In the career of an athlete, sooner or later the time comes to choose the day on which he will have to withdraw from competitive activity. Some argue that the ideal time to retire coincides with that of maximum success, others have different opinions, but the fact remains that if the time to retire is too much postponed, the athlete ends up being considered a survivor and, in practice, a caricature of what he was in better times.
In the life of ordinary people there are many moments of choice and each of them marks the transition to a further phase, if we want more mature and more aware, but from which there is no going back. Obviously “there is a time for everything” and this also applies to gays. There is a time to understand that you are gay and one to accept it, there is a time to fall in love and a time to be indifferent, a time to long for a partner and a time to long for solitude, a time to hope, a time to get busy and a time to forget. Time limits are generally elastic but cannot be postponed indefinitely. This means that they are choices that must in any case take place and that only the determination of when is left to us, and many times with very strong restrictions.
The time limits within which to make a choice or behave in a particular way are defined with two different criteria, that of possibility and that of opportunity. Both, despite appearances and with a few exceptions, are very nuanced criteria. The possibility is defined by physical or legal parameters: you cannot choose to civilly join another person before the age of 18, because law doesn’t allow it, and you cannot decide to retire at any age, because law sets precise deadlines, but you cannot even think of bringing help to a person who needs it when you are no longer in suitable physical condition to do so. The criteria of necessity, although sometimes even very elastic, have an intrinsic cogency, in the sense that if it is true that something can become increasingly difficult over time, without any theoretical limit, it is true, that after a certain time that “something” will become so difficult as to be in fact impossible.
The opportunity is something radically different from the possibility, it is a social criterion and is therefore questionable, as in the case of this statement: “It is appropriate to start a coexistence when you are between 23 and 35 years old!” In this case “appropriate” means socially accepted and nothing more, which means that making the choice of coexistence beyond certain time limits exposes to social discredit for failure to comply with the social rules of opportunity, but nothing prevents that coexistence can begin at any age.
So far I have talked about possible and opportune choices, which are in any case choices, that is voluntary and conscious acts, but the problem of “time” sometimes arises even in a very heavy way in relation to the acceptance of inevitable things such as disease and death itself, realities that induce defensive behaviors, aimed at denying the problem or relegating it to a future to which we try in every way to give the halo of uncertain and hypothetical.
I don’t intend here to address universal problems such as that of the acceptance of death, on which too much has been written, but I would rather focus on the problems related to the choice of times by gays in issues that are typical of gays. Among these problems there is the choice of the time of coming out. It is true that coming out is not an obligatory choice and therefore the full determination of whether or not to come out is left to our freedom, but certainly coming out at 15, 25, 50 or 80 has very different meanings and purposes, that is the time, in this case, qualifies the action in a substantial way.
Among the problems connected to the better times for the “forced” choices, there are those related to attitudes and behaviors that undergo an inevitable deterioration connected to the passage of time. It is not said that you have to live as a couple, you can also live as a single and, at least in theory, there is no time limit to start a couple life, but on the other hand, if the couple life must really be a couple life and not a substitute for a mutual assistance relationship, there are certainly times “within which” that choice must be made. Also in this case, going to live with your partner at 20, 40, 60 or 80 has very different meanings and purposes.
When we talk about gays in general we mean referring to a particular subset of gays and that is to say young gays, and we identify as classic gay problems the discovery of being gay, the acceptance of being gay, the coming out, the looking for a partner and the building a couple’s life or friendships within which to live one’s own affectivity-sexuality. All these things, as it is easy to notice, refer mainly to young gays, but identifying gays with gay boys who go to the disco on Saturday night means forgetting that being gay is a fact that pervades the entire life of an individual up to at its end. Nobody talks about middle-aged gays (50 years old) or sick ones, or old ones who end up in nursing homes. They too were young, certainly in other periods, and then they grew old, but they are still gay.
The dimension of flowing time is often neglected or forgotten even in the use of words and we sometimes refer to one’s age group as if it were something stable and not something subject to change due to the passage of time. Young people reason as if the category of “young” were their stable characteristic, forgetting that they are young “now” but they will no longer be in twenty years and old men try to evade the evidence that they are old “now” but in twenty years, and perhaps much earlier, they simply will no longer exist.
A gay man, like any human person, follows a parable from birth to death. The acceptance of homosexuality or the coming out or the search for a partner are classic gay problems which are either exclusively gay, like the acceptance of homosexuality and the coming out, or they are universal, like the search for a partner, but, for gays they take on a so particular and specific connotation that they become problems substantially different from those of hetero people.
I will now try to deal with three typically gay problems from the point of view of the times:
1) The acceptance of one’s homosexuality
2) The coming out
3) The search for a partner
Let’s start from the first topic.
THE TIME OF ACCEPTANCE OF YOUR HOMOSEXUALITY
To clear the field of possible misunderstandings, I must start by saying that I will only speak of guys who are properly homosexual, not bisexual. Acceptance is not in itself a problem, because experience teaches that in environments where there is no homophobia and there is a correct sex education (as in Scandinavian countries), the acceptance of homosexuality by boys coincides with puberty. Genital sexuality already has a homosexual connotation at its birth, the thing is not a taboo, it is possible to talk about it without problems in the family, with classmates and with friends of the same age or even adults without meeting questioning and perplexed looks. Summing up, in an atmosphere of this kind homosexuality is a normal fact and to say: “I’m gay” is not a problem, as it is not to say: “I’m straight”. The two are both part of the domain of normalcy.
Of course, imagining a society without homophobia means thinking only based on theoretical concepts, however, there are societies that reflect that model quite faithfully and in which homophobic attitudes are objectively rare; and at the other end there are societies in which homophobia is instilled through religion and becomes a common cultural heritage and is sometimes even protected by law as a value capable of moralizing society.
May 17th is the world day against homo-, bi- and trans-phobia. This date was chosen because thirty years ago, on May 17, 1990, the World Health Organization finally removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses! Even today, despite repeated appeals coming from the European Parliament, there are countries within the European Union that don’t recognize any legal legitimacy for homosexual unions. In Italy civil unions between people of the same sex were introduced with the Cirinnà Law, Law 20 May 2016 n. 76. In some countries, such as Italy, there is no specific law for the suppression of homophobia, but outside Italy there is much worse, always in the European Union, in Hungary and Poland, levels of discrimination on a homophobic basis are widely covered and protected by law and institutions, but it is enough to look beyond the Atlantic to see, under the Trump presidency, the resurgence of homophobic attitudes, not only not repressed but encouraged and legally protected. In some Islamic countries homosexuality is still punished today with the death penalty, a death penalty which is in itself and in any case a sign of incivility. I remember incidentally that on November 30, 1786, 234 years ago, Pietro Leopoldo of Habsburg-Lorraine, Grand Duke of Tuscany, abolished the death penalty in his Grand Duchy without exception, paving the way for a modern criminal code. It was the first explicit abolition of the death penalty in the world. But let’s get back to the topic. On the occasion of the world day against homophobia, the President of Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, took a very clear position stating that homophobia violates human rights whose respect is necessary for the full development of the personality. In essence, homophobia deprives homosexual people of the serenity necessary for the full development of their personality and compels them to stressful defensive behaviors that effectively limit their individual freedom.
In the various countries of the world homophobia manifests itself in various ways and degrees and consequently the acceptance of one’s homosexuality becomes a more or less serious problem depending on the pressure that environmental homophobia is able to exert, such pressure can go from simple cancellation of any reference to homosexuality, up to violent bullying by the family itself and work colleagues and in some cases the consequences can be extreme, as it happens in the film “Viharsarok”, a Hungarian film of 2014, released also in English with the title “Land of Storms”, in which a gay guy suffers homophobic environmental violence, exercised on him in such a systematic and persecutory way, that to free himself from the induced “guilt feelings” related to homosexuality, he ends up to kill the his partner. In this case the murder, more than to the exasperated guy, it must be attributed to the environmental homophobia that led him to that extreme gesture. In situations such as those described in this film, accepting one’s homosexuality is truly dramatic. But between the extreme levels of the radical absence of environmental homophobia and of the violent homophobic climate there is an infinite gradation of attitudes, more or less aggressive and more or less persecutory.
Becoming aware of one’s homosexuality when homosexuality is openly subject to social discredit, because it is considered a psychiatric illness, a behavior against nature, a moral degeneration or a guilty “choice”, is objectively difficult. It is not a matter of declaring yourself gay publicly but simply of accepting that you are who you are, but in order to accept that you are who you are, you must become aware of the absurdity of what is commonly told about homosexuality, therefore you must have access to objective information not spoiled by ideological prejudices and you must realize that, due to the effect of environmental homophobia, a gay guy will never be able to freely express his way of being and loving. But all this is not enough, because once you have acquired these awareness, sometimes the idea of having to integrate in any case into the world of others dramatically takes over. But for a gay guy this means forcing himself to live a fake hetero life, that is, forcing himself to play the role of a straight guy even through marriage, or simply to put aside sexuality altogether, perhaps sublimating it in work or in something so “high” that it appears worthy of such a sacrifice.
Those who live in Western European countries tend to give the word homophobia a reductive meaning, because they see homophobia as a fact “still present” and perhaps “still faintly present” but destined to disappear anyway and not as a distressing and heavily persecutory problem, as it is still today in many countries of the world. The problems of homosexuals do not come from homosexuality but from ignorance and prejudice and for this reason, the real solution to those problems consists in the diffusion of a free and honest culture able to provide gays with the indispensable tools to understand and judge consciously and in the same time to provide others the means to prevent homophobia, against which the only effective antidote is true culture, which undermines prejudices and accustoms the brain to think autonomously.
The time that elapses between puberty and the acceptance of one’s homosexuality by a gay boy represents the measure of environmental homophobia which, of course, is far from uniform within a state and indeed has very strong local components, linked to individual communities and even to individual families. I would add that traditionally religions, and I would say above all the great monotheistic religions, have always been directly and indirectly among the main sources of inspiration for very deep homophobic sentiments.
In conclusion, the time of awareness is not in substance an autonomous individual characteristic, but is the result of the widespread cultural climate in which we find ourselves living.
THE TIME OF COMING OUT
What has been said about environmental homophobia in the previous section obviously also applies in relation to the problem of coming out. However, a clarification must be made: the problem of “coming out” is a problem that has arisen only in recent years. Already in my time, 50 years ago, the idea of coming out (I’m obviously speaking of public coming out) could have had some connotation of concreteness, perhaps, for some movie star or for some super-billionaire, but also in Western Europe, it didn’t even touch the brains of gay boys, as today it doesn’t even touch the brains of boys who live in Iran. Today, in Western Europe and in the USA, the idea of a coming out limited to a more or less restricted group of reliable people is much more common than the idea of a coming out without limitations. Still today the idea of public coming out is not taken seriously as a possible hypothesis by the great majority of gays, because the consequences of a public and generalized coming out can be and have been in fact disruptive even years later. In Italy, of course, there are no laws that discriminate against homosexuals, but homophobia exists all the same and is exercised in an undeclared but substantially effective way. To dismiss a gay employee, an employer can’t at all motivate the dismissal with the sexual orientation of the employee, he must be able to carry out targeted mobbing actions to obtain a “voluntary” resignation or may resort to disciplinary proceedings based on a real presumed fault of the employee. It is true that it is possible to appeal to the employment judge but it is expensive and in any case with an uncertain outcome and so homophobia, if properly hidden, can continue undisturbed to do its job.
In general, the coming out with close friends is today much more anticipated than in previous generations. Many youngsters already at 14-15 have confided their homosexuality to their most trusted friends, although the cases in which these confidences are delayed even by 5 or even 10 years are not uncommon. The specific environmental situations condition these postponements much more than general rules and prudence itself do.
Among the forms of restricted coming out, coming out with parents is of particular importance and has a rather characteristic timing. Given that coming out with parents is still an uncommon thing (3-4%), even if it is spreading, albeit in a very limited way and slowly over the years, I observe that or coming out with parents happens very early, between 14 and 16-17 years of age, or is postponed indefinitely, using a formula more or less like this: “I will only tell my parents about my homosexuality when I’m economically independent, because thus, if the climate were to become unlivable, I could permanently break up my family relationship.” That this type of postponement is actually a definitive removal of the problem can clearly be deduced from the fact that no “coming out” with the parents follows the achievement of economic independence. The cases of coming out with parents of adult and cohabiting gay sons are very rare and in general they are the seal of a very rare dimension of respect and substantial family affection.
THE TIME OF SEARCHING FOR A PARTNER
I come now to the last subject that I had proposed to face: the time of the search for a partner. Here it is not a question of carrying out an action in this or that moment or of reaching an awareness in tis or that moment, it’s not question of defining the time of an action that is substantially “punctual” but of defining a period, normally very long, in which the research of a partner can materialize. The time of searching for a partner therefore has a beginning and an end, normally located in very distant phases of life. For a young man it makes sense to ask himself when it is possible or it is appropriate to look for a partner, for a mature man it makes sense to ask himself when it becomes impossible or at least inappropriate to look for a partner, obviously these are extremely different situations both of which are part of the gay dimension.
For a teenager, there is nothing more unwelcome than being told: “Wait! You have to grow up! Before making your choices you have to mature! ” The word maturity has become so important that at least in Italy it has given its name to the exams that conclude high school. Before the high school final exam (“maturity exam”) all the choices are actually made by the parents, after the high school final exam there is the first real choice made by the boy, which is the choice of the university faculty. It is an extremely important choice that often young guys faced with the total unawareness that they are about to decide something fundamental for the future, in other words, such an important choice is made on the basis of the hearsay, without collecting serious information and often pursuing the intent to please the parents by adapting to their expectations. In other words, very often the choice of the university faculty is faced in a deeply immature way.
An adequate level of maturity is also required for the search for a partner, the phenomenon is not substantially different from the choice of university faculty. To look for a partner you should have a realistic idea of the true life of a couple of gay men and you should also understand why many gays don’t like the couple life, but not only, you should also know where to look for a serious partner and how to behave in the initial stages of a possible relationship, but also in looking for a partner guys rely on the hearsay and very often choices are made in an immature way. A serious sex education and a specific information on the true experiences of other gay guys would be very useful and would favor informed choices built on the basis of reliable data, but, at least in Italy, sex education, which until a few decades ago was in entrusted in fact only to the church, is now delegated, also this time “in fact”, only to pornography and dating sites. In such a situation it is inevitable that guys make immature choices and make mistakes of various kinds, which result in states of unease, intolerance and frustration.
Just as science proceeds by trial and error, also the acquisition of experience in the emotional and sexual field proceed by trial and error. If you learn from experience and don’t make the same mistakes again, then the experience makes you grow up and the vision of relational and couple problems becomes more and more mature. If, on the contrary, experience easily put aside and one enters a vicious circle within which the same mistakes are repeated, even if with different people, one never manages to accumulate an experience that allows conscious and mature choices.
The search for a partner is precisely a search and can end with the creation of a stable couple, or at least hypothetically stable at the beginning, but it can also lead to a long and more or less frustrating series of attempts that anyhow contribute to the maturation of an experience on the basis of which the criteria for continuing the research can be refined, expectations can be reduced and previous experiences can be differently assessed.
Among the many possible determinations to which the experience accumulated in the search for a partner can lead there is a very particular one which is the decision to end the search, because lowering expectations too much or waiting without any time limit for the arrival of the ideal partner means in essence trying to settle for something that will not be satisfactory anyway or wasting your time in an activity that is likely to not achieve any result. The conclusion of the speech can be summed up with the expression: “Enough! I can’t waste years and years of my life running after dreams that probably will never come true!” Certainly, the affective-sexual life will continue anyhow, but as for the future at least the couple model of “two hearts and a hut” will be put aside. At what age does all this happen? First of all it should be clarified that this is not a formal decision taken in a precise moment but something that matures slowly over the years and gradually takes on greater concreteness. The heavier the series of frustrations we have faced, the faster we reach these decisions.
Let’s admit that there has been someone who has accumulated few experiences and all in all just a little frustrating or who has perhaps accumulated many disappointing experiences but is animated by an indomitable enthusiasm, in such cases the decision to say “Enough!” it may not mature at all and, at least in theory, the search for a partner could go on without time limits. But the passage of time creates so profound physiological and psychological transformations that many of the motivations that had been the basis of the search for a partner in youthful years and also during maturity, become much less strong and fade away due to the passing of time. Sexual libido is no longer that of youth, the desire for novelty is clearly reduced, health is no longer something which can be taken for granted and any change in the pace of life becomes problematic. In essence, the problems of the couple life, in the individual balance, end up prevailing over the possible advantages. In this way the couple’s life loses its charm and solitude becomes, for a few more years, the most accessible surrogate of bliss. All this obviously lasts as long as solitude remains in fact a manageable hypothesis, that is, as long as individual physical autonomy lasts.
I would like to close these reflections with a passage of an email I received about ten days ago from a thirty-two-year-old guy, that can help to understand a way of dealing with the search for a partner that is increasingly spreading today.
“… I had a lot of guys, they were good guys, but I wasn’t in love with them, with some of them I tried to build something, but when the basic push is missing there is little to do, in the end you can’t build anything. I also fell in love with some guys but they didn’t care about me. I had a decent guy with whom I felt not so bad, although I wasn’t really well. With him, perhaps, I could have built something, but he was afraid of everything, he was hypochondriac, he was even afraid of touching me, and after a series of steps forward and backward he preferred to leave than to overcome his fears.
At the end of all these stories what’s left? I lost years and years of my life and I realized that maybe being alone is not the worst solution in the end and then, I’m not alone, I don’t have a boyfriend but I have many friends, I have a job that is not that great but at least it keeps me calm from that point of view. I don’t know if there will ever be a guy for me, but I’m tired of thinking about these things! If that guy will come then I will think about him, but for me the time for chats and dating sites is really over.”
If you want, you can participate in the discussion on this post open on the Gay Project Forum: http://gayprojectforum.altervista.org/T-gays-and-time