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10 Gay Men in Their 30s Give Advice to Their 20-Something Selves

10 Gay Men in Their 30s Give Advice to Their 20-Something Selves

Twenties

This is the first of a three-part series intended to address the topics of age, personal growth, and the awesomeness of wrinkles.

In today's Photoshop culture, it is easy to be terrified of the aging process and hide under the covers every time a birthday approaches after the age of 29. After all, gay men are force-fed that being young is ideal. And the further away you get from this ideal, the harder you have to try in life.

Our 20s are marketed as the zenith of a person's life, with the lives of 20-somethings glamorized to appear as nothing but a party, with zero consequences and unlimited resources. In reality, most people's 20s are more like a rollercoaster of sexual regrets, credit card debt, and crappy jobs that never pay enough. And for gay men, who can often enter this decade with a murky sense of identity or a conflicting emotional core, our 20s are usually a time of messy self-discovery that most of us are more than happy to move past, even if that is hard to remember sometimes.

In an effort to stop the nightmare of aging that is, in reality, a God-send, I asked a group of 30-something men about the trials and travails of their 20s, and to reveal what advice they would give to their former selves.

Read on to discover the wisdom they have for all you whipper-snappers:

1. Reject the gay media illusion.

In his early 20s, John bought into the Queer as Folk myth that all gay men must be fabulous and have equally fabulous friends. Because of that, his early days were spent in the gay clubs trying to be "one of them." But John quickly learned that his attitude and approach to friendship were hurting more people than they were attracting.

"My advice [to my former self] would be to not let what you see in the media define what you are as a gay man," John says. "Basically, don't be a bitch to people just because you don't find them attractive."

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2. Live honestly and authentically, despite what others may want from you.

Ray spent the first part of his 20s married to a woman and raising the children they had together. Now, as he approaches his 36th birthday, he is finally living what he says is an honest and genuine life. But it took a long time to get here.

"The lesson I would most like to share with my 20-something self is to embrace your own authenticity and celebrate the life you've been given," Ray says. "Although I am still learning this lesson, my struggle with this notion will forever be embodied in my marriage. I will always cherish the children my marriage rendered, but I also regret 'wasting' so many years being paralyzed by the opinions and expectations of others."

Even after Ray came out in his late 20s, his lack of self-esteem and need for approval led him into another relationship that was controlling and unhealthy.

"As I mature into middle-age," Ray adds, "I am determined to live honestly and authentically, allowing each moment to be a celebration of the life I've been given, rather than a counterfeit disguised as the 'Ray' others want me to be."

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3. Don't fear HIV. Just be smart about it.

When Justin was in the fifth grade, his physical education teacher gave an educational talk about HIV and AIDS. Justin said the message was simple: "If you are gay, you get AIDS and die, so don't be gay."

Years later, when Justin had his first same-sex experiences during his college days at Texas A&M University, he was convinced that he had contracted HIV. Reflecting on those years now, Justin says the anxiety and stress he felt was overwhelming, and it began to make him sick. There were several times when he developed strep throat, but was convinced that it was the early signs of AIDS.

"I was too scared to get tested, and the doctors were too ignorant to help," Justin says. "My fear lasted three years. I wish I could have told myself that it's going to be OK, and that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. I wish I could tell myself the realities of HIV, and that I was low-risk, and that I needed to be proud of who I was. I didn't need to carry the burden of shame. I wish I could have told Mr. Houlihan to fuck off and rot for what he told me at 11 years old."

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4. Don't be afraid to try and fail.

After Dennis finished his undergraduate degree at Boston College, he felt unsure and uninspired. He was taking graduate classes, but felt like he was drifting through his life, not living up to what he knew was his full potential. That feeling led him to join the Marine Corps in 2008, and it was a decision he will never regret.

"The advice I would have given myself at that time would be to try harder and not accept being mediocre," Dennis says. "I think many of us accept 'good enough.' We aren't motivated to rise above the naysayers, the haters, and the cynics. The Marine Corps definitely opened my eyes to the different viewpoints of other people, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything else. We are led to where we need to be at that point in our lives, and must learn from those who we meet. However, I would definitely tell myself that giving anything less than 110 percent every day is unacceptable."

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5. There is no such thing as "too gay."

After coming out as a gay man in high school, Raymond was comfortable with his sexuality. He didn't mind being known as gay, being seen as gay, and acting gay. That is, until his new gay friends told him not to be such a gay stereotype.

Not wanting to be the ever-so-dreaded cliche, Raymond started to act like them. He went to the gym, he would talk about how "over the scene" he was, and he would avoid anything that may look "too gay." In his attempt to reject the stereotype, he lived through what he says were the dullest, most uninteresting years of his life.

"Coming out isn't just about saying that you're gay, it's the first step to finally finding out who you are, and living your life on your own terms," Raymond says. "That means being as unafraid of what other gay men may think about your 'gayness,' as ignorant [as] straight people may be. You can't ever truly be happy as a gay man if you still actively hope that you're passing for straight, or worrying about someone thinking 'you're a stereotype.'"

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6. There are people who want to help you succeed. Let them.

When Rob was 25 years old, his doctor told him that he was HIV-positive and gave him about a decade left to live. That was 10 years ago this year.

"Initially, I thought about the possibilities of life with a 10-year term limit," Rob says. "I decided many things were pointless and preferred other things that did not seem to require a commitment. It was a lonely time."

At 35, Rob has a new outlook on life. He has hope for a healthy and happy life. But it took a lot of pain and heartache for him to get there.

"I wish I could explain to my 25-year-old self just how many people were working to solve many of my problems," Rob adds. "I looked at my life and saw wreckage without any first responders; I saw closed roads without a detour or helping passersby. I didn't see the community. I didn't see the activists, doctors, and researchers that were building new freeways to new solutions. I wish I could go back and open my young blinded eyes."

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7. You don't need validation from anyone but yourself.

For Isaac, his 20s were possibly the most troubling and confusing years of his life. He knew that he was a gay man, but he struggled with his identity. At the age of 26, Isaac enlisted in the Army at a time when the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was firmly in place. He says his decision was an attempt to figure out the man he truly was. But his bold move to find clarity only left him more confused. He watched as other men experienced ridicule for being out about their sexuality, while he kept his own a secret.

"Looking back over these past 10 years, and as I approach my 40s, I realize that there are so many things I would do differently if given the chance," Isaac reflects. "To my 20s former self: Live life more fully. Experience as much as you can, because we only have one life to live and we should take advantage of it everyday. Be you -- your true you. Stop worrying about what others think and just enjoy the man that you are. You are a wonderful and caring person. You don't need to hear that from anyone else, as long as you know and believe it."

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8. Being happy is more important than appearing perfect.

When Aaron was in his mid-20s, he thought he had it all. He was dating a man who he thought was perfect for him, and they were busy planning a life together. But when Aaron caught his boyfriend cheating on him, his vision of a perfect life was clouded by confusion, depression, and a deep sense of insecurity.

"If we didn't work out and seemed so perfect for each other, how would I ever be good enough for anyone else?" Aaron recalls thinking at the time. "Upon reflection, I realized I wasn't happy myself. I was doing all I could to make him happy in order to keep him, which clearly wasn't enough, and sacrificed my own happiness in the process. As they say, with age comes wisdom, so my advice to myself would be to never sacrifice who you are for another man. Love yourself first and foremost. The right person will love and accept you for you, flaws and all."

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9. He should love you for you.

When Clarione met Adam, he never thought Adam would even notice him, much less want to be his friend. After all, Clarione saw Adam as charming, smart, incredibly attractive, and with a sizable following of admirers. So, in an effort to keep Adam's attention, Clarione started to change who he was in hopes that Adam would like him more.

"I pretended to have the same interests," Clarione says. "I laughed when he thought things were funny -- even though I didn't. He told me about his troubles, and I felt lucky to be the one who could help him. I had convinced myself that he was going to take a chance on me, and that I would be the one to change him. I had fallen in love with the idea of who he could be for me. And when the fantasy started to fade and his responses weren't what I wanted them to be, I still hung on to my delusions. Then in a single irrational moment, I broke my own heart."

But in the wake of his heartbreak, Clarione learned that the real him was worth it the whole time.

"I probably wouldn't have believed it, but I learned that people will like me for who I am," he adds. "The truth is, people already did. The pretension may shine a bright light for a moment, but people will always be attracted to someone who is genuine. I don't have to worry about getting everybody's attention and the recognition I deserve. Ironically, it comes from just being myself and when I am not aspiring for it."

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10. You are worthy.

Instead of recalling a specific experience or incident in Stephen's life, he remembers a general underlying theme that plagued his 20s -- he never felt good enough. Although it may not have been visible on the surface, he says there was always a deep-rooted sense that he would fail. It didn't matter what it was -- a relationship, a job or a menial task -- his lack of self-respect due to his closeted sexuality kept him feeling insecure and unworthy.

"Nowadays, I tell myself that I am good enough for anything I set out to do," Stephen says. "In relationships, I confidently express who I am and what I desire in a partner. With work, I always do the best I can, and I put forth respect towards colleagues that is returned to me more often than not. And in life, in general, I maintain an appreciation of all opportunities and gifts, no matter how great or how small."

Getting older only makes you better, regardless of how much the media tries to convince us otherwise. So stay tuned for the next installment, as we enthusiastically check the next box -- the 40s.

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