As a child, I clung to the myth of Santa Claus until the evidence against it finally overwhelmed me and I had to let go of it. Parents reinforce the myth by encouraging children to believe in Santa Claus, promising them that if they are good, they will be rewarded.
I desperately wanted to believe in the myth of my heterosexuality, too, and I clung to it as well. I was a very good boy—doing everything that was expected of me—and society rewarded me for it. Then one day, that myth got blown apart. The barrier between my rational thought and my unconscious desires fell, allowing both sides to blend together like colors on an artist’s palette that cannot be separated again.
I began to ask myself the question I’ve been asked by others so many times: How could you not know you were gay until you were 40?
"The more I spoke with other men about their experiences, the more I recognized the commonality of the emotional pain experienced by men who censor any word, thought or behavior that might expose their same-sex desires."
As a psychiatrist, trained in science, I went to the literature of psychology to find an answer. However, everything I read focused on much younger men. Psychologist Vivienne Cass created the classic model of gay and lesbian identity development in 1979, about the same time I was struggling with this issue. Although she suggested that healthy men could go through the process later, the model indicated that most subjects had formed a gay identity by their mid-20s. I was already 34.
I began to meet other men, many of them married with children, who were either struggling with their sexual conflicts or were somewhat further along in the process than I was. I dug deeper into the literature but found little that discussed the transition of men from a straight identity to a gay or bisexual one later in life.
I then began to examine this transition in the context of my life. I grew up in rural Nebraska in the 1950s. During this time, gender roles were rigidly defined, and being a “sissy” meant being weak and subordinate. Senator Joseph McCarthy held hearings accusing homosexuals and communists of committing subversive acts against the government. Psychiatrists considered homosexuality a pathologic deviancy. No one I knew lived as openly gay. It wasn’t that people spoke out against homosexuality; they didn’t speak of it at all. It was as if a blackout existed on all information about any healthy expression of sexuality.
The more I spoke with other men about their experiences, the more I recognized the commonality of the emotional pain experienced by men who censor any word, thought or behavior that might expose their same-sex desires. Gay men attempt suicide at a rate three times higher than the general population, some of them multiple times, and these suicide attempts often occur at the time they make the decision to come out.
I realized this story needed telling, and I thought, “Why not tell mine?” The first step I took was to do a convenience sampling of other older gay men to validate my hypothesis that the coming out process for older men is different from that of males who came out at a younger age. My findings supported my hypothesis and encouraged me to write Finally Out.
As an older gay man, I also saw the heavy burden placed on us by the stereotypes of being older, especially being older and gay. When I heard a gay man say, “I’m 82, and this is the best time in my life,” I thought, “What does he know that I should know?” So I examined the opportunities of aging and recognized the parallels between coming out as gay and coming out as old. In both cases, developing a positive identity depends upon destroying internalized stereotypes and adopting a positive attitude about our sexuality and our age.
My hope is that some of the answers I have found will offer others insights into why some men who love other men might marry and have families, choose to come out or not, or delay coming out until midlife or beyond.
Loren A. Olson, M.D., the author of Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, is a board-certified psychiatrist with over 40 years of experience. He is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and has been named an Exemplary Psychiatrist by the National Alliance for Mental Illness.