Age Differences in Gay Couples

I’m a twenty-five-year-old openly gay man, and I’ve always liked older men. Many of my gay friends who are close to my age are critical of me and suspicious of my motives. My gay friends don’t understand it, but I don’t understand it myself, so I can’t explain it to them. I feel like I’m the only one who has this problem. I’d like to understand this better. Can you refer me to anything I might read about this?

A young man once said to me, “If I see a handsome gay man my age, he might as well have a vagina. I feel nothing.” Another said, “I don’t get aroused if I see some hot young man, but if he’s with his grandpa, I get excited.” This phenomenon is more common than most people realize, but it is rarely talked about and almost never researched. You are not alone.

One book that describes intergenerational (IG) couples in a positive way is Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by writer and photographer Bill Hayes. This moving memoir is about Hayes having fallen in love with a much older man, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, near the end of his life, and the love they felt for each other while Sacks was dying.

Research on couples with twenty or more years of difference in their ages—also known as intergenerational, age-discrepant, or, more commonly, “May-December” relationships—has been sparse, and what little research has been done on the subject has focused on primarily heterosexual couples. However, based on the number of times this question drops into my mailbox, it lingers in the minds of a lot of men. I have written about IG relationships in both editions of Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight. I later wrote an essay for Psychology Today, The Curse of an Attraction to Older Gay Men,” that has been accessed over 100,000 times in a relatively short period of time. You may feel alone, but obviously you are not.

Age is likely just another factor in sexual attraction no different than hairy chests or big biceps, according to Dr. Michael Seto’s paper “The Puzzle of Male Chronophilias.” After studying it, I explored the topic in “Age as a Factor in Sexual Orientation and Attraction,” a subject I became interested in when one younger man said, “I like men with rounded corners.” When I seemed puzzled, he elaborated, “They have all their corners and sharp edges worn off,” a lovely metaphor.

As I continued my research, I began to hear more and more stories of couples with twenty-, thirty-, or forty-year age differences. One aspect is almost universal among the young men I studied: An attraction to men with white hair and an ample belly. Initially I was skeptical, but this was because I held the stereotypical views: an old man who was looking for a trophy-mate and has money to take care of his boy toy and a younger man who was looking for a sugar daddy—a hackneyed idea that infuriates men in IG relationships. Then I realized that my husband and I have about fifteen years between our ages, but after thirty-three years together, our age difference has rarely been an issue.

The correspondence I receive often begins like this: Why am I like this? I think it’s because I never had a father. But others say, I had the best father ever and I want someone like him. I couldn’t find a consistent pattern in their stories, and the contradictory views expressed by young men about their relationships with their fathers suggested to me that they contribute little, if anything, to their sexual attractions.

Sexual attraction is determined by a combination of factors beyond our control. We can do what we want to do, but we cannot choose what we want; what we want is programmed into our nature. Although this view is not accepted by all, enough philosophers and scientists agree, making it no longer just a fringe view. Perhaps sexual attraction is imprinted during a developmental window, but if so, it is programmed onto a character structure that was set by nature. Male eroticism is concrete; perhaps, then, it is innate.

It also appeared to me that people generally were more critical of IG same-sex relationships than they are of heterosexual ones. I heard a lot of resentment from young men in these relationships for being accused of being a gold digger when they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. They are dismayed that others believe their relationships are based on something other than love.

Dr. Leon Banister Jr., in completing his doctoral dissertation “May-December: Navigating Life as an Intergenerational Gay Couple,” thoroughly researched available literature as well as conducted narrative interviews with several age-discrepant couples. Several common themes emerged in his research:

  1. The couple sees themselves as one unit.
  2. Support from their families benefits their relationship.
  3. Age differences bring mutual benefits.
  4. The older partner feels younger and the younger feels older than their chronological ages.
  5. They consider discrimination a part of being gay.
  6. Shared finances are a part of their commitment.

Something else for you to look at is the work of j. bilhan, an American artist, photographer, and writer who looks into the hidden lives of young men who are attracted to older men. His project, called “Variable Embrace,” uses photography and audio to demonstrate how religion, tradition, or desire for the status quo that tells us men should not be sexually attracted to other men, especially when a significant age difference exists.

I suspect that the answer to why one person is sexually attracted to another is complex, but one factor might be the effects of oxytocin, a brain chemical sometimes called the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone” because it is released when people snuggle. (A desire for cuddling comes up with you men who prefer to be in IG relationships almost at the same frequency as white hair and ample belly.)

Ultimately, statistics don’t change minds; our stories do. That is why the works of Bill Hayes, Dr. Banister, and j. bilhan are so important. By normalizing these age-discrepant relationships and presenting them in a positive light, they will bring comfort to those men in the double jeopardy of being gay and loving someone much older or younger.