The UNMC Gay-Straight Alliance, a new student group, held its first event Jan. 30. It asked psychiatrist, alum and author Loren Olson, M.D., to be the headliner. Dr. Olson’s book is “Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, A Psychiatrist’s Own Story.”
There was no gay-straight alliance when Loren Olson, M.D., was studying at the College of Medicine, class of 1968. At his 40th reunion he asked his classmates: Had they known of anyone in school who had been gay, then? Had they heard of any gay bars in Omaha at that time? Anything? No, no and no.
But Dr. Olson was and is gay. He just didn’t know it, back then.
Wait a minute. Really? Seriously, how do you not know something like that?
It’s true, he knew he was different, growing up as a little boy in rural Nebraska in the forties and fifties, in a town where it seemed like everyone was the same. He wondered why he had to work so hard at “being a man” when it came so naturally to all the other boys. He always chalked it up to his father having died young; he didn’t have a male role model to teach him all that macho stuff – yeah, that’s it. Occasionally he would slip and do something “like a girl.”
“Being in a small town,” Dr. Olson said, “that was devastating to me.”
The people he grew up with were not homophobic, he said, but rather, “homo-naïve.” And so was he.
There were things he simply had no frame of reference for. Later, there were things he couldn’t allow to be true.
Besides, this was the age of McCarthyism. And even if, as a kid, you didn’t follow the news, you felt something in the air. There were things you did not want to be accused of.
This was when and where he grew up.
His marriage? “We both entered it in good faith,” Dr. Olson said, “with the idea we would be married forever.
“We both were pretty naïve. We thought it was as good as it got.”
And yet there was such pain … Dr. Olson would fantasize about his wife becoming an alcoholic, so he could walk out, and no one would blame him.
But his wife, his wonderful, loving wife (and after some rough years, again his friend), “She didn’t cooperate,” he said. He has to laugh about it now.
And so, like so many other self-identifying “straight” men, he found himself drawn toward encounters with men, all the while refusing to acknowledge the truth of his sexual orientation, even in his own mind. He had tendencies, he told himself. Quirks, maybe.
This is not uncommon among men in this situation, Dr. Olson said. Many live their lives in a kind of purgatory. They can’t help themselves. But they can’t face themselves. Sure, they’ll occasionally have sex with men. It doesn’t mean you’re gay!
But, “Secrets are like abscesses,” Dr. Olson said.
Former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (“I am not gay. I never have been gay”) of airport-bathroom-scandal infamy is largely reviled within the LGBT community. But Dr. Olson feels only empathy.
“I could have been him,” Dr. Olson said.
But then he met someone. And kissed him. And then he knew.
He was 40.
Looking back, maybe he should have always known. But now, all of it came rushing out, there was no denying anymore. This is what he should have been feeling. This is who he was. This is what love is really like. “I knew then,” he said, “I couldn’t put it away.”
His family. His wife found something he had written (hoping to be caught?), and Dr. Olson didn’t deny it. Now they both knew. It was over.
His family …
He’d grown up without a father, and always told himself he’d make up for it by being the world’s greatest dad. Now, here he was getting a divorce. Here he was, leaving.
“That was very difficult,” he said, and swallowed.
Those were brokenhearted times for all involved.
At work, it trickled out as he went along. He made no grand announcement. Good grief, it was bad enough being divorced, where he worked. He felt like an outcast.
He moved to a bigger town, for more breathing room. This, being officially gay, now – it was new to him. How does it work? What does one do? At 40?
Someone had told him about a gay dads support group, and he’d gone. They all seemed like regular, All-American, neighbor-next-door, ordinary guys – just like him. It was liberating.
“I feel more like a man now that I’m gay than I ever did before,” he said.
At his new job, he had to take disciplinary action against someone he was supervising. The guy hinted he would out Dr. Olson if he did. So Dr. Olson took a deep breath, and fessed up first.
“Oh, that,” the hospital administrator said. “We knew that when we hired you.”
Free. At long last he was free.
He and Doug, a farmer (not the man he first kissed), have been together now for 26 years. “Mostly good,” Dr. Olson said. Just like anyone else.
His mother was deeply religious and afraid her son wouldn’t go to heaven. But she loved him. “She treated Doug like a son,” Dr. Olson said.
The first time they visited her at her house he and Doug decided they would stay in a hotel, so as not to make sleeping arrangements uncomfortable. That winter night, after they’d all stayed up late talking, he and Doug got up to leave. And his stepdad said, “You know, there’s no reason for you to go out on a cold night like this.”
And they never did again.
Not long after Iowa legalized same-sex marriages, they were driving, and Dr. Olson looked over. “You wanna?”
Doug, after a second: “S’pose.”
One of Dr. Olson’s daughters is very conservative, politically, religiously. He called her. Would they come?
Of course. Of course they would come.
What would she tell the kids?
She’d tell them that two people who loved each other were getting married.
“I have always underestimated my children,” Dr. Olson said.
When his granddaughter was told that Grandpa and Doug were getting married, her response was, “Who are they marrying?”
Well … each other.
Whaaat? “That’s weird.”
Then: “Will there be cake?”
There was. There was cake.