Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Being Invisible

I have frequently heard from clients, most frequently in their late forties and fifties, that attempting to meet other men in gay bars or on the net has become increasingly frustrating for them; that they are never cruised in bars and almost never messaged on-line. Their experience is re-enforced and somewhat skewed if they happen to be interested in men younger than themselves. Frequently, they make the assumption that all gay men share their preference, so they have become too old to ever meet a boyfriend, partner, lover to whom they would feel attraction.

In fact, research indicates that gay men often form the most enduring relationships of their lives in their forties. Though it is difficult to come by reliable statistics, it does appear, however, that the possibilities of finding a partner diminish with each decade after the forties; up to the forties somewhere just under fifty percent of gay men are living with partners, but by the time you reach the sixties and seventies it seems that only about one-third of gay men are living with someone; a significantly smaller proportion than is found with heterosexual men of the same age. Those older gay men living in relationships tend to be with long term partners and the single ones tend never to have been in a relationship of any significant length.

That difference is partly a question of demographics. Finding a partner at an older age is more difficult for gay men than heterosexual ones; the fact that women currently tend to live to an older age than men means there is  a larger pool of women for men to chose from as they become older than for men seeking men. An older or elderly heterosexual man who has remained alert and active, usually has a large field of potential partners. As one woman in her eighties, living in a Florida retirement community, remarked, "Just a man who can drive is golden." Consequently, older, straight men who remain single, either do so out of choice or tend to be very low on the social hierarchy of desirability, while gay men of the same age who are single can have very much of value to offer a partner and, nevertheless, have trouble connecting with another man.

Another demographic reality is the fact that the older a gay man is the less likely he has experienced the liberating impact of Stonewall. Many men growing up before gay liberation didn't even envision the possibility of living with another man and their life expectation was that they would remain single. Socially, the prevailing narrative was that older gay men were both alone and lonely. Stir that stereotype in with the value placed on youth and the stigmatism of being old in Western culture; add the fact that the culture of youth is even more pronounced in the gay community; you have the ingredients for a rather pessimistic expectation of a companionable old age with a man whom you love.

Happily, a therapeutic conversation focuses on what is realistic and possible for an individual, rather than statistical averages. Individual hopes and objectives need not be dictated by either statistics, stereotypes or prevailing cultural narratives.  I approach the client as an individual and look together with him for sparkling exceptions to restrictive expectations and assumptions; assumptions reflecting internalized, oppressive, cultural narratives; exceptions that can provide a foundation for developing a more positive, liberating, personal narrative.

We can consider the examples of gay men who have found their life-partners when they were into their fifties, sixties, seventies and, sometimes, even older; attending to the real life experiences of individuals, who, although they may be in the minority, point to what is, nevertheless, possible. As a therapist I have been repeatedly struck by the fact that clients, who really want to be in a relationship, almost always find one; even when that possibility seems unlikely to me; being definitively not of the pollyannish persuasion.

I have often found that those of a certain age, saying they despair at not being able to find a boyfriend, partner, lover at their age, are in a sort of trance that closes their eyes, not just to other possibilities to live a companionable life, but to their own preferences as well. When confronted with having met a live, potential boyfriend, someone who possesses the characteristics they've said are important in a lover, they suddenly become hesitant; newly concerned about being driven by their "desperation" to "settle"; deciding that they prefer living alone to being in a "good enough" relationship. Chances are that a person who really wanted to be in a relationship would accept one that is good enough, since that is exactly what most relationships are.

Negative feelings about living alone sometimes impel people to say that they want to be in a relationship. In those situations, it is important to explore the differences between living on one's own, living alone, being alone and being lonely. Many people live alone as a preference; pursuing their own interests and activities; feeling fulfilled in the solitude and autonomy of their own individuality. Some live on their own and are surrounded by a chosen family; a community of friends who share their interests and activities; often they experience their times alone as a welcome reprieve from a very active social life. Many live on their own and have two or three very close friends with whom they have intense and satisfying relationships. Some live alone and share their lives with companions of another species; finding comfort, caring and a nurturing relationship with a dog or a cat and don't feel lonely with their presence.

The lives of those individuals, who choose to live without a partner, provide sparkling exceptions to what has been called "the tyranny of two"; the powerful narrative that stipulates happiness can only be found in a couple. The lives of those in polyamorous relationships provide yet another alternative. Both choices enact alternative narratives; providing illustrations that living full, satisfying lives is not restricted to those living in couples. It is always important to consider if the spoken desire to be in a couple is mainly a gesture, a sort of genuflection, towards the prevailing social norm.

As a gay man at the beginning of my seventies, I'm well aware of what it is to be old in our culture. Many gay men, often beginning in their late forties, speak of having become invisible in bars. I had largely stopped going to bars at some point in my early sixties before having had that experience; being about six-foot-five, I'm not easily ignored. I stopped, not because I felt no one in whom I was interested was responding to me, but because I increasingly realized I didn't have the interest or energy to spend several hours negotiating a sexual experience with someone new. I apologize for repeating the refrain from a Marlene Dietrich song mentioned in a previous post (I must reflect on the significance it must have for me); a refrain that frequently went though my head as I walked out the door of the bar; hours before the serious cruising began:

                                      It's not 'cause I shouldn't
                                      It's not 'cause I couldn't
                                      And you know
                                      It's not cause I wouldn't
                                      It's simply because
                                      I'm the laziest gal in town

I have, however, had the experience of being invisible. The first time was in my early sixties at a conference on polyamory, attended mainly by twenty and thirty somethings. Maybe two or three times I made a comment, at a time when comments were being solicited, and there was absolutely no reaction; it was as if I hadn't said anything; after a brief pause the discussion simply moved to what the next person said.

Although it may be hard to believe, I'm not someone who makes frequent or lengthy interventions in such a context. When I do choose to speak it's because the topic is one on which I have something to say and with which I have had some experience. It was the first time I encountered receiving not even an acknowledgment of having spoken. I felt as if I was being regarded as someone who had nothing of interest to contribute; only the fact that I was several decades older than any other participant seemed to me to account for that perception.

Gaydar, the ability gay people have to spot other gay people, has in the past few years given me other experiences of the invisibility of older gay men. Along with most other gay men, I have the ability to sometimes be able to spot another gay man, even as far as a block away. Previously in my life, as the person approached we would make eye contact and, often, smile in acknowledgment, whether or not there was any sexual interest.

Now I'll sometimes notice from a distance that a gay man has spotted me as a person of interest; especially if I'm wearing a hoodie or a hat; an interest that continues until the person is a few feet away; close enough to realize my age. At that point his eyes are suddenly diverted to somewhere else in his field of vision and he passes by as though I weren't there.  It's gotten so that if another man does make eye contact with me, as happens more frequently between men in Montreal than other North American cities, it seems a reasonable assumption that he's probably straight; though I remain open to other possible understandings. I know that "I don't see you" maneuver well; I've used it myself; in younger days; in similar circumstances.



  1. Very interesting and thought provoking.
    I am 53, from the US, but living in rural france, and in a 25 year old relationship.
    So much has changed since I have experienced situations like this, for one, the effect of this media on how we interact.
    I probably just relived at least ten moments in my life while reading this post, which is why I never look at your blog unless it is quite and I have lots of time to reflect. Thanks

  2. Several years ago I took a young medical student to meet two friends of mine, an academic gay couple more or less my age who had been together for over 30 years (over 45 years now). After a pleasant dinner and evening of wide-ranging conversation at their comfortable farmhouse, the student made this astute comment as I drove him back to my place afterward: meeting your friends took away my fear of becoming old. (By contrast, since I was likely the only gay of a certain age he had previously encountered, I was left to conclude that my own perceived accommodation to older age must have struck him as rather uninspiring, if not downright depressing.)

  3. What I had remarked in response to John's post was the observation that, probably, for a young, gay man, being coupled is a necessary condition for a happy future. I can imagine that no matter how productive, happy or chosen an older, single, gay man may be, he would still be perceived as sad and lonely. Perhaps, that's as much a product of the tyranny of two as ageist.