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Is the Fear Factor at 55 a Real Phenomenon for Gay Men?

Is the Fear Factor at 55 a Real Phenomenon for Gay Men?

I’m afraid. I’ve cheated death three times, so it’s not the fear of dying in a serious car crash, from a major illness, or a bout with severe depression that stifles me. Those were different kinds of fears, and I overcame each with the hope for a brighter future. At its base, the jolting fear now is the realization of how limited that future is becoming and about the changes I’m visibly, attentively, and subconsciously recognizing, and perhaps being more sensitive to them as a gay man.  

This fear mysteriously set in during the last three months, after I turned 55. This fear can seem at once artificial and manufactured, but evidence suggests otherwise. “50 is the new 40” — that is still a popular mantra in the gay community that I always felt was more about convincing oneself that 50 isn’t so bad. Then comes 55, that means late 50s, 60 the next milestone, closer to 65 and retirement. There is no enthusiastic intonation about 55. 

Am I alone? Am I the only gay man who feels fear at 55? Does anyone else sense that 55 might be a turning point? Is this siren at 55 more alarming for us than it is for straight men? Is 55 more about dealing with death than life? Does it evolve from fear being without kids or a partner when death falls to you? Is 55 when our bodies, however impeccably we chisel them, unavoidably transform into decaying sculptures? Does the drip of 55 start unrelentingly staining us personally, professionally?

The Counsel of a Celebrated Columnist

It was important for me to write this piece, because the fear I’m feeling is part confusion, part anguish, part frustration, part inevitable…? Then again, maybe it’s the imagined, moronic musings of a narcissistic middle-aged man? A mirage of a metamorphosis? Accordingly, for answers, I went to arguably the top LGBTQ columnist — and top columnist — in the United States, Frank Bruni of The New York Times, who turns 55 next month. I was certain that because he is a preeminent journalist, his wise and well-spoken words would help me and maybe help others answer whether this 55 mind game was something to force us to remain optimistically youthful or a valid phenomenon. Or do some of us just need to get over ourselves? 

Frank Bruni has been revealingly open and honest about his life through his columns in the Times as well as his books and interviews. He has been unguarded about his openness as a gay columnist, his struggles with weight, and the recent loss of vision in his right eye. To that end, he is at work on his next book, scheduled to be published in late 2020, in which he reflects further on his experiences and discusses aging and physical limitations among baby boomers who thought themselves invincible. And therein lies the reason that I needed to sound out Bruni. 

“I don't think there's anything special about 55 per se, other than that it's palindromic. I think some men freak out at 50, some men freak out at 45, some men never freak out,” Bruni said. “But I know where you're coming from and what you're getting at: The celebration of youth and beauty is intense among many gay men, making it emotionally and psychologically difficult to age.”

Blurred and Fuzzy Photocopy

Add physiology, beyond the unavoidable creaks, cracks, and crevices, and more along the lines of the vengeful vice of vanity. The reflection in the mirror that takes no prisoners suddenly looks like a gone-wrong mug shot. Faces and bodies heartlessly redefined. Does this vise loosen or tighten at 55? I’m a gym rat, but the results of what I see in comparison to even a few years ago look so different now. A mildly distorted body trying to push itself out — Hulk-like with change, but not with Hulk results. A blurred and fuzzy photocopy of the original. The physical overlay into psychological. We prune, pump, and pedal to be young, but when we’re not young anymore, does all the fuss matter? Why do we care so much? At the end of the day, who are we trying to impress? Some of us push harder to show we can still look great within a community fixated on physiques, facades, and freshness. And why does it seem more superficially important to some now at 55 and for others not so much? Is it that some of us might be too consumed by the “youth and beauty” syndrome Bruni refers to for gay men? 

Part of the idea of looking healthy and muscled stems in our generation from the early years of HIV, and with gay men who carried the virus determined not to be perceived as sick. That is understandable. But for others at 55, who want to be 35, is it OKto flex, pose, and post pictures of our selves half-naked on social media? Are we becoming too old at 55 to try to look 35?

“I fall prey to some of that, for sure. For me it's lessened quite a bit by the fact that I've had periods in the past when I was in terrible physical shape —as I wrote about in my memoir, Born Round,” Bruni recalled. “I got very fat in my mid-30s — so I've coped with and lived through the experience of existing far afield from any physical ideal.” 

Revolving Roles and Lingering Loss

I’m also afraid to log on to Facebook — and not for the reasons above. Why? It seems every day another old friend or contemporary asks for prayers for an ill parent or posts an obituary of a parent who has passed. Our parents and friends’ parents from the past were the vanguards of our youth, vital and vibrant. Seeing them frail in pictures or reading their death notices can be heartbreaking. And posts about these parents’ deaths are becoming more frequent, outnumbering youthful posts of kids’ first days of school, athletic achievements, confirmations, or birthdays. Old is replacing young in our social feeds. Why are we noticing this now more at 55, and why does it make some of us feel even more vulnerable being gay?

“You're right that about the time you reach your early and mid-50s, you're quite possibly dealing for the first time or in a newly serious way with the illness or deaths of parents,” Bruni said. “I think it leaves us vulnerable for one obvious reason above all others: We're losing or we've lost the people who, whatever our relationship with them, were supposed to be our fallbacks, our safety nets, our unconditional love.”

“For many people, especially many LGBTQ people, it didn't work out that way: Parents' love wasn't unconditional and their support wasn't dependable or noteworthy,” he continued. “The same can be said of friends’ parents who didn’t approve of their children’s LGBTQ acquaintances. But for many others of us — I’m in this lucky category — our parents were in some sense our rocks, our safe harbors. And to have the roles switched — the cared-for becomes the caretaker, the follower takes the lead — is a disorienting thing and even a scary one.

“I also think that as we age, we begin to experience loss in greater measure and with greater velocity, and the illness and deaths of loved ones, especially parents, are both metaphor for and vivid example of that.”

Living and Dying With Love or Alone

The sorrowful part of all of this is that at 55, we start to understand that death will become an increasingly frequent occurrence and added dimension to our lives, and an inevitability that might make us contemplate where and how we will die and who might be with us when it happens.

I waited 44 years to find my partner of 11 years. For that I feel incredibly grateful; however, I know many who at my age have either ended long-term relationships or are still struggling to find “the one.” Being single at any age can really be tough, but for one who might be turning 55, is it another reason to fear a dwindling future of being alone? Of heading into our latter years without someone to share this journey, this phenomenon? Do we become more pessimistic about our futures and our chances to find love?

I’m nervously hopeful about a future with my partner, Justin. And because he is 16 years younger than I am, I have consciously always tried to “stay young” for him, ridiculous as that may sound; nevertheless, since turning 55 it has become all too real and all too uncomfortable. He is in his third year of medical school, choosing to start on a new career at an age that allows him to do that. At an age where the time he has left is of little significance. On the reverse side, at 55, I’m being forced to start over, with the magnitude of time left consequential.

“We may feel less optimistic, if single, about finding a long-term relationship, if we want one,” Bruni pondered. “We grew up without many public models of committed gay couples aging happily and gracefully together: If they were out there, they were as often as not closeted, and they certainly weren't in public life. And that kind of void can color your emotional vocabulary, your expectations, your confidence, your hopes. 

“Whether you're gay or straight, if you're single at 55, that does feel different from being single at 45 or 35; you're likelier to ask yourself if you're ever going to find a single romantic partner to travel the distance with? I'm one year out of a 10-year relationship, and I ask myself about the chances of finding love, sure. But it doesn't lead to great worry or heartache, because I've been blessed with siblings I'm close to, with many fantastic friends and, as of seven months ago, an awesome dog. But I remain hopeful.”

Occupational Hazard

In the past year, four of my contemporaries have been laid off, and it frightened me — two of them single and gay. I reached out to help, but their circumstances were tender and ultimately became a harrowing harbinger. The day after my 55th birthday, their misfortune became mine. For each of us the reason was claimed to be business-based, not performance. But to be laid off the day after turning 55 was both shattering and ironic. More concern shown for keeping less expensive youth versus an aging old gay man — that’s how I felt. Was this just a coincidence or another blight against 55?

“Workplace ageism is workplace ageism: a very real thing and frightening event, but something that affects people straight and gay. It's not a singularly gay phenomenon,” Bruni said. “What may be different for gay men above a certain age — let's say 50, randomly — is the combined effects of professional aging and romantic aging, by which I mean that I think that we're more conscious of and haunted by lost youth and changed looks than straight men are, for many different reasons.”

Going Back in the Closet?

Changed appearance and demeanor add another layer to the diminished discernment of myself at 55 and a paranoid precipitous perception I had about people who see me. Were friends, family, and strangers looking at me as an aging gay man? Being brutally personal and honest, I have noticed an inexplicable embarrassment come over me about being older while I’m out and about. It’s almost as if I’m trying to act more “straight” so as not to be perceived as an aged gay. I am fighting it, though, with a focused determination to just be myself, whether that’s noticed as gay, straight, old, young, or indifferent. But I have serious questions about why this awkward emotion and rejoinder popped up now or at all. Do others have this neurotic sense? Do we start to become even more aware of how we are perceived? Are we abruptly struggling again with who we are? Or should we just let go and be prouder than we’ve ever been? 

“If you mean some new fear of being gay because of the state of the world or suggesting that as we age, we get more timid about being out, I think the trajectory in this country is still toward greater equality for LGBTQ people, despite the actions of the president and his administration,” Bruni said. “They are out of sync with history.”

“Regarding the latter, no, I don't feel some new fear of being openly or outwardly gay because of my age,” he went on. “I have been utterly out since the age of 19, really, and have grown no more inhibited over time. Less, if anything. To me, the great upside of aging is caring a bit less in general, across many fronts, of what people think and caring more about being happy. So, the 'we' you refer to in terms of 'becoming embarrassed' does not include me. I can't speak for other gay men our age, but I suspect many, like me, remain quite comfortable in our gay skins.”

Perhaps it has to do with the moment in time and the circumstances of the individual. Some of us are suddenly feeling older. Mourning the mounting losses of those around us. Facing the fact that our bodies just aren’t what they used to be. Dealing with sudden joblessness and the frantic attempts to make ourselves relevant again. Trying to find Mr. Right at the wrong age. Perhaps it’s just a confluence of events that both frighten and cloud our acuities at 55?

“What scares me most at 55 has nothing to do with being gay. It has to do with less reliable energy, limited time left, and the undeniable ageism in America. I worry that my best opportunities are behind me and that I didn't take the fullest advantage of them,” Bruni confided. “I worry about being able to utilize fully whatever talents and intelligence I still possess, about not being able to act on a kind and degree of wisdom that comes with accrued years and that I didn't have as much of in the past.”

And in terms of his 55th birthday approaching, Bruni isn’t concerned. “I don't think a birthday means anything, it's just a date on the calendar, so I don't look forward to that day or that particular number, 55, in any way. But I appreciate upsides of aging. That's how I'd put it.”

Managing a Magnitude 5

Maybe before appreciating the upsides of aging, some of us will first experience a shock to our system. Perhaps this “fear factor at 55” is more akin to a magnitude 5 earthquake. Not ruinous, but damaging enough to upset the balance, instigate a good scare, and make you try to hold on to what you have. Unavoidably, there will be aftershocks. Most likely lots of them, but we just need to ride them out long enough to get used to them, and once the tremors settle, go on living our readjusted lives and start to be grateful about our more stable and weathered ground. 

In the July newsletter Bruni sends to his subscribers, he wisely sums up the dichotomies, confusion, and fear of aging, proving and disproving the fear factor phenomenon. 

“You don't get better as you age. Then again, you don't get worse. Or maybe you don't but someone else does, or the judgment can be made only in categories, by dividing the different aspects of you: your body, your mind, your mood, your munificence. I'm 54 now, and aging is the hardest thing I've ever done. It's also the greatest blessing that I've ever been given: I'm not just still around, but I also savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside. The hell of aging is limits. But that's the heaven of it, too. Sometimes to have the parameters of your life shrink is to be unburdened of too many decisions and of indecision itself.”

Fear factor at 55? You decide.

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