“I took care of my partner while he was sick, until he passed three months ago,” one man at my Sage Table said.
At that moment, all the women cooed in sympathy and commiseration, showing that they felt the emotional impact, wanting to convey their support to him in his time of loss.
It was a lovely response, one that I joined in, open hearts that wanted to connect with this human feeling.
During our conversation, many of my challenging moments came out too, like growing up with two Aspergers parents, or the kind of isolation that I have experienced, but at no time did my disclosures prompt the same emotional chord.
The topic of the evening was the challenges of aging and LGBT people. As we become more vulnerable, how will we get what we need, how will we be supported by the broader community.
“Doesn’t it get easier to be more honest as you get older?” the local organizer asked. “Aren’t you more comfortable in your skin, more clear about who you are, have less to lose?”
I’ve been telling the truth for decades, I said, but I have come to understand that there is no point in trying to tell your truth to those who aren’t ready or willing to hear it. Negotiating the determined ignorance and deep-seated fears of those around me just usually isn’t worth the effort, I have found.
When you need someone to feel your emotion and instead you have to do education about how hard those challenges are and why those challenges had to be engaged, that process stops being tender and becomes a political act, taking the essential touch away.
The intellectual energy required to break through the beliefs of others demands either a claim of abjection or burning with concierge skills, putting your own feelings away to negotiate the fears of others.
While it may be easy to understand the fear of attack that comes with exposure — the “third gotcha” — the biggest problem for me is the knowledge that the amount of effort I put in to share my experience, my perspective and my truth will almost never pay off in the kind of support that I so desperately need and want.
Instead, I may get, even from well meaning people, an attempt to set me straight, trying to explain where I have missed the expectations of normativity, and why I deserve what I get unless I bend to the assumptions and concerns of normal people.
It’s not dealing with attackers that is the worst challenge, it is dealing with those trying to be nice and still hurting you. You can blast back at those who strike out, but those who cause you pain while trying to be kind cannot be so easily dismissed or destroyed.
As we age, we no longer have the frenzied exuberance of youth, but do have a lifetime’s worth of context, of experiences that help us understand the probability of how interactions will turn out. This leads us to conserve our dwindling resources, focusing them in on what has a good probability of success, either in creating change or bringing us comfort.
The stories we put out are no longer simple and clear, just moments of loss or gain, but are instead complex, nuanced tales that hold many threads of wisdom and emotion. Instead of having to simplify them down to some level of common denominator, we often just hold them inside, knowing that those who haven’t shared this kind of experience will just find them baffling, just try to dismiss and diminish them.
Finding grown ups who can understand and resonate with what we share, those who know when to laugh and when to sigh compassionately at our narratives, well, that’s not easy for anyone, but the queerer your life has been, the more difficult it is.
Even trained clinical professionals usually don’t have the capacity to understand the convoluted challenges of a mature queer life. The profound losses that stemmed from almost impossible choices between taking the pounding of being out or suffering the shame & denial of being hidden are beyond their grasp, as are the issues of loneliness, isolation and the wash of unending shame & stigma.
Instead, they do what most people do, generalizing their own experiences to fill in the gaps in their understanding, not being open and transformed by shared truths but instead trying to fit our experience into their view of the world.
This leads them to try and straighten us out by setting us on the straight and narrow, the path that leads to conventional comforts.
We know that path well, because it is one that we have been pushed into taking all our lives, but one that we had to turn away from to claim the truth of our own hearts over the expectations placed on our bodies and our histories.
The legions of queer people who have walked away from those who were trying to help because we knew the cost and futility of trying to educate them beyond their deep seated assumptions and fears are still out and hidden in the world today. We have learned to play small, to keep quiet, to attenuate our energy, to oversimplify our stories, to keep our hearts and minds to ourselves.
The dream of family is the dream of people who get you on a deep level, who understand and love not just how you meet their needs, but also know and have compassion for your life.
The truth we learn is of people who don’t have the experience and empathy to sigh when they hear our stories, who don’t know the questions to follow up with, who don’t know how to lead us beyond our own reticence into emotional disclosure, into intimacy and fulfillment.
Claiming your own exceptional individuality, your own queerness, can leave you lonely, without the simple understanding and care of others.
And as you get older, the price of that, like the price of all choices in a human life, even the ones forced by social pressure, begin to weigh heavily.
It’s enough to make one sigh, even if no one around you understands why.