Psychiatrist Loren Olson has said that he had no idea he was gay until age 40.
Despite some early experiences with men and doubts about his masculinity, Olson had married and had children. Influenced by his own journey, Olson, who now lives as an out and proud gay man, focuses his work on the population of men who have sex with men ( MSM ) but don't necessarily identify as gay or bisexual.
His book, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, addresses those who are disconnected from the larger LGBTQ community for some reason, whether it be age or background, and those who struggle to understand the pressures that influenced their decision.
Windy City Times: Who is your book's target audience?
Loren Olson: My intent was to talk to those men, who, like myself, were struggling with the decision to come out and were sort of in their midlife. The more I worked on it, the more I realized that that it was information that needs to be known throughout the entire LGBTQ community. Some of the strongest criticisms I've had about coming out late have been from members of the gay community, who say I was just hiding behind my wife. For those who have known they were gay early on, I think it's hard for them to remember how somebody could be as blind to some of the clues as I was, and that was kind of my own question about myself when I started writing the book, how could I not know?
WCT: How do people learn to accept those for whom it took longer to come out?
LO: A lot of it has to do with going back and looking at what our history was really like, and the only way that's going to come out is through older people telling our stories. The LGBTQ community perhaps can take a lesson from what's going on right now politically. It's very much parallel to McCarthy era in many ways. It's a bit frightening to me because of that.
Many of us who are older have withdrawn from the LGBTQ community, and aren't really telling our stories. The older people have to take some responsibility for that too. Older people who have been out and proud for a long time are kind of burnt out from the political activism. And older people tend to isolate ourselves too much. As far as how to engage, any way there is for us to get together and begin to listen to each other. Not just for our old people to tell their stories, but to hear what the younger people have to say as well.
WCT: What are some common ways that MSM might identify themselves?
LO: A lot of times it's just, "I'm looking for a blow job, and my wife's not going to do that." Some might begin to consider that they may be bisexual, they're having sex with women and men, but a lot of them aren't at that point either: even the label bisexual is threatening. They just don't want to let go of the idea that they're anything but straight. For me, it was "I'm heterosexual with a little quirk." When I first came out, I did not think I was at all on my way to adopting a gay self-identity.
WCT: Do MSM want to be helped? Are they comfortable where they are?
LO: There are those who are satisfied to just go out and have a one-off kind of a sexual experience, and then go on with their heterosexual lives. There are some for whom the label of gay is just way too threatening; it has to do with the incorporation of the stereotypes for what it means to be gay. And then there's some who are just afraid of losing everything. They're established living a heterosexual life and the advantages that go along with that.
Probably the biggest issue for many of them is their relationship with their children. Most of them who have been married to women and have children are very committed fathers, and for me personally, that was a big issue. Even though the marriage was sort of deteriorating before I came out, my biggest concern was, am I breaking this commitment I had to be the kind of father I wanted to be?
WCT: What is helpful for others to know about MSM?
LO: There's not any way of generalizing about them. They're a very diverse population—a lot of their resistance comes from religion, culture, social expectations, there's a whole lot of things that control that. Part of it is recognizing that all of these things impact our decisions, and it's not just one thing that makes us decide not to come out, but all of these things that feed into the value system we have as adults, and that's a complex picture that comes from our own experiences growing up.
WCT: Why did you want to study this population?
LO: I realized there were a lot of parallels with my experience. As a psychiatrist my commitment is to dealing with people in emotional pain, and I know how much pain so many of these people are in, and that was kind of the driving force behind it. And to recognize that there were a lot of commonalities in those people as well as well as lot of differences.
Even though I wanted to get rid of the pain that I was feeling, it did not seem fair to me to try and impose that pain on other people. If we look at the statistics are around suicide, the rate of suicide for [these] men is about three times that of the regular population, and a lot of has to do with the time of coming out and making these decisions.
WCT: What is the most important bit of knowledge you've gained from working with these men?
LO: One of the things that's affected me is to see some advantages in growing older. We can come to a different reassessment of our value system as we get older, and we don't have to live the life that was dictated to us. I think that's probably the most transformational thing that I've experienced.