Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Old Enough to Be Your Father

At left, James Broughton and Joel Singer. Photograph by Robert Giard.

I’ve been taking inventory lately of how many of my friends are at least fifteen years my senior or junior. I'm attentive to the question because of an intensified sense of my own aging—a function of increasingly exuberant aches and pains, but these last months ratcheted up as well by the number of friends, in most cases people my own age or younger, now facing life-threatening diagnoses. 

A woman I’ve known for over twenty-five years, my closest friend during the time we taught together in San Diego, is twenty years older than me. She has a great gift for intergenerational friendship, of which I’ve been only one of many beneficiaries. I don’t think it’s even a stretch for her to reach out socially to those young enough to be her kids, or even, at this point in her life, practically her grandchildren. It just seems to come naturally.

 I’m six years older now than she was when we met, and I find myself thinking, I should do so well—but in particular, I should do so well in bridging the intergenerational chasm in my relationships with other queer men. As a kid, like so many all-too-well-behaved little gay boys, I gravitated naturally towards adults. In my mid-twenties, determined to embrace a fully gay life, I fell into a narrower cohort of men who saw their place in the world more or less as I did, shaped as we were by the twelve or thirteen years between Stonewall and the onslaught of AIDS. Most of us were deeply energized by the politics of coming out, though not all of us were equally radicalized.

I was insufferable in my impatience toward older men who’d mastered the finely calibrated arts they'd needed to survive a world far more uniformly hostile than the one we had to face, for all the homophobia we confronted and opposed. When these older men and I did befriend one another, I was often patronizing and more or less blind to the treasures of their wry irony; their hard-won but less complicated sense that their personal lives were nobody’s business but their own; their ability to let go of battles that weren’t worth fighting; the flexibility with which they could finesse the very questions of firmly declared sexual identity that my emerging view of the world was based on. My connections with such men often didn’t survive my inflexible judgmentalism. I’d say now that my life was the poorer for it.

Befriending the young, on the other hand, didn’t even seem an option. Any solidarity we might have ventured in the 1980s toward anyone under twenty-one was hysterically denounced as recruitment and predation, and many of us chose the easier and safer path of sealing ourselves off from the next generation's pain and isolation—but also from their promise and energy. Meanwhile, the young learned to fear the stereotyped rapacity of older men. (Later, the drag queens would come home to roost: at least some of those a generation younger than us would use their different experience of AIDS as an excuse to write us off as summarily as we’d dismissed our pre-Stonewall brothers.)

I’m beginning to think that perhaps the single most damaging effect of homophobia on gay culture is the opprobrium it heaps on us, even today, when we risk reaching across age cohorts . The generational segregation that’s become endemic to North American society is all the more absolute in the solitude and misunderstanding that far too often divide gay men now in their fifties and sixties from those in their eighties, as from those in their teens and twenties and thirties. We need queer elders to reassure us that we are in fact part of something more enduring than our own moment; we need queer heirs to whom we can pass on whatever we’ve created of lasting worth. We need networks of friendship and mentorship to help us make sense of the passage of our own lives and to impart meaning and dignity to the mortal condition shared by old and young alike.

If we need these roles and relationships, we need as well the resolve and social means to foster them. We need ceremonies to make them visible and honor them. Amidst the overwhelming attention that gay marriage now commands (for better and for worse), we need rituals to recognize bonds between elder and younger friends, between protégés and mentors, outside the structures of the nuclear family to which even same-sex couples are now pressured to aspire.

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