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Coming out later in life

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Long Island gay men and lesbians say learning to be true to themselves is not an easy matter.

After concealing his sexual orientation for most of his life, Louis Lisi decided to begin living as an openly gay man in 1994 when he was 67.

Emerging from years of secrecy was not an easy decision for Lisi, a Roman Catholic with strong family ties. "I loved my wife and I didn't want to leave her, and I loved my children, too," he explained.

Since childhood in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Lisi had been attracted to men. "I would be walking on the street and see a cute guy and figure, he's beautiful," said Lisi, now 82 and living in Oakdale.

But he believed he was only "confused" and was going through a phase. Eventually, he fell in love with a woman, married her in 1955, and together, they raised five children. He worked as a Teletype operator in New York City until angina forced him to retire at age 57.

Through those years of marriage, he remained faithful to his wife yet had yearned to be with a man, he said. And so during a visit to Manhattan in the mid-1990s, Lisi started the process of what he called "coming out to myself."

He joined Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), a support and civil rights group for older gays, now called Services & Advocacy for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) Elders. In 1994, he told his wife his secret.

'Scary to come out' Although "it was very scary to come out to my wife," Lisi said the truth brought them closer. He was introducing her to "the real me and not this phony that I was pretending to be." They remained married until her death in 2002.

Lisi questions why it took him so long to face reality. "A lot of times I feel like, how stupid could I be? How could I have these feelings and not know that I was gay?"

It's a question that could apply to older Long Islanders with similar histories. While nowadays many gay men and lesbians choose to be open about their sexual orientation, sometimes as early as their teens, many gay members of the Act Two generation postponed the decision until middle age or later.

Raised in an era when homosexuality was taboo and gays and lesbians were subjected to ostracism and discrimination, they watched on the sidelines as the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s led to increasing visibility during the 1980s and beyond.

Some were locked in heterosexual marriages, raised children and knew all along they were different. In recent years, as their children have grown and there has been a wider acceptance by society at large, many have felt compelled to be true to themselves.

Finding a SAGE haven "For many people it's like taking their first real breath of fresh air," said David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Services Network in Bay Shore, an umbrella organization that includes a chapter of SAGE.

At SAGE-LI's "Monday Mingle," gay and lesbian seniors socialize over coffee. Kilmnick said he has observed that "most people, when they do come out later in life, don't regret anything."

Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Brooke, 45, of Sag Harbor, shares that opinion. Brooke interviewed 25 older gays and lesbians nationwide and featured five of them in "Out Late," slated for release in June.

"These people made huge shifts at a very advanced age, and it was really in some ways like restarting their life," said Brooke, who produced and directed the documentary with her life partner, Beatrice Alda, 47, daughter of actor Alan Alda. "As a reward for their courage," Brooke said, "they are in some ways handed their youth all over again."

Coming out was a rebirth of sorts for Mac Speights, 68, of Huntington. He grew up in the South, and was married for 13 years until a 1976 divorce. "I knew I was gay, and I think she [his wife] had inklings of it, too," he said. But because Speights was a United Methodist minister, he kept a veil over his private thoughts and activities even after his divorce. "At that time, it was pretty unthinkable" for a Protestant minister to be openly gay, he said.

He attended meetings of Dignity, an organization for Gay Catholics, and another gay group at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City, but was otherwise reticent about going public.

Speights' life began to change on July 14, 1989, when he met Robert G. Titus at a gay bar. Titus, a landscape designer who served as the assistant director of the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay from 1964 to 1984, is a Brooklyn-born World War II Army veteran who had been married to a woman for 30 years.

"I found out once you got married, nothing changed, the longing was still there," Titus said. He had survived several suicide attempts and electric shock treatments during the 1960s, and the death of his wife in the late 1970s. Attending a gay and lesbian service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington helped him come out at age 64.

Now 84, he and Speights have been together for 20 years.

Their meeting moved Speights to greater openness. In celebration of his 60th birthday, Speights sent a four-page "coming out" letter to 350 friends and family members. In part, the letter said, "I am gay and have been in a committed relationship for almost a dozen years."

Today, Speights is happy about his decision. "It certainly never felt comfortable, to me, leading a double life," he said.

But for some, acknowledging homosexuality, even at a later age, is still a work in progress.

In a recent interview, one 68-year-old Hicksville woman said that although she attends the Gay Pride Parade in Manhattan and events at the Long Island GLBT Community Center, she didn't want her name published because of concerns about how that might affect her professional and family life.

Mom, the lesbian Raised Irish Catholic and married at age 19, the woman, who is a social worker, said she had always "preferred the company of females." She "blossomed" late, acknowledging her sexual orientation when she was 48, after meeting other lesbians while a student at SUNY Old Westbury. Divorced since 2000, she said one of her four daughters has a problem with Mom being a lesbian.

As a young woman, she said, she conformed to what she knew and what was accepted. "Many women in my age group never had the opportunity to explore options," she said. "They just followed along with the cultural norm, and I think as they matured and got older and started to look at themselves and their lives, many of them had made choices that were not true to themselves."

Blossoming late does have one advantage, she said. "I think people take you more seriously when you are older. Nobody's ever told me I was going through a phase."