Sunday, September 25, 2011

Older and Politically Queerect

Let's begin at the begining: what's in a name? In a book being used as a text in a university Queer Studies course I read an essay on aging admonishing readers to not use the term "older". "Older", like the phrase "Senior Citizen", being seen as a euphemism; a euphemism that indicates discomfort with the more "correct" designations of "old", "aged" or "elderly"; the model being the adoption and transformation of the term "queer" from a pejorative to an affirmative designation.

I found that assertion to be peculiar, coming as it did, from a theorist, himself far from elderly, who knows the power of naming and, what is more important, the power of self-naming. It was an exercise of that power when we went from being labeled as "homosexuals" to calling ourselves "gay"; in itself, a significant, early accomplishment of the gay liberation movement.  Subsequently,  we've evolved to using the designation "LGBT"; more recently, it has been suggested to elaborate that designation into "LGBTQIAO": Q for Queer; I for Intersex; A for Asexual;O for Ominsexual; for the moment seen as a more inclusive designation; with the potential for expanding indefinitely; posing a difficulty for the makers of posters and chanters of chants.

If Queer theorists had been around in the early days of the gay movement, I imagine some would have admonished gay people to embrace the term "homosexual"; rejecting the alternative of "gay" as a euphemism and encouraging continued use of the label "homosexual" as a gesture of owning and transforming a stigmatizing label into an affirmative one. Happily, history unfolded differently.

Alas, Queer Theory, although itself a relatively recent field of study, shows signs of drifting into an arcane New Scholasticism; an  academic discipline, which increasingly speaks in its special jargon only to itself; having little to offer to the gay community at large. At least the theorist in question did choose to write about gay aging; a relatively rare occurrence amongst Queer Theorists, who, as someone clever remarked, usually prefer reflecting upon younger bodies.

I am more comfortable designating myself as "older", rather than "aged", "old" or "elderly", mainly because I don't identify with what is usually understood by the last three terms. I don't feel aged, old or elderly; at the same time, I believe I do embrace my age and I assume the right to name myself. In addition, I think the designation of "older" is more consonant with what I understand as the philosophy of the narrative construction and deconstruction of reality on which much of Queer Theory is based.

The terms "old" and "elderly" invite the binary terms of "youth" and "young", while "older" connotes a comparison, a continuum; indicating a shifting perspective; a perspective of degrees and change, rather than a rigid bifurcation. For example, there may well be a time in my life when I would feel the terms "old" or "elderly" would be more apt as a self designation. In addition, the binary old/young is readily paired with the binaries beautiful/ugly, desirable/undesirable, sexy/sexless; couplings that have had destructive consequences in the gay community.

A recent study of gay attitudes toward aging, comparing younger (under 40) and older (over 40) gay men, indicates that close to 46% of younger gays see aging as "terrible", along with 36% of older gay men; 39% of the former regard aging as merely "tolerable" and only 15% as "acceptable". In the gay male community being older is seen as occurring in the late thirties or early forties; in straight society people are considered older somewhere in their sixties or seventies. The general perception in the gay community seems to be that a man by his late fifties is no longer "datable", the rough equivalent of "desirable".

Happily, the negativity displayed toward aging is somewhat less extreme when individuals comment on their own, particular attitudes, as opposed to what they perceive as community attitudes. For example, they tend to be a bit less harsh regarding their own experience of aging and a somewhat larger proportion will admit to finding men older than their late fifties datable.  The extremely negative attitudes in the gay male community toward aging are in striking contrast with the lesbian community, which largely seems to embrace aging and to affirm the desirability of older women of any age.

It's very distressing to consider the impact of those attitudes toward aging in the gay community. Imagine the consequences for the younger, gay male in perceiving his inevitable future in such a negative light. I think of the "It Get's Better" initiative an example. Does it only get better until you reach your late thirties or early forties and then become terrible or barely tolerable? It is nearly impossible to live a happy, productive life with the anticipation that the future holds an inevitable decline into tragedy.

I have often listened to young, gay men as they spoke of being cruised by an older man with a sense of outrage; usually saying something like, "How could he think I'd be interested in him?" or "Why's he cruising me?"; an anger that clearly betrays a sense of insecurity in the identity of being a younger, attractive, desirable gay man; an anger sometimes on the edge of violence.

Such a response is the mirror image of the outrage of a homophobic, straight youth who feels he is being cruised by a gay man; asking the same or similar questions, "How could he think I'd be interested in him" and "Who do you think you're looking at?"; an anger betraying a similar threat to his vulnerable identity as a heterosexual. It's like a telegraphing of anger and insecurity passing from the heterosexual bully through the younger gay man and directed to the older gay man whom he sees as cruising him; each one attempting to ward off and suppress a feared, stigmatized identity.

It is readily understood that the negativity expressed with such intensity by younger gay men toward their future as older gays is an internalization of the negative narrative regarding sexual minorities perpetuated by the dominant, heterosexual culture. If you put the insistence that homosexuality represents a life-style choice together with the picture of a negative future for those who make that choice, you have a major plank in the platform maintaining heterosexuality as the cultural norm. On the one hand there is a portrait of an older age surrounded by children and grandchildren, a life of productivity and the comfort of family; on the other hand, a portrait of sterility and loneliness unto death; a powerful either/or, binary construct.

Negativity towards aging in the gay community serves to re-enforce the power of that construct. It undermines the ability to lift despair and depression amongst gay youth. For a young, gay person to choose to live a "gay life stye" with confidence and hope, alongside the expectation of a bleak future as an older gay man, is an extremely problematic project. Working to develop and offer a positive narrative of aging, in order to counter the damage wrought by the internalized, culturally dominant narrative, is vital to the well-being of the gay community.

Unfortunately, there are currents in the gay community itself, not directly related to the internalization of the negative, culturally dominant narrative, which form a strong undertow; frustrating the articulation of more positive narratives; currents I want to reflect upon in my next post.


  1. Paragraph 11, a bit frightening. I think of the term "straight acting" and its use in the community, and the other words that are used to indicate NON -homosexual (a word I have always liked to use for myself)....but the idea that there is a period of life during which we are useful, attractive, in essence worthy, then NOT after some point is horrible, and I agree, taught.

    I look forward to your next post, this is beyond the kind of discussion? I have been seeking.

  2. Thanks again for your feedback. I'm glad my thoughts connect with your thoughts.