Life After 'Death'? 10 Reasons Why The 40s Are My Best Gay Decade Yet

"For someone who was supposed to be on his death bed by now, I’ve never felt so full of life... and hope."
04/27/2017 09:15 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2017
Murray Bartlett in <em>Looking</em>
HBO
Murray Bartlett in Looking

Like so many who turned 30 before and after me, I marked the occasion, way back in 1999, with a night of boozy, bawdy, boisterous bacchanalia. But all the kir royales in New York City could not possibly have blacked out the most memorable thing about my 30th.

During my private downstairs bash at Cheetah on 21st Street – the one Jay Z name-dropped in “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)” – my then-boyfriend Tommy, who was only 26, presented me with a birthday cake emblazoned with the most brilliant, empowering message in colorful icing: “30 is the new 20!” (Did that mean I was figuratively dating a teenager?!)

But who were we kidding? Deep down, I secretly thought 30 was the beginning of the end, the year when the death knell started ringing. I figured I was entering my make-it-or-break-it decade. The conventional gay wisdom (which, for many, still rings true today) was that like actresses in Hollywood, gay men went out to pasture at 40, as they were replaced by hotter, buffer, and most importantly, younger bucks.

I should have listened to Cher when I interviewed her three or so years before turning 30. She told me then that her 40s had been the best years of her life. She was dating a guy half her age (”Bagel Boy” Rob Camilletti), and she won an Oscar (Best Actress, for Moonstruck). I’m single, and I have no Oscar prospects, but on the eve of my 48th birthday on May 7, I have to say I finally agree.

There is no denying the physical decline that becomes noticeable as one careens toward 40. Late nights require longer recoveries, eating what you want without gaining weight becomes a thing of the past, hair grows and doesn’t grow in all the wrong places, and it’s harder to ignore your body’s increasing cracks and creaks.

But here’s the twist: For someone who was supposed to be on his death bed by now, I’ve never felt so full of life... and hope. The future might be shorter than it was in my 20s and 30s, but both personally and professionally, it sometimes seems so bright that it’s almost blinding.

I don’t believe I ever would have said that at, say, 37. Why such a positive outlook in a gay world that favors youthful beauty above everything else? Read on...

1. I’ve never been more comfortable being alone. In fact, my 40s have been my most solitary decade. I’ve been completely single for more than four years now, which is the longest I’ve gone unattached since I was 22. Still, despite the loss of my youthful idealism, I’m probably more optimistic about love and romance than ever before.

Maybe that’s because I no longer feel like I’m racing against the clock, trying to lock in love before I get to a certain age. I’m already way past that age, so I can just enjoy the journey and let what’s going to happen unfold.

2. I still enjoy going out, but I’m even happier staying in. When I was 27, I told my friend Nancy, who is a year and half older, that I could never imagine not going out on a Friday or Saturday night. Twenty years later, I can still work the party scene on a Friday or Saturday evening (never both in one weekend), but most nights, my couch is the hottest spot in town.

3. I get more attention from other guys now than I did at 38, 28, or 18. Interestingly, twentysomethings approach me more now than they did when I was twentysomething myself. I don’t know if it’s because of my maturity (I’m officially a “daddy”) or in spite of it. Or maybe it just comes down to the C-word (confidence). They may not offer much relationship potential, but it’s nice to know I can still grab the youth vote. It gives me enough of an ego boost to keep holding out for The One.

And thank God I’m old enough to know that he could actually be any age, as long as he has his proverbial s—t together.

4. I’ve made peace with my changing face and diminishing returns in the gym. I’ve met people who began their quest for eternal youth in their early 20s, usually via Botox. For me, the key to people assuming I’m not a day over 35 is living a healthy life without obsessing over calories and washboard abs. Obsessing is stressful, and stress is a top agent of aging.

There’s no fountain of youth, so the acceptance that chronological youth is fleeting and beauty changes has made me more comfortable in my middle-aged skin, which is still smooth and relatively intact. If only I’d known this in my 20s and 30s. I would have wasted a lot less time fearing time.

Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Cate Blanchett, and Jennifer Lopez were all born within months of me – and look at them!

My happy 27th
My happy 27th

5. I have friendships that have stood the test of decades and distance. I love my newer friends who are still in their 20s and 30s, but the ones I’ve gotten older with keep me grounded. Seeing them grow and flourish inspires me. While the youthquake erupts all around me, I’m calm and steady because of the people who have been on my side, if not always by my side, for decades, the ones who are a part of me not through biology but by choice.

6. Decades of rejection have taught me to back off gracefully. Life’s too short – literally, at my age – to waste time constantly checking your phone for calls that never come or repeatedly texting someone who never responds. I’m old enough to know that when one hot guy fails to live up to expectations – and at 48, I never have high expectations – there’ll probably be another one along in minutes.

7. I remember when face-to-face was still in, so social media is a luxury, not a necessity. I recently completed a nearly two-month deactivation break from Facebook, and I was shocked at how little I missed it. I’m not knocking modern things. I wouldn’t want to go back to the time when we depended on answering machines and snail mail. But if dating ever comes back into style and ridiculous acronyms fall out of favor (Dear God: Please let “hru” for “How are you?" be the first to go), and we’re required to actually start communicating in complete sentences again, I’ll be armed with the gift of gab to dive right back in.

8. I’m of the age where safe sex has always been a part of my life, which has kept me alive. If I were 10 years older, the prime age to have experienced the sexual freedom of the hedonistic disco era firsthand, I might not be around today. And if I were 10 years younger, I might be living and loving a bit too recklessly. Like technology and social media influence the way millennial gays communicate, Prep and HIV drug regimens influence the way they have sex.

I’d never want to go back to the days when being HIV positive felt like a death sentence, but I’m thankful to have experienced them. Watching friends and strangers die from a frightening mysterious disease was brutal, but it gave me a healthy respect for life and a certain gravitas that I might not otherwise have.

9. I lived through this...

and this...

and this...

10. I may have missed out on Judy Garland (who died exactly one and a half months after I was born), but my lifetime encompasses a complete and balanced menu of gay icons. I can remember when Barbra Streisand was a movie star, Madonna was Lady Gaga, and Janet Jackson was Beyonce. Those were the days – and I’m so glad I got to live through them.

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