Back in the mid ’80s, when I was a teenager trying to figure out my sexuality, I remember hearing stories about gay men and lesbians who didn’t come out of the closet until their 40s or 50s, often after being married and raising children. At that point, they usually made big life changes (like divorce) and reported being much happier. I used to wonder what that was like, to not “know” until then.
Now here I am at age 50, and I think I get it.
Certainly my own life has not been as closeted as that all these years, but that doesn’t mean that I had everything “figured out,” or that all the choices I made fit me. Not at all. So many of my choices really didn’t fit me and I’m still figuring it all out. So much is only becoming clear to me now, at the half century mark.
Two factors contribute to my latter-day understandings; one personal, one social.
First, my own perspective is different. At this point, my total sexual/romantic/relationship experiences offer a data-set of a breadth that simply didn’t exist when I was 17. Certain moments stand out with sharpness despite the years, as present in my mind’s as they’ve ever been, even as the pool they inhabit has deepened. In savoring various pairings I have learned more about my taste.
Put another way, the view is so much different now that it was then.
For example, is it true that a kiss is just a kiss? My equivocal answer: yes, definitely. And no, not at all.
At the beginning of my sixth decade on the planet, I am far more comfortable with seeming incongruities than I once was. I have replied to some questions with dismissal as the only answer I’m willing to give, and have moved on. Mostly these were questions that were society’s, not mine, and I no longer felt personal responsibility to explain myself, at least not within the context of the terminology presented (which was unfailingly narrow).
Then there’s reflection. It lends a lens to whose polish is ever in flux, a movement that—like ripples on a pond—accentuates a picture through distortion, highlighting the general shapes held in common. Needled-branches on straight trunks becomes wavy trees which—with a gust—dissolve into mere green on blue. As with any low-res representation, identification is by essential elements.
To be less opaque: Feelings that were once mysterious or disturbing are now familiar and, if not comfortable, at least accepted. Certain things are undeniable, as repetition has demonstrated. Other things that once led to great anguish are now of no account, or even forgotten.
All of which is to say that, yeah, I can totally see how it could take this long (until middle age), to come to certain conclusions (no pun intended), and then to admit it out loud.
But all of this experiencing and reflecting has been taking place against a cultural background that has itself been in flux this whole time.
Which brings us to the second factor: how society has changed.
We are as far from the mid ’80s today as that period was from the early ’50s. People who were teenagers during Eisenhower’s presidency definitely lived in a different world than that of Reagan’s thanks to the intervening sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s true that the new freedoms were being tempered by AIDS and assaulted by the rising evangelical movement, but the contrast was truly significant. “Gay” and “lesbian” were still “inside” words in the ’50s, little known outside those circles. Life in the closet was the norm, and you could be blackmailed if people found out your secret. But by the mid ’80s, openness in conventional circles about one’s sexual orientation or preference (which were the common terms then) was becoming the new normal. People no longer lost their jobs and friends as a matter of course (though some still did and do). For a person who was a teen in the ’50s, and who married and raised a family in the ’60s and ’70s, “coming out” in the ’80s was a new option that had been previously unavailable.
Now, in 2020, we are living in fra different times than the late ’80s. In the news a few months back was a story from a school in—of all places—Utah, where a substitute teacher who spouted homophobic bullshit was ousted from the school at the petition of three 11 year old girls. They gave the sub a warning first, telling her she was wrong, and when she did not relent, they upped and walked out of the classroom and down to the principal’s office themselves. The teacher was shortly escorted from the grounds and summarily fired from her agency. We have here a pair of good deeds: refusing to tolerate intolerance and standing up to authority.
This would have been unimaginable in Omaha, in 1980, when I was 11. I am waaaay grateful that things have changed. The fact that I can write these words for a public forum without feeling like I have to immediately and literally fear for my life is a big deal, and it’s awesome. In the far more open setting that now exists, I can let my guard down enough to take more of a look around.
And what’s that world look like? Well, there’s a helluvalot more options, that’s for sure. When I was in college in 1989, I helped found a gay group on my campus, and back then we really only talked about “gays” and “lesbians” and “bisexuals” (who were still frequently derided as “fence-sitters” by everyone else).
Now one can choose from a dizzying and ever-expanding spectrum—or really, a spectrum of spectrums—for labels and descriptors and concepts. No longer am I limited to mere “sexual orientation;” now I can break from conventions regarding gender and even my biological sex, and the definitions of all those things are being daily broken down. Just a few of my current options are: queer, trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, demisexual, pansexual, etc. Have I sometimes been confused by the new terminology? Sure. But am I psyched that it’s available? Hell yeah!
The culture is giving me more ways to come out than I had before. So I’m considering them!
I was hanging out with with a friend who’s in their early 20s last year, and their roommate, who was also in their early 20s, casually asked me what pronouns I preferred, a few minutes after we met. I was thrilled to be asked. This was never a discussion before. As a writer and a close observer of the English language, I had long been frustrated that our use of the same pronouns to designate both sex and gender was not strictly accurate; different concepts should have different names, after all. Now the subject is being enthusiastically broached.
The me I was at age 17 was different and the same. A core has persisted throughout multiple changes of lifestyle and place. I have both collected new experiences and shed old prejudices, and throughout both, something has stayed the same, witnessing it all. That process of self-discovery is definitely not over, either.
Sorry to disappoint you if you read this hoping for a succinct statement of “I am now [fill in the blank] and please call me [blank].” Still working on that one, lol. But if you insist that I make some kind of choice, I’ll take “they/them.” I did marry myself after all, which is pretty queer.