By John Corvino
A few days ago I found myself looking in the mirror and noticing that I’m aging.
This is not a bad thing – and not just because the alternatives are death and plastic surgery, neither of which appeals to me. I actually like my mid-30s face: the hint of gray at my temples, the slight weariness around my eyes. They’re interesting.
Before I begin to sound horribly self-indulgent, I should mention that not every sign of age thrills me. There is hair sprouting on my shoulders with the texture of speaker wire. The 29-inch waist I had in college is a distant memory. I can no longer stay out all night and expect to form coherent sentences the next day.
And I sometimes look in the mirror surprised to see a thirty-five-year-old face looking back. Surprised, but not disappointed. Thirty-five is a good age to be: old enough to have some professional, financial, and personal security; young enough to enjoy it fully.
You wouldn’t know this talking to some members of our community. “Gay life ends at thirty!” they lament bitterly.
How pathetic – and dumb.
I started going to gay bars when I was nineteen. Like most fresh faces, I got more than my share of attention. I remember distinctly one drag queen asking me, “Honey, how old are you?”
“Nineteen,” I replied sheepishly.
“Nineteen! Honey, there are toupees in this bar that are older than that!”
And there were. But the presence of older men never bothered me. The rest of the world has people of all ages – why not the gay world?
I would soon learn the ugly fact of ageism in the community. Its effects range from the silly (fifty-year-old gym bunnies dressed like college freshmen) to the tragic (depression, loneliness, drug abuse, and so on).
Granted, the age-apartheid in our community is not necessarily malicious. Younger people and older people often have different interests, resulting in limited opportunities for interaction. There are about as few seventy-something gay men at dance clubs as there are twenty-something gay men at the opera, and this says less about their attitudes toward each other than about their respective attitudes toward dance clubs and opera.
But regardless of intent, the upshot is that there are limited opportunities for cross-generational gay mentoring. While we see straight people aging (because we have parents and grandparents and so on), we rarely see our fellow gay people doing so. And so we fear the process.
Last fall my grandmother died. As I observed her health deteriorate, I also noticed our family – her children and grandchildren – rise to the occasion. We looked after her medical, nutritional, and financial needs; we advocated for her with doctors and insurance companies; we called or visited daily.
I have no children or grandchildren, and I don’t plan to. Who, I worried, will be my advocates?
Yet mine is hardly the first gay generation to grow old, and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when facing such questions. Gay elders are typically more than happy to share their wisdom.
Being involved in several community organizations, I am fortunate to know gay people of many ages. Recently I was at a restaurant with two friends in their late 20s. A seventy-something gay friend of mine walked in. He was alone (with just a newspaper to keep him company), so I invited him to join us.
My two younger friends were fascinated. It was as if I had presented them with some exotic show-and-tell exhibit. They had never talked to a gay senior.
My older friend lives in a large old house, and he is considering moving into a single-level condo. He wants to find a place close to restaurants and shopping and entertainment, but also one where he’s comfortable as a gay man. Typical “senior-living” arrangements don’t suit him. He has friends of various ages – his “adopted” family – and he needs to remain close to them.
As he discussed these concerns, my young friends listened intently. I knew what they were thinking: it’s many years off, but that will be us someday.
And that, too, is a good thing. While there’s no reason to rush the process (I’m still a bit traumatized by the hair on my shoulders), there’s no reason to fear it, either. My seventy-something friend is one of the happiest people I know. He’s had a successful career and he’s built many friendships. I have no doubt that, like my grandmother, he’ll have people to care for him as he grows older.
So to my younger readers (yes, both of you), I say this: if you know such people, learn from them. If you don’t, get involved in the community and meet some.