I have been writing about intergenerational gay relationships for some time now, and tangentially about men who have come out late in life. As a blogger on WordPress I can see some of the search terms that bring people to my site. Curiously one that comes up, in various forms, time and again is the question; “Why do older men turn gay?”
I suspect that this question comes from siblings, children, and/or spouses of someone that has come out late in life. These people may be looking for answers during a time when their world has become challenging and confusing. This makes a lot of sense. These individuals have viewed this man in traditional heterosexual roles of husband and/or father, but all of a sudden he is, seemingly, claiming to be someone completely different.
However, I think this question “why do older men turn gay?”, is a bit limiting. In this post I will reflect on my experience, the experiences of others, and the nature of male sexuality to shed some light on this issue. We’ll start by taking a look at two competing theories about human sexuality and see how those may relate to coming out as an older man.
People are Born Gay
The first theory of human sexuality, and one that I think is embraced by much of the gay male community, is the notion that sexuality is defined early in life (likely childhood) and is unchanging. In this instance a person coming out late in life did not turn gay, rather they have been gay all along, but for a variety of reasons chose to live a straight lifestyle. Many gay men recount stories about knowing they were different at a very young age. For myself I started recognizing attractions to men early in my teens, though I tried to deny it even to myself for years. Much of my social circle consists of older gay men. A large percent of them were married at one time, but most if not all recount early attractions or sexual relations with men even before getting married.
Sexuality is Fluid
A second interpretation of human sexuality is that orientation is fluid and can shift over time. This view recognizes that human sex orientation is a continuum from having solely attraction to the same sex on one end and solely heterosexual attraction on the other end, with individuals in between that have varying levels of attraction to both genders. One may be mostly attracted to the same sex, but hold slight attractions to the opposite sex or vice-versa. Under the fluidity model, throughout life people shift along this continuum, though often not shifting great distances. In the case of men who come out late this may mean they fell somewhere in the middle of the continuum, but closer to the heterosexual end, earlier in life. However, later in life their attractions shifted more towards men. Likely, all along there was an attraction to men, but because of social pressures and familial expectation these bisexual men tended toward heterosexual relationships. That said, scientific studies of the subject tend to recognize this sort of fluidity in women more often than in men.
Motivations for Playing it Straight
It should be understood that men who come out late and have been married, and perhaps even had children, were often under a lot of social and familial pressure to do so. Even more striking compared to contemporary gay experience, many coming of age prior to the 1970s met institutional condemnation of homosexuality in the field of psychology. Seeking the aid of a psychologist meant being told that getting married and having kids, denial of one’s feelings and attractions, was the cure. Once established in such a relationship, especially after having kids, the pressure to stay straight is even stronger. Coming out can have repercussions on social status, employment, and last but not least a fear of hurting their loved ones. Understandably, the wives and children of gay men that come out late may feel betrayed or unwanted. But, as I speak with gay men that have transitioned from straight life, I usually hear nothing but love and respect for those family members.
Why Come Out Now?
The timing and reasons for coming out, young or old, married or not, are ultimately very personal for every gay man. But, for those that have been married I’ve noticed some common experiences. First, for some men, leading a double life becomes unbearable. While not all married gay men cheat on their wives with other men, some do. This way of life carries it’s own stresses and ultimately the man is discovered, or decides it would be better if he outs himself before he is discovered. For others, I think coming out late may often coincides with a midlife crisis. After living so long the way they are expected to live, middle aged men begin to realized they are running out of time to live they way they want to live. Also, during this time their children are getting older and becoming more independent. The timing for coming out may coincide with feeling that their family is capable of coping with the stress, with the sense of loss.
I am pleased to say though that I’ve seen a number of families that have weathered such a storm. It takes time, but after the hurt feelings and tumultuous time of change, families of gay fathers often return to a place of love, caring, and mutual respect, only now in a new form.