A GAY PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
This blog is a reflection on how my life as a gay man has changed since I was 50. I hope there might be something here worth reading about and even identifying with.
It was a heyday. I was earning well and with a partner who was similarly placed. We had good, expensive holidays and able to easily afford most of what we bought. The mortgages were in sight of being paid, but I was aware that my enthusiasm for work was not the same as in my 40s. I was still driving change but changes were also now beginning to drive me. Younger people were starting to be a threat as they were more marketable compared to me at the top of the earning table. People around me were taking early retirement and life seemed less secure. Within my gay world it was important to show you had a ‘successful status’ label and, socially, what you did in your job was seemingly more important than your own personal qualities. By the end of my 50s I had already taken voluntary redundancy and early retirement.
At work I had been out to some people but mostly not to the majority. With the same colleagues I didn’t experience any problems about my sexuality but with management changes taking place I felt an increasing insecurity that my sexuality might count against me. I didn’t feel able, nor did it seem wise, to come out any further since there were no existing employment laws which I felt would protect me. By the end of my 50s I was much further out, indeed militantly so, and that was because the constraints of being in a straight environment no longer controlled my life.
I was fortunate enough to be living in a long term relationship but increasingly I felt that we had lapsed into a comfortable, self satisfied state. Our gay friends tended to be similarly placed and that sense of permanence, however self satisfied, produced a feeling that this was a forever, and whatever state of being.
For those 50s who were single and still working, they seemed to take comfort in the fact that they only had themselves to look out for. They could use their cultural and travel experiences, their money and their intellect as the way into making social contact with others. Their work filled up their time and any sexual frustration could easily be worked out through the occasional/regular impersonal flings. When by the end of the 50s, as a carer with a seriously ill partner, and with both parents deceased, I also felt less sure that a close relationship was what I really wanted. Better to live as a single person where you only had yourself to deal with but fortunately that feeling didn’t last for long.
I was well. My caring roles were demanding but I felt that both physically and mentally I was able to cope with the stress and survive the ordeal. The deaths of parents and eventually that of my partner reminded me of universal mortality but for me it was others who were likely to die and not me. I loved walking and made sure that that I used the experience for re-creating both mind, body and spirit. Those who had succumbed to HIV and AIDS were not forgotten and I launched myself locally into concern and care for them – I had no fear that I would go the same the way. My self image was sufficiently strong to believe that I might still be admired, even fancied, by some, though it was clearly now a young gay man’s world and also, too obviously, I was not young any more. I was aware of other gay men of the same age as me, and who were desparately trying to ward off the inevitability of ageing by lying about their age, while others did what they could with what hair they had left. By the end of the 50s I was starting to experience occasional foot pain and lameness, the result of road running in my 40s, and my digestion was no longer as strong as it had been.
By the end of the 50s I had paid off the mortgage and had now decided, to my surprise, that I was at my best when I had someone to love and who loved me. Creating a new relationship involves all kinds risk and by experience I now understood why so many gay men of my age had weighed up those risks and decided they weren’t worth the trouble, but I felt resilient enough to go for it and luckily found someone. So I entered my 60s with a younger man and a more comforting outlook .
I had spent the latter 50s working part time, but now at 60 I was ready to stop. My financial resources fortunately seemed sufficient to see me through but I became increasingly aware that the ‘Pink Pound’ experience was a highly selective description for many gay men. Increasingly I met gay men of my age who were not just unemployed but hadn’t worked for years and similar numbers also who were hanging onto work just to survive, let alone live well. My time was now used up almost completely in volunteering for various gay charities. I became more and more concerned that the gay community had not sufficiently considered that older gay men might have distinct and significant social and emotional needs. There had even been a suggestion, in places, that the AIDS pandemic had left very few survivors in their over 50s. So my activities became focussed on raising awareness of older gay men’s needs. By the end of my 60s I had found a role in such work which satisfied me immensely and I believed my work was starting to make a difference especially in the field of supporting carers and those with dementia.
As a former carer of someone with dementia I didn’t feel I had had any choice about coming out. In order for my partner to have the care he needed it was necessary to be out. It was though largely a liberating experience even though the circumstances surrounding it were unhappy, and I became more convinced that all older gay men should opt to be out. This was reinforced when I became a carer again of someone with a terminal illness and, when coping with the news, we both decided that the key to us receiving the best possible support lay in our willingness to be open about our sexuality. However my experience elsewhere, when conducting a couple of funerals of friends, was that I was asked, by surviving partners or relatives, to be discreet and even be in denial of the deceased person’s sexuality. The issue of openness was sometimes the same when friends were hospitalised. It became obvious to me that unless older gay people took the step of coming out, our needs would continue to be unknown and ignored and as a group we would be thought to be invisible.
It felt so liberating to be able to celebrate gay men’s relationships when civil partnerships become legal. Being gay was no longer the shadowy existence that it had been for so many of us during previous years. Evidence of long standing partnerships became more well known though the fact remained that the vast majority of gay men in their 60s were single and lived alone. It remained true that, for many, gay existence took the form of a series of short term sexual contacts or even, for some, no sexual contact at all. I knew a number of men who preferred not to be in a relationship and thus avoided the pain of bereavement or ‘divorce’. Finding someone special was not worth making the effort for, but that was for them, and not for me. I was willing to take the risk in order to find love and I succeeded even though sadly it led to a second bereavement and, at times, overwhelming sadness and pain.
During my later 60s more friends died and I felt my own mortality more acutely. I felt there was a significant emotional difference between those still in relationships and some living alone. With some I noticed a greater frequency of seeing the doctor and less inclination to go out. A few of the bereaved had not organised their affairs properly and one friend even found himself homeless as a result of his partner’s will. Others started to face the consequences of their own physical decline and some, not surrounded by caring families, had to depend on state care which sometimes resulted in them going back into the closet for safety sake. My own bereavement resulted in more long term medical conditions and made me feel less secure. I made a choice that health service professionals always needed to know about my sexuality so I could be assured of being treated holistically.
Considering the future had consequences in organising my present. Feeling more acutely that nothing was forever, including myself, gave me an impetus to do whatever I wanted to do now rather than leave it till later. So the future for me would be in remembering and celebrating what had been happening in the present. I packed my time with travel, writing, learning and volunteering as my way of avoiding a future, where all those activities, might be unlikely or even impossible.
The days of working to earn money were now such a distant past that I ignored/forgot what real work was like. It became normal for me to get up when I wanted and to sleep when I wanted but I also felt that I still needed some of the stress which work brings. Situations which created deadlines were annoying but they seemed also to be helpful in that brain and body were stretched and those times forced me out of the laziness which retirement can tempt you into. I felt I had still had something to offer and this was particularly true when looking at the needs of older LGBTs. It was no longer a matter of concentrating on LGBTs with dementia and their carers but now a matter of focussing on the hordes of us older LGBTs who were facing an unknown, and for some, a frightening future. So it became important work to raise awareness of our needs and try to encourage charities and LGBT groups to look at how they could serve us. Joyfully that work is now becoming more rewarding with encouraging consequences.
My 70s were now a ‘what the hell’ existence and more brazen. There were very few situations where I was not inclined to admit my sexuality and I lapsed into a ‘do you want to make something out of it?’ approach. I wasn’t famous but I was sometimes well known and I realised that I could do and say things in public which others didn’t feel able to do. So I was more frequently wheeled out to make speeches and to conduct even more funerals of LGBT friends who had sadly died. It became so rewarding to be recognised and thanked just for being me. Wow.
Experience had taught me how good it was to be in a relationship with another man, and experience had also taught me something important about being realistic when trying to create successful happy ones. The death of my second partner had left me shattered and I thought like so many other single and/or bereave gay men that older age would be a lone, though not necessarily a lonely time. Then approaching my 70s I met Nigel. Younger than me but not too much so, and then started the learning and giving process which all vibrant relationships need. I long realised it was fruitless thinking that seeking someone like myself with the same interests etc was necessary. Instead I started to glory in celebrating difference and responding to those differences. I felt that gay relationships might fail if one partner tries to squeeze the other into his understanding of happiness. rather than letting the differences become a source of celebration and sharing. It’s been a struggle at times but so worth it and I think that others, especially gay others, should take the risk in order to feel fulfilled.
AgeUK has a lot of images of older (sometimes very old) people doing extraordinary things, such as running marathons. I admire such people but there is also an element of freakishness about their exploits. My 70s tell me something different because I am not so active and need to take more medication, I also become very tired at times and want to say more frequently ‘no, thanks’ to invitations when I’m not keen or just feel that I can’t make it. Like so many in my age group I now have my first experience of cancer – not serious, but it’s a reality. This has made me realise that since the majority of us older gay men are living alone, the existence of advocates and befrienders are so helpful, if not crucial, in enabling us to see our crises through the minefield of support, and hopefully have better times.
Well it exists and statistically is likely to exist, but now with one proviso. Years before I had chosen the maxim ‘nothing is forever’ as a guiding principle. That has changed. Now I choose ‘every day matters’ as the new principle. If all the thousands of gay men in their 70s were to adopt that what a difference we would make to both our gay and straight worlds.