Take Five: Gay psychiatrist explores mid-life coming out, with St. Louis footnotes
During a bachelor weekend with his brother shortly before his 1968 wedding, Iowan Loren Olson was unnerved by a party invitation from another man -- at a St. Louis antiques store.
Thinking about how the man had touched him while they talked made him realize it was a come-on. Olson, who at that time kept any same-sex attractions buried even below his own awareness, freaked out.
“I fled the store and I thought maybe I should call the police,” Olson said. “I’m sure for a long time I was broadcasting signals about who I was because I kept finding myself in situations where men were trying to pick me up.”
Nearly two decades, two daughters and a psychiatry degree later, Olson fell in love with a man. He eventually came out, ending his marriage and rocking his and his family’s world. Now that he’s semi-retired, Olson tells his story -- and those of other men in similar situations -- in his recent book, “Finally Out.”
Olson, 69, lives on a Madison County, Iowa, farm with his partner of more than 20 years and husband since 2009. He's traveling to St. Louis this weekend to talk about his book in appearances at the LGBT Center and Left Bank Books.
Olson spoke with the Beacon about his own experiences and specific issues around coming out in mid-life.
Beacon: How did you figure out you were gay?
Loren Olson: There was some distance between me and my wife and we couldn't seem to bring it back together, although we tried hard to do that. I began to feel lonely in the marriage and I was looking for some intimacy. I decided to have an affair and I had no idea it was gong to be a man.
But I had opened my mind to introducing another person in my life and that allowed me to explore something I’d blocked out of my mind. One day at the gym, this guy kept looking at me and smiling and there was something irresistible about it. We arranged to meet.
Loren Olson’s 'Finally Out' St. Louis appearances
Where: Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave., 63108
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19
Information: Left Bank Books website
My wife kind of knew, in the process of two years. And I thought, “One day this will be over and that’s it.” But what I discovered was that he saw me as I was and he didn’t walk away, and that helped me to see myself and accept myself. And then I didn’t want to go back to point where I was closing off such a huge part of my life again. In fact, I knew I couldn’t.
How old were your children at that time?
Olson: 9 and 13. The divorce was a far bigger issue for them, in terms of their emotional lives, than my being gay. I have a good relationship with both of them and with my ex-wife and so we have really kind of an alternative family. My ex-wife and my husband are friendly and we have a family gatherings where everyone attends. So I sort of lucked out with having the best possible outcome.
Your divorce was in 1986, but since then we’ve had “Will and Grace” and Cam and Mitchell on “Modern Family.” So why is coming out still difficult, especially for people 40 and older?
Olson: Even though those characters are gay, they’re never been portrayed as previously married with kids. The shows never really go into the idea of heterosexual privilege and the heterosexual ideal. They don’t ever portray the pain a person goes through and the losses experienced in letting go of that dream or the reality of the changes that occur.
Those characters are helpful for people who are single but I don’t think it helps at all with my experience. I see a lot of men who look at that and envy that life but are still unable to let go of what they have.
So does this book have value for people who are not over 40 and thinking about coming out?
Olson: Obviously, I focus more on mature men. I think I also tried to write it in such a way as to be helpful to people whose spouses are caught up in this situation, and for therapists as well.
It’s written in conversational style, not psychiatric jargon, but at the same time, because I am a scientist, I wanted to make sure things I said were substantiated by facts.
Do you have any other St. Louis stories?
Olson: I once delivered a baby at the St. Louis airport. It was in the late ‘80s and I had taken a trip with my daughters to the Cayman Islands. We heard an announcement, “We need a doctor at gate 36,” and my daughters were like, “Dad, you’re a doctor!”
The woman pretty much delivered it by herself, but I was kind of there to reassure everybody.