Fifty years ago, queer folks created the gay liberation movement. Today, they are transforming our views on old age. They, the first generation embracing the collective identity of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people (LGBT), have reached old age, forming a new phenomenon, “older LGBT people.” Most of them are Baby Boomers, the second largest generation in the United States. We are also witnessing the aging of people living with HIV. Gay men of the Baby Boomer generation were the most impacted by the HIV epidemic; now they are the largest group of older people living with HIV.
In contemporary literature and popular media, older queer authors offer contrasting explorations to the aging question. One takes the liberal, rights route: visibility, acceptance, successful aging, and healthy sex life. The other relies on the memories of the gay liberation movement and AIDS, giving us a gloomy vision. Both show aging gay men as dealing with losing sex appeal, the grief of AIDS, melancholia of a better life behind, and the loneliness that comes with age.
I find in the lives of “older” gay men (especially those of the Baby Boomer generation, aka “Gayby Boomers”) a struggle to reconcile the clashes between their own sense of self and the social and cultural demands of the prevailing gay and heteronormative old age worlds. As they are given the label of “older gay men” or “seniors,” they again face the task of making sense of themselves and their friendships and connections with others in a context ruled heterosexuality, youth, medicine, and capitalism.
The normative gay culture, unfortunately, is not sympathetic towards older gay men. There is an old saying that gay men become old at 30 years of age; there is more than some true to it today. Gay culture is dominated by a market economy where youth, (white) bodies, and sex are the currency. Old bodies are fast devaluated in bars, bathhouses, and apps. Then, men are compelled to fight aging by means of cosmetic surgery, Botox, Viagra, and other drugs.
My focus here is in the possibilities I see in some corners of older gay men’s worlds. To make sense of old age, gay men are forming bonds with others, recreating what they practiced in their youth: connections with other men outside social institutions and norms. The roots of this are in the two moments of the Gayby Boomer generation: the gay liberation movement and the AIDS epidemic. Herein lies gay men’s promise to invent life as older people and to queer older age.
My thinking about queer aging is based on three joined themes: identity, shame, and the friendships and associations of gay men. I am borrowing from two scholars, Michael Warner and Michel Foucault.
The life trajectories of older gay men, and Gayby Boomers, cannot be reduced to sexuality. Through the course of their being, men’s sexual desires did have influence, but were not the only forces in shaping who they are (or who they have become).
Their identities are not fixed or uniform; they are fragmented across time and at any given moment. They escape the binaries of homosexual/heterosexual and old/young. They are queer — escaping heterosexuality and generalizations based on their same-sex desire. Their lives are marked by race, age, and social class. For some men, still, the critical elements in their lives came from political events such as the Anti-war and Civil Rights movements. Then, in the same way we must be cautious about defining life based on age.
Identity and shame are entwined. Shame is in the creation of our queer experience; as it is at the core of AIDS. It runs through gay men’s lives; in the homosexual desire, in non-monogamous and casual sex, “unprotected sex,” and in the impulsive sex act. Much of the work of the contemporary and post-AIDS LGBT movement has been centered on identities in an effort to des-stigmatize and achieve respectability. These identities are now professed as free of shame, as when gay men claim, “Sex does not define me,” “Sex is only one part of me,” and when they join the institution of marriage vowing monogamy. But this move is at the expense of the queer, the other. We shame the “cheating” husbands, the single and lonely gay men, the barebaker, the hustler, and the polyamorous. Shame is not gone and we ought to embrace it to experience freedom.
In shame I find a convergence between queer and aging. We shame the weak, unkempt and uncontrollable old self as we shame the queer. We see this reflected in gay men’s work on the body as a way to deflect the shame brought up by AIDS. The ethics of successful aging, as well as the prevailing LGBT movement, attempt to erase the shame to bring respectability.
Successful aging as frame for public policy, focuses on the individual. It is a private ethic in that it asks specific habits and ways of being from each of us, as individuals. This privatization and individualization of our lived experience creates the context for shame – where we have limited or no access to other practices and ways of being to make sense of ourselves and recognize and share our shame. The implication is that only in solidarity and the open circulation of various forms of being we may replace shame with dignity.
In camaraderie (from bathhouses to Radical Faeries and leather community) gay men realize and accept shame. In the margins of institutions is that they are able to create, via same-sex desire, alternative scripts. Here it lies the ability to escape and confront power. These connections are central in queer aging. I am aware that there is some romanticism in this view, yet the notion is relevant in thinking about alternative ways of aging.
The lives of older gay men are infused with the creative bonds men build with other men: friendships, friends with benefits, sex with strangers, casual sex –and its contemporary version, NSA, no-strings-attached – open relationships, and ménages à trois. These forms are outside the norms of heterosexually, marriage, family, and the market economy. They are fluid, contextual, and, by their nature, fragile. They have norms, but different to those of heterosexual institutions. Against the background of marriage and coupledom, gay men show that intimacy, love, sex, friendship, casual sexual encounters, and group sex are not opposite; they all can co-exist.
These types of agreements, outside institutions, exist across social status. They are not always created by choice, explicitly made, or free of conflicts. Yet, the point is that these arrangements reject the constraints of heterosexuality and acknowledge instability, experimentation, and mutability in our sexual lives. These diverse liaisons may at times fuse to create a political force (in our popular use of the term) such in the gay liberation and AIDS movements.
Such friendships may foster autonomy, unlike, say, marriage and religious groups: the praxis of self-reflection and the making of novel forms of being. The task of continuously creating one’s self in opposition to normative structures and in reflexivity takes place precisely in our associations with others. Unlike political and social movements, the purpose of these connections is not to seize power, but to evade normalization –the gaze of power, in Foucault’s terms.
Our racial and social class systems, of course, make it difficult to consider connections among gay men as a viable alternative in queer aging. Alliances between white gay men and men of color are mired in power, fear, resentment, shame, and stigma.
There is a new policing confronting gay men, we may call it aging. After the gay liberation movement, AIDS, and LGBT rights, thus, the question becomes relevant again: What ways of being could we create to escape the policing of age, identity, medicine, heterosexuality, and the market?
Jesus Ramirez-Valles. This piece draws from his book, Queer Aging: Gayby Boomers and a New Frontier for Gerontology.
IMAGE CREDIT: Paul Tuller