided to give it a go. "It would not only be a reallygood opportunity to move into another area of the field, but it would shakemy life up a little bit-but believe me, I had no idea." It tooksome 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 stayput for a year, until the youngest child finished high school. "Thefirst 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 whenRichard found himself laid up in the hospital, hooked to a variety of machines,while doctors tried to flush an evil and potentially life-threatening parasitefrom his system. It took them some time, and while he was there, he says, hehad a lot of time to think. At first, he started thinking about how much hewas enjoying living alone, and how nervous he got whenever the subject of hisfamily rejoining him came up. Then he started thinking about why. "Iwas 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 compartmentalizingit. 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 thisepiphany 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 totell them then?" So manygay people these days seem to proudly declare that they knew they were gay whenthey were 10, or six, or still in the womb. And that's fine. There's nothingwrong with that. Richard, however, found himself in a bit of a pickle-he'd beenmarried for 23 years and had kids to think about. While stillin 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). "Hesaid that I looked terrible, and asked what was going on, so I told him. Hesaid that I really needed to get some help with this, because it was going toget more confusing before it gets clearer." After leavingthe hospital, he went to see a therapist who specialized in men who come torealize they're gay in midlife. "WhatI realized is, number one, once you really accept it about yourself, you reallyhave 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 togo out in any other way except the way I wanted it to go out. So I decided Iwould come up with a process. That's what I've spent the last year doing." First, totest 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. "Iknew I needed a fair amount of time with her to work out this information. Shewas planning to come up and spend a week with me to start house-hunting. I decidedabout two weeks before she came up that that would be the time. I was scaredto death. But I started to get a little creeping-in of relief... I owe it toher, which is what it really boils down to. It just wasn't fair to keep thatbig of a secret, especially now that I was actively thinking about it." When hefinally did tell her, well, I guess he got the reaction most of us would expect. "Completeand total shock. Total shock. Now, I'm not the most butch guy on theface of the Earth. I'm the first to admit it. But I did well managing my lifein the straight world... In some ways it was shocking, but in some ways it helpedexplain 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 reallyimportant. 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, becausehe was "so much better with houseplants." The nextstep was figuring out how he was going to tell his kids. "Forthem it's two losses," he explains. "Their parents are separated andtheir dad is gay-which, for a late adolescent, is one of the worst times. Theyhave a preconceived notion of who you are their whole life, and they don't wantanything to rock it... I sat them down the day after Thanksgiving and told theboth of them together." Unfortunately,and perhaps understandably, his children didn't take it so well. "They'rejust furious... They don't like the idea at all, and they don't want anyoneto know. That's been a real tightrope walk for all of us. It sets up this interestingdynamic of wanting the truth, but not wanting to hear it, and not wanting totell anyone else." Now, however, with the passage of time, they seem tobe slowly coming to accept it. "Iwasn't going to let anything keep me from having a relationship with them, nomatter what it took. So I've been in the process of trying to figure out howto do that. I have likened this experience to the reaction often expressed bythe family survivors of suicide. There's a lot of anger, mystery, sadness andabandonment. It's like I killed myself, but didn't die-now they reallydon't know what to do with me!" Once hisfamily and most of his close friends knew, Richard was free to start his newlife. I ask him how familiar he had been with the culture beforehand. "Ihad a lurking interest," he tells me, "but I had no idea that it wasas interesting and bizarre and complicated as it really is... It was such aneye-opener... The best way to explain it is that while many of the rules remainthe same around social interactions between two people, there are a lot of themthat are completely thrown out the window. Just in the day-to-day things thatgo on in meeting someone. The first two or three times you meet them, it's flowersand candy and thoughtfulness. As soon as you have some connection, it all revertsto this other form of interacting that's much more a matter of pushing the envelopeto see how far I can freak you out. Not like 'I'm crazy, I'm gonna freak youout'; it's 'Here's-who-I-am-and-don't-try-to-change-me, I'm gonna freak youout'-and how much of this can you stand before you go away?" While headmits that he's generalizing, he says it's also been his experience that mostgay relationships are of a very transient and superficial nature. "There'sa lot of sadness and hurt and rejection in the culture," he says, "becauseeveryone's had their heart stomped 25 times." Among thethings that most surprised him as he learned his way around was the prevalenceof fuck-buddies. "They'resafe, you can trust them, they're reliable, they're exciting, but you don'twant 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 togo through the hassle. Even people in long-term relationships have them. I haveonly seen one couple in the last year who seemed to have a monogamous relationship." One of thethings Richard's done to assimilate himself is join a support group for gayfathers. He tells me there are chapters in most major cities-and some citieshost more than one-revealing a phenomenon that is much more widespread thanmost people would probably realize. Again, though, it wasn't exactly what heexpected. "Ithought 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 immediatelypartnered. As soon as they got out of their marriage they found a guy and movedhim in." He recentlywent to the group's annual dinner, to test the waters. "I was one of aboutsix unpartnered people there. With a few exceptions, the average age discrepancywas 10 years. Sometimes 20. I felt like I was in an HBO special. They were dancingwith their partners and their kids and their fuck-buddies all at once. I interviewedeverybody. I talked to the older and the younger men, which was the part ofthe phenomenon I was most interested in that night. My suspicions were prettywell confirmed-the younger men offer the older men nurturing responsibilitiesthat they're used to; there's a parenting aspect to it. There's a financialaspect on both sides. There's a sense of 'I didn't have sex with men for 25years, and when I could I got the hottest one I could find, no matter what ittook.' It was very clear and very open. "I'vealso been to talks on parenting," he goes on, "talks on dating, talkson how to become a leather aficionado. I went to a talk one time on the bestlube to use. Ahem. Part of that discussion was how to use a female condomwhen 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 goeson to explain the dynamics-and mechanics-of the dating scene, as he's foundthem so far. "Sexis completely and utterly available, either online or through phone chat linesor through having buddies. A lot of it is tied up in regular, athletic, adventuroussex. I was not really into that. I'm 49, I'm not 23 and buff-I had a littleconcern 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 tomeet somebody, exchange a few phone calls, have coffee, go out to dinner, themovies. But that all takes too long for people. They want to come back and sleepover the first night you go out with them. If you're not up for that, then youdon't get them." He saysa 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 hisage. "[Myage] automatically eliminates me from 70 percent of the dating pool. But forthat remaining 30 percent, they're either my age or they're 30. They eitherwant companionship and equality, or they want a daddy-in the broadest senseof the word... I'm not up for that, either. I need that for my own kids. Buta lot of gay men who don't have kids fall right into it because it's a verynurturing thing to do for somebody. "Theones that are more my age are looking for somebody to step out on their partnerwith. Or they've just come off of a 15-year relationship and they need a reboundperson. That's been my experience so far. And then there are a few who are prettysolid people, but boring. There are boring gay people just like there's boringanything else. To me, if somebody's too much of an anachronism, I can't dealwith it-the ones who raise orchids and read Martha Stewart. I mean, when youarrive at their house and you see the lace half-curtains, my immediate responseis, 'Oh, I don't think this is gonna work.'" And thenthere's the whole gym scene. "Ifyou don't belong to a gym or have a personal trainer, you obviously don't thinkenough 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 toa small gym with a mixed crowd where I'm not distracted. I tried a gym thatwas primarily gay for three months and couldn't wait for my membership to runout, because it was just posing and loud music and people hooking up in thesteam room. I couldn't deal with it. That's part of the whole culture. I knowI'm generalizing, and there are lots of people who don't participate in thisstuff, but that's the accessible part of the culture that you really have toget used to." Given allthat-the various frustrations and problems-I ask Richard if, in the end, hethinks he is happier having made the decision to come out. "Iwas actually just thinking about that," he admits. "I'm really, reallysad at the loss of the relationship I had with my kids, because it's somethingI'll never regain in the old form. I miss it every single day. Was it worthit? 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 honestwith myself and almost everybody else in my life. That's a real relief. AndI feel that in the last year I've reached back and found some sort of couragethat I never knew I had. I'm a little proud of myself because of that." He willadmit, however, that his timing could have been better. "Ionly wish I had done it 15 years ago," he sighs. "The kids would'vebeen younger. I would've passed through all of these crazy transitions whenI was younger and probably dealt with them better. I would probably have beenable to salvage more of my relationship with my wife, because we're probablyalways going to be pretty estranged now. "Ithink it's been worth it, though," he concludes, "because I thinkI've started to see the other side. But wow, no one prepared me for how hardit was going to be."