Unexplained phenomena

I came out at 16, but nearing 40 I'm still single and I can't seem to find love even in San Francisco. Should I give up?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 3, 2004 8:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

At 16 I decided that being gay was the grand unifying theory behind my lack of interest in girls, my fixation on being friends with certain guys, and other previously unexplained phenomena. Having determined this fact, I told my parents, teachers, friends and anyone else who would listen. It went surprisingly well considering it was suburban Dallas in the early 1980s. The summer before college, I made it my mission to have some "experiences," which turned out to be my first man-on-man kiss, my first gay bashing, and my first time going home with a man. Moving to Houston for college, I was the only openly gay man in my class. I had romantic relationships with two different guys, each possibly "on his way" to being gay. I spent a summer placing personal ads and going on first dates with a few dozen men ranging in age from 18 to 50, which opened my eyes to the many kinds of gay men there are but didn't lead to any second dates. By age 21, I had a bachelor's degree in engineering and another, honorary degree in urban male homosexuality.

But today I stand on the verge of 40, and I see that I dropped the ball completely. In the 18 years since college I have had no romantic relationships at all. Occasionally there's been a first date that leads nowhere. Or a straight guy who's insatiably curious. More often, I have developed a crush on a straight male friend, and instead of destroying a friendship I pine in silence until one day the crush finally fades away. Casual sex has never been enjoyable for me, so in sum I've had very little sex.

My capacity for making and keeping platonic friends is well developed. Over the years those friends have offered me many theories for why I don't bond romantically. One believes I never got over being cruelly dumped and humiliated by the first guy I ever loved. Another thinks that having "drawn out" two proto-gay guys in college, I continue to seek the challenge of straight men. Another says my standards are too high. Another thinks that I am a born loner. Another says that I never had a chance as the only child of a nearly affectless father and hysterical mother who fought constantly. Ten years ago a therapist opined that I had a mental block about gay men -- a belief that they're shallow and cruel -- holding me back from meeting the necessary number and variety of men to find some with whom I could be compatible. I see truth in all of these theories.

In an act of boldness, two years ago I tore free of Houston and moved to San Francisco, a city I have always enjoyed visiting. San Francisco is, of course, teeming with openly gay men, many of them wonderfully talented and interesting. Living here day to day, I see what a city of outsiders and misfits we are, which makes me somewhat optimistic that I'll find a man who understands me well enough to love me. But in many ways it seems very much like the life I left behind in Texas. I've met a number of nice guys but only two have expressed any romantic interest in me -- and they just didn't do it for me. My few attempts to express interest in someone have been rebuffed -- "You're not my type." My gay friends here tell me stories of getting "hit on" daily, on the street, in the grocery store, picking up the dry cleaning. This never, ever happens to me. Whatever force field follows me around has followed me to San Francisco. (I warrant that I'm not hideous, or overtly antisocial.)

In a city of people who've made alterno-sex and alterno-relationships the rule, at least I no longer feel like a complete freak and loser for not being able to form a love relationship. I can almost pass it off as a "life choice." Internally I try desperately to write off this issue, to give up worrying about love, and hope I get dealt a better hand in the next life. But sometimes the empty spot at the other end of the sofa will not be ignored.

The Man in the Iron Mask

Dear Iron Mask,

I think you have reached some sort of personal crisis that requires you to unreservedly plumb the depths of your being. I can't say what you will find there in the way of cause-and-effect behavioral mechanisms; I don't think it's ever as simple as a distant father or a hysterical mother or a mental block about gay men. But I do believe that when we reach a crisis we have to look at ourselves and what we have done with our lives as if seeing it all for the first time, and to seek out new and surprising conclusions about what's been there all along. You might not find a life partner, or simple answers, but I think you will find a person who has lived his life courageously and honorably, who has made his choices for good reasons. And I think thereby you will find some love for yourself.

Think back to when you were 16 and made the courageous decision to define yourself as gay. It was an act of freedom, was it not? It meant you were free to construct your life according to your own desires, and you set about testing those desires to see where they would take you. The early 1980s must have been a terrifying time to come out as gay. Yet you took the plunge and found surprising acceptance. I don't think you "dropped the ball completely" at all. You were true to yourself. That's carrying the ball.

But much has changed in 20 years. Take a look outside your window. There, across the windswept plains of San Francisco's Civic Center, in the opulent and gilded City Hall, thousands of gay partners stand on the steps and proudly wed. Rosie O'Donnell marries a blonde and raises three kids. And in a way, proud and lovely as all this is, it must be profoundly troubling, too. For you didn't necessarily plan on marrying a blonde and raising three kids, did you? In fact, it was refreshing to hear John Waters on the radio the other day, expressing his ambivalence about gay marriage by saying that what he liked about being a homosexual was that you weren't expected to get married. So I wonder if recent events have created an atmosphere of unexpected expectations. Does the growing acceptance of homosexuality in heterosexual terms represent a retreat from radical difference to bland assimilation?

Wouldn't that be what John Waters is afraid of? So I would suggest that as you plumb your depths and try to determine what you really want and are really concerned about -- certainly it's scary to grow old alone -- you also try to rekindle that old fire of defiant self-acceptance. I know that as we become adults it's harder and harder to be different. We begin to fear growing old alone. But it was refreshing to see Bill Maher on television with Ralph Nader the other night, railing against mainstream America's distrust of determined singlehood. Maybe unlike Rosie O'Donnell, you and Bill Maher and Ralph Nader are not the partnering type. I would hope you could celebrate that possibility with the same courage and faith in your own basic goodness with which you celebrated the knowledge that you are gay.

Marginalized groups exaggerate their unity to gain power. So you feel a little pressure to play down your differences with their difference, to play up your conformity to their nonconformity. It's understandable. It's a tradeoff in going from outsider status toward the mainstream. Especially where there is a history of violence against members of the group, the fear of exclusion can be a powerful force. You learn to tread cautiously where you differ. So as marriage fever sweeps Castro Street, you may feel like the last single gay man in San Francisco.

But again, look out your window. I'm really glad you wrote this sentence: "Living here day to day, I see what a city of outsiders and misfits we are, which makes me somewhat optimistic that I'll find a man who understands me well enough to love me."

That sentence made me think about the theme of rescue in relationships -- matches between people who are so unusual in their outlook and so uncompromising in their ideas that they thought they'd never find anyone to share their Mekons CDs with. A rescue relationship consists of two people not just liking each other a whole lot but also understanding that, beyond liking each other a whole lot, we're just not like other people, so we'd better stick together. Who else is going to totally get who we are? So we'd better make it work. As you say, San Francisco is a city of outsiders and misfits -- kind of like pre-imperial America. We're quirky people who want to live life a certain way and we've come here for that reason. So, like John Waters, I have mixed feelings about being accepted by the mainstream.

Every now and then on the streets I see a couple in their 40s or 50s who have obviously imagined themselves into a kind of black leather matrimony right out of the Mabuhay Gardens punk nightclub at 3 a.m., complete with noise complaints, cops and a mini-riot between skinheads and Stalinists, and I am reminded: They're made for each other, and they found each other, and it's beautiful! So I think that you have done the right thing in coming here, because I do think that you are likely to find someone who sees in you a kindred spirit and who feels lucky that you see the same thing in him. But even if you don't find a lifelong mate, your life was never predicated on a search for a mate anyway, but on having the courage to be true to who you are. It's that spirit that you must rediscover and cherish.

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Cary Tennis

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