Most people in the LGBT community have a different story to tell when asked when they first came out to their family, but while many embrace their sexuality from a fairly young age, few find that confidence later in life – especially when already married to the opposite sex.
But that’s exactly what happened to 61-year-old Melbourne man Michael O’Hanlon, who came out as gay in his forties, despite being in a seemingly happy 15-year marriage and having three adult children.
Speaking in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60, Michael – who recently appeared on SBS’ Insight show Dating After 60 – admitted that while he had always felt attracted to men from the age of six or seven, he never accepted the fact he was gay until later in his life, something he largely puts down to his strict Catholic upbringing.
“When I came out in my 40s I had the wife, the mortgage, the three kids – the whole catastrophe,” he jokingly said.
Michael, who is now a full-time artist after enjoying a career in social work, said his parents were fundamentalist Catholics, which made it even harder on him.
“It took a long time to get rid of all that programming,” he admitted. “You’re on a tram track. There’s a limited number of destinations and you’ve got to hook into one… It was a very long process of escaping my upbringing!”
Even now, his 94-year-old mother hasn’t accepted his sexuality and while they have a civil relationship, Michael admitted he’s closer to his “queer family” than he is to the people he grew up with.
Recalling when he first realised he was gay, Michael said: “I remember one time in the swimming pool in my early 40s I was doing laps in the process of getting fit and reclaiming my body, and this voice came to me and said, ‘You’re gay’, I said ‘No I’m not’, it was all going on in my head.”
Michael first met his ex-wife Glendyr, 62, in his twenties and insisted he only has happy memories of their earlier dating life and marriage. He told his wife he was bisexual from the start and after getting counselling, they both agreed to take the risk on their relationship.
Even so, Michael said he was mainly very happy in his marriage, adding: “There are lots of ways people relate together, and only one of them is in the bedroom. On many other levels we were a really good match in terms of interests, lifestyle, values.”
Ultimately, it was his dedication to his three children, Connor, 31, Clare, 29 and Lloyd, 26, that persuaded him to stay silent as long as he did. In fact, he only actually came out when his wife discovered his secret herself – having stumbled across some of his journals where he expressed his unrequited love for another man.
“That was pretty tough for everyone,” he said. “We were all traumatised really.”
While the pair were estranged at first, with Michael’s children – especially his youngest son – struggling to come to terms with his news, they grew closer again through tragic circumstances just two years later.
“My younger son got thyroid cancer which required a lot of care after we split,” Michael recalled. “One of the positives that’s come out of that – he’s fine now – is that it got us back together working as a family.”
He’s embraced his new life completely in the years since and having enjoyed some fun flings and a five-year relationship with another Aussie, Michael said he is now in an open relationship with a younger lover, Damani, who he met in New York two years ago on a gay retreat.
He explained that Damani is already in a relationship with an elderly man, who he still cares for in America, meaning they only usually see each other once a year. They’ve both embraced the open nature of the relationship, and Michael credits his lover with helping him overcome self-esteem issues and worries over his ageing body.
“As a gay man, the person you have sex with doesn’t have to be the same as the person you have a relationship with and doesn’t have to be the same as the person that you marry. It’s a totally different paradigm than the straight one,” he explained. “I’m looking for a playmate in my older age I suppose – or playmates I should say.”
Sure enough, asked if he’s be open to seeing a few men at once, Michael added: “I had two at once who knew about each other which I did for six months which was so much fun!”
With these new relationships has come a whole new sex life, which Michael compared to discovering a “foreign country”.
“The rules are different, it’s a humongous change,” he said. “Even if you have a health crisis or whatever you can still continue to express yourself sexually. I think it’s important.”
Looking back on his life decisions now, Michael said he’ll never regret the time he spent with his wife and children, but added: “I find myself attracted to younger men and I think that’s been a process of coming out late.”
Offering advice to other over-60s who are suffering with self-esteem issues, Michael said: “It’s easy to get stuck and there are a lot of people who won’t feel attractive. My message to them would be to try and get out more and travel. We’re in a bubble in Australia where the older male isn’t particularly valued.”
He recommended finding your local gay community health service, which will offer the support needed. To see Michael appear on SBS’ Insight show Dating After 60, visit SBS On Demand here.