It’s Never Too Late for ’Letting Go of Living Straight’ :: Loren A. Olson on Coming Out in Mid-Life
Dr. Loren A. Olson, M.D., had long been married, and was the father of two daughters, when he came out of the closet. That step involved painful readjustments and the facing of intense fears, but it also marked the point at which his life expanded to new levels of joy and personal integrity. Olson hopes his memoir can serve as a how-to for other middle aged closeted men.
Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight tells Olson’s story, but also serves as a summary of legal and social changes that affected GLBTs in recent decades. In a way, the memoir is a one-stop self-help book and reference that provides the newly emergent gay man with needed history and context--and a sense that the older gay man’s coming out need not be a solitary journey.
Dr. Loren Olson met with EDGE at a Boston hotel where Olson was serving as a faculty member for a writing workshop. The interview took place in quiet, private surrounds--a setting conductive to a frank and intense discussion during which Olson was visibly moved as he recounted his story, tearing up several times.
"It’s a hybrid," Olson said of the book’s multifold character. "I needed to incorporate the fact that I am a psychiatrist, and I have some psychological insights into the process and why it takes some of us so long to figure it out. At the same time, oftentimes the best examples of that sort of thing are [drawn from] your own life, and so it’s not completely a memoir, but there’s enough [autobiographical fact] in there to tell my life story, and I use [my personal history] to illustrate some of the points that were being made.
"There are many parallels between my life and those of other men who, at mid-life, are still trying to figure out their sexual orientation."
Coming out later in life is not unusual for gay men, especially when they grew up in an era when homosexuality was widely viewed as evil--or, at the very least, a form of mental illness.
"It’s certainly the experience of a lot of other men," said Olson of his midlife emergence from the closet. "In some ways I wanted to tell the story because a lot of what has happened has worked out very well for me, and part of what I wanted to do was to give men who are in the situation of trying to decide what to do a sense of hope, because many of them don’t have any. I hear from people all over the world who say, ’Doesn’t anyone understand the torment I’m in? How can I get through this time in my life? I have so much that I will be giving up if I come out.’
"I wanted to say to them that it is a tough time, and it is a tough transition, but there is a possibility of a better life on the other side," Olson continued. "Many of the people who are stuck in that situation didn’t figure out their sexuality early, and they get very depressed. They feel there’s no way out."
EDGE asked what the typical experience (if there is such a thing) is for men who come out in midlife. Is coming out triggered by a sudden thing, like falling in love with another man? Or does it tend to be more gradual--a sense that builds of dissatisfaction or not being complete, or heterosexual life as being wrong for that individual?
"I think it’s both," Olson said thoughtfully. "Certainly, in my case, I fell in love with someone--I was married, he was married. What I had half-expected was... not really a hookup, but to have a relationship to satisfy those same-sex attractions, but we’d both go on living our own married lives.
"I think, though, that there is a terrible sense of discontent when you feel you are living one life but you should be living another one," Olson continued. "It creates a lot of anxiety and depression and a sense of hopelessness. Many of the men I talk about may have come out after their spouse died, or following other events that finally gave them the freedom to actualize their lives in ways that they wanted to."
But not all closeted gay men manage to escape from the closet.
"There are a lot of men who feel that they would be sacrificing too much," Olson told EDGE. "We tend to magnify the losses and to minimize the gains in that situation. If you don’t know what it is, or what it can be, to come out, it’s easy to just stay sort of stuck.
"May of the men I know are very attached to their wives and their families," Olson continued. "They have lived heterosexual lives with many attachments and networks that are all heterosexually based, and frankly there’s a heterosexual advantage to living that life, and they didn’t want to give that up.
"When I was married and just beginning to explore [my true sexuality], I thought: ’What do men do when they have sex? How does that all happen?’ Many of these men are exposed to the worst things about same-sex environments. They have clandestine sex in public venues, and it’s sleazy and dirty and everything else. In many ways, that’s the image they have of what it’s life to be gay.
"Or on the other hand, they see the most flamboyant gay people and think that’s what it is." As a result, Olson said, "There’s a real reluctance on the part of those man to identify as gay. They are often offended if you say that they are gay. They mightrisk saying they are bisexual. A lot times they’ll say, ’I’m bi-curious,’ or exploring.
"I, when I was going through it, had in my head these images of the stereotypical gay man, and I knew I wasn’t that person. How do you reconcile that if you’ve never met anyone who is different from that? Taking steps into the gay community and finding out that it’s not always that way helps get rid of the stereotype in your head."