By Margaret Hart.
A journey to love and acceptance. Turning gay in midlife.
Like many people of my age, I grew up with very little awareness of different sexualities. My only experience of gay people was in comic roles on TV – and they were all men. In my naivety I think I assumed that the camp behaviour of John Inman and Larry Grayson was no more true to life than Mr Ed, the talking horse.
Being brought up a Roman Catholic with its traditional assumptions that women would either be a wife, a spinster or a nun, it simply never occurred to me that there might be other options.
I was married at 18 and was oblivious to the fact that I had no concept of myself as an individual, moving from being a daughter to being a wife without ever knowing what it was to just be me. We had three splendid sons and so I would never say that I regretted the years I spent mothering, yet in that time it was impossible for me to explore a life of my own. Mother was added to the roles of daughter and wife and inevitably the space to consider my own feelings was simply never there.
The man I married was deeply insecure. I wonder now whether this was partly due to a sense that there was something missing in the marriage. Certainly I felt that lack and could not for the life of me work out what it was. He tried hard to control me, wanting me to be by his side all the time and have no life of my own.
When I think about those days now I can barely believe that I would ask permission to go out for coffee with friends and submit when it was refused. I’m not angry about that, although I was for a time. I’m just sad I gave up my independence thinking it might make someone else feel better. Whatever made me think that would work? I still have a great deal of fondness for my ex husband. I understand now that neither of us deliberately withheld what the other needed to grow.
When I was 28 I became suddenly aware that I was attracted to women. I was both shocked and appalled. At the time I was a practising Christian and I genuinely believed I was in danger of rejection by God. The power of the sexual feelings that came with that attraction stunned me. It wasn’t something I could ignore and put behind me and I became obsessed and frightened all at the same time.
It was another 15 years before I had the courage to leave the marriage and move in with the woman I loved. One of the reasons for the long delay was the desire to see my sons old enough to cope with the separation. The youngest was 16 when I made the break and it still felt awful to do it. The worst thing for me was inflicting pain on my kids and ex husband.
It took me two years to recover from what I’d done and feel ready to start living fully again. Ending a long marriage is painful and frightening and I was amazed how many people imagined I’d done it lightly. A small number of friends rejected me but a whole lot more congratulated me on finally being true to myself.
There was some discussion on the Mutton Club group page on Facebook about being accepted for our sexual preferences and making the shift from hetero to homosexual love. I’ve had a long time to consider these questions and what I understand now is vastly different from the fearful, half-baked ideas I had when my newly emerging sexuality took me by surprise all those years ago.
Some of us come to recognise our sexuality late in life. Whether that is because of society’s constraints or because other drives are more prominent earlier I don’t know. If the realisation comes later in life it is as scary as becoming adolescent again. You have to learn a whole new way of being in the world. I was terrified the first time I went into a gay bar and when a woman turned and smiled at me I fled to the ladies and hid. Looking back it probably wasn’t the best place to hide but she was understanding enough not to follow me.
I’m very fortunate because I have found the one I love and we are settled and happy. Getting married at 18 felt like love but I can see now, with the wisdom of years of hindsight, that it was never meant to be permanent. We did it a huge disservice by putting a ring on it! We were both too insecure and couldn’t possibly meet each other’s needs.
I am happier now, with Shirley, than I have ever been before in a relationship. As we get older our sexual drive declines a bit but the love we share grows. In the end that is more important to us than anything else.
We live a wonderful life together, doing what we love and giving each other space to follow our interests. We are passionate about travel, particularly in our motorhome, and currently we’re on a six-month tour that will in all likelihood turn into a year as we’re now five months in and we’re nowhere near ready to stop.
We love meeting people and seeing new places. We’re more drawn to ordinary little spots where people live lives that are close to nature than the big tourist areas. As I write this we are in the most South Westerly point of Scotland looking out over the ocean and breathing the soft air. It feels like a little piece of heaven.
We no longer worry about whether people accept us – in fact it never crosses our minds any more. The other day a lady in a coffee shop asked if we were sisters. We explained that we’re partners and she apologised profusely, saying, “I was just noticing what a lovely energy there is between you.” It was a lovely thing to say and we were warmed by her kindness in saying it.
Clearly times are changing rapidly and it’s likely that the next generations of gay and lesbian people won’t grow up ignorant of the possibilities open to them in their lives and loves – but we’re not there yet. There are still too many suicides of young LGBT people who fear the wrath of God or the rejection of their families. I believe that it is our duty, as the elders of this generation to speak up for justice, acceptance and love. If we don’t, only the voices of disapproval and fear will be heard.
I suspect that people who can’t accept other people’s sexuality are still thinking in concrete terms, believing there is one right way to live and that everyone should conform to it. I was that person once and the only thing that cured me was finding out I couldn’t conform. I’m incredibly grateful because I was saved from becoming a mean spirited person whose spiritual and social life was built on judgement rather than love and acceptance.
I’m no longer a practising Christian but I try to practice being spiritually open and aware. It’s clear to me now that subscribing to a particular religion limits my potential for being open to the mysteries of the Universe. I’m full of gratitude for the world we live in and the wonderful people who surround us. Our differences are what make us beautiful.