Several months ago, something confronting and shocking happened to me that – if I’m being completely honest – I’m still processing. I still haven’t discussed my feelings about it in public yet, because I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it. But I know this is a safe space. And I’m ready to share. Because I don’t think I’m the only one who’s gone through this.
I find myself oscillating between fury and shame over what happened, before reassuring myself that I didn’t do anything wrong – that it’s not my fault – and what happened to me is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I tell myself, you should be proud that you’re still here at all, on the other side of it. I’m sure the injustice and unfairness of what happened to me happens to heterosexual people too. But what I’ve discovered is the horror and pain of what I went through experience is compounded when you’re queer, in ways I didn’t expect. Because what happened is …
… I TURNED 40.
I know. But thank you, my advice is retinol serums and be Asian.
Honestly though! What the fuck?! How did this happen? Yes, it’s a privilege to get older. And yes, age is just a number! And yes, “growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional”! – that’s something I saw on a mug at K-Mart recently. But you can’t ignore the weird feelings that come with ageing when you’re a cisgender gay men, especially in inner-city Sydney, where I live, where youth is revered and age is denied. It’s not uncommon for gay men I know at this age to get preventative botox or cosmetic procedures until they look like Baz Luhrmann. Or a white person doing yellowface.
You turn 30 as a gay man, and you’re considered old. You turn 40, and you’re considered dead. As an older American acquaintance recently told me, you turn 50 and you’re considered something worse than dead. You start being referred to as … a “gay elder”.
So now when young men slide into my Instagram DMs and call me “Daddy”, what used to feel like a subversive funny joke – because I couldn’t possibly be their dad! Look at me! I can’t even grow a beard! – REALLY HITS HOME. Because mathematiclly and biologically, I’m now at the age where I could’ve actually fathered them. At the same time, I’m not quite sure they’ve fully thought out the fantasy to which they’ve signed up. I mean … have you met an Asian dad? Do you really want an emotionally remote man … who plays plays mahjong … is obsessed with get-rich schemes and fruit … and tells you that your A minus should’ve been an A plus while remaining incapable of telling you he loves you?
(Okay, maybe that is kinda hot. I’m not going to yuck your yum. As the late gay elder Leslie Jordan was fond of saying: every garbage can has its lid.)
Here’s the rub: I do feel different in my 40s, and not always in a good way. My bones creak and click. Injuries take longer to heal. My hairline’s thinning, while my nostril hairs grow ever longer and white. My teeth are sensitive. My hearing’s getting shit. I make involuntary noises getting out of bed like ahhhh and ughggghhh. I don’t think 40 is old, necessarily, but when the average life expectancy for an Australian man is 80-something, I’ve indisputably hit middle age.
What I’m also realising is: I really liked my 30s! And if you haven’t hit them yet, you sweet summer lambs, you’ll love them too. When I turned 30, my friend – at least a decade older – told me I was going to love my 30s. It was, as he put it, a decade of weddings and babies. Another friend told me that the 30s were the best because you’re old enough I know what matters and you’re young enough to still do it all. And fair to their words: I loved my 30s. So much. It was the decade where I wrote books, TV shows, stageplays and started a radio show (listen to Stop Everything with me and Beverley Wang on Friday mornings on ABC Radio National and any time on the ABC Listen app).
And I felt good in my 30s. After my 20s – where I had the double indignity of adult acne and having to wear adult orthodontic braces – my face finally grew into its weird bone structure. I had gravity defying-hair. It was the first decade where I looked in the mirror and didn’t hate what I saw. Gay men especially have the low-level hum of body dysmorphia. In my 30s, I started to like my body. I got healthy. I got fit. I travelled the world. My friends and family had kids. Life was good.
That same friend who told me I’d love my 30s told me: “Oh you won’t like your 40s though: it’s just all divorce and disease.” Other friends – older than me – told me about how, in their 40s, they started to see a face in the mirror that didn’t match how they saw themselves in their mind. It’s the decade where parents get sick if they haven’t already, and the caretaking dynamic between generations irrevocably switch. We’re unambiguously the adults in the room now. We need to have our shit together.
This all sounds grim, I know. So on the cusp of my 39th birthday, I asked my two siblings what they liked about their 40s so far … and they just stared into the middle distance blankly. COOL! Desperate, I turned to a more bountiful source of wisdom and sage perspective: Twitter. And when I asked friends, strangers and several Russian bots what they actually liked about their 40s, one response kept coming through – over and over and over again. In your 40s, people said, you simply stop giving any fucks over what people think of you. Several months into my 40s now, and I can tell you they’re right. By this age, you’ve just been through enough shit that the capacity to deflect, detach and shrug off becomes almost instant.
I’ve also discovered that you feel a surge of gratitude for what you actually have. And what I have is … looking younger than most guys my age. You see, when you hit your 40s as a man, you can look like anything from a K-Pop star or a snapping turtle. (Right now, I’m holding onto the fact that I’m older than NSW premier Dominic Perrotet.) I’m embracing occasionally getting asked for IDs in bottle-shops. When one kindly staff member asked to check my ID before looking at my date of birth and saying, “Wowee”, this youthful face and 1000 year old goblin heart leapt with joy.
Hitting 40 is also an opportunity of reinvention, the point where – if you’re lucky – you have equal years behind and ahead of you. There are so many possibilities. You could have a full-blown midlife crisis – fun! You could leave all your responsibilities and embrace a new slutty self, and I mean that in a slut-positive way. (I LOVE SLUTS.) Or you can do what this inner-city fag has done … and discover nature.
I know! Anyone who knows me knows I have spent a lot of my life shitting on the outdoors and camping. But recently I signed up to a five day hike with friends, spanning over 60 kilometers, in a national park an hour north-east of Newcastle. And I loved it?! I now own things like a Camelbak, a 65L hiking backpack and blister kits. I own a CARIBINER. Which is to say, what I’ve become in my 40s … is a lesbian. And that, my friends, is the key to being comfortable as a 40-something gay man in the world: Become a lesbian. At least culturally. After all, these are a people whose very essense is giving no fucks, who aren’t afraid of growing old, who embrace practicality and worship utility. How else to explain their Subarus? These are a people who know how to make something out of nothing, who boldly wear JORTS, and know that when a gay man in his 40s is raving about his insecurities about ageing, that sometimes the best thing to do is to tell him to shut the fuck up and get a grip. So I’m taking a lead from lesbians. And the next time I spiral about ageing, I’ll take a breath, take stock of what I’ve got, be grateful … and do useful something with my day … and go to Bunnings.