It's been just over a year since Dan Savage recorded the first "It Gets Better" video. Since that day, more than 20,000 personal testimonials for LGBT teens have flooded YouTube, all offering a sense of hope that life does get better over time. While it's hard to argue that the "It Gets Better Project" is an undeniable inspiration for young viewers treading the murky waters of fear, despair and isolation, it does beg the question: where's the sequel?
A sequel for the millions of 30- and 40-somethings to translate all the hope-filled platitudes of "It Gets Better" into some actionable tips and advice. A panacea of sorts, some instructions to help us untangle all those years of missed experiences, career missteps and family struggles that took root during the many lonely, wonder years in the closet.
For many of us, watching all these heartfelt messages takes us back to those first years out of the closet, when adrenaline pumped thick and our gay bravado was at full tilt. A time when so many of us were hell-bent on overthrowing the repressive patriarchy that had held a boot to our neck for so long. Now, years later, with many out-of-the-closet experiences behind us, our righteous boasting has been replaced with quiet contemplation. At this stage, with the higher vantage point that age brings, we're all too aware of everything we missed and still need to learn, or re-learn. And, it's precisely at this point that our youthful confidence falls away and we begin to look around for concrete advice on how to make this life better.
Joe Kort, LGBT therapist and author of 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Improve Their Lives, understands the challenges in not always being able to turn to family members or look to role models to navigate these unique coming-of-age struggles. "Our community isn't afforded many of the same support networks that the straight community relies on for support," he says. Family members can attempt to lend advice, but without the intimate knowledge of our experience, the most we can hope for is consolation. Equally as troubling is the conspicuous lack of positive gay role models in popular culture, particularly for gay men. On this issue, Kort offers a unique, if counterintuitive perspective. "Our role models may actually be the Millennial LGBT community. AIDS got in the way of the last two generations. During the late '70s and early '80s, the idea of gay shame was going away, and we were coming out of the closet in droves. As soon as the epidemic hit, we were essentially pushed right back into the closet," he says. "This younger generation didn't experience this and aren't nearly as focused on this notion of gay shame. This up-and-coming generation also isn't so quick to segregate themselves from the straight community the way previous generations have."
So, where does this leave the midlife gay community? More often than not, it can feel like we're in the dark, the blind leading the blind.
But according to Kort and Rik Isensee, author of Are You Ready?, that doesn't have to be the case. Both lend advice and offer tips on how to work toward making the journey a little less painful.
Tip 1: Let go of past mistakes, blame and any notion of how we think our lives should be.
Basically, try to get rid of anything that could potentially fuel future bitterness. As Isensee puts it, "During midlife, it's important to find a sense of equanimity and acceptance of past mistakes and remember that given who we were at the time, there may not have been much else we could have done differently."
Tip 2: Learn to experience humility without humiliation.
Essentially, try to experience disappointments without letting it hijack our self-esteem. Sure, if it were only that easy, right? Well, according to Isensee, we need to at least attempt to "[l]et go of the grandiosity and self-deprecation cycle that can be so common during our gay youth and find a way to experience both success and failure with equanimity." He goes on to say that it's only through this self-acceptance that we're able to acknowledge our human fragility and personal limitations.
Now, if you've mastered these first two tips, stop reading. You've reached the equivalent of gay divinity. But, if you're like the rest of us, just keep at it. We will get there.
Tip 3: Learn to engage in life, but with a sense of detachment.
Simply put, try to let go of outcomes. As Isensee puts it, "We ultimately cannot control what other people do or how they perceive us, and it's critical that we develop a way to be present in the world and with the people around us, all without trying to control it." Kort takes this notion further, explaining where this potential need to control stems from. "Usually by midlife, we are able to naturally stop caring what people think. But for many in the LGBT community, our gay years don't match our chronological years. We may be 45 years old, but if we came out at 25, our emotional age may be 20, an age more attached to the need for control."
Tip 4: Build and maintain a strong social network, and avoid isolation.
This may seem obvious, but according to Isensee, "During midlife many in the LGBT community feel particularly isolated, no longer comfortable in the more visible and youth-oriented bars and clubs." (Who was really comfortable there in their 20s anyway?) So, it's paramount that we reach out to others, regardless of whether we have a primary relationship or not. Kort agrees and says that "[e]ven though our community can feel ostracized from social media outlets like Facebook, it's important to persevere and push ourselves to stay on these types of sites to meet new people." His advice is to "[k]eep your own visibility without relying on others to make you visible."
Tip 5: Find a sense of meaning.
For many this translates into spirituality. And, since it's not exactly a secret that most of the major religions take a rather harsh view on homosexuality, our pathways to meaning often fall outside the dogmatic confines of the church. Nevertheless, Isensee believes that finding some type of transcendental experience is crucial. "For some it's meditation, or yoga or simply being with nature. For others, meaning can be derived from friendships, work, love or creative expression," he writes. Kort agrees and adds that "it's also a natural progression in the stages of development for people during midlife to desire to mentor and give back to others. Getting involved and working with gay youth, gay seniors or anywhere that we are needed can offer strong sense of meaning." In short, where we find our bliss isn't as important as just making sure we find something that inspires us.
Now, by no means are these all the tools we'll need to steer us unscathed from youth to adulthood, but it is a start, a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it's a foundation to help us evaluate where we've been, where we are, and realize that, like Judy Shepard says, "[n]o matter how far in our out of the closet you are -- you always have a next step."