Yesterday I found out on Facebook that a man I know who was about my age and was a fixture at a certain gay bar I frequent passed away. While the cause of his death is still unknown, it was suggested to me that he may have taken his own life because he was very unhappy. (He had recently broken up with a boyfriend and was also unemployed.) I did not know this man very well (he was more of an acquaintance than a friend), but it got me thinking.
Middle-aged gay men in New York face a unique set of pressures.
First of all, there’s the economic pressure faced by everyone who lives in New York City, the most expensive city in America and one of the most expensive cities in the world. Add to that the difficulty of finding a job in this economy, which still has not recovered from the recession that started six years ago. I would also argue that there is rampant age discrimination going on in the workplace that’s not being prosecuted because it’s almost impossible to prove. (But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.)
Secondly, there’s the ageism in our society in general which, I would argue, is even worse in the gay community. This is compounded by the gay community’s emphasis on looks, which borders on body fascism. Granted, our entire culture is now consumed with appearances, but the gay community may have started this trend (a fact which does not make me proud to be a gay man).
Third, there’s the rampant promiscuity in the gay community. (Yes, I know some gays are in committed relationships or even married, but they’re the minority). Again, this is not unique to the gay community, but we practically invented “hooking up.”
I don’t want to sound anti-sex, but try finding a boyfriend in this environment!
And all of this is happening in an atmosphere of total silence. Sure, the recent suicide of Robin Williams cast the media’s attention on depression for about a week, but then they moved on to the next crisis. (War? Ebola? Take your pick!)
And this situation is further exacerbated by social media, which not only has had the ironic effect of making us more isolated, but serves to magnify the highs and lows of the human condition: everyone’s life is either perfect or they’re dying. What you don’t see is the mundane reality that constitutes 95% of most people’s lives: going to work, cooking, doing the laundry, watching TV, etc.
It’s no wonder that the suicide rate is highest among white men in my age group.1 And it’s also no wonder that the rate of substance abuse is higher among gay men.2
Also, let’s not forget that my generation saw dozens of their friends and lovers die during the peak years of the AIDS crisis. We weren’t even supposed to live this long!
I’m not a psychiatrist. This is just my opinion based on my feelings and what I’ve observed in other middle-aged gay men in New York. It’s a tragedy when anyone dies before his time, but suicide represents a level of depression that’s incomprehensible to me.
I’ve joked a lot about the alienation I feel as a gay man in my act, but when someone kills himself because of that alienation, it’s no joke.
A few years ago, there was a gay psychiatrist who wrote a book about how to survive middle age as a gay man and he killed himself!3 That would be funny if it wasn’t true.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it has something to do with paying more attention to our relationships in real life (as in, not on the Internet), not isolating ourselves and not being afraid to talk about our feelings.
I wish I had the opportunity to ask my acquaintance how he was feeling and that he had the courage to tell me the truth.