Speak low if you speak love

When I was a naïve university student, I read that far from missing out on the thrill of the chase in youth, the elderly are usually liberated from the (presumably) hormonally mediated need for sexual gratification leaving time to evaluate other things. Since procreative duties -or possibilities- would no longer loom large in their thinking, how then would they spend their time I used to wonder? Would settling down with a cherished other be for some other purpose than trying to have children? I mean without the pull of sexual urges, what would be the point?  I was young then…

Things have changed, and as I matured past my prime, I began to wonder what all of the fuss had been about. Life in retirement is different, for sure, but my need for others is largely one of companionship more than compulsion; friendship, more than the slaking of an ancient thirst. And, as older people often do, I left it undisturbed as I might a sleeping lion, lest I be powerless should it ever regain consciousness.

And yet I felt vaguely troubled with that. It was not at all that I had lost interest in the opposite sex; it was not that my preferences had somehow shifted in my old age -more that the need to specify their purposes had somehow altered.

Affiliating with a team no longer appeared necessary: people are people, friends are friends; none are the sexual objects they had seemed in my younger days -especially those near my age whose once-green leaves have already coloured and fluttered to the ground. One might expect that such a change would be difficult to reconcile with a life spent travelling in a different direction, but for some reason it’s not. I suppose that for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven as Ecclesiastes would have us believe…

Still, should I be ashamed now that I am usually content to watch the game from the sidelines; now that I no longer look for winners or losers, or count the score? Maybe it’s even more exciting than when the stakes were those of pride and prestige, power and conquest. After all, there are no victims with a friend. Intimacy is as much emotional as it is embodied -perhaps more so, in fact.

And yet, there is sometimes a feeling that I may have lost an important component of my identity: a pattern that had been woven into the fabric I had worn for all those years, a pattern that constituted the me I had come to know. And without that, who was this stranger walking among others as an equal?

I have to admit that these thoughts seldom rise to the surface though, they fester just beneath; in fact, they hide, lest they mark someone like me as terminally Old. They often masquerade, instead as intellectual choice rather than emotional indifference…

Every so often, however, I chance upon an article that touches on this very subject and then my concerns arise anew.[i] An essay by Jana Byers, from the Netherlands did not confine its message to age alone however, but admixed information with that pertaining to the LGBTQ community, which I had not anticipated, and of which I am not a member. I skipped over a lot of that; frankly, I was more interested in how she believed that Age might affect the aim and functioning of relationships.

She wrote that among all the ways our behaviours could be categorized, gender object choice (GOC) might just be the worst. If you asked people about their sexual identity, almost everyone would tell you about the sex or gender of the human with whom they would want to be intimate. That seems uncomfortably constricting. Can our humanity really be defined by who we want to have sex with? Isn’t there something more than that, she asks? Aren’t we something more…?

I realize that much of what we assume is ‘normal’ is culturally driven. Canadian heterosexual men seldom hold hands with each other, whereas in parts of India and many European countries, touching carries with it no stigma or suggestion of gender preference. Many of us heteronormative North American elders of a certain age, have been culturally baggaged however, and would look upon the practice as suggestive of heterodoxy.

I am reminded of the friends I often meet for coffee on Wednesday mornings. We’re all retired, elderly men, and except for me, all married. We meet for coffee because most of them have been shooed out of their houses for the domestic sanity of their wives.

At any rate, one morning a friend I hadn’t seen in years -a man I’d shared a room with in my university days- happened past our table, and we recognized each other right away. I jumped up from my seat and shook his hand. He guffawed at that, and embraced me in a big bear hug, then introduced me to his partner, a man who eschewed my outstretched hand and hugged me as well. They were apparently in a hurry, so we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and they headed out the door, arm in arm.

“You lived with that guy?” Jason asked as soon as they were out of hearing range.

I studied his face for a moment. “Jamie? Yup. For a year in Residence and then in various houses near the university.”

Jason rolled his eyes, for some reason and glanced at Theo who was busy attacking his chocolate doughnut as if he’d already forgotten about the encounter.

“Doesn’t that feel… well, uncomfortable?”

“How do you mean, J?” I asked.

He looked down at his empty plate, obviously embarrassed. “You know… I mean he’s… gay, I think.”

“He’s my friend, J. We go back a long way.”

Jason’s brow furrowed briefly, and then he blushed. “Was he…?” He hesitated as he tried to think of how to phrase the question. “I mean did you know then…?”

I smiled as Theo stared at him, embarrassed at his friend’s implied disapproval. I decided to finish the sentence for him. “Did I know that he was gay in those days? Of course I did. It would have been hard to miss, J…”

“But, you’re not…?” I saw Jason flinch from the kick that Theo gave him under the table before he could finish.

I shook my head and grinned. “We’re friends, J. Friends hug when they’re glad to see each other.”

Jason seemed unconvinced, despite Theo glaring at him.

“Look, we had various women as roommates to share the rent in those days, and it didn’t bother him if they hugged him… So why should a hug from Jamie bother me -or you for that matter?” I was beginning to understand something that I’d never been able to put into words before.

Jason was silent for a moment. “Sorry, G… I guess it’s just how I grew up.”

I smiled and attempted to touch the sleeve of his shirt to reassure him before he reflexively withdrew his arm. “All love is not sexual, J. And at the time, I felt I knew Jamie as well as any partner he might have had. We both looked out for one another; it’s what friendship’s all about, really: companionship, trust, and sharing. It’s the same thing the rest of us hope has developed after years of marriage, I suspect. It’s not all about sex anymore, is it?”

Jason actually smiled at me as my words began to sink in. Then he sighed. “Nope,” he said, “It sure isn’t…”

[i] https://psyche.co/ideas/human-bodies-change-through-life-so-does-our-sexuality

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