I just finished reading about the suicide of a gay therapist Bob Bergeron. No one knows for sure why he committed suicide—the author of the article and many of his friends are left to ponder the reasons. But the irony left in the wake of his death is hard to ignore. He was about to publish a book on successful gay male aging and his suicide note suggests that he was struggling with the very issue he was writing about—a potentially difficult subject for many gay men as we grow older..
A closer consideration of gay male aging suggests why growing older might be particularly tricky for gay men. First of all, too large a component of gay male culture is focused on beauty, youth, and sexual attractiveness. Like their heterosexual counterparts, gay men respond and react sexually to visual stimuli, namely the physical appeal of their sexual partners. As a result, beauty is privileged, and so are the men who are lucky enough to have it.
Joan Collins once said that physical beauty is a gift granted in youth that is taken away little by little over time. Thus, gay men who are lucky to live long enough to age must face the decline of their attractiveness. However, growing up gay in a stigmatizing society might leave them particularly ill-suited to face this challenge.
Bob Bergeron is a case in point. According to an article in the Sunday April 1st New York Times, Mr. Bergeron grew up nervous, awkward, poor at sports and unable to interact with other boys. If he was like a lot of other developing gay boys, he was probably scapegoated and physically harassed. Many of us, including me, were terribly bullied as children. We were called out for being gay before we even knew who we were. At the same time, we learned being gay was something shameful and disgusting needing to be hidden from the world, including the people closest to us. Many of my clients and research respondents who have experienced this stigmatization grow up with deep wounds and a profound sense of personally inadequacy and low self-worth. So perhaps we were vulnerable to some of the dark sides of gay male life, namely, its overemphasis on looks, youth, and sexual attractiveness at the cost of healthier and life sustaining values that can assist us as we age.
However, for those who are very physically attractive, the seductive pull of other’s attentions, even if they are fueled by superficial motives, is hard to resist. Imagine being left out and bullied as a child, feeling like an ugly duckling but growing into a beautiful swan, as Mr. Bergeron and many gay men do, and finding a world that suddenly values, respects, and admires you. People are paying you a lot of attention and you are perhaps having a lot of sex—comforting salves to the childhood wounds that lay buried deep within.
But what to do when those physical qualities in which you have invested your self worth start to dissipate, as they inevitably do as we age? Wounded gay men are perhaps among the least equipped to handle the challenge of finding something to hold onto, something lasting and meaningful to sustain oneself through the aging process.
So, how do gay men age gracefully?
It is first important to begin to dismantle the idea that beauty represents goodness and worth. Nothing is wrong with lusting after a handsome man—(we are gay men after all), nor doing what you can to be one yourself, but be careful never to value the wrapping over its content. Commit yourself to look beyond the surface. You, that muscle boy on the beach as well as the guy you might call a “troll” all have feelings and a history, and we are all making our way in the world as as best we can.
Here are some more helpful tips
1) Remind yourself that you are human. If you are fortunate enough to be pretty, by all means enjoy it but understand that you will need something else to sustain you, particularly as you get older. If your looks are average at best, don’t fool yourself into thinking that your more attractive counterparts are happier or more fulfilled than you are. As a matter of fact, you may have a head start in figuring out the true meaning in life and finding values that will sustain you over the long haul.
2) Remind yourself that others are human. For gay men to judge and put other gay men down makes about as much sense as Newt Gingrich condemning someone else’s infidelity. Judging others and ourselves based on our physical attractiveness is WRONG and ultimately can lead to an emotional dead end. That man who is too fat, too old, too skinny, too feminine or whatever your dislikes are (acknowledging that there are a lot of us who are into men who are older, skinny, fat or femme) is also a human being, who, like you has feelings, wishes, disappointments, hurts, wounds etc. By the way, the same goes for that hot hunk.
3) Those of us who are gay have usually developed the skills to be good social critics—how can we not if we live in a world that rejects us? Apply that same critical lens to our own community and you will observe that many of us are too focused on looks, age, and sexual attractiveness. Anyone who puts all of his self-esteem eggs in this basket, will eventually be shortchanged
4) The most psychologically healthy people I know are those who understand their purpose in life and use this understanding to chart thier course in life. Try to figure out why you are here on this earth. If you have any religion or spiritual beliefs, try to determine why God, however you see Him/Her, put you here. What are you meant to accomplish in this lifetime?
5) It is said that Roman emperors would hire someone to follow them in the streets chanting "memento mori" (which loosely translates into: "Remember, you are going to die someday"). Perhaps this mantra can remind you of the fleeting nature of life and also get you in touch with what you want to do with the time you have left.
6) If you are older, become a mentor. Young people, LGBT and otherwise, need our wisdom, our experience and also need to know our history.
7) If you are younger, respect your elders--look at them and understand that will be you someday--that is, if you are lucky enough to avoid prematurely dying young of some disease or accident. Older guys have a lot to teach, and you have a lot to learn.
Most importantly, find something to hold onto. Life is hard, but do try to hang in there and face the any darkness you encounter. If you let go of the rope, like Bergeron did, not only do you hurt the people who love you but you will miss the rewards and richness of life that is inherent in healthy aging. .