Had gay marriage been an option when I was 23 and recently out of the closet, I might very well have proposed to my first gay love. Like many gay men my age and older, I grew up believing that gay men in a happy long-term relationship was an oxymoron. (I entered high school in 1989, before gay teenagers started taking their boyfriends to the prom.) If I was lucky enough to find love, I thought, I’d better hold onto it. And part of me tried, but a bigger part of me wanted to pitch a tent in my favorite gay bar. I wasn’t alone. Everywhere I looked, gay men in their 20s — or, if they hadn’t come out until later, their 30s, 40s and 50s — seemed to be eschewing commitment in favor of the excitement promised by unabashedly sexualized urban gay communities. There was a reason, of course, why so many gay men my age and older seemed intent on living a protracted adolescence: We had been cheated of our actual adolescence. While most of our heterosexual peers had experienced, in their teens, socialization around courtship, dating and sexuality, many of us had grown up closeted and fearful, “our most precious and tender feelings rarely validated or reflected back to us by our families and communities,” as Alan Downs, the author of “The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World,” puts it. When we managed to express our sexuality, the experience often came booby-trapped with secrecy, manipulation or debilitating shame.
No wonder, then, that in our 20s so many of us moved to big-city gay neighborhoods and aggressively went about trying to make up for lost time. And no wonder that some of us — myself included — occasionally went overboard.
“The expectation for many years was that if you did any dating in your 20s, they were essentially ‘practice relationships’ where you did what heterosexual kids get to do in junior high, high school and college,” says Jeffrey Chernin, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and the author of “Get Closer: A Gay Men’s Guide to Intimacy and Relationships.” “But for many gay men, your 20s were about meeting a lot of different people, going out to bars with your friends and having a lot of sex. That has long been considered a rite of passage in the gay community.”
But young gay men today are coming of age in a different time from the baby-boom generation of gays and lesbians who fashioned modern gay culture in this country — or even from me, a gay man in his early 30s. While being a gay teenager today can still be difficult and potentially dangerous (particularly for those who live in noncosmopolitan areas or are considered effeminate), gay teenagers are coming out earlier and are increasingly able to experience their gay adolescence. That, in turn, has made them more likely to feel normal. Many young gay men don’t see themselves as all that different from their heterosexual peers, and many profess to want what they’ve long seen espoused by mainstream American culture: a long-term relationship and the chance to start a family.
“For many young gay men today, settling down in a relationship in their 20s — or getting married if they live in Massachusetts — will feel like a very natural thing to do..."