Being “gay” has never been something I have paid a lot of attention to. It is certainly not something I am ashamed of, but it doesn’t define me, a person, either. In my eyes, sexual orientation is merely a characteristic—much like having green eyes or blonde hair—that can distinguish one from another but not make them inherently different. This has made my relationships with gay culture and society rather tenuous ones, often resulting in my feeling like a spectator looking in from the outside. I have found my place in the mix over the years, establishing a close circle of friends and taking my place amongst the various social spheres within the community. All was good…or so I thought. I had started to become invisible and never even noticed.
At the age of 37, I began to sense a shift in the dynamics of how my environment and I engaged with each other. The change was subtle, much like the gradual dissolution of a friendship that had already served its purpose, leaving one party obsolete and taking up space. I noticed one night at a favorite haunt of mine, while surrounded by droves of the hottest men Austin, Texas had to offer, a sense of isolation that I couldn’t explain or shake-off. I looked at the faces around me—some new, most familiar—and noticed nothing strange or out of the ordinary. Then, I realized that the social buzz happening around me, literally, happened around me: I was not being engaged. While I had never been a “social butterfly,” I had consistently garnered my fair share of stares and coy flirtations when I would go out. Not so much that night…or the previous nights, for that matter. Things had been this way for some months, in fact; I just had not been paying attention.
Middle-aged or not, I was a pretty good package. Six foot, four inches tall. Swimmer’s build. Handsome (at least according to some and my mother). Trendy clothes. Employed with vehicle. I was a prize and good to go. So, what was wrong? What was this rift in The Force that had turned me from “Mr. Right (or “Mr. Right Now”) to “Mr. Cellophane?” Then it hit me…It finally happened. I had aged-out.
I remembered something I was told my very first time at a gay bar down in South Texas in the early 90s. I was 21 years old and had just days officially come out of the closet to my friends and family a couple of days prior. I was at the bar, afraid to venture anywhere else in the establishment, talking to random folks who came by to order drinks. This one fellow, probably in his mid-30s or so, struck up a conversation with me: he asked me my name and if I was gay. I told him what he wanted to know and that that had been my first time officially “out.” He bought me a drink, toasted to my health and bright future as an aspiring gay man and then dropped a bomb directly on my head, “Well, I hope it is everything you have been hoping for,” he said, downing his long-neck beer and slamming it on the bar, “Have fun because your marketability started going down at nineteen.” He turned around and walked away. Dumbstruck, I finished my drink and chalked the encounter up to his just being a bitter, lonely old man (yes, 30ish was old to me then) and put what he said out of my head. I had no idea that an important life lesson had just been dropped in my lap: a valuable gift, wrapped in newspaper that had been used to line a litter box, somewhere.
Sadly, my eventual social (and sexual) downgrade did not come as a crushing surprise. Having navigated the perilous twists and turns (not to mention dead-ends) of gay life for over the past fifteen years, I had learned a thing or two. I was very aware that my “worth,” as a gay man in gay society, was heavily defined by a raging—sometimes unforgiving—youth culture that would eventually diminish my socio-sexual value down to that of a unich or—at best—a fetish. These messages were conveyed early on by peers and most definitely by the cultural artifacts (media, advertisements, etc.) that represent what gay life was supposed to be all about. Despite this fact, I was confused as to why this had to be. Things seemed different outside the gay world. Men were supposed to get better with age. Become more seasoned. Distinguished. Why wasn’t this happening? I would discover the answer until my early 40s.
Since today’s youth culture—within gay society—is so powerful, I focused my attention on understanding it better. I refused to believe that gay men inherently were that shallow and cruel and sought to find the source (or sources) of divisiveness that threatened me and my community. Through my research, I found that multiple factors lent towards the marginalization of aging gay men within their own subcultures. Culture had a partial—but major—role in these processes. Moreover, the intragroup, ageist beliefs and behaviors of gay men were just as problematic as those that stemmed mainstream society, leaving LGBT-folk doubly stigmatized, suffering the negative effects of their own anxieties around aging along with external prejudice and discrimination that left them disenfranchised, disempowered, and often desexualized.
History also seemed to play a significant role in the ageist attitudes of gay men. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, while heralding the dawning of the empowered homosexual (and his voice), also saw the rapid and exaggerated internalization of heteronormative paradigms of masculinity. As a result, the creation of hypermasculine representations of maleness occurred, making “butch” desirable, rejecting the effeminate. The AIDS crisis of the 80s also had a significant impact, putting images of the disease front and center in the world’s line of vision, flooding TV screens with depictions of skeletal gay men in various states of death and dying. While unrelated in and of themselves, these events were galvanizing in terms of how the gay community would create—and recreate—their own paradigms of masculinity in the future, emphasizing power and strength, as well as health and vitality. I only stood to reason that, eventually, a marriage between this new sort of paradigm and youth would take place.
Epistemological Culture Theory would indicate that culture is created to better understand ourselves and the world around us. We identify totems (or physically-embodied ideals) and strive for their attainment in order to belong and become worthy in the eyes of those around us. Since youth and beauty are idyllic qualities within the gay community, the degree to which one reflects them is the degree to which they are accepted and prized. Those who do not fit into said mold, however, are systematically pushed to the outskirts of their social systems. They are not fully abandoned, however, as they not only serve their own roles (whatever that may be) within society but are also reminders that one’s stay in the “in crowd” is fleeting and that one day they, too, may find themselves looking in from the outside.
Do things have to stay this way? No. They don’t. Research indicates that the importance of intra-generational discourse is key to increasing the understanding of aging experiences within the gay community. The sharing of narratives and offering of mentorship and emotional support are key to fostering healthy relationships between young and old gay men, shattering myths and misconceptions, as well as lending to the strength and cohesiveness of the community. But what of the culture? Whether one looks at it from a constructivist or constructionist perspective, the answer lies with us–gay men. We can resist the toxic messages that externally bombard us and open our eyes to the beauty of aging and the wisdom it bestows. We can change this narrative—if not to lift-up our GLBT brothers and sisters then to create a safer, healthier social space for us in the future.
Sure, I wear progressive lenses. Sure, my hairline is receding, and I don’t exactly know where to stop when I give myself a facial. Sure, the top knuckle of my left pinky-finger can predict rain, but that does not mean I am not still hot. “Going Grey…” is my contribution to the effort.
What is yours?
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