Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fight Gay Ageism: Go Shopping!

The recent deaths of Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings highlight the reality that, despite the negative attitudes toward aging in the gay community as a whole, there are sparkling exceptions of elders who were pioneers in the movement for homosexual civil rights and continued to be influential leaders after the inception of the gay liberation movement.  They stand in stark exception to the more common treatment of pioneers in our community, which has been either to ignore them totally or to trot them out as relics at reward ceremonies.

Patricia Neel Warren wrote in the Nineties of attending such a ceremony during which an elderly man with a walker was asked to come up on the stage to receive a plaque of recognition. She describes watching with embarrassment as the man struggled to negotiate access to the stage; no one in the audience made any attempt to help him; some even chuckled. She relates that she made a decision after witnessing that even to stop using the word "community" to refer to gay society; any genuine community, she felt, would not treat their most vulnerable members in such a fashion.

It would have been preferable and praiseworthy had a powerful enough movement to bring about a more positive attitude toward aging, along with more caring and respect for gay elders, emerged from within the gay community itself. As it is, the simple fact of demographic shift will likely be the most effective factor in accomplishing that goal. To be sure, there have been both individuals and organizations (SAGE is a fine illustration) in the last couplee of decades that have been working to change the negative perception and treatment of elderly gays in our community. However, in my opinion, they have not yet achieved the breadth and strength of influence to accomplish the significant change that is needed if were are to become a healthier community for gays of all ages.

Although the attitude towards aging in the gay, male community has been mainly negative since the inception of gay liberation, some groups within that community have shown a somewhat less negative attitude. In the world of bears the rejection of the erotic ideal of the pretty boy has entailed an openness toward diverse body types, including older ones. In the gay world of fetishism and sadomasochism the focus on the fetish object itself and on the importance of the experience and skill displayed in domination and submission have encouraged a more open attitude toward older participants. As I have previously stated, in contrast to gay males, lesbians appear to form a community that is a model of acceptance of older women as regards both socialization and eroticism.

Toward the beginning of the Eighties there was an increasing interest in the history of the gay movement prior to Stonewall and gestures made toward recognition of the early pioneers of the homosexual rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties who were still alive. Unfortunately, the coming of the aids epidemic absorbed most of the attention of the gay community for the next decade. One of the little recognized impacts of that epidemic was to constrict the normal course of developing maturity of the gay community and to sustain ageist attitudes within it.

Aids was, at its inception, largely a disease of the young and reactions toward the horrible losses it left in its wake were shaped by romanticism channeled through the narrative of youth dying young; a narrative made more intense through the connection with sex. The advocacy of barebacking or unprotected sex was the most destructive manifestation of that romantic narrative; explicitly linking youth, transgression, desire, sex and death; a powerful narrative, celebrating a life of rebellion unto death against any restriction on sexuality; a life without a future. In contrast to that narrative, the prevalent one in the dominant culture, depicting a lonely, old gay man facing death alone is so starkly unromantic that there is no surprise which would be embraced by those drawn to a romanticism masquerading as politically radical.

The case has been made that the cult of the young, cut, gym-trained body was to some extent a response to the aids epidemic; an attempt by both the uninfected and those surviving with aids to exhibit a strong, healthy, desirable body, as opposed to a diseased body. The intended message was that choosing a younger, healthier body as a sexual object was safer than choosing an older, less buff body.  Younger men actually articulated the mistaken belief that it was safer to avoid sex with men in their thirties and older, as they were more likely to be infected; a twist on the Sixties caution to trust no one over thirty. Unfortunately, that message was especially destructive, as it coincided with a party culture in which multiple sexual partners and a drug-induced carelessness in the practice of safer sex led to a high incidence of HIV infection amongst those who were allegedly the safer choice.

One of the things aids did accomplish in the gay community was to mobilize a support network for those perceived as the most vulnerable. We fought establishments to provide adequate services for people living with aids and, when those establishments didn't respond, created our own institutions to provide needed services until the mainstream establishments came around. Imagine the impact of a similar energy directed toward seeing that the needs of the elderly in our community were being met; to a certain extent that re-investment of energy shows signs of occurring.

As medications began to transform aids into what resembles a chronic illness and the urgency of the epidemic has begun to be felt less acutely, attention and energy are being turned towards other issues. One of the principal ones being the inclusion of GLBT peoples in the institutions of mainstream society; the institution of marriage being the most notable. In a society based on consumption, a principle indicator of inclusion is being targeted as consumers by advertisers and providers of goods and services: to be perceived as representing a pool of potential consumers is to be perceived as having social value. The more affluent in the gay community, predominately white males, have been pleased to see themselves reflected in advertising and happily returned that recognition by shopping; not much encouragement was needed.

While a social progressive may feel some ambivalence regarding the presence of shopping as a major calling of the gay community, a happy reality is that advertising and consumerism are intrinsically related to demographics. Gay baby boomers, despite the fact that a significant number of them were lost to aids, find themselves, often reluctantly, moving into the category of "older". As with straight people in their age cohort, many are accustomed to the exercise of power and have more vigour than previous elderly. They also have the numbers to attract advertisers and, often, the financial resources to keep consuming. In contrast with the increasingly anachronistic assumption by advertisers that major consumer spending decreases with advancing years, affluent gay elders are likely to shop 'til they drop.

Advertisers and pornographers have taken note. Increasingly, older models are present in publicity directed toward gay consumers; luxury products that your average twenty or thirty-something could hardly afford are featured in gay publications. Porn stars, who not long ago would have been considered past the age of the desirable, continue to find work and, sometimes, are even brought out of retirement.  The last on-line survey of gay men's sexuality by Out magazine showed that men over sixty report having significantly more active sexual lives than those aged eighteen to twenty-five. Just as the gay community as a whole gained social value by being considered a target of consumption, older gays will gain value and social recognition as their importance as a pool of potential consumers is increasingly exploited; inevitably that value and recognition will have an increasing impact within the gay community itself.

Even forms of socialization are changing in ways that reflect the aging of the gay population: raves and large, drug-fueled circuit parties are increasingly attended by heterosexuals; long regarded as the kiss of death to what is regarded as trendy within the gay community; gay men who frequent them are increasingly in their forties and fifties; one of my younger clients, reflecting his own ageism,  recently remarked that, unless you're high, seeing them shirtless is often "not a pretty sight". Lounges and boutique bars successfully compete with barn-like dance bars; the net permits a means of meeting other men without staying up until three or four in the morning. Interestingly, gay men over sixty responding to that survey in Out, cited the net as their most frequent source of sexual contacts; a result not to be given too much weight, as the survey itself was on-line.

While we're talking about demographics, consumerism and social inclusion, let's not forget gaybies. More and more of the younger, gay clients with whom I talk assume, as a matter of course, that they'll not only marry, but, also, have children. Access to adoption, advances in reproductive technologies and surrogacy services are beginning to make children as much a presence in the gay, male community as they have always been in the lesbian community. The choice available to gay males to live in a family with children will form a significant alternative to the negative, heterosexist narrative of a barren, gay lifestyle. As any parent knows, a family with children is one in which consuming is experienced as much as a necessity as a choice. What will inevitably follow is more and more television and movie programming featuring or casually including children with two fathers; validating that choice in the dominant society and making it more likely to be chosen in the gay community.

So, as you see, I think a change in how aging is perceived in the gay community is nearly inevitable; too bad that the major agent of change is likely to be demographics linked with consumerism.  As a progressive, I hope that significant change-agent will be joined by increasing initiatives from within the community itself; initiatives that pressure society to move in a more egalitarian direction and arise from the conviction that care for the most vulnerable is an essential feature of a just and healthy society. In the meantime, if as a gay male, you find yourself in your fifties, sixties, seventies or older and you can afford it, the least you can do to make change happen is to continue purchasing those big ticket items and let it be known that you're a gay man shopping.


  1. "Gay Man Shopping" I like the ring of that. Perhaps it should be emblazoned on a T-shirt--or even better, an Armani jacket.

    Many years ago, I participated in the annual gay parade in NYC. As the parade passed Bloomingdale's, about half the marchers, it seemed, peeled off and went shopping. (Full disclosure: me included.)

  2. Your comment produced a genuine COL (chuckle out loud).

  3. I recently thought about the entire GAY=blog circuit I followed and wondered how much of this is all upper mid.class white gay males? Everyone seems to be doing fine in the economic mess.
    I "married" happily in the late 80s and nested completely missing the "circuit party" craze about which I read years later.
    For once, I rather get that barebacking phenom, whereas, I did not before.
    This is helping me to understand my age of 53 much more.
    Once again, thanks

  4. Yes, I sometimes reflect on the fact that gay bloggers, including myself, seem to be mostly white and relatively well-off.
    The topics we blog about seem far from the major crises in the world: famine,struggling to survive economically, wars, terrorism. However, the point of blogging is sometimes simply to reflect on one's own, lived experience and to connect with readers who might share similar interests and experiences. It's not as if that excludes interest and involvement in those larger world issues, any more than reading a novel does.

  5. How disappointing to learn from the NYT that gay/lesbian retirement homes are in a financial meltdown as a result of the US financial doldrums. Perhaps my cheery hope that baby boomer consumption will lead to a happier future for the gay aged may have been derailed, at least for now.