The clock starts clicking at 29. You’re officially gay middle-aged: midway between the first gunshot that starts the great gay race on your 18th birthday (“He’s legal!”) and the second that knocks you down at 40 (“He’s finished!”). Your youth drained, your use dried up, you’ll be put out to pasture with other lame mules.
Or so say the common anxieties of many younger gay men, so petrified of actual middle age that they run as fast as they can in their early days and actually do flame out by the point in their lives when venerable maturity should be taking over.
Robert Kertzner, a psychotherapist with a private practice in both New York and San Francisco, says that many of the 30-something gay men he counsels worry they’ll never master emotional and sexual intimacy well enough to enter into a satisfying long-term relationship. Becoming the lonely old troll at the bar begins to feel inevitable since he’s the only evidence of gay mid-life they can see. It doesn’t occur to the young fellows that all the rest of the graying gays are off living their lives somewhere.
Kertzner says that as middle age approaches, the time provides “an opportunity that often does get realized for a lot of psychological change, because people are ready and they’re motivated to look at themselves. I think people are very willing to challenge some of their assumptions. That might require some extra work, because you’re not necessarily going to have a lot of default positions.”
A lack of communication between the generations serves as a barrier to convincing gay men that there is indeed a satisfying and rich life awaiting them after 40, provided they take the right steps to prepare themselves. Not only is there a built-in lack of trust between the young and the old—the former often feeling like a mere sexual object, the latter feeling ignored and invisible—but there are few visible role models left standing.
“One of the many incredibly unfortunate effects of the AIDS epidemic is that basically everybody older than me is dead,” says David McDowell, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan, who is 47. He pointed out that in the 1980s, HIV was most likely to infect the very alpha gays—people like Michael Bennett, Alvin Ailey, Rudolf Nureyev, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Keith Haring—who came to New York to pursue their dreams, only to be struck down during a prime that very well may have lasted for decades afterward and served as an example by which younger guys could model themselves today. Instead, the older guys left over are the “social misfits,” who are often shell shocked by memories of the plague.
“As people get older, we need to create new models,” says McDowell. “We need to realize that there are ways of aging gracefully in any culture in any situation.”
One thing that may not occur to younger gays is that, once they become middle-aged, all the worries they have about aging may very well fall by the wayside. Furthermore, they’ll likely be better off than ever. A recent national Gallup poll of 340,000 Americans found that happiness generally deteriorates between 18 and 50, and then people experience a major turnaround and become more and more contented until 85. A 2009 study Kertzner conducted at Columbia found that older gays are much better prepared to protect themselves against the stress of prejudice and discrimination and in turn have much better social well being. In his study, 18-to-29-year-olds were the worst off emotionally.
“Greater perspective comes with age,” says Rik Isensee, a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the author of Are You Ready? The Gay Man’s Guide to Thriving at Mid-life. “Disappointments aren’t quite so crushing. Your self-esteem doesn’t go back and forth from this grandiose sense to feeling like you’re worthless.”