50 years. 50 queers.

Marty McCombs

Marty McCombs

May 2, 2013

Name: Martin McCombs, Ph.D.
DOB: December 3, 1955
Occupation: Psychologist specializing in LGBT Clinical Sexology
Favourite Book: Sex in History by Reay Tannahill
Favourite Movie: (Tie) Auntie Mame, and Inherit The Wind
Favourite Music: Old School R & B
Favourite Person over 50: Too many to narrow; nominees include myself + beloved friends and family, Bill Maher, President Obama, Gertrude Stein, Senator Bernie Sanders, MLK, and older women who wear too much makeup.
One word about 50: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Marty McCombs ushered in his 50s in style. He got a bunch of his ‘chosen family’ together and decided to mark the auspicious occasion with a party no one would soon forget. “I rented a 7-bedroom estate in Palm Springs,” recalls the Ph.D. in psychology. “I had all the people I was closest to, we all went to Palm Springs for four or five days on this private estate and we took turns making dinners and swam and did recreational things. It was a great marker for me.”

Now 57, McCombs remembers not really ever having issues with turning 50. As he recalls, it just felt like a normal passage in life. “I had a full sense of what the opposite of aging is because it’s so powerful to be around and having to let go of people you love and expected to hold close to you. The concept of aging, to me, was natural and welcome, but welcome mostly in the sense that I was here to be alive and appreciate being alive,” he explains. “I was past all of that, ‘oh my god, my skin will sag’. So your skin will sag. So what? Walk on your hands,” he says with a laugh.

“Aging and coming to particular places gives you that power of knowing who you are and what you need to be.”

“One of the great gifts of maturation is getting past any real passion about what other people think,” he says of the sense of freedom he has discovered getting into his 50s. “I’ve been really blessed to have gotten that lesson early in my life. It really matters most if you are satisfying yourself, loving yourself.” One of the other great gifts that McCombs has discovered as he’s gotten older is the strength that comes with age. “Aging and coming to particular places gives you that power of knowing who you are and what you need to be. I was oddly blessed by having so many of those things happen really early for me.”

As emboldened as he feels now, it was a hard road getting to that place in his life—and in his heart—where he felt at home. One of the biggest challenges was being shunned by his family for his homosexuality when he was a teen, a story sadly not uncommon even to this day. “My parents got ugly about my sexuality in high school and then that whole family connection ended really before college was over,” he says. “While it was devastating, what it really did was force me into creating my own family and my own sense of what matters and who to believe and how to fulfill myself and what pieces belong in my soul, and what pieces belong in the category of ‘I feel sorry for you’”.

Looking around today, despite the challenges young queers still face in society and in their families, McCombs sees a definite sea change in the attitudes towards LGBT kids in the family dynamic. “I’m happy about the fact that fewer families get deconstructed by having a gay person as part of the family because of the work of the men and the women who came before me who are part of my age group,” he observes. “It’s a long continuum and I’m proud to be part of it and admire and honour the people who came before me who dealt with even uglier stuff than I did. I’m pleased that the people who come behind us may not have it so bad.”

“I think historically gay and lesbian people have created our own families to help nurture us through the worst of times…”

Family—whether the one you were born into or the one you create—is very important to McCombs. To that end, he become involved in the Los Angeles based project The Lavender Effect (spearheaded by executive director Andy Sacher) as an advisor. His contribution to the project is an idea called Creative Families, which takes a look into the history of how queer people have created family throughout history. “I think historically gay and lesbian people have created our own families to help nurture us through the worst of times and that if we’re going to look at the history of the movement,” he says, “I want to look at how we did that and examine at what points in our lives we did it and who among us has those kinds of creative families.

“There was a point in time when my biological family wanted nothing to do with me and many of them never survived the later years,” he continues. “Some of them have [survived] and they’re lovely and I’m glad they’re in my life, but equally important to me are the people who came to my side during hard times, and stood next to me and never let go, or the people who I did that for. There’s no law that says I have to be at somebody’s bedside or take care of their stuff or take care of them when they’re sick. That’s something I choose to do. That’s a creative family to me.”

He recalls the first time he was brought into the fold of a creative family just after admitting his homosexuality as a young adult. “When I first came out my family said, ‘don’t darken our doorstep again’, recalls McCombs. “There was a group of drag queens and a little old lady who lived together who became my family. They made me feel safe and loved and when I needed it they moved me by their side and they took care of me until I was well again. I left the Mid-West where this went down and stayed in touch with them in general. Once I got to California, I created a new family and that family was there for me when I needed it.”

Thanks to these families and support systems, McCombs was able to go to school and get his Ph.D. in psychology, specializing in LGBT Clinical Sexology. It was here he began to discover and delve into the inner workings of not only his own sexuality, but that of the greater community. “During the early part of my training, some of my mentors were involved in human sexuality issues and sex therapy issues and of course at some level our sexuality and our relationship to our identity and our relationship to the larger culture, is what causes the grief and the pain, it is the source of why we were all brutalized by our society and the way that we have been and continue to be,” he explains. “It was where I focused my attention, I asked, ‘’why is this part of my life what you use to describe me as inhuman?’ I was always really interested in that.”

“I really got on with a mentor, a fellow named Dr. Rex Reece; one of the many great luminaries we lost too soon,” says McCombs of those early days. “He was telling me about something called surrogate partner sex therapy; essentially it was created by Masters & Johnson in the late 1960s. The idea is that if you’re approaching sexual dysfunction or some relationship and intimacy problem, there are increased possibilities that you’ll be a single person because you’ve got these issues. At some point in the therapy you have to be able to operationalize the experience that you are having.”

“I think as people get older, their sexuality means a different thing to them; they get different needs met by it, so raging erections and all-night boffing all of those sorts of things, they may not be the priority…”

During this time, Reece talked to McCombs about being a surrogate partner and sex therapist; a notion that didn’t auger well with the young student. “I said, ‘hahaha, hell no. That is some weird stuff you are talking about,’” he recalls with a laugh. However, he was fascinated by the concept and eventually had a change of heart. “Another year went by and I continued to think about it and I continued to talk to him and ultimately I took the training as a surrogate really without expecting to ever do the work. But during the work I came to know probably 20 to 30 men and women who were generally 30 to 40 years my senior, I was in my 20s when I took the training, they were at one time the strangest, oddest, furthest left-of-centre most bizarre and yet most loving, most settled, most centered, ordinary men and women I’d ever known in my life.”

This began McCombs career as a surrogate partner. He worked primarily with gay men for about a decade helping them either navigate their way into or through a relationship or to overcome a variety of sexual dysfunctions and intimacy issues. As he explains, the workings of these therapeutic dynamics were as unique as the people involved. “A single person goes to their therapist and they’re dealing with whatever issues they’ve got,” he says. “They’ve reached the age of 40 and they’ve never been in an intimate, loving relationship, or they’re 35 and they have premature ejaculation or they’re 27 and they have inhibited ejaculation, and the therapist is working with them but at some point you have to be able to have a partner to do the focus exercises and really learn about the experience of being in a relationship.”

That’s where McCombs would come in. Along with the client, he created the dynamics of a relationship and dealt with the issues within that construct to help clients push through their fears or dysfunctions, all the while acting as a couple. “That way the client learns new experiences in a safe environment,” he continues, “in a practical sense and at some point in time the client is getting homework exercises so they can generalize what they’re learning in the surrogate therapy and once they’ve generalized enough of the skills they need, the surrogate and client relationship comes to an end. It’s sort of a live tutorial for intimacy.”

Those experiences taught McCombs a great deal about human sexuality and in particular gay male sexuality, something he looks at with interest as gay men grow older and deal with the changing dynamics of their sexuality, how they relate to it and how they relate to others through it. “Gay men, as well as men in general, have very little trouble prioritizing the importance of their sexuality. So, they will find a path with which to express their sexuality,” he observes. “What gets more challenging is integrating that sexuality into an emotional context or a relationship context. Those are broad generalizations. I’m not against the sort of rowdy adventuring, that’s not the challenge for most people,” he continues. “The challenge is, ‘how do I form a relationship and make that relationship work and respect his differences and his interests and my differences and my interests’ and define your own satisfactory relationship in the absence of cultural permission, role models, and how do you create happiness with that sort of framework?”

There are also issues that gay men face as they age which are predicated on performance and virility. With sexuality and sexual function being celebrated in the culture, gay men, like men of any sexual identity, must face the inevitable limitations that come with age. “If you are a person who is geared to paying attention to the changes that are going on, do what you can to improve the circumstances to your satisfaction and then make peace with your options, then you’ll find that you’re going to do fine,” McCombs explains. “I think as people get older, their sexuality means a different thing to them; they get different needs met by it, so raging erections and all-night boffing all of those sorts of things, they may not be the priority for every single person in every single circumstance. Often it’s about being grounded or being better connected, just in touching and holding, that’s powerful.”

Marty McCombs has created a life for himself with determination, focus and family—both his and the families he has formed on his journey. It started at a young age and is seeing him through life well. He got to where he is today by taking action, taking some risks and reaching out to others in both good and bad times. While he is still moving forward on his path, he can look over his shoulder at younger generations of queer kids with a little perspective and a little advice, “We have done what we’ve done in my lifetime and this is what we thought was valuable and important, I can’t know what challenges are going to be for you, but I can tell you, you have to do it yourself.”


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