Introduction: The following personal essay, written twelve years ago for an online journal—a piece I’d all but forgotten—was brought to my attention recently via e-mail by an individual I’ve never met. Aside from the fact that posting it here absolves me of fretting over a brand new piece for several more days, I thought the essay an opportunity for reflection and assessment—obviously for myself; but also, I’d like to think, for others stopping by, especially those who’ve lived through similar circumstances. Even better, I thought, perhaps the piece might provide some small hope to visitors who may be contemplating the often frightening, sometimes drastic changes that redirecting one’s life often entails. To them I say, if I can make it, so can you—and, in the slightly modified lingo of today (thank you, Dan Savage), it really can get better. So…on to the (tawdry?) confessional.
“Getting It”: A Reflection on “Coming Out” in Middle Age
by Jack A. Urquhart ©2000 First appeared in Standards, the International Journal of Multicultural Studies
Getting Down to the Process
Writing about the experience of “coming out” in mid-life is one of many exercises in self-examination that I’ve often contemplated and put aside. Somewhere inside was the knowledge that an analysis of the process might possibly help me to achieve greater ease with the particulars of my journey. And yet I deferred, telling myself that day-to-day survival was so pressing as to require all my limited faculties concentrated in the moment. My life as an out gay man was too new, too complex, and there was still so much that I just didn’t get.
But perhaps the real reason for my procrastination was that I simply was not ready to own my emotions about coming out. I knew that any such undertaking would entail revisiting the guilt that hurting others can breed, that it would require me to look long and hard at a recurring personal ennui so overwhelming that I sometimes feel a dinosaurian sense of misplacement and loss — as if my personal evolution has somehow finally brought me home, but centuries too late.
These were and are ongoing realities so much in the forefront of vision as to defy interpretation, which requires at least a reasonable distance. I am just smart enough to understand that attempting to make sense of a thing still unfolding can be dangerous. Past attempts have all too often sent me careening down a path toward conclusions so reductive and pretentious as to be embarrassing in hindsight. So let me say right up front, lest I start to sound too big for my britches, that I don’t know it all — not nearly enough to tackle the demands of analysis. Description is the best I can manage at the moment as I’m still struggling to “get it.”
Fact is it wasn’t until I was nearly forty that I even commenced the daunting process of deconstructing the straight-arrow, nice-boy-next-door pose I’d assumed for decades. That alone, I suspect, precludes much hope of ever arriving at the Promised Land of self-understanding and total acceptance. But then, I expect the continuing journey will at the very least be interesting and that is, I think, a kind of optimism.
How did it begin for me, this movement from poser to something a little more real? Simple. I got panned. It’s an old and clichéd story, and one that’s best reduced to précis format: I did what I’d been trained to do — I assumed my role in the theatre of middle-class America. I learned to repress what was inconvenient and troublesome (to others and eventually to myself) and to play up those qualities most useful in climbing the “mainstream” ranks. It was not that difficult. Of course, I dressed for the part, learning the walk (literally) and the talk; I educated myself to assume practical, necessary roles; I married a woman it was easy to love, if not understand; I became a father; I climbed the corporate rungs to a modest measure of success. Eventually I arrived, complete with family, house, car, and credit card bills.
But the reviews were not that good — especially the ones I gave myself. Episodes of alcohol/drug abuse and extra-marital sex followed — each incident an attempt to maintain and shore-up a rapidly crumbling façade. But the trouble with these anesthetics is that they eventually lose their potency, even as they exacerbate one’s difficulties in maintaining the kind of focus it takes to keep going through the motions.
Eventually I lost my balance entirely and was unceremoniously shoved off at least one stage (read: “fired” from my job). At thirty-seven, I’d arrived at my turning point: lost job, lost face, lost credibility. Especially lost credibility. I found that I no longer believed in the part I was playing. It is important to note here that that does not mean I loved and believed in those around me (wife, children, friends) less. It means that I was lost. It means that I had misplaced the fundamental me and had grown to loathe his interloper.
Getting Comfortable with Something Forgotten
That one so ignorant should find solace and direction in graduate school is one of the many ironies of my particular process. But that’s what happened, and it happened rather prophetically, for almost as soon as I began attending classes, an array of new and wonderfully stimulating people and ideas entered my life. Don’t tell me that people don’t attract each other on waves of consciousness too varied and complex to enumerate, for the closest of these new friends were all gay, bisexual, or — like me at the time — waffling somewhere between the two. We commiserated even as we examined in the abstract the vast realm of human possibility — sexual and otherwise. These were discussions as alternatingly nuanced as a glass of oak-barrel-aged Chardonnay, as coarsely intoxicating as a jug of moonshine, exchanges capable of inspiring a pleasant buzz and a sickening drunkenness.
There were two special friends during this time who accompanied me through the minefield — cajoling, encouraging, pushing and shoving all the way. I loved them both, though in different ways, for they both compelled a kind of never-ending intellectual and emotional reaching. God! The marathon gab sessions we shared.
And yes, all that talking eventually gave way to experimentation. I am one of those human beings for whom ideas in the abstract have little sustained power — that is, until they are put to the test.
That test came with another married man, a man I liked and admired, a man just as anxious to understand something about himself as I. We slept together and though it seems we did not arrive at the same conclusions from the experience, that hardly matters now. What matters to me is that still vivid instant of recognition the first time we were together, and in all the moments of tentative sexual exploration that followed. That was when it happened for me — when what I’d trained myself to think of as repulsive became by slow and steady increments as fundamentally beautiful, as unmistakably natural as anything else sensate experience has to offer — tastes, textures, smells, sights or sounds. I cannot express the things I learned (or, more accurately, remembered) in those moments, except to say that they led to a series of epiphanies, each stronger and less frightening than its predecessor. What we did — he and I — was ordinary, even commonplace, and yet the effect was like coming out of a darkened room and rediscovering a plain, blue sky as a marvel of the natural world. Forty years old and I was just beginning to “get it.” I was beginning to “come out.”
Afterward, there was for me no more tomfoolery with the notion of bisexuality — which is not to say that it doesn’t apply perfectly to others! It’s just that while I knew I could be sexually intimate with women, it wasn’t what I wanted; it wasn’t what brought me into the light of day. I don’t know why that is so, but then I don’t know why the sky is blue either, even though there are doubtless simple explanations for both. It is, I begin to understand, sometimes enough to accept things as they are.
Getting “Straight” with Loved Ones
So where was my family during all this? No use mincing words. They suffered in ways I won’t ever comprehend. No one should be fooled about this: there isn’t any way to soft-pedal the effects of a truth long denied on the people who never suspected it, or worse, are heavily invested in refusing to recognize it. My ex-wife went through agonies as witness to and participant in my coming out. It seemed, she said again and again, that her whole life had been a lie, a fabrication that I had tricked her into believing. Now in middle age, I was choosing to topple our house of cards. Why now? she kept asking. Why not earlier when the loss would not have been quite so profound?
Why indeed? These were after all assessments with which I could hardly argue, questions for which I could offer no satisfying answers. Little comfort to her that the fabrication had been brilliant enough to fool me, too — and for a very long time. Why should she care that no less than a psychiatrist had advised me early on that sexual orientation was a matter of choice, that I could choose to live my life as a heterosexual man. After all, there was truth even in this, as we all know of gay and bisexual men and women who have made that very choice. So how could I make her understand what was happening to me? What language of leaving is there comprehensible to a person whose twenty-year commitment rests on the impossibility of insurmountable obstacles? How do you tell a loving spouse that the price of choosing pretense has become too costly to bear, even when her happiness seems to hinge on meeting the expense?
It was a terrible time — a time during which my then-wife gradually retreated into a kind of physical and emotional no man’s land where I could not follow. I watched her struggle to understand, and God knows I struggled to push that understanding on her — the kind of understanding that it had taken me decades even to begin fathoming. I wanted to foist it upon her, whole scale, and practically overnight. Such is the power of guilt, that it will seek an unrealistic and immediate expiation. I didn’t get it. Not then. But sometimes it is time that turns the trick in these matters. These days my ex-wife and I seem to have achieved an uneasy peace that seesaws on the fulcrum of our respective successes.
1993, the year of our separation, was perhaps the worst time for us, with the end result that I was faced with a whole series of “coming-out” confessionals that could not be delayed. My children — son and daughter, then 14 and 11 respectively — were the first to hear it from me. It was a truth-telling that seems relatively painless in the recollecting, perhaps because something of the significance of the foregoing events had resonated with my children long before I sat down with them “to talk about dad’s being gay.” When we did talk, they were wonderfully accepting and matter-of-fact in their support.
The resilience of children is something I would like to believe in. God knows it would make the parental load easier to bear if I could. As it is, I suppose I’ll never know what price they paid, or continue to pay. My only comforts — and they aren’t small ones — are that at least there is one less lie entangling and imperiling their lives, for the nature of lies is such that even the most personal and private ones invariably impact others. And then there’s the whole notion of setting the example in truth-telling, though the intellectual handling of that one still feels a bit hypocritically uncomfortable.
My friends — the real ones — I found just as accepting of the truth as my children. But my parents! Well now, talk about an investment in pretense. Years of very early childhood baton twirling, sports eschewing, dance-lesson-loving, and blatant sissy-boyishness seems not to have registered at all — and yes, I know those are all stereotypes, but get a clue! In short, they refused to acknowledge skeletons so thoroughly and skillfully hidden that even when they rose reanimated and re-fleshed to stand right in front of them, my parents would not see.
My father telephoned me once or twice in various states of intoxication to express a simultaneous disbelief, disgust and grudging love; then he fell silent on the subject and maintained that silence into the grave. And my mother — well, she turned to the Bible. Turned and turned again. We argued, she and I. We still do sometimes. And yet, over the years we seem to have reached an understanding of sorts that rests on recognition of our respective limitations, and on the knowledge that in spite of them, there is still unalterable love. No small thing.
Getting a Life
What is there new to say about the process of getting back into circulation? I can’t claim any special insight into the complexities and secrets of constructing a successful relationship. One just gets out there and tries to do it in whatever way they can manage — or they don’t. I went the men’s group route, choosing to put myself into social situations populated by other gay men in similar circumstances. I accepted referrals from friends, met and dated other men — and yes, I did the Internet scene too — with varying degrees of success. But I did meet men. Quite a few men. And with some of them, the ones I liked best, I continued to experiment sexually and to learn. There was a whole lot of experimentation. A whole lot of learning. Some of it wonderful, some of it banal. Not much of it a waste of time.
One thing is sure: there was nothing in the process that ought rightfully to be considered unusual to anyone else — straight or bent — who’s set themselves a course toward finding a mate. You search, you stress, you wonder if you’ve got anything remotely attractive and inviting to offer, and if there’s anyone out there worth giving it to, you sweat, laugh, cry. But mostly, you wait. Eventually all the angst paid off and I settled with a man I loved, and though we weren’t able to sustain the relationship, our time together reinforced the normalcy of what I’d spent years demonizing — the possibility of man-to-man intimacy, physical, spiritual, intellectual. And just for the record, there was nothing unusual in our loss — nothing to do with the kind of cravings often associated with the so-called “gay lifestyle” and its supposed emphasis on sex with anything that moves. We may have slipped once or twice, but the real issue was that we just couldn’t strike a balance between our individual priorities. How ordinary is that?
These days I live in San Francisco, and I’m at it again with just over two years in a partnership that seems ripe for success. Perhaps not so remarkably, the exceptionally good man with whom I make a life was easy to find, and that ease can be partially attributed to the fact that his experience parallels my own in many important ways. But more to the point is the fact that we were both, I believe, ready to be found, both ready to assay intimacy with ourselves and with each other. It’s a wonderful — and yes, scary — venture as rest assured, within the context of a primary relationship, one will keep uncovering and unmasking aspects of the self that it is difficult to own, much less embrace. Twenty-one or sixty-one, it’s a process that grants no special favors or status on account of age.
There is, as there ever has been, so much for me to learn, so much understanding to be attempted — not the least of which are the various permutations and factions of the “queer” communities that remain, on account of my late start, so new and mysterious. I’m still not down on the lingo yet, still not sure which paradigms apply and which don’t. And though there are steady, small gains, the minute I feel my britches grown smugly snug, there is always something or someone to let the wind out. Still, the sun keeps rising, the sky is blue as ever, and I keep getting up to face others and myself in the morning mirror — sometimes honestly, sometimes not. Sometimes with new insights or a dizzying confusion. But I am trying my best not to worry too much about the inevitable ups and downs and uncertainties of the process, as I’m slowly beginning to think that maybe — just maybe — that’s what “getting it” is all about. At any age.
Post Script: I can’t think of a thing I’d change in the forgoing—well, maybe a little less confessional. Certainly, I’m no wiser these days (just older). Should add that I live in Florida these days. And that (happily) I’m excessively fortunate to be with my San Francisco-found soul mate and life partner, Raymond—thirteen years and counting.
- Video: Gay Soldier Comes Out To His Mom On Youtube (thegloss.com)