of Turning Thirty
By Bob Minor
I admit I was somewhat amused when I heard a twenty-nine year old man at a bar genuinely bemoan that fact that he was about to turn thirty. The specter of that event looming over him, he said, made him "feel old." So, he told us, he needed to get some things done and find a partner before that happened -- and while he "still had a chance."
To those of us who are quite a bit older, and who would never go back to thirty again unless we could guarantee that we could take with us all we have learned from our experiences since, there is something quite sad about feeling "old" at thirty.
I'm not sure what "feeling old" even means, and I don't think I do "feel old." But it's not meant positively. I know that's so, because we take the statements, "You don't look that old," or "You don't act that old," as complements.
Though this cult of youth is especially strong in gay male circles, it's just another one of those larger cultural values our conditioning has internalized in us. Idealizing youth enables our economic system to sell youthfulness to all of us by marketing cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, physical fitness, clothing styles, and a lot else. It even helps sell the chemicals that alleviate our depression over "feeling old."
We know what this does to those who are elders in our communities. They are shunted aside, taken less seriously, ignored, left out of our identities, stereotyped, and made the butt of jokes. Since l/g/b/t communities focus on youth, our elders withdraw from our activities, deny us their experience, expertise, and support, and provide few visual models of what it could be like for those of us who are younger to "grow old" as l/g/b/t people.
This is a tragedy for them. How many of the heroes of our liberation movement have disappeared because it is clear they are unwanted at the time when we need them most? They have heard too often that "old" means out-dated.
But it promotes the stereotypes of growing old, especially the oppressive stereotypes of the elderly male as someone who will somehow prey on youth. When our male elders do appear among youth, we have been taught to expect them to be "chicken hawks," or "dirty old men." And Patricia Nell Warren, of Frontrunners fame, and now over sixty, writes of older lesbians who are tired of "just being ignored" or made to feel unwelcome at women's events "where pheromones are in the air."
Most acutely in the gay male community, an ageist caste system seems to rule male social and sexual lives. Few older men are able to ignore the stigma of this blatant ageism in order to be seen among us. If they were to stay in touch, we could know that there is life -- even vital, exciting, active, and fulfilling life -- as we all age. We might begin to see that the life of our elders is even to be desired.
It's no wonder that many young gay men see no future in their natural aging process. Not only have older gay people abandoned their old haunts and left them to youth, no longer dancing, laughing, playing pool, just hanging out, or stimulating the conversation. They have left us only with the stereotypes.
If it's only stereotypical images of aging we experience, then, what future is there for those who are younger and must face the fact that we will inevitably age? If all there is is youth, then why not devalue one's future? Why not think only of the present and expect all else to be down hill? Why not practice unsafe sex since there is nothing to look forward to anyway?
If it is bad to be old, then what does that do to the self-esteem of us all as we inevitably move to that bad place? If it's that bad to age, then why not commit suicide when problems mount up now? It's not going to get any better than this youthful experience, we've been told.
We need a revolution in our thinking about age in order to have healthy youth. We need our elders with us in the places we live, work and play. We need them to fight against our prejudices with all the passion they have used to fight against homophobia
We need to confront our ideas of aging and prepare a strategy for our own growth. We'll have to talk about how we feel about growing older. Somehow in order to save our youth we need to begin to celebrate our elders. We need to end the jokes, the stereotypes, and the putdowns. We need to consciously cross generations in all that we do.
It means all of us will have to confront the larger culture again. We'll have to really see that the American cult of youth is nothing but consumer mythology. And before we grow any older ourselves, even before we turn thirty, we need to embrace what Asian cultures embrace when they say, "There's nothing as beautiful as gray hair and a long beard."
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D. is author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He may be reached at www.fairnessproject.org