"Why come out at forty? You're too old for sex," so said a young twenty-something. This thinking is wrong on three counts:
1. Forty is the infancy of old age
2. Men and women have sex well into late life
3. Being gay is about far more than just having sex.
Some will question my authority about being an expert on coming out in midlife, when I couldn't figure out my own sexuality until I was forty. I suppose that one's life never seems odd to themselves, but I never believed that my situation was all that unique.
In doing my research and writing Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, my hypothesis was that coming out in midlife is more common than thought and the process of coming out in midlife is more complex - but not necessarily more difficult -- than to come out at a younger age. One of the participants in my research survey came out after 53 years of marriage to a woman, and he now is living happily with his gay partner.
Age is comprised by a number, albeit an important one. It determines when we can drive, vote and apply for Medicare. But our age inside our heads is comprised of much more than a number. We have biological age; some of us won the genetic lottery and remain in good health most of our lives. Others age well before their time.
We also have a psychological age determined by how life's events impacted us as we grew up. A person who grew up in a sheltered environment will not be the same as someone who grew up on the streets. You might even say we have a geographical age because of how sociocultural circumstances impact our lives.
And finally, we have a sexual age. Some of us mature sexually much earlier than others. Some are far more sexually experienced at an early age than I was. Our sexuality changes as we mature and some of those changes may even be for the better. Age allows some of us to broaden our focus of sexual excitement beyond just an orgasm.
Now in my sixth decade, I can testify in support of the idea that men and women are still interested in sex. Sexual drive and frequency may change. Erections may not come as easily. But after learning to understand and accept some of the changes of aging, sexual satisfaction can remain quite high.
Being gay and coming out is about far more than sexual behavior; it is a sexual identity. One study suggested that nearly 10% of married men have had sex with another man in the previous year and nearly 10% of men who self-identified as straight had sex exclusively with other men. In other words, there may be more "straight" men who have sex with men than there are gay men who have sex with men. Some in the gay community would criticize these men as not being "self actualized."
The progression from living as a straight man to a life of being gay is not a linear process as some have suggested. It has been described as a trajectory: different for each of us and impacted by a multitude of dynamic forces. The course of my coming out was more like a sailing ship, sailing in heavy seas and sailing from port to port against a strong head wind. At each port, I off-loaded some of the baggage of my heterosexual existence.
This column, "Finally Out," will address all of these issues and more. It will be more interesting for the reader - and certainly more fun to write - if I hear from you. I heard from a young African who begged, "Please, Dr. Olson, can you take away the torment I feel because of my attraction for men?" I cannot promise to do that, but I know that feeling and I can say that somewhere there is an answer. Perhaps I can help you find it.