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The Lives and Experiences of Middle-Aged Gay Men

by Hans Hafkamp in Lifestyle & Fashion , 17 juli 2017


It’s nearly half a century ago that the Stonewall riots broke out in New York City. Although this fanatical resistance to gay-hostile police arbitrariness was not a first, it was a milestone because of its aftermath.

In the following year, the riots were commemorated with protest marches in various American cities, and as an oil spill, these commemorations expanded across the world, demanding equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as visibility. In the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, different groups started to flourish, fiercely promoting gay liberation.

The extent to which the Stonewall riots really were the starting point, and the extent to which they were due to social developments that were already under way, such as the African-American and women’s liberation movements in the USA, the “counterculture” of hippies and other rebellious youths, and the “sexual revolution,” is debatable. In any case, Stonewall and subsequent developments were not without consequence, as in the 1980s, an overwhelming amount of coming out books started to get published, and nowadays also the number of films about boys and girls discovering their “different” sexual orientation has become vast.


Rebellious Youngsters

The brave people who had dared to promote gay rights up to that moment mostly tried to communicate that they were “just the same.” The men presented themselves well in costume, and the ladies wore dresses, fully complying to the social rules of the era. The 1960s youth, however, did not want to conform, and the younger gay people shared this rebellion. They fought for the right to live the way they saw fit, and not “in a corner or hidden cellar” as dictated by the legal system and prejudices.

Shortly before the Stonewall riots, Mark Segal, born in 1951, met young Marty Robinson in the New York office of the discreet gay organization Mattachine Society. He had become familiar with the organization through David Susskind’s TV show, who was one of the first to let “real live homosexuals” talk on his show. Marty Robinson told him: “You don’t want to be involved with these old people. They don’t understand gay rights as it’s happening today. Look what’s happening in the black community. Look at the fight for women’s rights. Look at the fight against the Vietnam War.”

The young Segal was taken in by his rhetoric and wrote in his memoirs: “It was 1969 and Mattachine had become old. They were men in suits. We were men in jeans and T-shirts. So he told me that he and others were going to start a new gay rights movement, more in tune with the times. Marty was creating an organization called the Action Group and I became an inaugural member.

We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do or what actions we might pursue, but none of that mattered. Others at that time were also creating gay groups to spark public consciousness, similar to the groups feminists were establishing. [...] Groups across New York worked independently of each other, but all with the same goal of defining ourselves rather than accepting the labels that society had branded us with. We were on the ground floor of the struggle for equality, and though some might have seen it as a sexual revolution, we saw it as defining ourselves.” About a month after his meeting with Marty Robinson, the eighteen-year-old Segal was present at the Stonewall Inn when the police invaded. After they had checked his ID, he was allowed to leave, much to his relief. And history took its course.

Now, almost fifty years after these self-willed young gay men began their struggle for equality and self-determination, we can conclude that they have been very successful. Meanwhile, generations have grown up in a time in which it’s no longer necessary to conceal same-sex desires or comply with the norm. In recent years, several books have been published in which the people who were involved in this struggle look back on their lives.

Mark Segal, who founded the “Philadelphia Gay News” in 1976, published “And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality” in 2015. A year later, “When We Rise: My Life in the Movement,” the autobiography of Cleve Jones was released. Cleve Jones, who was born in 1954, had been active in the gay movement in San Francisco from the early 1970s on, and initiated the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1985. In Germany last year, Elmar Kraushaar published “Störenfried,” which, according to the subtitle, collects “forty years of gay journalism,” and in the Netherlands Rob Tielman’s “Humanisme als zelfbeschikking: Levensherinneringen van een homohumanist” was published.


Invisible Existence

Cleve Jones starts his memoirs with the following observation: “I was born into the last generation of homosexual people who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else on the entire planet who felt the way that we felt. It was simply never spoken of. There were no rainbow flags, no characters on TV, no elected officials, [...] no pride parades, no ‘It Gets Better’ [...]. Being queer was sick, illegal, and disgusting, and getting caught meant going to prison or a mental institution. Those who were arrested lost everything - careers, families, and often their lives. [...] There was no good news.”

Although the situation in the Netherlands (especially with regard to legal prosecution) was different, “invisibility” in the Netherlands also caused problems for young gays. Rob Tielman (born in 1946) in a pre-publication of his autobiography in the special issue “Vies en rose” of the “Tijdschrift voor biogafie,” for example, wrote that in 1965, when he was nineteen, he thought that he was “asexual, as girls and women did nothing for me. I was ejaculating at night, but I never jerked off. There were no opportunities for exciting moments of recognition.” This invisibility, however, also meant that homosexual behavior often did not lead to self-identification as a homosexual. Shortly after Tielman moved out of his parent’s house in 1965, he established an intimate bond with the seventeen-year-old son of his landlady: “I helped him with his homework, and he helped me getting acquainted with sexuality. And we agreed that we were not homosexual, as we were not effeminate.”

Some argue that having more social visibility of homosexuality for some makes coming out even harder, as that “confession” to family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues immediately evokes a lot of images. In his autobiographically inspired study “40+ Homo’s: Gay Midlife”, the forty-seven-year-old Philip Meelhuysen, who only came out of the closet at twenty-six, writes about his youth on the countryside in Brabant, where he was checking out his nephews from his mother’s side.

“They were boys from Twente who walked and talked like machos. They were strong and, in my eyes, never afraid. You feel it coming - on my mother’s side of the family, I was the misfit. A weak boy with a very good brain, a nerd. Nevertheless, my cousins gave me tips and clues on how to behave better, particularly tougher. As a child, I thought I was all wrong. [...] Now I understand that the advice and the tips were well-meant. My uncles and cousins were aware of what happens to boys who are weak and afraid: they are bullied, ostracized and beaten up [...], and in a worst-case scenario they become homosexual. My family members wanted to protect me from this.”


Coming Out of the Closet, or Staying In?

Although Meelhuysen had his first holiday love and gay experience shortly after finishing secondary school and subsequently told his mother he was gay, he spent almost his entire years as a student in the closet: “Only a few close friends knew I was gay. [...] I had my real coming out at the end of my university years, at twenty-six. Finally, I could openly go out in the Amsterdam gay scene.” In the chapter on relationships, Meelhuysen confesses: “Looking back at the first part of my life and the relationships I had, I think I could and should have done a lot of things differently. The most important thing would be coming out of the closet at a much earlier date. I would have experimented much more with dates in my early twenties.” He also writes: “Although I lived and studied in Amsterdam, the gay capital of the world at that time, the gay world largely passed me by.”

Despite these comments about his late coming-out, Meelhuysen does not go into details as to why he stayed in the closet that long. Was it because of his upbringing and his childhood in which he “tried to look as tough as possible” and “was afraid to read or buy a book about homosexuality, afraid to be caught out”? In really can’t understand this. In his early twenties, he read Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. That doesn’t seem to be a surrounding in which it is difficult to come out of the closet, more to stay in. Did he stay celibate all those years, or was he having sex with girls to keep up straight appearances?

Meelhuysen must have arrived in Amsterdam around 1990. Even if you were not “out” and participating in the gay wold, openly gay people could be found in public places as well as in the work place. I met my first boyfriend in the mid-1970s when I went to work after completing high school, enabling me to buy books at a renowned bookstore in the center of Amsterdam. A subjectively interested bookseller there noticed that I regularly bought books that in some way or another, had to do with male love. He suggested titles, and we finally became platonic friends. A friend of the bookseller must have seen me talking to him and inquired after me, as at one point he dropped by at the shop where I worked, and introduced himself. It was a match, and we talked until closing hours, had diner, and eventually ended up in bed.

I only discovered the night-life after this affair had ended after a couple of weeks. It was a sexual adventure. My first boyfriend, who was ten years older, had been in a relationship for years, but liked the variation, something I had been aware of from the very first moment. After discovering the Amsterdam night-life, one thing led to another. At one point, I met a man I got along with splendidly, and by now we have been together for approximately forty years. For this we didn’t need an extensive overview of the different phases gay relationships go through, as Meelhuysen supplies.


Mature Years

Meelhuysen does not indicate whether the circumstance that he delayed his personal development for about a decade could have been one of the reasons for going through a mid-life crisis after his fortieth birthday: “More and more I felt uncomfortable with myself and could not get enthusiastic about anything anymore. [...] I felt down and decided to consult my general practitioner. He referred me to a psychologist who was also gay. With him I discussed my personal life in great detail, and talked about my priorities. I was forced to think about who I was and what I wanted out of life. It was the first time I had done so, and it was a good experience. [...] For the very first time I read about mid-life and the problems that are associated with it. It was a real eye-opener, so I wanted to know more.”

In his search for more information, Meelhuysen discovered that there is relatively little recent literature on the mid-life phase of gay men compared to the coming out period, and decided to contribute to the field himself. For his book, he interviewed fifteen gay men and, on the basis of these conversations, compiled an online survey that was completed by over 120 people when he started writing his book. However, this survey is available at www.homidlife.com, which might indicate that the people who responded to it were taking an interest in this prior to taking the survey, therefore not making it representative for the general middle-aged gay population (although I also would not know how to approach a representative group).

In his introduction, Meelhuysen wishes his readers “many a aha-experience, eye-openers, laughs, and especially reading pleasure.” Although I belong to the surveyed group of gay men aged forty to sixty (even in the highest range), I mostly read the book with astonishment. To me, there wasn’t much I could recognize and relate to. Perhaps that is because Meelhuysen, inspired by autobiographical motives, focusses strongly on the experiences of gay urban professionals (GUPs), who spend a lot of time in the gym and at dance parties, and therefore focus on their outward appearance primarily.

The book further revolves around making a lot of money and taking care of substantial retirement pay for the old-age. The fact that there are gay men who earn a minimum wage, by circumstances, education, or simply because they like their job, seems to have escaped Meelhuysen. He also pays a lot of attention to dating through social media, the age discrimination which often happens there, and the abundance of labels that have sprouted from this, although he himself admits that pigeon-holing is a “meaningless activity.”

He also looks for “role models.” For middle-aged gay men? Of course, examples are important to teenagers discovering their (homo)sexuality, seeing a great diversity of possibilities in the outside world and the opportunities they entail, but a gay man in middle-age should have enough life-experience to build on to give shape to his own life without needing a role model.

Although “40+ Homos” offers a lot of reading pleasure - as it’s always interesting to read about other people’s experiences - I do think he blows certain issues out of proportions. Things that are not really a problem if tackled with some common sense. Of course, it is a good thing that books and articles are published about the experiences of gay people beyond the realm of the coming out phase, but an author should not focus only on problems. A middle-aged or elderly gay man can be outright happy, as is revealed by the memoirs of Mark Segal and Cleve Jones.



 







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In the New Issue of Gay News, 316, December 2017

















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