Coming Out at 48
Posted on January 22, 2013 by The Quest
Mark, a recent participant of The Quest Weekend Exploration Workshop, shares the journey of him coming to terms with his sexuality – and coming out as a gay man, later in life.
I first noticed I might be relating to the world differently from many other boys when I was very young. My friends at infant school were girls rather than boys. I was timid and avoided the ‘rough and tumble’ play of other boys. Even although as a slightly older child most of my friendships shifted to being with boys, I naturally befriended those who were gentle, more imaginative and more cerebral. In those early years I also began to sense that not liking team sports, or not wanting to put myself in physical danger, meant that I was not conforming with what the world expected of ‘proper boys’. Although I could see I was not alone in these tendencies, a ‘mis-match’ was definitely becoming apparent. Unbeknown to me, even at this early age, my shame began to insidiously influence my self-perception and behaviour.
As I entered puberty, my latent sexuality began to manifest itself in my imagination and then inevitably in the sexual fantasies I had when I learnt about masturbation. My first wank, which I remember very well, was on a family holiday in the hot summer of 1976 when I was 12 years old. I ‘came’ imagining playing with the naked body of another boy staying at the same hotel. Soon my incredible imagination included other school friends, boys and men from on the TV, all weaving into my safe but incredibly fantastic dreams, that I let run in a separate, secret sex world in my mind.
As my sexuality developed into what I now know was almost completely homosexual in its flavour, the serious ‘splitting’ of my personality began. With no role models or encouragement from the world around me about how people could be gay, content and authentic, I went all out to strive for a heterosexual existence. I imagined a future where I would meet a beautiful, caring (and preferably boyish, elven) woman and we would have children and live the ‘dream’. The dream which society and my own parents were constantly enticing me with. The deep shame behind this splitting just got deeper. Despite (or may be because of) being an intelligent and thoughtful young man, I could not untangle myself from the psychological and philosophical knots I was tying myself in. The utter fear, guilt, shame and self-loathing I was unconsciously associating with being gay drove me to create a taller and taller ‘stack of cards’. Justifications built on assumptions built on procrastinations built on avoidance … and so on it went.
Through University I tried to have girlfriends, and certainly had one very close loving friendship with a girl, but beyond a few fumblings, there was no sex of any kind. I kept myself slightly introverted, aloof and vaguely asexual. I learnt many tricks to avoid having to really confront any truths.
It was only when I began my post-graduate studies that I began to meet and be influenced by people, who questioned the cosy, English, middle class idyll of how life should be – not directly to do with sexuality (I was still very clever at making sure I avoided this), but to do with politics, relationships and ‘life’ in general. This had the effect of making me question myself more deeply and as I became more confident as a person, I also began to see that I could not move forward until I somehow resolved this inner conflict. And so, knowing I was in a good place, surrounded by loving, open, supportive and intelligent people, at the age of 23 I told my closest friends that I was bisexual. This ‘telling’ included my brother, but also more importantly my parents, who I told by writing them a long letter.
Several things happened as a result of this first attempt at ‘coming out’. Firstly I had my first sexual experience with a woman (a good friend who I asked if I could have sex with to see if I was able to be heterosexual). This person was actually going out with another good friend at the time, who sat downstairs knowingly while I fucked his girlfriend (and the friendships didn’t end as a result – what amazing people). I thought this was a changing point in my life. It was a moment in time charged with emotion I will never forget, although in retrospect the fact I chose to learn hardly anything from it was not at all obvious to me.
Secondly, on a consequent visit home to my parents, in another never to be forgotten moment in time, my father privately confided to me, that he was glad I was bisexual, because at least I had a chance of being ‘normal’. He then admitted he was gay himself, but that no-one (apart from a late male cousin) knew. This was the first and last time he ever spoke about this until the day he died 22 years later. I am still unsure about how this revelation, and his and my consequent silence, affected my own ‘coming out’ journey, but I have to admit to myself it was inevitably probably negative. If my strong, confident father could not accept who he really was, how possibly could I?
So, although I had now ‘admitted’ to my family and close friends that I was sexually different, and had in theory created a window to follow this ‘confession’ through and explore fully what it meant, instead I parked it and went back to striving for that dream of a normal heterosexual life (but now longing for a potential wife who would be happy with knowing I was bisexual).
There was a brief time, when I was doing a teaching course in Bristol where I had a golden opportunity to explore my sexuality further. I had several good gay friends, who knew I was bisexual. I went to a gay bar once or twice with them and even went to the London Gay Pride march that year with the Bristol Uni LBGT group. But all the time I stayed detached, an observer looking in and ‘did’ nothing. Meanwhile to most of those whom I had ‘come out’ to, it was as if I had never told them. I tacitly encouraged them not to remind me or challenge me. I developed even more tricks and mind games to re-enforce my newly ‘partially out’ cool, liberal bisexual image. I convinced myself, after my initial ‘coming out’ to a select few, that I did not have to go around telling every new person about my sexuality, but would tell people privately when and if they needed to know. I didn’t. In reality I had gone well and truly back into the closet. Behind it all the shame was lingering and festering and the compensatory behaviours getting more fine-tuned, clever and habitual.
I then at the age of 28, I met my first true girlfriend. Just as in my idealised dream future, I told her I was bisexual and she accepted it. And just to confuse matters even more, I genuinely fell in love with her. I was with her for 2 years and we had a sexual and emotional life together. I learnt the pleasures of being sensually close with another human being and of being able to connect with and please them. I saw a future unfolding – marriage, children, the whole package. BUT all the time, when I was alone I would still have fantastic homo-erotic wanking sessions. When I was having sex with my girlfriend although her reaching orgasm would stimulate me, my orgasms were mainly auto-erotic. It was all very ‘conscious’ and I know I often used other (homosexual) images in my head to finish the job. Meanwhile I thought I was being honest by occasionally admitting to my girlfriend (cruelly I now realise) about man-crushes I was having.
And so slowly, my dear, sweet, calm, understanding girlfriend realised this was not ‘right’. She met another man and then it was over. This ending filled me with utter grief and despair. My genuine love for her led to a genuine broken heart and to genuine irrational behaviour (including practically ‘stalking’ her for 6+ months after we split – including moving jobs and home to be closer to where she had moved to). This extreme response was of course fuelled by the fact that, because I was actually gay, it was going to be doubly hard to go through all this again to find another women.
Yet 2 years later I did, because another woman found me! I think I was a challenge to her and she wanted to find the real me behind the contradictions of my aloof yet also sensitive and gentle persona. My second girlfriend was similar to my first in that I told her I was bisexual (and she also accepted it) and we did live together for nearly 2 years and have a sex life. But again the sex was not entirely honest. I did not like kissing her and after sex would regularly turn my back on her. This was terrible behaviour in retrospect. Although she was more emotionally honest about her own needs, than my first girlfriend, eventually she could not sustain this and she ended it. This time it was not ended for another man (although she got a new boy friend soon after) and I was able to talk through with her a lot more about what had not worked. She actually stayed living with me for another year and remained as a brilliant friend and is now my best friend. She knows me like no-one else and me her. Yet still for many years afterwards, through several other boyfriends that she had, and through periods of closeness and distance (emotionally and geographically), I held onto a crazy dream that because she knew me so well we would rekindle our relationship and live together as a ‘proper’ couple (the happy bisexual in a straight relationship in a straight world). This dream was still totally counter to my ongoing sexual fantasies – all still decidedly homo-erotic. The splitting, the shame, the colluding and compensating were still as complicated, habitual and dangerously fragile as ever.
Throughout this period, during my late 20s and into my 30s, whether in a heterosexual relationship or not, I was externally having by all accounts a pretty successful life. Despite the endless, circular melodramas in my head and the oddly seductive melancholia of my private existence, I crafted a way of being in the world that allowed me to function competently and even very well. I learnt to downplay the shame of being gay, and used the many advantages of being an intelligent, educated, white male living in late 20th century UK. I had a successful education and then a successful career. I even did things to seemingly take me out of my comfort zone, including learning to scuba dive and doing world travel (sometimes on my own – although always in a very safe controlled way). I even chose a career as a teacher as a way of putting myself ‘out there’, but on my terms and very much ‘in control’.
People seemed to ‘rate’ me as someone who worked hard and got things done. An organiser. My parents were proud of me, playing up my achievements, no doubt in part to hide their concerns about my love life or lack of it. Some friends saw through my external persona to the open, sensitive, gentle, emotional man beneath. They loved me as a loyal, thoughtful, and diplomatic friend. To them I am forever thankful. But in a sense my external success and the network of (‘once removed’) love and appreciation I had nurtured made the ‘splitting’ more marked and the tension between wanting to be true to myself and wanting to not let go of the ‘heterosexual, middle class, family man’ dream even more unbearable. I am sure I also used my ongoing special friendship with my last girlfriend to avoid facing or needing anything else – that and the immense release and satisfaction I got from my daily homo-erotic wanking (fired by my formidable imagination) meant it was easier to carry on with ‘business as normal’ than to confront the truth. Wanking for me was so satisfying that I didn’t even need to find physical release through secret or casual gay encounters (as I now know many of my fellow closeted gay brothers were doing). Indeed I colluded with myself to stay in this ‘comfort zone’ for a further 10 years of single-dom as my 40’s passed on by.
So I guess the next stage was a period of 2 years, 2008-2009, when external realities of life and death began to burst my cosy bubble. My father was diagnosed and died of pancreatic cancer (within a 10 week period), only two days after my aunt died suddenly of a heart attack. My 97 year old grandmother deteriorated and ended up suffering the indignity of dying in a nursing home the following year, not before my mother suffered a mild stroke (from which she has still not and never will totally recover). Then my dog, which I had owned for 10 years, began to get ill and died traumatically in early 2010. Through out this time, which was nothing more than many other people suffer throughout their lives, I ‘coped’ surprisingly well. Just as I had developed strategies for covering up my sexuality, I developed strategies for covering up my fear of death and my grief and my anger. Indeed I stepped up to my well-rehearsed role as the calm, rational, ‘in control’ oldest son.
And still superficially my daily life went on successfully, although I did fail an important job interview for a promotion I assumed I would get, which I now see highlighted for me the deep lack of confidence and worthiness bubbling as ever under the surface. Throughout this period, I began to reach a similar ‘stretch point’ in my life to the one in my early 20s where the splitting could no longer be sustained and I knew I had to take action. My initial action was to go to see a therapist. This was not, I convinced myself, because there was anything wrong – heaven forbid, but just because it would be ‘interesting’. The therapy was good and I made slow but steady progress. I gradually shifted how I wanted to live my life and how I wanted to relate to the world, through a combination of revelations from the therapy and from the many self-help and spiritual books that I had always tended to read (in particular Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now’).
But still I circled around the shame at the core of it, with probably some collusion from the therapist. Toward the end of the annus horribilis of external events mentioned above, I challenged myself, and my therapist, to return to my core issue: my acceptance (or lack of it) of my sexuality. As a result we agreed I would switch to a gay therapist who could help with this specific issue, which I did. He was, and still is, doing amazing work with me, but I now was beginning to realise that I had to start taking the lead myself and setting my own challenges, and so we get to the present day…
Since Summer 2011 I have:
- Admitted to myself I am gay – not bisexual
- I have told (re-told) everyone (apart from my Mum) and I am now living as an openly gay man with my friends and colleagues.
- I have begun to meet and social with other gay people (especially through my local Gay Outdoor Club)
- And I have just attended the incredible weekend Quest workshop in December
I feel like I am now, at the grand old age of 49, at the beginning of a true journey of discovery.
I hope my story will help others who have left ‘coming out’ to later in life to take the plunge and at last embrace their true, authentic selves. It is still hard work, it is still a journey, but it is worth it a hundred times over.