Why Growing Old Is Better Than The Alternative

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Watching Hudson & Halls Live at Silo Theatre last night was not only superb theatre, it was a timely reminder to me of several important things.

First up is how much New Zealand has (thankfully) changed since the time (1976-1986) that this conspicuously gay couple had their own cooking show on New Zealand television. Thirty years ago, while it was obvious to anyone who watched their cooking programme that they were homosexual, I don’t recall this was ever explicitly acknowledged or referred to (a bit like Liberace!).

Secondly I’m not sure how much their flamboyance and high camp bitchiness was responsible for people like me staying in the closet for much longer than we might otherwise have (“Well, if that’s how you have to be and behave if you’re gay…”).

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But, thirdly and most importantly –for me- was the contrast between the fabulosity represented by this flamboyant couple, and how their story actually ended. For all the glamour this famous couple represented during their thirty years together, eighteen months after Peter died of cancer in 1991, David took his own life and was found clutching a picture of Peter: “I don’t want to grow old and alone… without Peter I don’t want to go on…” he wrote in his diary.

David Halls and Peter Hudson
David Halls and Peter Hudson

This was a tragic ending for what otherwise might have been a relationship that I would have idealised (two men loving each other for thirty years, in the relatively hostile environment that New Zealand then was).

But one of the things that growing older does enable is a reassessment of the ideals we may have once held to, often very dearly. Perhaps there is no ideal relationship; perhaps –God forbid- there is no ideal religion, or politics, or even life. Perhaps, instead, what we are confronted with as we mature is the reality that life is messy and grey, and furthermore that we may never achieve the lofty heights and ambitions that we once aspired to, or dreamt of.

This may seem like serious stuff, but actually it’s not unimportant for society as a whole (let alone individual gay lives). Two of Sydney’s top universities, for example, have just announced a collaborative research programme to tackle the fact that in Australia there’s an attempted suicide every ten minutes, and seven suicides every day. In the US (and there’s little reason to doubt the figures may be dissimilar here) one in ten people are on Prozac-type medication. And in case there are any illusions about such issues being the preserve of the West, in Japan there are an estimated one million hikikomoori: young men who simply refuse to leave their rooms and who live lives of total isolation from society.

Mental health issues and the search for meaning appear to be universal and gay people have unique perspectives on this because we have not traditionally been provided with the signposts to what a good life (that embraces our homosexuality) looks like. As Andrew Solomon (gay and Jewish) says in his extraordinary book on depression, The Noonday Demon, “If you’re gay, your chances of being depressed are enormously terribly increased”.

From a tendency to less self-disclosure even in the most supportive of work and family environments through to the fact that many gay men are less likely to have stable life partners (and many older gay men to be single), all these factors contribute to an environment where gay men are at greater risk when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, including attempted and actual suicide.

How wonderful it would be, then, if gay men had more opportunities to share their experiences of life and love –including in forums and dedicated physical spaces- in a way that helped us to heal our wounds, and provided young gay people (and older people as well) with stories of survival and adaptation that give hope that embracing life -with all its pain and anguish- is worth the challenge in the long run. Having just gone through the most appalling despair arising from a failed relationship, let me offer up my experiences to any such sharing (by telling, for example, of how important at such times friends and even words like those of Churchill’s are: “When you’re going through Hell, keep going”!).

It may not perpetuate the illusions of fabulosity in the gay world to hear men –like me- talk of their experiences of depression, for example, exquisitely described by Andrew Solomon as “Every second of being alive hurt me”, but might it not reassure younger gay people to know that even in the darkest of times there are cracks in the darkness that –to paraphrase singer Leonard Cohen- “let the light in”?

From being high-profile public figures here to their decline and deaths in London, Hudson & Halls life stories embody the richness and complexity of gay life even today. When we tell their stories –and all our stories- we need to be honest and acknowledge the darkness as well as the light if we’re to equip gay people at all stages of their lives with the knowledge that there are paths through the adversity that life disproportionately throws at us, and that growing older has the potential to brings its own unique perspectives and even, at times, peace and acceptance. But only if we are alive can life give us this chance.

 

 

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Stephen Rainbow
Stephen Rainbow Ph.D. In his 50 brief years he has gained a doctorate; been elected to public office; lived with a woman and had three children; lived in two long-term gay relationships and experienced the loss of both partners. He is committed to telling the unique stories of gay men, from a more theoretical perspective.