I wouldn’t say I was deprived of sex. Not past age 27 or 28, anyway. By that age, I figure that most guys, whether gay or straight, would need time to recover from so much bedroom activity. For me it had just been me with me.
Life had been single-handed until finally, finally, after going out with eligible girls Jewish and not as far back as high school and through college and beyond, I had to admit that I wanted them as friends, not, to my parents’ regret, as possible wives.
At 27, I knew was overdue and I had to meet guys if I wanted sex with another human. So, a few breaths after moving to Manhattan as an inexperienced 24-year-old, I would plant myself on a bench in nearby Washington Square, pretending innocence, until some guy came to offer me an invitation home. (One included a case of gonorrhea.) News came about a temple of gay sex, the Everard Baths, on West 28 St. A gay bathhouse! I soon challenged my new freedom with a visit. The atmosphere was like nothing I’d known: quiet and dark, alive with a range of potential male partners, mostly undressed, there for the taking. My hesitancy vanished.
Angry that I had postponed it for so long, I refused to slacken my bathhouse habit, even as friends complained that I had become unavailable on Saturday nights.
This needs to be put into the context of when it happened. With meetings that were shadowy and at times risky, coming out gay was hardly easy for anyone, least of all for someone torn between seeking men and holding onto the straight home and college crowds that had given me support and shelter. My coming out was necessary but slow.
Once the gate had opened, I relished the freedom of meeting and having sex with men. Friends revealed that they too were gay; the stigma began to shrink. While continuing to support the bathhouses (there was another one on Astor Place), I undertook romances often with guys I met at the baths, but if they were good partners in bed they turned out to be wrong for long-term relationships. It took me a while to realize that guys went to the baths for sex, not for love.
While some began to find men as partners, I continued mostly on the sex road, at home and abroad, determined to make up for lost time. Some accused me of wanting the honeymoon without the marriage. My pattern continued for years, even during the worst of the AIDS crisis, when my behavior moderated only enough to keep the riskiest activities at bay. Now, years later, I have chastised myself for not anticipating a day when my appeal and sex drive might slacken. It was just by sheer luck that I survived so many chance encounters.
I sheltered my coming out from my parents. My mother didn’t wait for a confession. “You haven’t always been honest with me,” she finally confronted me. My father never knew, or never wanted to know, persisting in the hope for a daughter-in-law. I should have been honest with him but never was.
Gay partnerships, marriages, and even fatherhood are so commonplace today that I marvel and feel envy at the changes. The gay groups that organized in colleges soon extended to high schools. For many young men, coming out is no more challenging than walking from one room to the next.
Sex for me stretched into my seventies, but is probably over now that I am in my mid-to-late eighties. Orgasms, once so obsessive, are harder to achieve. I work to accept a narrower life, consigning travel to the past, enjoying comfortable days at home, reading, writing, and catching up on old movies, with a support group, including some women, who offer solid friendships.
I’ve caught up on cleaning out drawers and going through stacks of old letters, some from the ’80s. Reading them again has reminded me of what a grand life I’ve had. Much has been squeezed into my 86 years—good schools, the Army, a dozen years in business and twenty in teaching, many articles and seven books published, great trips, and, yes, great sex. So many people, many who no longer are here or are unreachable and are hugely missed.
Even though they were shy short of perfect, my parents are among those missed. Luckily, both of their families—Mother’s from Russia, Dad’s from Romania—had the strength a hundred years ago to abandon a homeland where Jews were wrongly accused of crimes or excluded from professions they aspired to. They courageously traveled to the U.S., where they sought and built a better life.
A smidgen of greed does slip in as November days grow shorter and colder, and I think of how I’d like someone to cuddle with. But, I ask, why do I miss a relationship when so many turn out badly?
If I marvel that coming out for some is so easy, I also marvel that at 87, my brain is not functioning appreciably less well than before. I’ll be grateful if that continues and I live long enough to sit back and think I’ve lived long enough.
Stanley E. Ely was born in Dallas,Texas, received a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, served in the U.S.Army, and earned a master’s degree from Hunter College in New York City. A former international advertising executive and full-time teacher of French and Spanish, he has recently focused on writing, with the publication of many articles and five books.