Germany

Aging, Gay And Coming Out — In A German Retirement Home

After suffering a stroke seven years ago, Egon had to move to an assisted living facility. And for the second time in his life, he finally mustered the courage to be his true self.

Egon in his Kiel retirement home
Egon in his Kiel retirement home
Sonja Hartwig

KIEL — Egon, 78, has been living in a retirement home in Kiel, Germany, since he suffered a stroke seven years ago. The night before his stroke, he had been out with friends, partying with young people at the Dream Factory, which hosts a "gay and friends" night every fourth Friday. The stroke left him needing help with everyday tasks, so he moved into the retirement home.

On his first day he told Mrs. Weber, the facility director, that he was gay. He very firmly said that he didn't want anyone else to know, given that many among his generation aren't comfortable with homosexuality.

Weber says Egon was scarred and scared of rejection after having been beaten up when he was a young man. She says he was the first of the residents to tell her that he was gay. "But we do have a few single ladies here who are probably aged lesbians but who would never admit to being homosexual, as that is a big taboo for their generation," she adds.

The fear of being called out, that others might talk behind his back is overpowering for Egon, who says it took him years to start living his life as an openly gay man. And now he's growing old among people who still believe it's a crime (it wasn't until 1994 that it was decriminalized in Germany).

Egon's younger friends know he's gay and sometimes feel they have to rescue him from the retirement home as often as possible so he can be himself.

A good boy

Conceived out of wedlock and born in 1937, Egon grew up with his grandparents in a small town in Schleswig-Holstein. Everyone regarded him as a good boy. When he was 10, he started noticing boys but didn't think much of it, not yet understanding what it meant to be gay. But his grandfather eventually called him "queer." Egon always thought of it as a stigma, but he knows now that he was traumatized, paralyzed with fear that people would notice.

That was the reason he couldn't live the way he wanted to, that he didn't stand up for himself. He had to hide his true self for years. "Who could ever truly be himself in that kind of situation?" he reflects now.

In his late twenties, he moved to the big city and was finally free to do whatever he wanted for the first time in his life. He found out where the gay bar was, went there one night and ordered a beer. But he spoke to no one. He did not want to be like them, because that was a stigma. They were queers.

Egon anesthetized himself every night from then onwards. He drank beer, more and more of it, and started turning up late to work. He moved back to Schleswig-Holstein, back to the small town, where he started drinking schnapps, brandy, preferably Campari, and still making a poor showing at work.

He was in his mid-forties the first time he told his therapist that he was gay, Egon recalls, and the psychologist reacted as if he'd just made a remark about the weather. Egon had been afraid that he would be kicked out as soon as he mentioned it.

But thanks to his therapy, he moved to Kiel, away from small town life. His sister says that no one believed him to be capable of change. Egon had never had friends, obviously hadn't married, was a bit overweight, was shy and insecure and never defended himself.

A new man

But when he arrived in Kiel, he stopped drinking. He heard of an association for gay people and got in touch. When they invited him to join them, he was finally able to speak openly with other gay men, gaining confidence and a knowledge that he wasn't alone. He even began advising men on their coming out, organized seminars, went to night clubs, danced and talked about himself, his friends say.

He was no longer afraid.

Egon met his best friend Björn when he was 55 and Björn was 19. They didn't care what other people said about them. Björn says Egon is a father figure, and Egon likewise describes Björn as being like a son to him.

Coming out

Weber says that "Egon's young friends carry him on their shoulders," and Björn adds that "the gay community keeps him alive. Through us he is able to look back on what he has achieved." His friend Alexander adds that it would be a lonely life for Egon without his gay friends because he connects to his gay self through them. "If he didn't have us, he would lose his identity."

Together with Weber, Egon arranged a recent get-together at the retirement home to discuss different lifestyles. It was part of Egon's strategy to familiarize elderly people with homosexual and transgender lives. He used the opportunity to come out to his fellow residents. He was afraid that they would be distant, but one of the ladies asked why he hadn't told them sooner. "You can't just simply leave that part of your life out," she said. "We can't get to know the real you without knowing."

Egon describes it as a great feeling. "I had completely suppressed it all these years," he says. "But I realized that when you suppress a part of yourself, you degrade yourself. And I don't want to do that anymore."

Unfortunately, the get-together represented the end of the discussion because many of the residents didn't want to talk about it anymore, viewing it as "not normal." Egon says he no longer has the strength to make it an issue, to broaden people's minds. But Björn believes Egon needs someone his age who has gone through a similar experience, someone to understand each other. Besides, Egon has stayed young at heart and doesn't just want to limit discussions to illnesses, the loss of social contacts, children, grandchildren and the like, as many other old people do. "I love to talk about anything," he says. "I'm still very interested in what's going on in the world."

Still, Egon doesn't define himself through his sexuality. Which is why he reverts back to his old pattern of hiding his homosexuality when talking to other residents. "They don't understand me," he says. "It's like it used to be when I was young. I'm protecting myself, although from what is the question?"

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