Musical Chairs for the Misbegotten: Gay Dating at Midlife
Seven years ago, my partner unexpectedly died. For the first time in almost 25 years, I was plunged back into the dating world. If you’re a middle-aged gay man, that can be a very tough task. Let me explain why.
The odds are bad from the start. The most reliable surveys (including those conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA) indicate that roughly 2% of the American population identifies as either gay or lesbian. If we assume an equal percentage for each, that means about 1% of the general population identifies as being a gay male. Although that figure is undeniably higher in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, it seems like a fairly accurate percentage for Greenville/Upstate South Carolina (the region I call home).
How does that percentage translate into dating realities? Let’s say I walk into a room of 199 (single) men. That means that two of us in the room are gay. Because I’m one of those two men, that leaves me only one other dating option. And, all things being equal, in any group containing fewer than 199 men, I could potentially be the only gay man.
Now let’s imagine that a straight man walks into a room of 199 (single) women. On average, two of these women are going to be lesbians (well, technically 1.99, but let’s round up). That would give the straight guy 197 women to choose from. As a gay man, I would need to walk into a room of 19,700 other men to have that many options. That’s a lot of chairs.
Location, location, location. Historically, the only social institutions for LGBT individuals have been bars (John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities). However imperfect bars might be as places to meet potential partners (bars have typically catered to young gay men who are looking for sexual hook-ups), many communities still lack even this resource. (The only bona fide gay bar in Greenville closed several years ago.) In large cities there are growing numbers of LGBT support/social networks, but they are the exception, not the rule, throughout the rest of the country (including Greenville).
Unfortunately, almost all of the venues that assist heterosexuals in finding partners—workplaces, churches, civic groups, and community organizations—are far more difficult, if not impossible, for gays and lesbians to utilize for the same purpose. In such settings, gays and lesbians are not only vastly outnumbered by heterosexuals (see previous section), but they also (almost always) have to guess or rely on their “gaydar” to figure out who else might be like them. Imagine if the other 98% of the population were forced to meet potential dates/partners under the same circumstances?
As documented in a recent New York Times article, there are whole swaths of the country that are considered unfriendly to gays and lesbians (South Carolina is one of them). This means that gays and lesbians tend to avoid or leave certain areas, making those areas even more challenging for the (single) gays and lesbians who have to remain behind (usually because of job or family considerations). In my own case, a personal matchmaking service indicated that at least six men have refused to contact me because they couldn’t stomach the idea of living in South Carolina. I wonder what straight people would think if they received a similar message: “I’m sorry, we can’t find heterosexuals who are willing to live in South Carolina.” So much for Southern charm.
The good fits are already taken. Most of us have heard the saying, “The good ones are already taken.” Well, maybe. But in my experience, it’s more a matter of the good fits having already been taken. And there’s some logic to that proposition. Most (though not all) people who want a partner spend their 20s and 30s finding one. Consequently, if you look for a partner (within your own age cohort) later in life, there will be fewer eligible individuals to choose from. Sure, some people re-enter the eligibility pool in midlife (as I did), but there sure seems to have been more good fits for me when I was in my 20s than there are now that I’m in my 50s.
And that brings me to the unavoidable topic of online dating sites. Among the oh-so-many disappointments I’ve encountered with seven such services (fake photos, fake ages, hucksters, hustlers), one of the biggest is that the vast majority of other members aren’t good fits for me, even if I were enthusiastic about attempting long-distance relationships (they aren’t easy). Again, this doesn’t make me any better than any other lonely heart. Nevertheless, two people are either compatible, or they aren’t.
I’ve also deputized more than thirty local and far-flung friends to be on the lookout for me. They usually respond by saying, “I know this guy who’d be a great fit for you, but he already has a partner” or “The only other gay man I know wouldn’t be a good fit.” As for the match-making service I mentioned earlier? After paying them a very large non-refundable sum, the best they’ve been able to do in almost four years is to set me up with a dead guy. That’s not a typo. Call me picky, but I declined that date.
Age, age, age. Over the decades, one of the most consistent characteristics of the male gay community is the premium that’s placed on beauty and youth, especially the latter. It can even result in something referred to as “internalized gay ageism.” During the past seven years, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told, “You’re too old.” To make matters worse—and against my repeated protests—the online dating services constantly match me with guys who have indicated that someone my age is too old for them. Mind you, these are guys in their 40s and 50s, but unadulterated youth (pun intended) is what they want. Sadly, verbal (and often physical) shunning can do a real number on your self-image. This makes Freud’s notion of narcissistic injury pale by comparison.
There’s another group for whom aging is also a great liability: middle-aged straight women. They face equal—sometimes worse—disdain from middle-aged men. In other words, both gay and straight middle-aged (single) men seem to place a huge emphasis on having young(er) partners. I think that that’s one reason that middle-aged straight women are more attracted to me than middle-aged gay men are; they (the women) see my other qualities as being far more important than the fact that I’m no longer 25 years old. Admittedly, some gay and straight men are attracted to older partners. All I can say is that the older men to whom they’re attracted must have something I don’t.
Musical chairs. We’ve all played musical chairs. We know that when the music stops, the players must run to an empty chair. Anybody left standing is out of the game. That’s certainly the feeling a gay middle-aged man can experience when he tries to find a kindred spirit to share his life or—at the very least—an occasional date. Naturally, if it were a real game of musical chairs, nobody would feel anything but a transient sting of disappointment. Alas, the games of childhood are not the realities of adulthood.