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Sandi Falconer

“Dude, the only thing that looks your age is your face. LMAO”

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Dating is hard – especially at 50 and newly out, in a world of hookup apps.

Last year, I ended a 20-year relationship with one of my best friends (and wife). It’s fair to say we’re not as close since I told her and our teenage sons that I prefer dudes. I’m in the middle of a crash course in 21st-century dating, upgrading skills that predate apps and emoji.

I told my wife about my “curiosity” five years ago, before I ever touched a man, and then started to untangle a lifetime of shame, hiding and lies. I quit drinking, went through two years of PTSD counselling for adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse and, finally, found peace and acceptance for myself. Lady Gaga was right; I was just born this way.

Thankfully, those who loved me before my sudden reinvention are still at my side. To my surprise and delight, coming out did not leave me reviled, alone and diminished. I never want the novelty and wonder of this revelation to fade. Gratitude is my new fuel. But self-awareness and support did not prepare me to meet men.

These days, the fulcrum for gay sex and relationships is the hookup app – a few clicks, swiping left and right, sifting through pics and lists of guys available to chat or meet. Within a few seconds, you can see who is immediately available to chat and how far away they are (down to mere feet). You probably already know all this, but don’t talk about it. We can be out and confident, gay or straight, but there’s still a lot of stigma and shame about meeting online.

The starting point for someone my age on gay apps is a headless torso pic – basically, shirtless with gym shorts. Thankfully, because I spent more than a decade doing push-ups before bed as a way to deal with anger, I’m reasonably fit. But even with tight pecs, it takes some self-denial to post a shirtless pic at 50. I wasn’t aware of how much I was kidding myself until the morning my 13-year-old son asked me why I squint and turn slightly when I look in the mirror.

Not all gay profiles are torsos. I admire men who confidently post face pics, but these guys don’t have much patience for an old #newbie like me. Likewise, I’m not drawn to men who post face pics with bunny ears, pig noses or other obvious “enhancements.” A friend also advised me to avoid people with a dirty mirror profile pic. He reasons that someone who doesn’t wipe the toothpaste off the mirror they use for their self-promotion image shouldn’t be trusted.

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My carefully curated profile has generated interest from several types of men: the way-too-young, my Gen-X peers who want love right away and that grey area of guys who call themselves “old souls,” but who have never experienced acid rain or the Cold War. As a test, I once mentioned perestroika and the guy thought it was an STI. The ones who open with “Hi Daddy” get the silent treatment.

Initially, the addicting rush of immediate physical validation fuelled an obsession with looking young: I tried celery cleanses, kombucha, chemical peels and skinny jeans. A stylist friend took me shopping for prescription-less glasses. I added crunches to the daily push-ups for nearly a year, until a young dancer friend gently informed me that “six pack” didn’t mean six visible ab bumps on each side.

I console myself in these spans of lost time online by rationalizing that it’s research, and that I don’t drink, gamble or play Candy Crush. Pretty soon, I’d had a few awkward initial physical encounters, and the ensuing panic afterward. I quickly got on a first-name basis with the friendly front-line staff at the local sexual health clinic.

“Honey, you don’t need blood tests. You haven’t done anything.”

“Yeah, but I touched it.”

“That doesn’t count.”

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This called for a change of strategy. So I started proposing “NSA Latte” to my app-chat pals. After all, it rhymed; and “no-strings-attached” coffee could be a good and safe intermediate step. I figured that if they were okay with meeting in a public place to shake my hand, they might be less inclined to break my neck later. And that fear is something else we all think about and don’t discuss much, but should.

But even using “NSA Latte,” I found myself at a distinct disadvantage. The problem is, even when I’m sitting across from a man, I can never tell what he’s thinking. My gaydar is from the Reagan era.

So, lately, I suggest a code word or action as I’m setting up a meeting. “If you like me and want to do more than just have coffee sometime, please use the word ‘gorilla’ in a sentence or reach over and touch my leg.”

Moving quickly offline to NSA Latte netted me some great new friends – many generous guys who became supporters and mentors as I came out. One such pal encouraged me to come to my first Toronto Pride last year. As we elbowed our way through a packed club on Church Street, guys of all types and ages were smiling at him and touching him on the arm and nodding, completely ignoring me. When we got to the back of the bar, I asked what his secret was.

He leaned in close. “You’re pretending to be a straight guy in a gay bar.” And then I realized I had spent my whole life ashamed, perfecting ways of curating myself even in person, averting my gaze to disguise attraction and interest and curiosity. “Your goal tonight,” he continued, “is to put your phone down, look up and hold eye contact with someone you find attractive. That’s it.”

Twenty minutes later, I was making out on the dance floor with a handsome late-20s man who might have called me Daddy if I could hear what he was saying over the throbbing din of unfamiliar music. It was one of the most affirming and exciting moments of my new life, and one of the least contrived. There was no carefully constructed filter, no managed dialogue, no pretense. Just connection in the moment. Nothing else happened between us, although it easily could have. I knew then that things had changed. I didn’t need an app. It is possible to just be fully present and open. Vulnerable, yet ready.

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It seems that connection in the 21st century comes down to confidence and good old fashioned in-person interaction, even at 50. So put your phone down and look me in the eye. I’m right here again, for the first time.

Stuart Hickox lives in Ottawa.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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