I did not know Bob Bergeron. I first heard about the gay, New York-based psychotherapist late last year; he was about to publish a book called “The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond.” I had just left New York for more road trip to interview gay men in middle age, and knew I needed to talk with this guy. I bookmarked his info and make a note to contact him for an interview when I returned East in the spring.
So I was floored to read in The New York Times Sunday that Bergeron had committed suicide in January, at the age of 49. Floored, like by a basher’s bat to the back of the head.
It wasn’t just the suicide, although whenever anyone reaches that level of despair there’s a sad, dark disturbance in the force. As the Times writer sagely pointed out, suicide is all too familiar to the gay men now in midlife. When we were young, long before Dan Savage’s brilliant “It Gets Better” campaign, gay teen suicide was rampant yet uncounted. Sometimes there’d be a poetic touch, like a lone kite gliding above a hanging tree; it was all hushed up. But we understood.
Likewise, during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic, with no cure likely and a long, lingering death obvious, we watched men we loved—emaciated, blind, aphasic, incontinent, fearing dementia, knowing daily pain—choose to exit on their own terms, with their own sense of dignity. Sometimes we were asked to help. Sometimes we did.
I recall a conversation some years ago with a wise gay editor, about both these subjects. He leaned back, sighed, and observed, “I guess that just goes to show how tough those of us who survive really are.” And he was right: we endured bullying, violent assaults, humiliating discrimination, public taunts from the self-righteous and the self-serving, all for the right to live openly, honestly and equally. We didn’t just survive, we fought back, in the courts and the legislatures, in the workplace and the media, and sometimes in the streets. Pride had its purpose: that no new generation would experience what we knew.
No, suicide does not shock me. It’s not for me to judge. But the jarring pain of Bob Bergeron’s story comes from one telling detail: alongside his carefully arranged papers, and his suicide note, was the title page of his yet-unpublished book. Scrawled on it, with an arrow pointing to the title, were the words It’s a lie…
Here was a man who had dangled a promise: that he, as a professional, drawing from years of experience with a large gay male clientele, would offer ideas and solutions, a “guide to happiness,” to a generation—we children of Stonewall—about to pioneer on a grand scale the concept of aging gay. His website and YouTube snippets offered important ideas: talking about retraining our visual sense, scoffing at the idea that 50 is the new 35, and emphasizing the importance of both taking care of ourselves and treating each other with kindness.
So here am I, traveling around the country talking to gay men, especially those between 50 and 65, about where they’ve been, how they built community, how they made change. I am neither a social researcher nor mental health clinician—just a collector of stories—but I notice a certain lack of result with an open question: “Tell me what you see for yourself in the next 10, 15 or 20 years.”
It’s almost as if they’ve never even thought about it; some seem genuinely surprised. They know they’re aging—gay men can’t help being acutely aware of that—but where does it lead? To more of the same? To retirement, if possible? And?
Sometimes I get a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a sadness—maybe a hint of depression?—expressed in a typical gallows humor: “Well, yes, it gets better, and then, well, maybe not so much.” And that resonates within me.
I need to know why Bob Bergeron killed himself. Handsome, smart, successful, well-liked, well-traveled, even glamorous. Lonely, cash-stressed, isolated, feeling the physical toll of time, fearful of what that means in a community brutally unforgiving of age? And, I note, nearly a decade younger than I am.
The Times story cited the 2002 study from UC San Francisco which found that the attempted suicide rate among urban gay men was 12%, or three times the general rate among American males. This was one of the first studies that underscored the epidemic emergency of suicide among gay teens, since the rate skewed higher toward youth.
Subsequent studies have focused on the kids, and rightly so, such as a recent Columbia study that found a “supportive social environment” mitigates the rate of attempted suicide. Thus the importance of “It Gets Better” and the anti-bullying efforts that have risen along with it. Finally.
But a troubling thought enters my head: they can only count attempted suicides. What about the successful? And as we know, the more determined and serious the effort, the higher the level of success.
I will confess that, for me, suicide always exists as an option, a solution available on the shelf to consider should I, for example, find myself unable to have an acceptable quality of life, or that the burden I impose on others can’t be justified by my contribution. If I felt it was time, I doubt I would hesitate.
(I realize that there’s a possibility that people who love me are reading the above. Note to them: Calm down. It is not time. This is not currently under consideration. Love you, too.)
This is one of the unexpected gifts that comes with being rejected by the religion of my youth: you can make intelligent, rational decisions, free from hellfire dogmas and control-by-fear. When you give up the guilt, you shed the whole package. Call it arrogant, but I have always stood for choice.
I can’t say how many other gay men share these feelings. But I’d like to know.
Still, there is a moral obligation to improve what can be changed. Do aging gay men kill themselves when they find themselves in an environment lacking “social support?” To put it bluntly, is a superficial obsession with youth and beauty killing off a community’s elders?
If so, what do we do about that?
I need to know why Bob Bergeron killed himself. But of course that could only be speculation. No, I suppose the answer I’m really looking for, and more likely to get, is to the question “How do we keep going?”
So I brought the question to Men Over Forty, a weekly, drop-in discussion group held by the GLBT Center in Long Beach, California. The 15 gay men present this night were a diverse group, ranging in age from 40 to maybe 80; black, white, Hispanic, Asian; some partnered, some single; clearly from all different walks of life. I had visited once before, and the topics put forward can range from gripes about cable service to pained venting about the stress of unemployment or taking care of infirm parents, from speculation about the fate of the Affordable Care Act to calls for action against anti-marriage-equality groups.
I pose my question. Only one man leaves the room.
A member volunteers, “Me, I keep busy. I get out a lot. I’m content, and I know I always carry myself with dignity.”
Another: “Curiosity keeps me going. These times we live in are fascinating.”
Another: “After 50, age doesn’t really matter much. Just look at all of us.”
Another: “You have to have social skills. If you’re too obsessed with looks, you won’t develop them.”
One of the senior members of the group, apparently recently widowed, talks about feeling isolated in suburbia, in the house he and his partner bought long ago. A familiar shoots back: “There’s a solution for that. It’s a For Sale sign. You have to make solutions.”
“Sometimes I think about moving back to West Hollywood, to be around more gay men, more community.” Flash retort: “You’d move there NOW? Maybe twenty years ago…”
“This is what keeps me going,” says another member, gesturing at the circle of the group. “To be with other men who—as different as we are—are just like me.” There is genuine warmth.
“I think,” offers one man quietly, “the most important work we do is inside of us.”
“Yes!” explodes another. “You have to do the work! Being aware. Are you happy with yourself? Make a life. We have more opportunities now to fully participate in families, in neighborhoods, in everything…”
I guess that just goes to show how tough we really are. Especially when we do it together.