For queer men of a certain age, marriage and kids were out of reach and many face aging alone. But that doesn’t have to be bad.
When I was sixteen, living in a northern California suburb, an older gay friend of mine asked me if I ever wanted to get married and have kids. The year was 1980, and John, who was 24, might as well have asked me if I planned to someday go on a mission to Mars.
I don’t remember my exact response, but it was probably something along the lines of: “Are you fucking kidding me? I just want to make it out of this town alive.” Making the question more unusual was that I realized John wasn’t asking just to pass the time: He already had a plan to marry a woman (on paper, anyway), have children, get a quickie divorce, then raise the kids with whatever man he fell in love with. Easy-peasy in the Reagan years, right?
I lost touch with John after his longtime companion died from AIDS complications sometime in the late ’80s (that chapter wasn’t in the plan), but I did learn from mutual friends that he never had kids, and, this being a whole different century, never got to marry the man he fell in love with. He lives by himself near the same small town where I left him, and, from what I’ve been told, lists not having a family as his biggest disappointment. To quote what a millennial once said to me, in a scathing assessment of my single status, “I guess you missed the boat.” Boat? We didn’t even have life jackets back then.
True, there’s a slew of gay men my age and older getting married, many of whom have been together for ages, and I came close about ten years ago, but a lot of men of my generation came out too late, or reached sexual and emotional maturity at a time when a house with a white picket fence wasn’t in the cards. As the song goes, we were working for the weekend. Now, we’re getting old (a surprise to some), and, with this next phase, learning that we might have to do it without the support from a partner or a family of our own. Making matters more complicated, if we can’t afford retirement or are introverts at heart, the Golden Girls fantasy of hanging out with other silver seniors feels like someone else’s sitcom. Thank you, but they don’t want you being a friend.
The most common DMs and comments I get from gay men whenever I write a piece on aging ask me for advice or vent about invisibility. I’ve been lucky, because I like getting older (much of it, anyway), and some of the best years of my life have been in the decade of my fifties. But when it comes to navigating the next part, the last part, I’m not an adviser — I’m a participant. Kids are probably out of the picture, and while I’d still like to get married, I don’t spend my time frantically obsessing over my last chance to find a man. I also avoid guys who survey me like a piece of furniture to match life’s drapes. Since I don’t have a tribe (I never even joined the kids on the school playground), a summer share to attract a bevy of beautiful boys, or a dowry, I often feel like I’m in open waters without a compass.
So where does that leave me, and much of you, as we unwittingly forge ahead? Students of life, once again. For me, it’s all about homework and the lessons already learned. I also believe in the bounty of knowledge our elders espouse, though, sadly, most of my gay role models didn’t live as long as I have—yep, another depressant in our poorly plotted “Have a Gay Ol Time” handbook. Luckily, I do have straight, older, content friends who inspire me on a regular basis.
One of the reasons why I never was much of a group person is because I find much of the attraction to be surface-based—support groups are an altogether different, necessary story. But if you spend all your time trying to fit in with the Shallows, once your visual appeal has vanished (not pretty enough, connected enough, rich enough, cool enough, young enough), a lot of those amazing, Instagrammed-filtered guys disappear. Hashtag No Longer Blessed. There’s a reason why Mean Girls is such a gay staple, and it’s not because we feel the need to support the work of Lindsay Lohan.
I’ve spent a lot of the past years cultivating close friends from different spectrums, and the payoff is less glamour, more substance. Sure, some of them have disappeared for whatever reason, and sometimes it’s painful. I’ve been ghosted by a couple of BFFs, and I’ve pulled away from a few myself. Good friends do leave, but then, like a pop-up birthday surprise, a new one shows up. I do know that I have solid company to travel with me on the harrowing road ahead. Reconnecting with long ago buddies from my hometown several years ago (after years of emotionally running away) was the smartest thing I’ve done in ages.
Another guiding factor I’ve learned along the way is to avoid making specific plans. They’re like those New Year’s resolutions I also gave up on years ago—a setup for failure. I have goals, ambition, things I’d like to accomplish, dreams, but I’ve lived long enough to know that God, or whoever’s running this show, couldn’t care less about my personal agenda. I no longer act like my pity-me 25-year-old self when a great job falls through, a man rejects me, I don’t lose those extra five pounds by beach season. The way I figure it, if I’m breathing the day’s off to a good start.
As for the external, yeah, it’s going and it ain’t always pretty (literally), but I’m relieved the time has passed when I would fret if the guy next to me at the gym was prettier, more muscular, with a better workout wardrobe and the ability to bench press several thousand pounds without breaking a sweat or messing up his hair. Learning not to compete with the boy next door is like giving up a drug habit—freedom from external forces. Imperfect bodies are like imperfect men, more beautiful for the flaws.
None of this means I’m properly prepared to get old, or have divine wisdom to impart on those who are lonely, scared, or unhappier with each increasing year. My mother has dementia and I’m at that age where longtime friends are dying of illnesses other than HIV, so I don’t pretend to look at the final days with aplomb. I also have no desire to be a guru, because that, too, is often polished pep talk.
Whenever I think about the complexities of aging as a gay male, I think of the story of Bob Bergeron, a Chelsea therapist, motivational speaker, and godlike beauty who seemed to have it all figured out, so much so that he wrote a self-help book called The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. Shortly before publication he took his own life, and, on the suicide note, wrote “It’s a lie based on bad information.” An arrow pointed to the book title.
None of us have all the answers, there are no magic potions, and aging can be hell. What I can do — what we all can do — is look to our peers for support, offer and accept advice, learn from the past, and take this thing called life one day at a time. The way I see it, a lot of people have gotten old before me, and a lot will grow old after me. If we keep at it long enough, and keep passing down knowledge, it might just eventually get a whole lot easier. We’re all in the same boat.