Historically, LGBT people have had to live lives in secret and often have had to lie about who they were, a lifestyle described as being in the closet. “Coming out” was stepping out of this dark, hidden place, openly declaring one’s true self. This often wasn’t safe, because one could lose a job or children and be harassed or bullied. There were no legal protections for individuals or couples.
Loren Olson, a psychiatrist and author of Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, chronicles his lifelong journey to gradually coming out to himself and others as a gay man. Due out April 1, the second edition of his book combines the story of his personal trajectory with a great deal of information about LGBT history, psychology, culture and lifestyle.
His self-revelations are an invitation for the reader to remember similar experiences and times in their lives. I found it nearly impossible to turn off the memory machine that his stories activated for me. I’m only a few years older than Olson and have had a personal journey with many parallels. I imagine that people of any age would find themselves recalling their own paths and finding the accompanying information helpful.
Olson, after many years of his own struggle, discovered that there were many other gay men who had come out later in life. His big life change came at age 40, when he was finally able to say that he was gay to himself and to the people in his life. He had been married for many years and was a father.
He began to look more deeply at why he, and others, had lived so many years of their lives before they came to terms with this part of their being. He writes: “To protect ourselves from unacceptable feelings, we instinctively erect barriers in our brains so that we may hoodwink ourselves into absolute assurance that we are heterosexual.”
He explains the social, cultural and legal oppression from the 1940s to the 1970s. This was his, and my, time of growing up. His experience in a small Nebraska town provided no paradigm for any kind of alternative lifestyle. The prejudicial attitudes, values and laws explain why it was so difficult for anyone, male or female, to embrace their same-sex attraction.
Gay and lesbian people were considered to be perverted, immoral and a threat to the security and moral fiber of the culture. My upbringing in a strict Catholic culture was similar to Olson’s Lutheran roots in Nebraska. We learned to hide any hint that we might be different, much less perverted or immoral.
He conducted a survey of 132 men (ages 24-91; median age of 60) who acknowledged that they were men who had sex with men (MSM). His hypothesis “was that the coming-out process for men who come out in midlife or later is distinctly different from the coming-out process for young men as described in the literature.”
Certain factors confirmed the unique differences of this experience for the more mature MSM. Over half of the men had been married to a woman, and nearly half had children. The journey for most was full of denial, secrets and lying to themselves. The good news is that 87 percent were currently comfortable with identifying as primarily homosexual.
Dealing with the youthful gay culture, deeply held religious beliefs, and an oppressive cultural, political and legal milieu were among the difficulties that made the journey perilous and challenging. For younger gay males, there is an expectation of good looks, a buff body and the ability to be sexually and personally free. A mid-life male, often with children, who is experiencing the natural aging process does not meet these criteria or fit into that mold. The challenge is for the older male to accept and love himself, as he is, open to being loved and loving another.
He wrote that: “Those who had resolved this conflict [attraction to men] successfully had done so by developing a moral integrity – an authentic relationship between who they want to be and who they think they are. They had let go of being preoccupied with trying to please others.”
The cultural climate has changed a lot in the last 40 years, and it’s evolved very quickly in the last decade. We have come from the Stonewall riots in 1969 to the Defense of Marriage Act being overturned in 2013 and the right to legal marriage being established in 2015.
Gaining civil rights in all areas and equal protection under the law are the next hurdles. Young people still struggle to come out as LGBT, embracing their true selves. Perhaps they can learn from Olson and all those who have paved the way for today’s victories. They will be carrying the torch another lap into the future.
The life journey to authenticity means overcoming difficulties. As Olson writes: “The transition from living straight to becoming gay began by unlearning things that I thought were true and discovering a new reality. I had to shed my old images of what it means to grow old to discover that this is the best time of my life.”
Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, author and educator working with diverse people of all ages at the Kansas City Holistic Centre (www.kcholistic.com) in Mission, Kansas. She enjoys working with individuals, couples and families. She is a contributing member of the LGBT Affirming Therapists Guild-KC.