Friday, November 03, 2006
Ageism and Wisdom: What the Bois Are Missing
The following is from an article published in November 3rd's Washington Blade:
Jokes of being "gay-dead" at 40 were funny until the line was pushed back to 30 and finally 25, reducing the number of gay dating years to about 10, assuming you're lucky enough to come out during high school.
Sensing that the generation gap was in danger of turning into a canyon, members of local gay community group the D.C. Center decided to introduce an intergenerational discussion group, "Twinks and Geezers," to foster better dialogue between older and younger gay men. A series of talks in locations around D.C. address issues of ageism, and the first event, held Oct. 24, the same night as the annual High Heel Race, attracted 18 people of varying ages and ethnicities.
"It's human nature to form into groups with people that are like you," says Adam Smith, 23, who helped organize the workshop series. "Forming friendships with people who aren't like you is important, which is why it's good to have these cross-generational relationships."
Plenty of barriers to creating intergenerational relationships exist, however. A host of factors, including biases, youth worship and fear of cultural reaction, play into ageism among gay men and lesbians.
The idea of being "gay dead" at 25 is an example of the accelerated aging perception that affects gay men in particular, says Ken South, 60, who is a member of the Center's elder outreach committee and who has worked extensively on the issue of ageism among gays.
"Gay men, especially single gay men who are approaching 40, think it's the end of their life and start acting like they're 80," South says. "The whole idea of being an old gay man strikes terror in the hearts of most gay men. They don't even want to talk about it. They don't want to think about it. It's just so real. There's such incredible association in the gay male community with youth and beauty. It just permeates everything.
"When was the last time a circuit party gave a discount for seniors? If a group of 10 guys in their 80s walked into those places, people would probably get ill."
While most people might be under the impression that only the vain gay "boiz" suffer from this image crisis, think again. Another thing about assimilating into mainstream culture, unfortunately, is that it assimilates into you.
MENTORING IS AN important relationship that helps younger people to learn from and emulate adults who aren't their parents. This can be especially critical among gay men and lesbians who don't always have the benefit of parental acceptance, but some gay men say that the opportunities for traditional mentorship roles have declined in recent years.
"When I was growing up, there were a lot of older gay men that were sort of there," says Lorenzo Taylor, 50, who attended the first workshop for Twinks and Geezers. He was surprised to learn that much of the gay connection that younger men have is fostered through the internet.
"That felt kind of sad to me — their connection to the gay community being through online communication rather than an oral legacy," says Taylor. "The other thing that sort of surprises us, too, is that there's no place in the gay community for mentoring."
Bruce Weiss, 39, who attended the Oct. 24 workshop and is also executive director of the Sexual Youth Minority Assistance League, a local gay youth group, says that fears of societal rebuke for interacting with young people has added to the dearth of mentoring opportunities.
"Some people have had a fear about serving youth because they didn't want to be perceived as trying to get young people to turn gay," says Weiss.
SMYAL policies for adult volunteers are very strict, demonstrating the delicate care working with gay youth requires.
"We don't have that fear because we're doing this work regardless of what others may think, but we are very mindful of the risks and very cautious of having any adults working with young people," Weiss says.
Among gay men, eradicating bias about the motivations of mentoring relationships is an essential part of working against ageism.
"The issues of ageism are so insidious in the community — the general community, American society — but in the LGBT community it's especially insidious," says the Center's South.
Among gay men, some of the barriers between the generations involve a concern from younger men that older men are only interested in them as potential sex partners.
"If you're in a bar situation, you're going to think, 'Oh, there's this old guy hitting on me,' when that's not necessarily the case," says Smith.
Some of this disconnect could have been caused by the AIDS epidemic. With the staggering loss of gay men to AIDS throughout the '80s and '90s, an entire generation of gay men was virtually wiped out, leaving the upcoming youth frequently without guidance or a variety of interaction with older men.
"I certainly think the ageism among gay men would have been tempered if we hadn't lost the generation that we did because of AIDS," says Marcy Adelman, who did seminal work on gay aging in the '70s, including her involvement with the National Institute of Mental Health's first study on gay aging in 1975.
Groups like Twinks and Geezers aim to bridge the gap between generations.
"This program doesn't surprise me," Adelman says about Twinks and Geezers. "I think it's a part of that change that's happening."
Others see bridging the divide between old and young as key to forwarding the gay rights movement.
"I think we're kind of where we were at the movement about 15 years ago when we finally recognized our LGBT youth and brought them into our movement," says Moli Steinert, 54, who runs Open House, a non-profit gay and lesbian senior residential community based in San Francisco. "It's not until we recognize our elders that we can really truly call ourselves family. It's a necessary step in our own maturity as a movement to do that."
I think these guys are onto something. We were all twinks for a short period of our gay lives. At that time, we didn't want to be pawed by some "old" dude. But now for us over 40, we are the "old dudes". So what goes around, comes around.
But I think this time things could be different. We got the net, we got dozens of places like MySpace and LiveJournal to connect and make buddies, young and old.
How we do this, is set an example. Life is too short to fuck it up. Younger gay guys somehow got to learn from their gay life experiences. We can be there for them to make their transition a little less painful and a whole lot more enjoyable.
I'd like to hear your views on this. This isn't a Man-Boy Love thing we are talking about here. It is about sharing experience. But first we "daddies" have to prove ourselves worthy of such mentoring. We have to have our "shit together". And we have to wait for younger guys to ask us, not impose and inflict our "wisdom" on them. Yes this is nuturing, and yes, this is being patient, but hey, we're here to be helpful and yes, to provide that strong shoulder to lean on, but not wean on.