Hi, Dr. Olson,
I am a middle-aged divorced man, and since my divorce I have been struggling with my sexual identity. Perhaps I have always been in denial or confusion with my sexuality. Growing up I had female friends but felt intimidated by them sexually. My first sexual experience was with a childhood friend, but I felt sick, ashamed, and guilty. This increased my need to always have a girlfriend to suppress this shame. Following my divorce, I felt incredibly lonely and started flirting with guys online. For the first time, I felt attractive. Who am I?
Your story is very familiar to me and not much different from my own. Some find it hard to believe that a man could reach middle age before questioning his sexual identity, but in my research, I have even interviewed a man in his nineties who, having lost his wife of over fifty years, began to explore his same-sex attractions. Seeking an answer to the question of who I am led me to write Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight.
My first thought is that it’s too early in your exploration to know what your identity is. What we can say is that you are curious about your sexual identity, but you’ll need to answer many questions before you establish a new sexual identity.
Our culture tends to think of sexuality as binary; gay and straight are black and white, you’re either one or the other, but Kinsey developed a sliding scale of degrees of attraction from exclusively gay to exclusively straight. I would say that in this process of self-discovery, you’re sliding down the scale a bit from thinking of yourself as exclusively heterosexual to some midpoint or perhaps eventually to 100 percent gay. Much of the literature suggests that this reexamination begins in adolescence and ends by the midtwenties, but for some of us, this exploration begins much later.
Many young boys—perhaps even most—have had some experimentation with same-sex activity. It is very common, and most are not particularly conflicted by this history. Parents are often aware of it and just think, “Boys will be boys.” In my case, we thought of it as a kind of rehearsal for later becoming sexually active with an opposite-sex partner. Some boys felt guilty for enjoying it too much or perhaps not wanting it to end as it seemed to for most of our friends. As I reflect on it now, though, even my masturbatory fantasies were faceless and formless images.
Your curiosity is just an indication that you are opening your mind to a deeper exploration of sexuality in a way that expands the limits of what you were taught it should be. Same-sex interests occur in several dimensions: sexual desire, sexual fantasy, sexual behavior, and sexual identity. They are not consistent from one person to the next and may even be inconsistent within the same individual.
Flirting with others of the same sex is common, but the question is, Are you ready to take the next step? I cannot answer this question for you; you must answer for yourself. What I can tell you is that what you are feeling is quite normal and that the feelings of guilt and shame are also quite normal, but they are exaggerated and out of proportion. You may be judging yourself according to the stereotype of gay men that we have all incorporated from our culture.
After I recognized and accepted that I am gay and looked back over my life, it became obvious to me that I had overlooked many, many clues about my same-sex attractions. But my mind would not let me see what I was not willing or ready to accept. I describe it as being like a child’s belief in Santa Claus. At first, children believe in Santa Claus without question (“I’m heterosexual”). And then things stop fitting together, and some questioning and doubt begins, but a child clings to the myth of Santa Claus because so much can be gained from that belief (your current state of questioning). Finally, the evidence becomes too compelling and the belief in Santa Claus must be sacrificed (admitting that you are attracted to other men).
My curiosity about sexual identity began before my divorce, and I had resolved the conflict by the time of my divorce. In my case, I fell in love with a man while still married to my wife, and then I had to find a way to integrate this experience into how I saw myself sexually. I knew that I could never partition off these feelings again as I had done throughout so much of my life. The loneliness you describe is the same loneliness I felt during my marriage. I never really connected with men, and I avoided connecting intimately with women. But I didn’t connect because I was showing up not as myself but as someone who was trying to fit in.
One of the biggest problems most of us have is admitting to someone else that we’re having these confused feelings. Once we say it out loud, we’ve lost control of it. The reason for the loneliness is because we might ask ourselves, “With whom can I speak—safely—about such issues?” To even suggest that we might be confused about our sexual identity is often interpreted as admitting that we are gay, something a “normal” man would never do. I suggest that you think of yourself as “curious” rather than gay; I believe that we can’t really have a “gay identity” until we are ready to admit it to others and accept the consequences. Time will resolve all these questions about your sexual identity.
When I accepted that I was both attracted to and attractive to other men, I finally began to feel the erotic connections that had escaped me earlier in my life that seemed to come so easily to other men. After I came out, I found myself really connecting with men in ways I never felt possible before. What I would suggest you need are some connections with other gay or bi men who are comfortable with their sexual identity. I’m not talking about anonymous or hook-up sex; that might reinforce the guilt. I’m talking about social connections. When you meet other gay and bi men, a lot of your misperceptions about what it means to be gay will disappear. When you see those men as normal, you will allow yourself to feel normal as well.
Guilt is feeling “I shouldn’t want this”; shame is feeling “I shouldn’t be this.” These powerful feelings hold us back and keep us locked in a heteronormative world. You can deal with the guilt by questioning whether the things you were taught are valid. I believe that my same-sex attraction has always been with me, but it took a long time to accept that it was valid, okay, and as normal for me as loving a woman is for another man. When I came out I began to feel more like a man—albeit a different kind of man—than I’d ever felt before.
So my first recommendation is to examine the guilt. Is your attraction to men so wrong? Has anyone been hurt by it? You are normal, just not normal in the way you once defined it.
At the risk of self-promotion, I’d suggest getting my book, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight. It’s available through any bookstore or from Amazon.