Stephen Rainbow writes on the problems facing contemporary gay culture.
It’s always difficult to make observations about gay life without appearing either sanctimonious or setting oneself up as a paragon of virtue. I am neither, honestly. But after twenty years living as an openly gay man I feel I’m entitled to make a few observations about being gay based on my own life experiences.
1995 was the year when the abstract concept of my being homosexual was made flesh for me when the gorgeous -and sadly, late- Greg Bowron entered my world and enabled me to become who I truly was: a gay man. I came out twenty years ago this year, and turned my life (and even more that of my children and ex-wife) upside down in ways that still resonate -not always positively- to this day.
Twenty years later I’m feeling less positive about being a gay man than I was when I first came out in 1995, in spite of the monumental changes that have taken place in attitudes -and legislation- over that period. It was the prospect of a relationship -with Greg- that enabled me to start living as a gay man 20 years ago, and I am still a relationship-oriented person. Not everyone is; not all gay men are; I am. I’ve learnt to be my “own best friend”; the fact is I still want to build a life with another person. And the prospects, I fear, are not good for a 55 year old finding the kind of relationship I want for the rest of my life. It’s for this reason that I’m finding being gay twenty years after coming out more daunting than ever.
I’m happy to be challenged on my hypothesis, but let’s start with the figures. Let’s take Auckland, at 1.4 million people, and assume that (optimistically) 5% are gay. That’s 70,000 people, of whom half are men and half are women. That’s 35,000 potential gay men in Auckland.
A good friend of mine argues unequivocably that most of the gay men he “meets” are still married (to women), so how many of that 35,000 might be openly gay (and therefore open to relationship) anyway? Cultural factors will also be at play: Asian culture is much less comfortable with overt sexuality so let’s assume the one third (the Asian proportion of Auckland’s population) of them who are Asian, so 10,000 -which anyway seems rather optimistic- are less likely to be openly gay and available for relationship.Given that there are websites for gay male Asians to marry gay Asian lesbians one can also anticipate there may also be complications, like the fact one’s gay male partner is ostensibly married to a woman in the eyes of his family, for example! I want a relationship with a man who is able to be himself wherever he is, including with family (his and mine).
Can you see where my rather pessimistic view is headed? Regardless of the filters that are applied, the pool of potential partners is potentially very small for a mature gay man in Auckland (or indeed NZ). And the limited numbers are further constrained by a variety of other factors, including age, because the reality is that the older you get the pool of guys drawn to you will be less. In spite of the apps and sites specifically targetting this market (young for old) this market remains a niche one.
But even if a younger person is drawn to an older guy other factors come into play. I met a guy recently of around sixty with a successful hospitality business who said quite emphatically that he can no longer afford to contemplate a relationship with the young guys interested in him because he could lose all he has built up after a couple of years if the relationship develops. Economic factors are not insignificant where there’s an age difference, whether it’s who pays for dinner or the complete imbalance in assets (like one partner owning a home, for example while the other owns nothing).
Other kinds of assets are critical too, hence the centrlaity of physical attraction. In fact without it, I would argue that a gay male relationship is simply not going to work. I had a long correspondence with a guy in the States who was my ideal match: cultured, intelligent, witty and spiritual. But when we finally met in person -much anticipated as you can imagine- the minute he took his clothes off it was all I could do to stop myself running from the room screaming (ok I should have done a better job of checking out beforehand, but hey, I’m a romantic who thought a connection of the minds could transcend the merely physical!). We endured a rather tortuous weekend together before he headed home again.
Even if there is a physical attraction the reality is that there are more “passive” men than “active” ones, and that’s a filter that’s, ah, kind of important and often rather difficult to transcend if there’s no fit, as it were.
On another occasion I was matched up (how rare it is for people to matchmake, but what a gift!) with a fabulous guy who, again, ticked many boxes. But it wasn’t long into our first dinner that we ended up in a strong political disagreement. A friend once said “You can be happy or you can be right”, but it’s so difficult to choose when you know you’re right! But let’s face it, by the time you’re 50 you’re likely to have a reasonably clear idea of who you are and what you believe. If your potential partner has fundamentally different views and values that’s a not insubstantial obstacle to relationship.
One of the ways that guys in New Zealand have dealt with the size of the partner market here is to flee. There’s a story to be told about the gay diaspora from New Zealand, and in particular to places like Melbourne and Sydney (and probably London). But my experiences most recently in London suggest that there’s a limited appetite for older guys, understandably when you consider that it’s the gathering place for young party animals from around the world.
Another solution to the limited number of potential partners here has been to have long distance relationships. I was in one for the last two and a half years and part of why I’m writing this is because it ended badly; really badly. How people can treat those they claim to love so badly must be one of life’s enduring mysteries, but it happens and there is no doubt our relationship was the victim of distance. Could a relationship that led to my being dumped and abandoned at the beginning of a holiday in a nasty third world country only months after we’d explored getting married in a temple in Kyoto not have happened to a straight couple? Of course it could have, but it seems to me there’s something uniquely gay in the sheer cruelty and deceit – not to mention the intensity and drama of my reaction- to what happened to my long distance relationship recently.
The world is made a smaller place by the plethora of apps that are available for gay men. As I sit here grindr, scruff and Jack’d are loaded on my phone (and as if to prove the point I have just made I’ve just received a message from a guy in Ghana!). But lest I have any illusions about the vast pools of potential partners this will provide, my first encounter via these apps after my recent break-up was with a well presented and attractive young man who ended up asking why I smelt of car freshener! My refrains of “I only use Issey Miyake” did nothing to deter him from sprinting off down the street!
But where’s the app -or website- for guys who’re seriously wanting to get into a relationship? And where are the relationship-oriented events in the gay media, to complement the ads for the parties and the sex venues (ok, I do know of long term relationships that have started through meetings at the sauna). Hmmm, I’m sensing a business opportunity right now!
The fact is that relationship issues are serious matters for gay men, and I believe they have a huge impact on our wellbeing. When I sought counselling over my recent break-up the (gay) counsellor told me that it was matters of the heart and the desire for realtionships that are the reason for most of the gay men going to see him. It’s been reported that 70% of gay men over 50 in the US live alone, and I understand the figures from the UK may be similar. This is not about saying that living alone is undesirable; it’s about saying that for those gay guys who don’t want to live alone the pursuit of relationships can be a real challenge. We are great at finding sex (even as older men) but the chances to connect at the level of the heart and the soul -which is what I want, in addition to the sex- fill me with nothing less than despair.
My wonderful 82 year old Dad who’s been totally supportive of me and my male partners, when told that I was single again said “There must be a nice lady out there for you”. Now, Dad, I have to tell you that’s going too far, but I do actually know of gay men who have talked about returning to the (sexless) relationships with their former wives because of the challenges they have faced in trying to build successful gay relationships once they’ve left their marriages.
Yes we lack roadmaps for gay relationships, and gay relationships therefore take many more forms and can be thrillingly experimental. But the lack of roadmaps also means that there’s a lack of ethics and constraints (I’m not excluding myself from this assessment) that resembles nothing more than the free market in its purest form (there’s always something newer, shinier and better to upgrade to). Few gay men will not have personal experience of the relentless pursuit of the orgasm leading to behaviours that can have a hugely detrimental effect on gay mens’ lives, and negatively impacting on the trust that enduring relationships so depend upon.
Recognising my challenge in finding a relationship one friend has suggested that I take a map of the world, work out where it is that I’m most likely to find a partner, and head there for a while. I love her creative approach. But the fact is I’m a Kiwi and I have family and other responsibilities here. Even if I met a potential partner abroad issues about relocation (especially problematic for professionals) will likely surface. Many of the Jewish people who arrived in NZ from South Africa ended up relocating to Melbourne, if only because they could get a Jewish education for their children there and – you guessed it- find them a nice Jewish partner (made easier because of the sizeable Jewish community already there). Should I really have to follow their example and leave NZ to find a partner?
I want to do all in my power to address the challenge of finding a relationship, including drawing up a profile of my ideal man. He’s younger than me, an architect or artist (aesthetically-inclined), lean and toned, communicative, tactile , affectionate, practical when required and kind (probably the most important quality of them all). Oh, an interest in current affairs and politics would be good too. I understand my ideal man existed once, and it was a great book (fiction of course). However, if anyone should know of such a person, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Single and discouraged is not exactly where I expected to be twenty years after coming out (and thirty years after Homosexual Law Reform), because while the legal reforms that have taken place have created a context where discrimination is no longer legal, the challenges facing gay men as we plot the roadmaps of the unchartered territory of gay lives are enormous. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to relationships.
I’ve been blessed with several relationships in my life (especially with Greg, for 12 years) as well as with children and, now, even grandchildren (from my married years). But as I approach my latter years I ‘m more fascinated than ever by this issue of relationships between gay men. I don’t want to feel that the evidence is stacked against me, as a gay man of (nearly) 55, finding a relationship to last the rest of my life. I know straight people struggle with relationships too, but they’ve got 95% of the population to play with; I’ve got a fraction of the remaining 5% (more likely 2!). I want more dialogue about gay men, and how we find the heart and soul connections that so many of us seek.
I intend to write more about the discoveries I make about this subject as I head off on this journey, mindful that -unlike too many gay guys who’ve died from AIDS or suicide- “He who is alive, at least still has a chance”.
Article | Stephen Rainbow