NYT coverage of suicide a shallow attempt to pigeonhole
“Bob Bergeron was so relentlessly cheery that people sometimes found it off-putting,” begins the March 30 New York Times article that has much of the online gay male world buzzing and judging and sniping. “If you ran into him at the David Barton Gym on West 23rd Street, where he worked out nearly ever morning at 7, and you complained about the rain, he would smile and say you’d be better off focusing on a problem you could fix.”
Indeed, if you take a look at Bergeron’s web site, the man who appears to have spent much of his adult life catering to the psychotherapy needs of rich gay men, writes about his own mixed experiences being gay: “By my thirties, with close to a decade of experience as an openly gay man, I now had more confidence and comfort in navigating my gay world. Then I turned forty, and with getting older all the rules changed again. By cruel irony, I now again began feeling less secure around men — younger gay men and even many gay men my age or older.”
He continues: “When I learned new ways to relate with gay men, I returned to the confidence of my thirties but with less cockiness and more civility. As a result while quickly approaching the right side of fifty, I can say with deep sincerity: this is the best time of my life!”
And, as we discovered in the shallowly written Times article, this should have been the best time of Bergeron’s life according the metrics he appears to have set forth for himself in his public pronouncements. He had a thriving psychotherapy practice predicated on spreading the relentlessly treacly mantras of the would-be television therapist he hoped to be some day. He had a book was about to be published, (now) tragically titled, The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. He was, as he described himself, still in excellent physical shape and able to turn the heads of men half his age.
The Times article makes it sounds as if Bergeron’s death was the consequence of his not being able to practice what he preached vis-à-vis growing older gracefully.
Wrote Times writer Jacob Bernstein: “In Dancer From the Dance, the seminal 1970s novel about gay life in New York by Andrew Holleran, the protagonist, Anthony Malone, walks into the bay on Fire Island rather than facing getting older and watching his beauty fade.”
Asks Bernstein, “Had Mr. Bergeron made the same decision?”
“We sell this idea that 60 is the new 40, but it’s just lying,” said Dr. Frank Spinelli, an internist in Chelsea, to the Times. “We tell children there’s Santa Claus, and then they get older, and learn better. I can’t even begin to imagine what Bob was going through.”
There are many things to be annoyed about in this article, and in the reaction to it in the gay blogosphere.
The article itself is such a mish-mash of false expectations and negative stereotypes that it’s hard to decide where to begin. But this much is certain: There are middle-aged gay men who work out a great deal who are complete messes emotionally, and there are aging muscle bunnies whose inner peace and equanimity I can only hope to someday emulate. Those same things can be said of the older gay men I know who’ve decided to “grow old gracefully” and let their pot bellies bloom — they run the gamut from the well-adjusted, to those whose lives are in total disarray emotionally. You can’t tell much about a person based on whether they are overweight or buff, gym rats or couch potatoes.
That doesn’t stop a lot of us from trying, of course. Gay men can be as nasty toward one another as they can be kind, and one of the ways they are most cruel is in judging the lifestyle choices of their fellow gay men. The comment pages on gay male blogs about Bergeron are actually more homophobic than the commenters on article pages on mainstream press sites, usually offering bromides about how shallow and narcissistic Bergeron must have been.
As with all suicides, the reasons that Bergeron killed himself are likely complex, even if the trigger for following through on the ideation might make it seem simple. Just as with Tyler Clementi, the troubled youth who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, Bergeron appears to have been a cauldron of competing impulses both dark and hopeful. Perhaps Bergeron was depressed. Perhaps he was at the end of a drug or alcohol bender. Perhaps he did not want to grow any older.
If it is the latter, it might be helpful to point out that there are many LGBT people, old and young, who come through terrible childhoods, sickness and tragedy, and other circumstances far worse than those that appeared to roil Bergeron, with great grace and determination.
And if you need any proof that there are a great many gay men who accept their looks independent of what is allegedly expected of them in terms of gyms and gray hair, hang out at the Crown and Anchor poolside during Bear Week in Provincetown.
Life is what you make of it. Stop judging yourself and everyone else and jump in the pool.
(Jeff Epperly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)