I’m Here, I’m Queer, I’m 45 and Still Making New Friends

By our 40s, many folks have already solidified their social circles. But it's not so uncommon for middle-age LGBTQ people to flout such conventions—out of necessity and desire.

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A few months ago, I had an accidental phone call with a friend. I say accidental because we’d only gotten on the phone after texting about an event we were planning had grown tiresome, but we wound up talking for two hours, a leisurely conversation about writing and aging, spiritually winding nonexistent phone cords around our index fingers.

This friend is a new friend, someone I am excited to call a friend, but who is largely still a mystery to me. My life is filled with these—people with whom I have connected in the last year or two, people with whom I have quickly fallen in friend-love or friend-curiosity or friend-wonderment. I have several very old treasured friends, but my world these days is densely populated by those with whom I’ve become more recently acquainted, and who I cannot wait to keep coming to know.

It is not unique, of course, to be a person in the world making friends. But it surprises some people to hear that a 45-year-old like me is still building my intimate social world. Not so old, but not particularly young, either.

Like an embarrassing tattoo you got in your 20s that has somewhat faded but is still distressingly solid and will reliably be there until you die, white-dominant middle-class heteronormativity’s implied social ideals for adulthood don’t really quite rub off, even as more and more people choose to defy them. It goes something like this: There are high-school friends and college friends and we are meant to keep these groups basically intact. Then, dating comes to the fore, followed by marriage at some not-too-old age. And real estate. And babies. By this point, the days of dedicated friend-making are mostly over. The nuclear family is now the center of the universe, and existing friends become a distant third priority.

Of course, neither making friends in mid-life nor prioritizing them is the exclusive purview of queer people. Many people of all ages and identities have been doing just this for some time, especially now with the help of social media, which allows us to make surprising connections across time zones and social circles and demographic groups. We live in an era when people do all kinds of things at all different ages, and making friends deep into adulthood feels pretty normal.

But it is queerness—queer people, queer ways of living and thinking, and queer notions of time—that have helped usher in this permission—the permission to expand way past heteronormative expectations. To make new friends and commence new adventures later and later, and to make friends and friendship a distinct priority, no matter when they come along.

This is the permission that made me possible. The permission given to me by queers who’ve done things a different way. Whose second adolescence came in their 20s and 30s when they were just coming out, dressing to the giddy nines and tromping festively all over town. For whom real estate and marriage and having children were never the only markers of adulthood or success. Who have been artists, travelers, visionaries, flaneurs, inventors, conveners, and activists. Who still giggle about crushes and antics well into their middle age and beyond. The permission—arguably, even the responsibility—to make community-building a lifelong priority and project. 

I moved to New York in 2002 and my life exploded in the best possible way. I was newly queer and newly genderqueer, playing drums in a rock band with friends I loved, and doing activist work I cared about. I was known among friends for throwing a good theme party, and spent Brooklyn nights in pursuit of intrigue and high quality new crushes wherever I could find them.

Before living in New York, I was an Orthodox Jewish kid who loved 1950s bubblegum pop songs and spent hours lying on the twin bed in my small lavender-painted bedroom in our house in Silver Spring, Maryland, dreaming about the possibilities for love or adventure or intrigue that lay beyond my relatively cloistered world. Back then, I was animated by a desire I could not yet name or understand. What I did know is that I often felt lonely. I didn’t yet know who my people would be, but from early on, I understood that I was desperate to find them.

In college, I began to experiment toward that nameless desire. I wore gowns and long beaded earrings to class, which felt a little bit like drag, and made me feel wild and alive. I was smitten with most of the queers I met. I had a dream one night about being a gay man and slowly began to think there might be something to it. I heard the word genderqueer for the first time and tried it on for myself.

By the time I got to New York, my chest bound with a fresh pair of ace bandages and my hair pompadoured just like I liked it, I knew how dearly I needed a community of friends with whom to embark on this particular adventure of becoming. Friends who would ask me, for the first time, which pronouns I preferred. Friends who would take me to my first drag king show where I would watch a performance of “Father Figure” so sexy it would nearly kill me. Friends with whom I could talk about what it meant to be queer, and how it felt, and what that had to do with questioning other dominant systems of thought, like racism and white supremacy and the Zionism in which my upbringing was steeped. Being queer and finding other queer people who helped me understand what that queerness could mean was a kind of portal through which I stepped to find my way to queer imagination, and to abolitionist politics that mean everything to me now.

My first queer friends were the ones who showed me this portal. And I know that I’m not alone in this. Many people of my own generation came out in adulthood, made families and kin of our friend groups by necessity, and began to discover entire selfhoods and community-hoods together. Thankfully, these days, resources for queer and trans young people are rich, expansive, and largely accessible. Back then, they were harder to find. Harder to access. We found those resources in one another. We asked each other questions we’d been afraid to ask anyone else, and collaborated on the answers. We needed one another. We still do. There is a long, proud tradition of queer friendship being a cornerstone of queer life. Of kinship being sacred and necessary for survival, for joy, and for recognizing all that is possible. 

In 2014, in light of some serious mental health struggles, I left New York for Washington, D.C., where some of my family and my then-partner lived. I had recently stopped playing in the band after eight years of touring and recording, and Brooklyn had become somewhere angular and unforgiving. Suddenly, my life had gone quieter, the exuberance of it much faded. 

I needed a break. 

But New York is hard to quit—I returned in 2020, excited to see what a reunion with the city I’d once loved would bring back to life in me. I quickly discovered, though, that the friends from my early New York days had either moved away or faded from my orbit. And making new friends in the midst of a pandemic was a very different project than it might have been when I’d lived in the city years earlier. Where I’d previously found kin at parties and events, being out in the world had now become something calculated and rare. My eyeliner didn’t wing like it used to and my signature bold lip was now obstructed by a signature black KN95. Socializing no longer came naturally. I’m a shriveled extrovert, I told people. I don’t remember how. It made me laugh, which is most of why I said it, but also, it was true. I was now a working writer who desperately wanted to connect to a vibrant literary community, and hadn’t the foggiest idea where to begin.

For our sanity’s sake, my best friend and I began a pandemic tradition of taking a weekly loop around Prospect Park, strolling with whiskey-filled flasks in our jacket pockets to keep us warm. As we walked, we talked a lot about friendship—which ones had endured, which ones kept us grounded, and how those relationships had evolved. We discussed who we’d been, who we weren’t anymore, who we’d lost, and who we longed to meet. Friendship was something that had long been central to both of our lives.

At that time, the internet was talking about a “friendship recession,” and I sort of knew what that meant. My best friend did, too. Over the years, some of our closest people had receded. In part, these lost friendships were a casualty of the pandemic. But they were also just the result of living messy and eventful human lives, lives where we treasured those close to us, but sometimes shed people along the way. Sometimes, those people needed something different, and sometimes we needed something different ourselves. Sometimes, there was a conflict, and sometimes, it was physical distance or shifts in dynamics or simply time that nudged us gently apart. In a world that expected a kind of linear rigidity, that expected us to have maintained unwavering groups of friends we’d had since our 20s, how were we to make new friends now? In our 40s, past our proverbial primes? Not just “let’s have a coffee once every six months” friends, but companions in existential despair or delight, in intimate pockets of day or evening. A-list friends! How?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer yet, but since my return to New York, I’ve experimented. I’ve eased back into a social life, attending readings and parties, my once-formidable extroversion slowly beginning to unfurl. I’ve experimented with hosting literary  salons and seasonal celebrations in my living room. I’ve expanded my roster of park walk companions. I’ve invited people for coffee or martinis. Notably, I’ve said yes—to invitations, to my own instincts about a person or group of people with whom I wanted to spend more time. It is easy, as we get older, to become more protective of our time—it’s a gamble to give over a whole evening to someone you barely know. But not unlike dating or courtship, the risk feels exponentially worthwhile if it might generate something connective and lasting.  

There are some ways that in queer kinship—at least in my own experience of it—friendship shares some significant contours with romance. My friends and I reserve stores of playfulness and mystery and delight for one another. We cook feasts and see art and hike in beautiful places and luxuriate tipsily in faraway hot tubs. We are desirous, cruising and gossiping and overanalyzing, winging hard for one another. And because queer permission brings a kind of flirtation to the center of friend-making, we flirt. What is flirtation, after all, if not luxuriating into the unanswerable question of another person? If not playfully leaning over the great mysterious well between yourself and another as if to say hey, we don’t know what’s in there, but wouldn’t it be fun to find out? If not dressing up and venturing out together? When I have a meaty and reaching conversation with a new friend, it lights me up for days. A friend crush is one of the best kinds of crushes, and the friend courtship that follows can be as fluttery and world-shifting as a romantic courtship, even if distinct.

I love my friends in a way our culture’s language isn’t complex or nuanced enough to describe. I want a world capacious enough for the biggest kind of friend-love, and I believe that the more we play with our friends, the more we bring that world into being. We are never too old to fall in friend-love. We are never too old to begin; to commence something mysterious and wild with someone new.

A few weeks ago, my accidental-phone-call friend and I had celebratory drinks together. We are both novelists, and wanted the chance to finally clink glasses over recent writerly achievements and to debrief our book tours: Both of us published novels this past winter—mine was a debut, City of Laughter, that came out in January. We split a cheese plate and I began to explain to her my bizarre cheese preferences, which I don’t generally subject people to until I’ve known them a good long while. It was a breezy evening, relaxed and languorous, and it was only once I got home that I realized what had felt different: Even though the evening had shimmered with the unmistakable charge of new friendship, it had also felt a little bit like a reunion. Like seeing someone I’d missed, and was excited to see again. Just past friend-crush into real, live friend.

At 45, I know myself more deeply than I ever have. I am not someone to whom self-trust or self-knowledge has ever come easy. But it has often come by way of exploratory conversation with some beloved other. Either intentionally, or wholly by accident. This, then, is the right time. The right time to make friends. The right time to take risks, to reach out, to flirt, to know people I didn’t know before, and to let them know me. In my middle age, I am just starting to know some of the people I hope to love. 

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