Entries from March 2007 ↓

Redefining Community

Black Gay Men at Midlife Ė Part 7 of a series

Middle age is all about self-acceptance, establishing a comfort level that comes about by separating wants from needs, the unimportant from the important. People may seem more focused and driven during this phase of life because they arenít interested in wasting time doing things that arenít productive. That includes maintaining relationships that arenít mutually beneficial. Better to have a few good friends than a large collection of casual acquaintances.

That, and other realizations are the topic of discussion today as our group re-examines the meaning of community.

In what ways do you feel connected to a gay community, if at all? How do you define ďcommunityĒ now and has that changed from when you were younger?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
I donít feel connected to a gay community and to be quite honest I find myself making any connections with the gay community as few and infrequent an excursion as possible. I donít identify with gay, sgl or anything in that general area. I donít get the emphasis on sex over personhood, the thug phenomenon over ďwill he treat me rightĒ or ďdoes he want to be treated right?Ē I donít define community the same way I did say 10 years ago. I thought it my responsibility to try to bring some sense of offering to the community that wasnít centered around clubs or churches, neither of which provides any real substance for me. I define community now by people with whom I interact and who can talk about themselves and life and where theyíre coming from with a sense of sincerity; people who have a spirituality that runs at depth and are evolving. I donít need a political movement in my living room, at least not in the traditional sense. Iím building what I call a clan about now, especially since Iím in the adoption process. What I thought was community at a younger age was much less demanding about how I wanted to be treated and my expectations of being treated well. Now that I do have expectations of being treated like a human being I find that my sense of community has become extremely stressed and stretched. At the same time I desperately need quality people in my life. What a dilemma I find myself in at 42/43!

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
I feel more a part of the community now because I work to make it better compared to when I was younger. I define it as the black gay community.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
I do not feel connected to a gay community of any kind at this point in my life, but that has more to do with my voluntary withdrawal than anything else. I do not define community at this point.

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
I feel strongly connected to other Black LGBT people, and during my adult life have been either a member or founder of local and national organizations that seek to create and foster Black gay communities. In terms of the wider American gay community and international gay communities, as I noted above, I have made active contacts with and do feel some connection, usually through my career; I was a member of LGBT writing organizations, as well as a board member of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City University of New York for 3 years. Nevertheless, the ongoing racism, white supremacy, misogyny, classism, and other social and political biases I detect in the mainstream, predominantly white gay community mean that I do not participate in that community’s activities uncritically, though on the larger philosophical issue of LGBT equality and civil rights, I agree with them.

George, 51, New York
I have been seen as an activist so the community that I was involved with was very visible and connected to multiple issues. That has changed for me. I am not actively involved in any organizations or groups and donít feel the need to be ďout thereĒ all the time. I ask questions and will support various concerns but am very comfortable being in the background and watching, offering my opinion when asked and moving along.

Mark, 46, Harlem
Iím not gay and donít feel part of the gay community. Iím ok with it. I now see community as a village of cultural affirmation, intellectual stimulation and spiritual realization. Since Iíve gotten older, my entire perspective on life has changed. God has transformed my existence: my negative sense of self has been replaced by a positive concern for others.

David, 46, Harlem
I felt connected in my earlier ďcoming outĒ days. I felt connected when I would join Craig Harris, Issac Jackson, Donald Blance and a host of the early writers of the gay experience in the 1980s, who unfortunately lost their battle to the AIDS virus.

I felt connected when I would leave the clubs, and walk the streets with my Time Square crew, eat breakfast at some dive of a diner, and then end up in some bathhouse, naked, exposed and free . . . but that also brought about responsibility and a few of us didnít wish to take that on.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
I feel disconnected from the gay community unless it is outside of an urban setting. I thrived for those urban community settings but I am much more satisfied as pursuing personal goals. I define community as a place where I feel comfortable being black and gay. I usually find one without the other.

Cordell, 41, Albany
Because I didnít become connected to a community until my late 20s and into my early 30s, I really didnít have a defined sense of community for very long. However, as of late, although I participate in community functions and with community organizations, I can still say that here in Albany, the definition of community is very skewed. There are not many people of color communities visible here. When I was younger, all I lived around and hung out with were people of color. Now, if you can find others who exist that you share something with, itís seldom.

James, 43, Oakland
I felt more connected when I was in my 30ís and still living in Chicago. I was active in Open Hand Chicago and black gay community groups. It was a fun time and I enjoyed it. When I moved to Oakland, I wanted a break from the community work. I still participate in the AIDS Walk every year and support charity events but the need to ďcarry the blood-stained bannerĒ is not there for me.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
As stated previously I had no idea what a gay community was in my youth. Now, I am very much involved with the gay community. I believe I was sent here to change lives. I want us to learn how to love ourselves, and each other more, and better. I feel connected to my community because I canít separate myself from my community. India Arie says in her song ďBetter PeopleĒ: ďÖbe the change you want to see in the world and healing will multiplyÖĒ Therefore, I am my community. I am the shortcomings in the community and the successes in the community. I refuse to stay stuck in a place where I canít evolve because whenever I evolve, my community evolvesÖand my spiritual teaching dictates that I am ever evolving.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
Well, I think again I’m closer to those ‘micro-communities’ (to which I should add on-line gays). The larger (white) gay community…yeah, okay, they kinda sorta speak for me, sometime…but for the most part…. Same for the larger (younger i.e. the Pride Party Crowd) black gay community.

Where, how and with whom do you most often socialize? How has that changed, if at all, since you were younger?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
I wasnít a big social butterfly in my earlier years. I use to be around family, a few select friends. Now since so many of my family have died off just from old age and disease, my circle has severely decreased in my family and this knowledge has had a deeply transformative effect on me and I canít say itís necessarily for the good. A lot of ďgayĒ shit has diminished my personal social circle with what would have been called friends. As far as where I socialize, itís mostly at home where I cook dinners or at othersí home. We might hang out by shopping or eating out or going places like museums, plays or the zoo together.

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
Nightclubs and events was how I socialized. I currently socialize in meetings, social groups or house gatherings of friends or people in various fields that are familiar and interesting to me.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
(Referred us to answer given in Part 5.)

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
I tend to socialize primarily with my partner and our circle of friends, or with my platonic friends in the literary and arts community. I rarely go to bars, clubs or some of the other gay spaces I frequented when I was younger.

George, 51, New York
I have a few friends that I socialize with for different activities. I have theater/dance friends, the cocktail/party friends, the activists/social friends and the movies/chill friends. Some friends are in more than one section but I donít require everyone to have to do every thing to be a part of my life. When I was younger, it seemed that my friends and I did everything together: party, shop, date, movies, laugh, cry, eat, sleep, share, fight, love together. Some of those folks are gone now but life is also different now.

Mark, 46, Harlem
My social life leaves much to be desired. I donít have fun like I used to. I lack the sense of spontaneity I experienced when I was younger. I tend to weigh the economics before going anywhere. I sometimes attend cultural events, dance, eat out, shop or watch films with a small group of people.

David, 46, Harlem
Now, I socialize with most of my heterosexual female family members and friends. I donít socialize with too many of my co-workers like I did when I was younger. I donít socialize with too many of the gay men of my age or younger for the simple fact that I no longer drink, so I donít bar hop like I use to. Iím also in a relationship so strip clubs, baths, parks, wild vacations, sexual parties with the ďboysĒ, as enjoyable as it might be, my spirit and values now will be in constant battle, and I am trying to live my life now with less drama.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
I usually like to go to small gatherings with friends. It has changed from wanting to go to the bar on the weekends. I have no desire to do so anymore.

Cordell, 41, Albany
I wasnít a big drinker when I was younger and so most of my socialization was more ďpillow talkĒ where I slept with them and then if it didnít work out, they became your friend. Now, I mostly hang out over friendsí homes or go to bars. I actually think that I am less sociable than what I was when I was younger.

James, 43, Oakland
It has changed drastically. I spend a lot time now in music clubs and events so I do a lot of networking with all kinds of people. I like the late shows so I often go out alone as my friends do not like to stay up too late. Whereas most of my friends were gay when I was young, I have straight friends now. When I was younger, I did a lot of clubbing with my friends and would stay out until the wee small hours of the morning. Now, I still go out dancing every couple of months. I treasure my close circle of friends but do not get to see them as often because I am always doing or going somewhere. We get together for dinners, movies, and I host an annual dessert party during the holidays. It gives me a chance to catch up with everyone. I think I have and am creating a very nice life for myself.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
I socialize a lot with other gay men on my job, with other young black gay males as a support group facilitator, on Adam4Adam (LOL!), with my (considerably younger) roommate and with my best friends back in New York. I think the only way my socialization has changed is in recognizing that I am more than my face or my bodyÖI am a soul and a heart and a mind. Once I recognized this in myself, then I can help others recognize it in themselves as well. This is important because when I was younger it was mostly about the party. I wish there was someone then that could teach me that ĎThe Lifeí was comprised of more than just the party scene.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
Being a couple you tend to spend more time with other couples, or others who are in some kind of relationship, straight or gay. Also there’s more family time as well. A lot of the fires that flared up when dealing with family have banked over the years.

Sunday, Part 8: Intergenerational Ties

Love and the Older Man

Black Gay Men at Midlife Ė Part 6 of a series

Perhaps the single greatest concern for men who love men is whether they will still be able to find love and form lasting relationships as they age. Gone are the days of chasing after anything that moves. The playing field has changed, in that desirable places to meet people may seem limited, but so too have the standards by which a prospective partner is judged. Nobodyís knocking good sex, but that alone doesnít make a relationship.

So just where does a middle aged Black gay man go to find love and companionship and how great are the odds at this point in life? Our group of men ponders that thought in Part 6.

If you don’t have a partner, how optimistic are you that you can find one at your age?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
Iím not necessarily very optimistic at all I must say to be honest. The educated guys (and this is my opinion) tend to be damn nuts, with a lot of book learning but no real heart about life and love and are less authentic to me. Briefcase assassins I call them. Guys who are more hustlers are more real to me because they are what they are without a lot of material stuff to hide behind. Not that they donít have their drama too, but they have less to hide because they are hustlers. Iíd love to have a partner and Iíve tried to look at this from various academic angles about weíve been taught to need somebody and the common new age thing now about nobody can complete you. No, nobody can complete you but damn it sure would be good to have somebody with whom you have an earthy attachment to, someone whose smell reminds you of the morning earth on the back roads of Mississippi who even when you lose him in dusk light you can still feel him there. Somebody who is just down to earth and not caught up in gay, sgl, downlow (whatever in the hell that is) and who knows how to pick a ripe watermelon at the country market. Yeah, I just asked for the sun and moon, so no Iím not optimistic.

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
Very optimistic.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
I do not have a partner. There is a person in my life, but we are not a couple. Even if this person and I myself never get together, itís ridiculously easy to get a partner, so Iím not concerned at all.

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
N/A (Heís in a long-term relationship)

George, 51, New York
I think I can find a partner but again, I want someone who is stimulating in and out of bed and a man who has his own life, friends, and interest and does not want or need to be up under me all the time. I actively date but am not willing to jump every time someone seems to be interested.

Mark, 46, Harlem
Iíve been single for over two years. I tend to feel alone, not lonely. Iím equally liberated and prudish about my sexuality. I fantasize about partnering younger guys, yet realize experience, maturity and wisdom is attractive to my spirit. Optimistic? I often feel I wonít partner at all, but then of all a sudden I meet someone who makes my heart flutter.

David, 46, Harlem
Well at the age of 30 I found myself in a ďcommitted/realĒ relationship for the first time, I donít include my brief marriage for a lot of right and wrong reasons. But I fell in love with another man at 30, and we stayed together for six years.

It was a learning lesson for us both. And, I would like to think that we both have grown from that relationship. But I also learned that I was looking for ďprotectionĒ from the world, and he couldnít ďprotect meĒ. It was something that I had to do for myself.

I now have a partner, and weíve been together for almost nine years. I was always looking for partners in my early relationships, but I donít think I was ready, for I was unsure of myself. But when I turned 35 things just fell into place.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
Not optimistic at all.

Cordell, 41, Albany
Currently, I am not partnered and presently, I am less optimistic than what I was when I was younger and would walk away from one and jump into another. I take my time about ending relationships now.

James, 43, Oakland
I would love to have a partner but the rules of the road have changed for me. I am almost 44 now so being co-dependent like I was at 22 just ainít happening. I am much stronger, have much more self-esteem and an overall love for myself. I keep myself very active and busy. I know that does not mix well with a relationship. I am not looking for someone to complete my life. I am looking for a friend, a lover, and a companion. Most of all, he has got to have a life and not be afraid of the life I have created for myself and am willing to share. Yes, I am still optimistic. Unfortunately, most of the men that I have met that could hang live in other parts of the country or world. I am not afraid of love. I just want it to be good love.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
I am so excited about what God has for me in a relationship. I look better than Iíve ever looked, I think in a new way, I embrace abundance and prosperity, Iím more intelligent and articulate than Iíve ever been. Iím a catch! I donít want to sound egotistical but Iíve worked hard to be who I am today. Iím proud of the spiritual, academic, physical work Iíve put into loving me! Although the journey toward a partner (you know, the dating process) can be tedious, it is a necessary part of finding someone special. I have a lot to give and when itís rightÖwhen the season arrivesÖI will have my right and perfect relationship.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
Even though I shouldn’t answer, I’ll say that everyone should remain optimistic about being/finding love. But also just as important (more?) you should be happy with yourself and being in your own company.

Tomorrow, Part 7: Community Connections Redefined

The Second Act

Black Gay Men at Midlife Ė Part 5 of a series

Just like a good movie, our lives have a beginning, middle and end. As the star in our own life story we are taken through new and varied experiences, so much so that as we progress through each phase, one may seem to bear only slight resemblance to the next.

Middle age may be the best time of our lives. Itís where ďbook learningĒ and common sense fit together neatly. Knowing what we know now, we can look back with amusement, and amazement, at the things we did in our younger years, but with an awareness that having survived it all, we are ready to move forward capable of making different, hopefully better choices.

In Part 5, our group tells us more about their lives, getting a reality check on where they thought they would be at this point and reassessing the value of their relationships today.

How has the vision you had for your life beyond age 30 matched your reality?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
Pretty much, not at all. I think I was much more idealistic before 30 even though I recognized some serious challenges to being a black sgl (same gender loving) man. At this point in my life and Iíll be 43 on March 9th, Iím not the most optimistic man right now for various reasons. Not just because Iím sgl, but because of the road I see the world at large on. Itís all an impact beyond issues around sexuality and loneliness which is a serious lens through which I must view my life. Right now I donít have much of a vision about how my life should or could be. Right now, I think I might be having pristine visions of a community Iíd like to see exist, but the present space is kicking my ass. And I donít know if that vision I sometimes see in my mindís eye is a barrier of fear against the reality Iím facing now or what?

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
So far so good education, income, and class are almost where I envisioned. I consider that I have created a middle class existence and struggle like most working single professionals here in NYC.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
N/A (He did not envision life beyond 30.)

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
At first I wasn’t sure that I would make it to 30 because of HIV/AIDS, but since I passed that moment, things have matched up quite well. I have a long-term relationship that is approaching 20 years. We own a beautiful home together, we can afford to travel, and we are still very much in love. I have a good relationship with my surviving parent, I have published two books, have won awards for my writing, and have advanced in my career, achieving tenure at the age of 40. Many other things I dreamed of doing have also come to pass, and I hope to be able to achieve them.

George, 51, New York
Not at all how I imagined. First off, I didnít expect to still be alive and after I realized that Iím still here and have something to contribute to society, I should try to make the most out of my life. My early 40ís were very successful both romantically and professionally but the last few years have been difficult, losing friends and family members due to age and the stressors of getting older. I had the luxury/curse of being openly and publicly gay and that can have its perks and challenges. People often think they know you from your job or positions and donít take the time to know the person and not the image.

Mark, 46, Harlem
I had no vision of my life beyond age 30.

David, 46, Harlem
I didnít have a vision for my own life beyond the age of 30, for when I had turned 21 in 1981, I had started burying my lovers, friends and family members. I thought I would be among that number. But now 26 years later, Iím still here. My reality didnít start to take shape until I turned 31 or 32, that I started to think that I might be around for a while, and that I should stop drinking, take care of myself and those individuals who have been there for me in the good and bad times. I also learned to forgive my father for leaving me at the age of 13. I also learned to trust the fact that I too am a child of God, and that prayer and faith is all I needed to get me through anything.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
I didnít envision life past thirty years old. I also didn’t envision attending school past high school. So it has been open to possibility.

Cordell, 41, Albany
Unfortunately, I never really had a clear picture of what my life was going to become. I just took it as it came. But, I figured that I would be in a long lasting relationship that would have lasted. The reality is that that has not happened yet. I was a little more optimistic in my 30ís because I still felt that I was young enough to be so, yet old enough to know better if it didnít happen. Now, I know better and am just older. I always was ďrushingĒ to become an adult, because I had an unhappy childhood. Now, I wonder why I was in such a rush.

James, 43, Oakland
My vision was still living in Chicago, having a house, a partner, singing in the sanctuary choir, and maybe being a deacon.

My reality is living in Oakland, California far away from my family, having a really good job but cannot afford a house, losing my father way too soon, stopped attending church regularly because I needed a break and realized I did not really want to be a deacon or trustee, and being single. My reality is also greater than I ever imagined and growing more every day. I am a writer, singer, blogger, interviewer, great uncle, jazzhead, photographer, and a damn good baker. Moving to California has allowed me to grow in ways that I would not have if I had stayed in Chicago.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
Well, Iím still not in a relationship. Finding a relationship has been more than an arduous task for me. However, I have exceeded my vision of life beyond age 30. I never imagined that Iíd have a Masterís degree, my own home, a wonderful and nurturing relationship with God. Before age 30 I was afraid of God.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
I was very happy to make it to 30, and 40! Oh baby, so much bullshit just fell away once I hit the big 4-0. I think I thought I’d be a lot more decrepit than I am by now! :-)

I love being older. I love being mature, and yet still having a quality of youth/silliness inside me.

Talk about the quantity and quality of your platonic and sexual relationships now. How has that changed, if at all?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
The quantity probably hasnít changed much. The quality probably hasnít changed a great deal, but it certainly hasnít improved. I think it might have gone backwards. Iím older and yearning more for intimacy now than a fuck. Iím longing for a family, kids included, my own home, my own garden out back, cooking dinners for my family and writing short stories and novels. Iím less interested if not sometimes really disgusted by ripped bodies, young guys who donít know their head from their ass and just dumb shit. I want to be able to have folks over for cheesecake and coffee and everybody is cool, calm and open to be whoever they are without a lot of drama. Iím probably more dependent upon the old friendships Iíve been able to maintain and shocked at some that have gone by the wayside that I thought would be a lifetime. Now I find that new people who I meet are being closely scrutinized by me for drama and any other garbage they might bring through the door. Iím extremely picky now about whom I let into my life. Older seems to be less for me these days and to some degree a little frightening.

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
I have a lot of sex, good dating but I am guarded about my private time.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
They have only changed because I have changed. I more aggressively seek female friends than I did in the past; I am less socially inclined (I rarely go out to clubs and donít attend many functions), Iím more withdrawn from a Black/gay community involvement standpoint (due to both boredom and disillusionment). As a result, I have very few close friends, but they are very close. I have also become something of a mentor to several young gay men (the whole ďgay fatherĒ thing) with an emphasis on being a gay surrogate parental figure.

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
In terms of my platonic relationships, they have changed, in part because many friends I had when I was in my 20s are at different places in their lives, are deceased, and so on that, so the nature of my friendships have changed. My closest friend (other than my partner) has suffered serious mental problems for the last six years, so that has ended one of the most meaningful platonic relationships I’ve had. On other hand, other platonic relationships have developed and grown, so I do have a circle of friends, but it’s different to some degree from the one I had when I was in my 20s and even 30s. In terms of sexual relationships, I have a long-term partner.

George, 51, New York
I feel that I want more from my platonic and sexual relationships. The Internet and phone lines have made sex more available than ever but I want more than just a quick romp in the bed. I want people who can satisfy and stimulate me both in and out of the bed so relationships have been more difficult. I know a lot of people but have fewer close friends. Folks donít seem to make time for one another and the ones that do, I tend to want to keep them close as often as possible, but I understand that they have their lives too. I find myself also mentoring to younger gay men and talking about life and relationships, beyond sex. Itís also flattering when the twenty-somethingís flirt with me and find me attractive.

Mark, 46, Harlem
Through grace, I accept, love and respect myself today. As a result, I have caring friends from all over the world. Iíve become an introspective homebody, yet I enjoy being with friends who share similar interests. My deepest fear is intimacy, which affects my sexual relationships with men. Iím better at communicating my feelings, getting my needs met and setting appropriate boundaries. Sometimes I fall short, make mistakes and/or wander off course. I watch too much porno, which hinders the quality of my sex life. In fact, I beat my dick like it owes me money (smile). My life is an open book. I have no secrets.

David, 46, Harlem
Oh, between the ages of 21 and 30, my friendships, both platonic and sexual were emotionally, spiritually, physical draining. I didnít wish to reach out for fear that those who knew me would fear losing me to AIDS. Or vice-a-verse I would lose them, for now we all realized that AIDS did not discriminate.

So I partied hard, drank hard and loved less, including myself, I was on a self-destructive train path, and dancing as fast as I could to just end the madness of having witnessed so much loss, from 1980 to 2007 . . . today I have lost over 300 family, friends and lovers to the AIDS epidemic.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
The quality and quantity of relationships has lessened as I have advanced in age. It is good and bad. I don’t have time for the meaningless relationships as I had when I was younger.

Cordell, 41, Albany
I still prefer having one or two people who I consider friends, then to be in crowds. However, as I become older, I am unwilling to accept some of the stuff that people try to dish out to you. I had a very close friend who I am no longer involved with because I felt that he didnít have any respect for me and my opinions and tried continuously to usurp his opinions upon me. I am more willing to let go of people who I feel do not have my best interest at heart more so than what I was when I was younger. Many of the friends that I do have, have been a part of my life for significant periods of time, and so I am not in a rush to make new friends as much or to allow those opportunities to develop. This is probably more of a setback than anything else. I think that you have to put in a lot of work and time to nurture and to develop friends and sometimes, I just do not think that I have the energy to do so. In terms of my sexual relationships, I am more willing to be attracted to different types of guys and not try to stick to my ďtypeĒ of men–meaning, I have become involved with younger men, men who I might not have given the time of day to when younger. What has changed is that itís harder to find ďavailableĒ men for more meaningful relationships.

James, 43, Oakland
My circle of close friends is small and I truly treasure them now. We keep each other grounded and loved. We laugh a lot about the craziness of life, gay and otherwise.

Even as a big man, I still get my share of sex. Of course, I am a little too old for the parks now so online dating has become my park, per se. I have had a couple of relationships in about the last ten years. Unlike, living in Chicago, I am not so hell-bent on my partner being black and have enjoyed men of other cultures. I actually enjoy the diversity.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
I had to learn that quantity in my sexual flows was not healthy for my heart, mind or spirit. I have a friend the same age as I, and he continues to do the same things at 43 that he did at 23. He goes out all the time, picks up a new guy each time and brings them back home with him. Iím not judging him, because that works for him. Iím just thinking about how some of the behaviors that I exhibited at 22 are no longer acceptable at 42. At what point do we demand more of life, of ourselves, or our loved ones? My platonic relationships are stronger than ever now because Iíve learned to pick and choose my battles. Fighting every issue and idiosyncrasy is far too exhausting.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
I have more friends now, and I think our relationships are deeper and richer. More fulfilling. I get more out of/from my friends now (soul nourishment).

Sex? I’m married. What’s sex? :-)

I’m not out burning it up like I used to, but on the other hand sex also is richer, more intense. I think I know more and can please and be pleased in ways I wouldn’t have thought of when I was younger.

Tomorrow, Part 6: Finding Love As An Older Man

The End of Our Youth

Black Gay Men at Midlife Ė Part 4 of a series

For the generation now in or approaching middle age, the single greatest unifying experience was the arrival of HIV and AIDS. More than 20 years ago, when this population was in the flower of their youth as older teens and young 20-somethings, a strange, new and deadly illness first appeared across the country and around the world. It appeared slowly at first, claiming its victims one by one with a sickness that had no name, no readily identified means of transmission and no cure or treatment options. It would erupt like a raging forest fire, by decadeís end claiming the lives of record numbers of people from all walks of life but most noticeably among gay men. For this generation, it would rob them of their friends, lovers, family members, neighbors, leaders and icons.

In those days, there were no antiretroviral medications to slow the progress of the disease. If someone became infected, their decline could be quite rapid and life expectancy was measured in weeks or months, not years as is the case now. The stigma attached to the illness was oppressive. People who became infected often lost their jobs and homes and were ostracized by family, many living their final days in poverty or dying alone. Add to this the realities of life during the Reagan 80ís. When people were looking for government leadership to get a handle on this growing epidemic, President Ronald Reagan never once uttered the word ďAIDSĒ during his entire eight-year administration.

Regardless of the times and conditions, many young people live in the here and now, never thinking about tomorrow beyond the next pleasurable sensation. Oneís 20ís should be a period of optimism and hope, but for our group of middle aged men, reality crept in, and guidance in navigating it all was at a premium, as they explain in Part 4 of our series.

How did you envision your life beyond the age of 30? Did you have any regular interaction with gay people who were older than you?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
I really didnít envision a life beyond 30. I just didnít have that mindset. I was too busy dealing with the age where I was and family and personal issues. As far as regular interaction with older gay people, I had some, but I found it discouraging and depressing. Most of them were either drinking way too much, their conversation was more often than not about trade or their ďpieceĒ and the ensuing gossip about who took whose man, and older men breaking younger oneís in, practically pimping them instead of giving them something positive to hope for. Looking back a lot of them had nothing much to hope for. They were lonely and isolated and didnít like themselves at all, let alone love themselves. I remember thinking that if Iím 50 or 60 and my only option is the life they were living or cruising, then I hope Iím dead and gone.

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
I felt that I would be educated and working (I am). I was always concerned about the relations I would have with older gay men. It always felt loaded with power dynamics and now I am one of those men and it seems that the pendulum of aging has shifted and 40 is the new 30.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
Did not envision life beyond 30. From the age of 16, I had regular interactions (friendship only) with many gay men who were older (26 Ė 40+) than I was.

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
When I was in my 20s, I had a number of gay friends who were much older than me; one of my first boyfriends was 40 or 41, which seemed so old back then, but I found that we connected on many levels. I had friends who were in their mid-to-late 30s, including some gay men who were active in the 1970s gay liberation era, and have always cultivated friends who were many years older. A number of these men died of HIV/AIDS. I treasure, however, the friendship and connections I had with them.

George, 51, New York
By the time I was thirty, I had been working in the HIV field for a few years and lost several friends and past lovers. I thought that it was only a matter of time until I became infected and did not expect to be around much past the age of 40. The man who brought me out and I have remained (and are still) friends for years and I knew a few other gay men who were older than myself, and we often would talk and tried to stay connected.

Mark, 46, Harlem
As a young adult, I thought (read: assumed) folks over 30 were boring, jaded and old. I had no vision. In addition to my alcohol and marijuana use, I lived for the cutest outfit, hottest guy and/or next party. I had no interest in Ďolderí men, whether sexual, social or spiritual.

David, 46, Harlem
My initial attraction when I ďcame outĒ in the late 70s was to older men. One of the simple facts of the matter was that I had a long commute into the city for work, school and entertainment, that they were the only ones, at that time, with their own places. And, the majority of them saw something in me that I didnít see in myself, and therefore were more of a mentor to me, rather than sexual partners. As of the men in my age group, I was once again the caretaker, for most of my teenage gay friends didnít come from stable homes (not that mine was any better), but I did have a mother and sister that loved me, especially when I learned to love myself and be true to what I am. So I would bring home all of my ďstreet-kidĒ friends and create an extended family for them. Most of my friends were cross-dressers, street hustlers and in need of love. What they got from my family was shelter, a warm bed, meals and lots of music and laughter. This environment was created once I become more sure of myself and ďcame outĒ. I was accepted by my family. So I had more of an advantage than my peers.

I didnít think I would live beyond the age of 21 for the simple fact of the black on black crime rates of the 70s, or even my own thoughts of suicide, and the fact that my father died from alcoholism at the age of 29, that I thought I would have died from an early death.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
I thought of myself as professional and generally I had interaction with gay people my age.

Cordell, 41, Albany
I never really thought much beyond the next day when I was younger. However, I always had an attraction to older men, so I stayed in communication with many.

James, 43, Oakland
I believed that I would fall in love and be in a relationship that would last for many years. I did have much interaction with older gay men. I had great mentors and they definitely helped me along the way.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
I donít remember having regular interactions with gay peopleÖ that is, until about 22 years old. By that point I wanted everything (and everyone) I saw. I guess on some level I did envision my life beyond 30. Again, Iím not sure if this was a conscious thought or an inherent, instinctual feeling. I just knew that I loved whatever was developing ďinĒ and ďaroundĒ me and I wanted it to last forever. So ďyesĒ I must have envisioned myself with a partner beyond 30. Iím more than sure, however, that I didnít think about it beyond that point or what life with a partner might have looked like.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
There was a period in my life (during 20′s) when I didn’t think I’d make it to 30. HIV, mental illness…a lot of different things impinged on me that made me think I wouldn’t be around at that age. I really had no conception of what the future might be like (in this part I don’t think I was that much different from most young people).

My first partner was older — in his 40s’ — so yeah, I had interaction with him and his friends. I’ve always been around ‘older’ gay people.

What were some of the best and worst aspects of being young and gay?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
Not having any sense of where I belonged or of being loved for me.

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
Physically I was “fabulous” like a young sculpture and a lot of the attention I got came about because of my physical appearance to a great extent, and continues today. I was able to be out at all hours and not stress time and energy.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
BEST: Not having been indoctrinated into any form of gay/queer thought, lifestyle, clique or niche, I was able to observe various gay men and form my own opinions. That also allowed me to be able to go fearlessly into venues (clubs, neighborhoods, gay social circles) that other younger and older Black gay men did not frequent.

WORST: If there was any one single thing, it was the infuriating lack of respect from some Ė not all Ė older gay men.

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
I can’t think of any bad aspects of being young and gay except that I was not as self-confident as I am now, the environments in which I lived were much more homophobic, and the threat of death from HIV/AIDS was much more prevalent. It was a wonderful time in so many ways, though.

George, 51, New York
The best aspects of being young and gay were the freedom, the clubs, the meeting of new people and being sought after by others. The worst aspects were being misunderstood and not taken seriously due to age, career or ďstation in lifeĒ. People would act as if you were incapable of participating in serious subjects because you are gay and young.

Mark, 46, Harlem
I hated being gay. I thought the Ďgay lifestyleí was shallow and superficial. I felt like it was an adventure, more of an escape, yet I felt neither comfortable in my skin, nor safe in my own neighborhood. I wanted to be respected as a man and being gay was in the way. I felt trapped by my desires. I thought my youth made me invincible. I rarely considered the consequences of my behavior, planned for the future or saved money. My attitude of indifference and general negative outlook on life fueled my decision-making.

David, 46, Harlem
The best times for me were meeting a mentor, friend and later my pastor, Rev. Mann who told me at the age of 18 to be myself. Since then I fell out of the closet with such force that I could have caused a small earthquake. But seriously, it was his word that gave me strength to shed the years of ďkeeping quietĒ. Since the age of six Iíve known that I was gay, but it wasnít until I was eighteen that I took a stand.

The worst times were going through elementary, junior high school and high school feeling ďunprotectedĒ and not excelling in the areas that I could have shined and been creative. It wasnít until I was in my first years of college that I joined the theatre clubs, the debating clubs, the local school and community newsletter teams.

I didnít evolve into myself until I turned 18, and the best times were between 18 and 20, then the AIDS epidemic happened, and I found myself reverting back to the younger years of feeling ďunprotectedĒ.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
Having the same opportunity to date and do all the rituals young people do. I did have a social network but it was small.

Cordell, 41, Albany
The worst aspects were always being worried that someone would find out that you were gay and ďoutĒ you or hate you because of it. The best aspect was always being sexually ready and willing.

James, 43, Oakland
The best part of being young and gay was being carefree and if you caught something then, there was a cure for it. The worst part was losing so many friends to AIDS and feeling insecure about my looks.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
Some of the worst aspects of being young and gay were that I didnít see a lot of people with ĎdirectioníÖgoalsÖaspirations for the long term. The big thing at that time was living to party. I was in the minority as a student in college and striving for my degree. I still went to the clubÖThe Garage, as a matter of fact! There was nothing like The Garage because everyone partied together; the gays, the lesbians, the straights, the elderly, the drag queens. The GarageÖitís musicÖitís atmosphere were wonderful aspects of my gay youth. I re-live them now in my head when Iím at the gym listening to disco classics. I have fond memories of the change rooms in particular, where we would change into our party clothes, and at the end of the evening we would take our washcloths and do a bird-bath before changing back into our street clothes and going home. The best parts of being young and gay came as a result of living a very carefree life. Looking back on it now, living a carefree life cost many of my brothers their lives. AIDS devastated our community and no one seemed to be paying attention. That wasnít okay with me.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
Best — Energy! Being able to stay up and out all night. Not knowing how I managed to drive back home after being in the club till dawn in another city. Being unburdened, carefree.

Worse — The shallowness of things. Myself and other people. Thinking that all there was to life was going out and enjoying yourself, and that anything ‘serious’ wasn’t worth considering.

Tomorrow, Part 5: Midlife Reality Check

Friendship, Love and Intimacy

Black Gay Men at Midlife Ė Part 3 of a series

Beyond the mere search for connection with groups of people is the need for deeper, closer, more personal relationships.

The period of our youth is often typified by the desire to not only make friends but to satisfy our natural sexual curiosity. In that respect, men who love men are no different from their heterosexual brothers. But if one has grown up receiving confusing and negative messages about the correctness of their type of love, how easy are those things to attain? How possible is it to form real bonds when you perceive yourself as ďdifferent?Ē Is it possible to turn any relationship into something more meaningful? Is that even a goal or should we accept the popular notion that gay men only want sex?

In Part 3, our group of Black gay middle aged men discuss the challenges they faced establishing connections on an individual level during their developmental years.

Talk about the quantity and quality of both your platonic and sexual relationships years ago?

Conrad, 43, Memphis
The quantity of them was few which I didnít realize until I was at the Health Department and a so-called counselor there scolded me for saying I had only been with a few guys. Heíd heard about gay men having been with dozens, even hundreds of guys. I didnít have that level of sexual experience. I was too afraid and uninitiated into the ďgayĒ community to know where to go for outlets and how to meet people. And being overweight no one was going to show me.

Patrice, 39, Brooklyn
There was neither quantity nor quality. Encounters were few and far between because of the lack of knowledge of navigation.

Bernard, 41, Atlanta
This is a very broad and unclear question. ďQuantityĒ? No distinction between romantic and sexual relationships? Is this related to relationships with other gay/bi/trans people or folks at large? But a stab:

Certainly more platonic relationships than romantic/sexual ones. Always more of the outsider-looking-in/insider-looking-out variety. There was never any remove in terms of my interactions with anyone straight or otherwise in terms of my dealings with folks. People were either kind or mean to me, but it had nothing to do with my sexuality (although in my mid-teens, it was fairly well-known among my friends and within my community). My friends were accepting, non-homophobic and pretty cool with everything.

Sexual relationships were just that, sexual. And few and far between. There were only a few (less than 5) people with whom I had sexual contact, I being between 8-17 and them being between about 9- 16 (generally concurrently i.e., if I was 12, the boy I usually ďmessed withĒ was about 12 or 13). Nothing more than heavy petting and oral stuff; lots of frottage. My first full sexual encounter when I was roughly 19 years old with an 18 year old, who became my first lover. In terms of my treatment of him, due to my immaturity I was pretty shabby toward him.

John, 41, Jersey City/Chicago
I have always had a wide array of good to close friends, but the number ironically has waned as I’ve gotten older, even though I’ve met an increasing number of people through my career. In terms of platonic relationships, these were and are the majority. When I was single, I had two short-term intimate relationships, and a number of brief or one-time sexual hookups and so on.

George, 51, New York
I had some friends who I have known for more than thirty years so that quality has continued. We talked about our respective boyfriends and such but we never crossed the lines. The people who were my friends were in my life because we had similar interests and we all just happen to be gay too. The sexual partners were there for a time and when it was over they were gone. There are some exceptions and some of my closest friends now are former sex partners.

Mark, 46, Harlem
My personality lends itself to both men and women. I Ďknewí a lot of people, yet no one really knew how I felt about myself: neither my family nor my best friend. I enjoyed our polite, yet distant relationships and had more associates than friends. After four years of exclusivity, my longtime partner and I tried to have an open relationship; we both dated other guys, which didnít work for either of us. I was an emotional wreck.

David, 46, Harlem
Because my ďrealĒ platonic friendship consists of my being the caretaker and big brother to all of my family and friends, I never let them in on the ďsecretĒ that I might be a ďsissy, punk and faggot.Ē I was just the nice, well mannered and matured eight year old. Besides most of the adult men and women in our lives were confronting issues that we children had no clue as to the social, emotional and financial impact (e.g., civil rights, racism and poverty of the 60s). We were still children, yet, I always felt older then my peers. As for sex, looking back I truly believe my first experience at an early age was a result of a teenage, family or friend visitor whom I may have had a crush on that took it a step farther. In addition, although I wanted it, I didnít completely understand the ďrejectionĒ that followed. Iíve been told by so many people that Iíve been jaded by my experiences in relationships, both straight and gay, and that people have to trust to have committed and loving relationships. But since I was attached to the shady lifestyles of the 70s and early 80s Times Square, I saw a different side of those committed and healthy/loving relationships.

Robert, 40, San Francisco
It was so important to have peers my age and a place to meet them. I could count them on one hand but their acquaintanceship was so important to my development.

Cordell, 41, Albany
I was a loner for a significant part of my life and so I only really had few friends at a time. I really hated crowds and so I avoided groups of people and felt more comfortable with one on one relationships versus groups of friends. Plus, I never wanted to have all my friends in one space because I figured that the only thing that they would have in common was me. When I was younger, I always was attracted to older men and so many of the men who I dated, slept with or befriended were at least 10 years or more older than I was. I didnít think that guys my age could ďteachĒ me anything. And I liked the attention that older men lavished on me and the wisdom that they imparted through some of the stories of their lives that they talked about. Now, regarding my sexual relationships, I had many more meaningful ones then what I have now; especially with the invention of websites specifically designed for hook ups. I could have sex three times a day with three different men when I was in my 20s and 30s. Now that I am in my 40s, if I could have one a day, thatís a miracle. I have learned more about the ďgameĒ in terms of hooking up without adding any meaning to the sexual experience than what I did when I was younger. And I am more tolerant of things that people say and do then what I was when I was younger. I used to be the one who would end the relationship first. Now, itís a dead even heat.

James, 43, Oakland
I was friendly so I made lots of friends. I think I was pretty well liked back then. There were a few relationships but nothing ever lasted for very long for one reason or another. An aspect from my youth that still exists today is that I am the ďnice guyĒ and while it may make me famous one day, it does not get you many dates. People were always looking for someone with an edge or a certain quality that I just did not have. Only a handful of my friends from the early days are still around. Many died from AIDS, bad trade, and other causes.

Sex was very easy to get and I often thought that because someone had sex with you, they cared about you beyond the orgasm. I was definitely wrong.

Jaleel, 42, Decatur
I can only talk about ďquantityĒ as it relates to sexual relationships and ďqualityĒ as it related to platonic relationships. My sexual relationships were just thatÖsexual! I remember wanting ďmoreĒ but I didnít know what I wanted ďmoreĒ of. I can only recall that I wanted to have what women had the opportunity to enjoy: attention, comfort, to be made to feel special and someone to love. Iím not sure that there was a conscious thought that this could come from a man. In other words, it wasnít until approximately age 21 that I realized that there was a gay community and that men had loving relationships. Before knowing this, I guess I just had casual flings and was often times left yearning for more but not knowing or understanding what ďgayĒ was. This is where the quality of my friendships took over, because I realized that ďgayĒ meant more than just sleeping around. The friendships I developed at the time were wonderful supports. I recall my friend Darryl, who took me to my first black gay club. There was a party at the Cotton Club on 125th Street. I remember looking out at a sea of beautiful, black men and wanting to be a part of it (my first conception of a gay community, I guess). I was overwhelmed and I didnít want to leave. Darryl was supportive in introducing me to black, gay culture.

Reggie, 46, Baltimore
Before or after coming out? Before…someone in college I became friends with said to me that he was afraid to talk to me because I seemed like a balled fist most of the time. After: I had some friends, not many (FYI, I think I have more friends now, thanks to e-mail and the internet connecting us), and ‘know’ a lot of people. I did go through a period where it bothered me that many of my friends were also people I’d slept with…but I got over that. :-) And also I did/do have friends who I’ve not been physical with. When I was younger (just slightly before and in the early days of The Plague) sex was easy to come by, plentiful, casual, sometimes intense, sometimes a waste of time. I like to think I learned a lot from all that fucking (and not just about fucking).

Tomorrow, Part 4: Is There Life After 30?