Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gay Ageism: A Particular Vulnerability.

I have reflected in my last post on the fact that the gay community, more specifically, the gay, male community, has internalized negative narratives regarding gay aging that are propagated by the dominant, heterosexist culture. That narrative is, of course, re-enforced by the broader culture of youth that has prevailed in Western Society since the Sixties. It is not to be expected that the gay community would be impervious to that broader, cultural trend; however, I want to suggest that the community has, in fact, been particularly susceptible to some of its more destructive consequences.

Such vulnerability exists because of characteristics which are either particularly present or specific to the gay male community itself; characteristics that have served to augment the negative narrative present in the wider culture; creating a negative feedback loop. The emphasis on the value of youth and the horrors of gay aging transmitted by the dominant culture feed negative perceptions and experiences of aging endemic to the gay community; the extreme negativity toward aging in the gay community strengthens the perception of the accuracy of the perspective of the dominant culture. Each trip through the loop augments the negativity; re-enforces the narrative serving the interests of the dominant, heterosexist culture and diminishing the lives of gay men.

Unfortunately, a specific vulnerability of the gay male community to the negative narrative regarding aging is to be found at the very inception of the modern gay movement. Gay liberation was in large part a manifestation of the youth movement of the Sixties. In with the new; out with the old. Don't trust anyone over thirty. Within the relatively small, discrete, homosexual society that existed before gay liberation, older gay men often had an important, sometimes powerful, role: they were the gatekeepers.

At a time when it was illegal and socially unsafe for bars that openly catered to homosexuals to exist, those which did or at least tolerated "those" people needed to be quite discrete. It was older homosexuals who frequently possessed and transmitted to younger men the lore of where to find those bars and, often, what particular section of a bar, would accept their patronage. Socializing mainly occurred in private homes and, again, it was generally older men who both hosted those parties and provided the necessary invitations to attend them; without which younger, gay men would not have gained access to that social network. In addition, those gatherings were frequently venues at which men from different generations would meet and socialize.

With the coming of gay liberation those previous generations of homosexuals were swept aside; ridiculed as "nervous, old closet queens", "old aunties" and "old nellies". Sometimes they were viewed with anger; as collaborators with heterosexual oppression; as maintaining the life of the closeted homosexual. Most of us knew nothing or almost nothing of older men who had the courage to form the first homosexual rights movements. Those few who were aware of gay history would often regard gay pioneers as the "Uncle Toms" of the gay movement; quaint and timid; irrelevant to a more radical movement.

I think the gay liberation movement was unique amongst the oppressed groups struggling for recognition in the Sixties and Seventies to have been characterized to such an extent by our rejection of previous generations. Lesbians had the women's movement, which, though mainly young, brought together women of various generations and had respected elders. They didn't gravitate as strongly toward bar culture and maintained a central role for private social gatherings, which also characteristically involved a blending of generations. Blacks had their cherished elders, especially in the church culture.

Men in the gay movement had almost only other men of the same generation with whom to relate; the great majority of us were within a five or ten year age span of each other. A negative perception of older generations has, thus, been with our community since its inception. It was part of the formation of our identity as gay and proud, as opposed to homosexual and closeted; a binary easily marrying with now vs the past; young vs older.

Another endemic characteristic of the gay community that has contributed to a negative attitude toward aging stems from the fact that the fields of fashion, popular culture and entertainment were, historically, among the most open towards gay men; fields in which gay men have been particularly interested and through which they have been especially influenced. The cultural emphasis on youth in fashion, publicity and the arts has been disproportionately led and promoted by gay men.

We are all aware how, over the course of the last decades, the ideal of male beauty promoted by that culture has become increasingly younger; culminating in the skinny, hairless, boy bodies that predominate today; an ideal that is already well out of reach for a man in his late thirties; an ideal which contrasts markedly with more mature images of male desirability found in early publications of the gay movement.

Naturally, there is a synergy between what is seen as desirable in the gay, male community as a whole and the images promoted by members of that community who are seen as successful and influential in the dominant culture. Status and prestige within the community are to a significant degree derivative from consuming the products designed, modeled and marketed by those ikons of success. Consequently, it is no wonder that the of the primacy of youth and stigma of age found in the dominant culture is experienced more intensely in the gay community.

Finally, there is the important fact that, until very recently, the gay, male community was characterized by being childless. Again, that characteristic is unique amongst minorities; except for those heterosexual individuals and couples who choose not to have children. Even the lesbian community has been more likely to have children growing up within it; the offspring of previous relationships or choices to become a parent that are exceedingly more accessible to women than men. The simple fact of being largely without children has fed the heterosexist portrayal of the gay, male community as "barren"; as having no productive future.

For gay men themselves not having children is likely to result in a life-experience that is more present and less future-oriented; there are fewer markers drawing attention to the future: birth of children, their becoming young adults and establishing their own domesticity, the potential birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The absence of such markers can lead gay men to focus their attention and projects almost exclusively on the present and near-present; normally, a happy thing, but destructive when markers of the future loom as mainly negative.

For those who have the good fortune of being economically successful and whose childlessness means they have more disposable income, that focus on the present tends to lead them to become leading consumers of the products associated with the youth culture; products that promise to maintain youthfulness, or at least the appearance of youthfulness, as long as possible.

Although it is somewhat of a parody, we know that a large segment of the gay, male community spend a significant part of their income on wearing the latest fashions, using the latest youth-enhancing cosmetics and party drugs, having a gym membership and tickets for the next big party; consumption which feeds the economic exploitation of the culture of youth and augments its space within the gay community. Our consumerism forms one of the foundations for maintaining a privileged position of youth in our community to the detriment of articulating positive images of our futures; futures which inevitably include aging.

Well, now I sound like an old curmudgeon; even to myself; a result of the fact that I'm painting a picture, relating a narrative, which, in my belief, is particularly present and particularly destructive in the gay, male community. I know it's not a pretty picture, but it's one that most of us have had a role in shaping; in some ways, despite ourselves, continue to be defined through it. Happily, it would seem that negative narrative of aging in the gay community is in the process of losing its grip. Over the last decade there have been indications of growing challenges to its hegemony; so much so that I feel, as I reflect on the lament that I've written, the picture I've pointed might even be considered obsolete.

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