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Understanding your sexuality is a personal journey which can often be painful. For some who are attracted to the same sex, it can be a lifetime of confusion and struggle.
Steven Bloom suspected he was gay for the most part of his life, but he chose to live in denial after having lived through the seventies and eighties when HIV and AIDS were synonymous with homosexuality.
“And the main thing that went through my mind was, really, losing everybody, being ostracised from my family, losing my friends and that was a difficult thing to reconcile; when all around you, you don't see anything positive with respect to the sexuality you’re trying to identify with or tyring to deny.”
He tried to grapple with his sexuality but ended up in depression for three years before finally coming out to his family and friends.
“I’d spent 3 or 4 years doing some serious meditation, thinking about my sexuality, and really, what I was thinking about, initially, was what’s really troubling me? Why am I so depressed? Why am I feeling like I do? Why are things going wrong in my life? And that led to realising that it was to do with being gay.”
One night, Steven’s wife of 20 years asked him a question that would completely turn his life around.
“And she asked me if I was gay? And at that point, it took me 10 seconds for my life to flash before my eyes and make a decision on: this is now the time to be honest, and if I’m going to be honest, I have to be honest for the rest of my life; and so I said, yes, I think I am.”
After many tears and talks, the husband and wife decided it was best for Steven to move out in pursuit of his new life.
“Was it necessary? Well, in some ways, yes, in other ways, maybe not. I think it’s different for each person, ultimately, I think if I want to be gay, there’s going to be certain things I’d want to be doing, and that’s being with another man romantically and intimately. Well, how can you do that if you’re in a so-called mixed marriage?”
Things can get more complicated for older LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and/or intersex) people according to counsellor and psychotherapist Odelia Carmon.
“The biggest barrier is losing face in terms of the standards in their own family and community. In other words, transitioning from heterosexual to a homosexual identity is very difficult, but when it gets to such an advanced age, really, as you get older, you become more dependent on the things you’ve built around your life.”
The possibility of catastrophic consequences is a major deterrent for older people in revealing their homosexuality.
Carmon’s advice for those caught in such situation is to carefully weigh up the pros and cons.
“The problem starts when an individual gets caught up in double life and they get caught, and then they’re pushed towards an outcome that they may not have necessarily wanted for themselves. Basically, to end their marriage and to get a divorce and to live a single life, then they’re much more likely to get depressed, or suicidal or become a recluse, or just not become functional. So mental health is very much dependent on whether you make choices for yourself or whether those choices are imposed on you by others.”
Steven has since got into a happy relationship with his current partner, Jason. His ex-wife is also about to enter a new marriage. It’s something Steven never envisaged when he first came out to his children at 45.
“There were some initial rejections from my elder daughter, which had some interesting behavioural changes in her, I noticed that, and it bothered me a lot. What was going on was that she thought I was leaving, and then not coming back, not being there as a father, but that wasn’t the case, so I had to make it known that I wanted to be there, I still loved her, she was my daughter, I’m her father, none of that changes, and pay a lot of attention to her and wanting to be a part of her life, and that repaired the situation.”
Steven’s eldest daughter is now living with him and his partner. Lyle Shelton from Coalition for Marriage says while Australia respects people of all sexual orientations, it’s important to take the children’s wellbeing into consideration in a family setting.
“The social science research overwhelmingly says well and truly in favour of a child having a biological father and mother, preferably married as the determinant of the best outcome for a child on every measure.”
Steven Bloom is now the president of the Gay and Married Men’s Association of NSW. He says some married gay men do end up suppressing their sexuality in order to keep the family going.
A recent National LGBTI Health Alliance report indicates that the mental health of LGBTI people is among the poorest in Australia.
LGBTI people aged 16 and over are nearly three times more likely to suffer from depression, and those aged between 16 to 27 are five times more likely to attempt suicide than the wider population.
“Sexuality is how somebody’s wired in their brain and those sorts of things are very difficult to control. Trying to suppress that is incredibly hard work in my experience with men that have been through that or are going through that is they’re not very successful at it and it only leads to depression, and it can lead to anxiety that goes with that and also the potential for self-harm and even suicide.”
But that sexual drive can also change with age – and this can determine if a person chooses to come out in the later years.
“So it’s really around how important sexuality and sex is in advanced years as well, because for a lot of people, the older they get, the less sexual they are, so that plays less of a factor for them. So it depends on the individual, on their libido, and the stage of their development as to whether they prefer to just jeopardise coming out as opposed to just staying in the sad status quo.”
Coming out can be more challenging for people from conservative cultural or religious backgrounds.
“I have met guys from ultra-orthodox fundamentalist type religions where they have been ostracised completely by their community and their family, and that’s been tragic for them, but they’ve still felt strongly about living an authentic life. The hope is at some point their family can reconcile their religious convictions with the reality of the situation.”
If the decision is to bite the bullet, Carmon suggests not coming out to everyone at once, and being very clear of what message they want to convey to their loved ones.
“Do it in stages, so maybe speak to the spouse first, then to the children – broach the subject in that way. Cos they've got to broach the subject when they’re ready to go. You can’t say, my darling, I’m gay, and expect to hop into their marital bed, it doesn’t work that well. So you’ve got to be ready to leave emotionally, psychologically, physically, and already set yourself up as though you’re leaving and then just go if that’s what you intend to do.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, you can call the following counselling helplines: beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Q Life which supports LGBTI people daily from 3pm to midnight on 1800 184 527.
If you need language assistance, you can access an interpreter by calling the TIS on 13 14 50, and ask to connect to your designated support service. Call 000 immediately if a person’s life is in danger.