“I’ve been dating a woman,” my late Dad said to me sometime after my Mom died, “I’m happier than I’ve been in years! We’ve been to the beach.”
I was happy for my father, except for the images flooding my mind of him and his girlfriend holding hands, sharing food off of each other’s forks and heaven knows what else. Awkward.
I’ve been thinking of this conversation since seeing “Beginners,” the critically acclaimed movie, starring Christopher Plummer. In the film, Hal (Plummer), 75, after his wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller) dies, comes out as gay to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor).
Few things, whether we’re queer or straight, jolt us more than when our parents or older people talk to us about their sexuality. We are interested in their intimate lives but don’t want too much information. We wish them well but the idea of seniors being sexual is largely off our radar screen.
This is particularly true in the queer community. If I say “coming out,” I bet you’ll likely think of young people (from middle school to college students) revealing their sexuality to themselves and others. Or you’ll recall friends who left the closet in their 30s or 40s. But how often do you envision folks coming out in their 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s?
In “The Beginners,” an engaging film based on the movie’s director Mike Mills’ life, Oliver grapples with his father’s disclosure that he’s gay and with his dad, in the middle of his eighth decade, embracing LGBT culture. A good son, with a self-aware sense of humor, Oliver, while being supportive of Hal, struggles with his feelings around aging and Hal’s sexual revelation. “When my father came out,” he reflects ruefully, “I imagined him wearing a purple sweater. But actually he was wearing a bathrobe.”
Like many of his generation, Hal, who knew early on that he was attracted to men, had to spend much of his life in the closet. “Your mother took off her Jewish badge, and I took off my gay badge, and we got married,” he tells Oliver of his marriage to Georgia in the 1950s.
Hal’s narrative of coming out late in life isn’t just Hollywood tinsel. Several years ago, one of my cousins in his late 50s — fearing that being openly queer would cost him his job — retired so he could finally come out.
This is a common story, said Susan Hester, a member of the national board of Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE) in a telephone interview. “People’s spouses have died. Their children are grown,” Hester said. “There’s an awareness of how hard it is to live without being true to themselves.”
“There’s a feeling,” Hester added, “that life is short. If I’m ever going to be who I really am, now’s the time to do it.”
Our culture’s increasing comfort with LGBT folk has encouraged elders to come out late in life. This is terrific. Yet while freeing, leaving the closet can turn your life upside down.
How comfortable with and supportive of are we in the queer community of these elders who are coming out? Along with SAGE, there are organizations for LGBT elders ranging from Prime Timers (a social network for gay men) to Old Lesbians Organizing for Change.
Yet despite this support, ageism is rampant in the LGBT (as in the straight) community.
“When people hear ‘senior,’ they don’t think of love or sex,” Kathleen DeBold, president of Moving Experiences, a transition program for seniors, told me.
“People don’t see their images,” said Ken South, president of Prime-Timers of Washington, D.C. “If you look at photos of the recent Gay Pride parade, the average age is about 24.”
Overcoming ageism will take some work. We can start by opening our eyes to the vibrant images of our elders.