Chris writes beautifully about his experience coming out to his family and what it was like for him to start a new life as a gay man. If you'd like to contact Chris about his story, you can reach him by email by clicking here.
Our kitchen was the heartbeat of the family. With a large oval table, a sofa, a computer, and shelves filled with books that went back to our English-major days, it was where we cooked, ate, read, checked email and hung out with our three grown kids, other family and friends. There was no TV.
The room exploded with light, especially in late afternoon. Four double-hung windows faced the leafy back garden. The glass back door and window over the kitchen sink looked onto the deck and more garden. High up on one wall, smaller windows opened to the sky.
The warmth of the natural wood proved almost as powerful as the light. With the oak table and floors, pine cabinets, and the cooking island with its butcher-block top, we were surrounded.
On this summer afternoon, however, the kitchen overflowed with sadness as my wife Jane and I, married for 34 years, faced each other at the table. I adored her ivory complexion, but all I could see in her face was pain. “Are you gay?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered. “How long have you known?” I hesitated and mumbled an incoherent response. There was no easy answer to that question. After a minute of silence, she pushed her chair away from the table, walked upstairs to our bedroom and closed the door. That night I moved into an empty bedroom.
Each night at the table for the next several months, we dissected my sexuality. She questioned me relentlessly: “When did you realize you were gay? Why didn’t you tell me? Did you bring men into our house? Into our bed? How many? Was our marriage a sham from the beginning?”
“I didn’t know I was gay when we married,” I finally explained. “I figured it out later, but I was afraid to tell you.” For her, the lying and cheating were my real sins, not my being gay. “I only brought someone home once, when you were away, and I did not use our bedroom,” I said, omitting further details.
I could only endure these painful sessions for an hour at a time before retreating to my room. Ten months later, after counseling sessions and agonizing, we agreed to part: I did not want to deny my sexuality any longer, and she did not want to be married to me if I acted on my attractions to men.
I left in tears on my bicycle with my phone, laptop, toothbrush and a few clothes in a backpack. As I pedaled six miles to my new home, I told myself, I have to do this. I can no longer live a lie.
What would my new life be like? Trying to start again as a gay man seemed absurd. At 60, clean-shaven, I stood almost 6 feet tall and I still had my blue eyes and thin frame. My brown hair, however was long gone, replaced by white on the sides and nothing at all on the top except an ever-present baseball cap. While not muscular, I kept myself in decent physical shape through long bicycle rides. But would any men be interested in me?
Fear about my future only increased as I sized up my new quarters. In contrast to the large, charming house in the leafy, established neighborhood I left behind, I would be living in a furnished room in a brand new town house plopped down near a busy highway. Fortunately, I could walk to a grocery, the Metro and an Irish pub.
The house had lots of windows but the decor was too modern for me: abstract art, glass coffee tables and curved sofas that looked uncomfortable; I never sat on them because the living room was ceremonial, as was the dining room. The owner of the house, a single man my age, hung out on the couch off the spotless kitchen. His routine was inviolable: he watched travel and food shows after supper; he cleaned the house every Saturday morning, including my room, and shopped for groceries early Sunday morning.
Before renting the room I told him I had just come out as gay; he said he was bisexual. After a casual conversation, we realized we had little else in common. So we confined our interactions to hellos, goodbyes and information about our comings and goings.
My room seemed livable if bland: a comfortable bed, wall-to-wall carpeting and a dresser I barely used because most of my belongings were still back at Jane’s house. I meditated daily in an adjacent bedroom that had carpet but no furniture. Contemplating my new life in this blank space soothed me.
More than solitude, though, I craved conversation and company. An extreme extravert, I had lived by myself only briefly as an adult. I was looking for work so had no current office mates to talk to. Without a car, I could not easily connect with my close friends except on email. Yet I needed their support.
I had no social life. I was not dating yet—it was too soon and I did not even know any single gay men. Even had I met someone, I was too self-conscious to bring him home to my not-very-private room. A few times I stopped in at the nearby Irish bar for a burger and beers. The people were friendly but they were all strangers—heterosexual strangers, I assumed, though I never actually talked to any of them. In truth, while I was finally free to express my attraction to men, I was not accustomed to thinking of myself as gay, nor did I see myself as part of the gay community. I felt isolated, geographically and psychologically.
Beside the loneliness, I could not escape the guilt. I still loved my wife and knew I had deeply hurt her. I worried about her starting over. She wore a stoic expression whenever I stopped by the house to pick up more of my things but when I finally asked, “How are you doing?” she replied curtly, “How do you think I’m doing?”
At another point, she said, “The kids are worried about you.” “Tell them I’m fine,” I said, mostly believing it. I was moved by their concern; until now, no one in my life had ever worried about me. When I awoke in the middle of the night, I wondered if I had made a big mistake in coming out and leaving. So far, life as an older gay man was not fun.
Then I found GAMMA, an organization for gay and bisexual married men. After being exiled in the outer suburbs all week, it was exhilarating to emerge from the long Metro escalator into the vibrant DuPont Circle neighborhood. Two Friday’s a month, GAMMA met in a church basement a few blocks from the metro station. We sat on comfortable old couches and armchairs surrounding a sturdy coffee table. At one end of the room, a rack held folding chairs for overflow latecomers. At the other end, religious articles stored in a cabinet reminded us where we were.
At GAMMA, gay men who were married to women could safely talk about their fractured lives. If the décor was similar to an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering, so was the format. “Hello, I’m David,” a man started off. “I have been married for 15 years and we have two kids. My wife doesn’t know I am gay but I knew before we got married. I hoped getting married would cure me. But it hasn’t. I don’t know what to do.” Men around the room nodded without commenting.
“My wife would freak out if she knew I came to this meeting,” another man said. “This is the first time I have talked about my gay side with anyone.”
That summer I went to every meeting. “My name is Chris,” I began. “I am married with three grown kids. I realized I was gay when I was in my forties but I was terrified to tell my wife. A few weeks ago we finally had the conversation. Now I am living on my own and so far it sucks.”
The men who came to GAMMA were in differing degrees of crisis. Some were still in the closet and living with their wives and children; they were determined to be faithful to their marriage vows and protect their children from a breakup. Some were out to their wives but still married. Others were like me—taking the big step of coming out and leaving the marriage but feeling lost and lonely in this new life. I found comfort in hearing other men’s stories. The common thread was that most days we did not fit in. At GAMMA, we fit in.
GAMMA was also a social outlet. After the serious sharing part of the meeting, men went out for drinks to one of the gay bars in the neighborhood. I felt liberated checking out other men openly and learning to flirt. By the time I sat in the half-empty Metro car for the long ride home, my loneliness had receded.
Eventually I tried online dating. At first, I fell in love with every man I went out with, thinking I had to replace my marriage with a stable relationship right away.
I struggled to adjust to the relaxed ways of the gay community, where sex was casual and monogamy was optional. There seemed no place for my Catholic guilt. When I finally got over the guilt, I had no private place to go since I was still living in someone else’s home.
I also had to learn how to judge whether a man was worth another date. One man I had coffee with sent his cappuccino back to the kitchen—three times. “What’s wrong with it,” I asked? “Too much foam,” he said. When his replacement was served, he objected again. “Not enough foam,” he complained to the waitress, demanding another cup. I rolled my eyes, not caring if he noticed, and crossed him off my list.
Over time, I concluded that “switching teams” at 60 was like moving to a new country and not speaking the language. I was impatient for my new gay life to begin but it was going to happen on its own schedule.
Seven months after leaving my marriage, I moved into my own place. It was a one-bedroom apartment in an old two-story building in the hip little town I had been living in for the previous 20 years. The two large rooms were flooded with light, despite being a semi-basement. Because it was once the building super’s apartment, it had its own entrance off the parking lot. Within walking distance were restaurants, a Metro stop, a hardware store, even a frame shop. I could walk to a bar and see people I knew.
Its flaws made it quirky: The floors were painted concrete and there was no door to the bedroom; that did not matter since I lived alone.
Furnishing it brought unexpected joy—I was nesting. I borrowed the family minivan for multiple trips to IKEA. A faithful and skilled friend helped me assemble the furniture over the course of a week, a job I could not have done alone. After I brought home a leather sofa and some rugs I found on Craig’s list, I was ready for company.
I celebrated a chilly New Year’s Eve around a fire pit that I set up in the parking lot outside my door. My closest friends showed up on short notice to toast my new life with prosecco amidst the wood smoke.
Finally, I hosted my wife and three adult children, all in town one weekend. My place lacked a sunny separate kitchen or wood floors, but I bought forks and knives, placemats and cloth napkins for the occasion. My family brought housewarming gifts. We squeezed around the IKEA pine drop-leaf table drinking Mimosas and coffee and eating scrambled eggs and bacon. They pronounced my apartment “cute,” which was the highest praise in our family. Life seemed normal.