Don’t Care About the Old Folks: Gays and the Elderly

by: Austin Duus

I have a bad attitude toward a both vulnerable and venerated group of people. My suspect class is the elderly—senior citizens. I need to ask myself if, in the sum of my opinions, am I not principled but reflexive? Am I objective or prejudiced? Do I have a problem with old people? Am I ageist?

I reviewed the evidence: My first point of contention with my elders is their attitude toward homosexuality. Senior citizens are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage. Fully three in four oppose it. Even those who aren’t very old rely on age to justify political positions which will be indefensible in ten years. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is a full-throated advocate for gay rights and dignity abroad. Yet, while running for President, she invoked the privilege of her age in attempting to explain her opposition to same-sex marriage in a debate hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. She acknowledged that the younger generation was of a different mind and insinuated that she might not be on the right side of history. Her opponent Barack Obama holds the identical position and has said his position on the issue is “evolving” as if opposition was a natural starting place. Both point to the inevitability of progress on marriage equality, yet they can’t bring themselves to take the plunge.

The elderly have outsized political power compared to their actual proportion of the population. They vote and vote often. In presidential elections, they consistently top two-thirds in voter turn-out. Less than one third of 18-24 year olds go to the polls. In comparison to my generation, our seniors are true citizens of suffrage. And for this civic virtue, they have been rewarded. Transfer programs are politically untouchable, and their opposition to gay marriage is taken seriously when they constitute almost twenty percent of votes cast.

I find myself in the lonely position of focusing on the elderly on the issue of entitlement reform. To me, it is plain that any policy that redistributes from those with less to those with more is regressive by definition, and the issue should be an easy political question. It isn’t. Means-testing Social Security and Medicare—in a meaningful way that includes wealth as well as income—makes both liberals and conservatives uncomfortable.

Conservatives, as a demographic, are a grayer bunch, which clouds their otherwise ideological interest in constraining spending. (Get the government’s hands off my Medicare!) Liberals raise a social justice objection. They are uncomfortable with a policy that disfavors a vulnerable group, which I will concede is a valid issue in this discussion. Instead, Occupy Wall Street-types focus on bankers and venture capitalists, the one percent, not the thirteen percent—the fraction of the population that is sixty-five or older, and, as an age demographic, the most wealthy.

It is important to point out that seniors are especially hard to generalize. To characterize them as homophobic, government dependents is patently unfair. And I don’t mean to do so. The gap between the haves and have nots among retirees is stark, and a safety net is essential. Social Security, as it was originally conceived, was an indispensable program to raise the elderly out of rampant destitution, and, in that way, is wildly successful. Today, only ten percent of seniors live below the poverty line. While the elderly in the aggregate are well-off compared to the general population, the wealth they accumulated was hard-earned, and they paid into the entitlement programs that support them now.

However, my generation faces the softest job market in recent history, tuition costs which have risen higher than inflation for the last twenty years with corresponding student debt, and the likelihood that we will never be homeowners. Many of us understandably resent political lobbying to raise our burden to support an aging population.

I am certain my political positions on gay marriage and entitlements are defensible, independent of whatever prejudice I might have. That aside, my attitude toward seniors needs some deep and personal examination. When meeting someone over the age of sixty-five, despite ten character-building years as an out, gay man, I tip-toe back into the closet. My pronouns get vaguer. “He” becomes “person.” My boyfriend becomes my “friend.” My neighborhood becomes “Lakeview” and not “Boystown.” In this, I am contributing to the problem.

One of the largest correlates of support for gay rights is a personal relationship with a gay person. Unfortunately the elderly are not as likely to know that there are gay people in their lives. My grandmother is an illustration of this. Among those older than sixty-five, I hold her in especially high-esteem. She was born in 1919 and lived through the Great Depression. While she grew up the daughter of immigrant homesteaders in Montana, she has a college education, and worked as a single, independent woman in Seattle until she met and married my grandfather at the old-maid age of twenty-nine. She then raised six children as a working mother. My grandfather was the president of his local labor union, and both he and my grandmother voted democrat their entire lives. By most measures, my grandmother is a progressive, cosmopolitan person, yet I have not told her I’m gay, and she may never know.

Where does this anxiety come from? I doubt my straight sister’s palms sweat when an older person asks her a personal question. Mine do. I don’t fear aging. We are missing a generation—the one we lost to AIDS, but no longer are we flying blind. My generation will see and has seen the gays ahead of us age. Older gays are moving to Santa Fe and Florida just like other retirees. I never knew a young Elton John. To me, Ellen DeGeneres has always been out (and the narrator of an exhibit at Epcot). A survey of my ex-boyfriends will quickly lead to the conclusion that I am not “youth-obsessed,” a popular but inapt explanation for the gay generational divide.

Maybe my anxiety around senior citizens is really a projection of my own anachronisms. Ten years ago this month, I stepped out of the closet for the first time. I feel like a veteran, and my generational alliances are murky. My generation has rejected the Vietnam era, the divisive political ethos of the baby-boomers. We value consensus, social networking, and collaboration. My generation will be the first to see an exodus from the gay ghettos, the increasing prevalence of gay couples raising children, and marriage as the dominant aspiration. In short, we are integrationists.

To paraphrase Cher Horowitz in the 1995 movie Clueless: I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all, but I don’t understand gays these days. I cringed when the Baby Gap opened on my corner. I don’t see myself getting married—ever. I don’t watch GLEE. Despite my relative youth, I came out before sodomy was legal in all fifty states and before any state had legalized gay marriage. I grew up thinking the local gay bar sold paint because of the rainbow sign that hung above the doorway.

At thirteen, the realization that I liked boys set in, and I abandoned my plan to attend the Naval Academy. I was the only out gay person in my high school class, but today there is a thriving gay-straight alliance. I forged my identity before I could conceive of being both gay and mainstream. My entree into the gay world was remote and lonely. I was alone when I snuck into the living room to watch the Sundance Channel in June when it shows gay films in the early hours of the morning. I was alone when I read a tattered copy of The Joy of Gay Sex I had surreptitiously purchased with cash at a used bookstore (and later replaced and hid after my mother found it). I was alone when I first wandered into a gay bar—another old guard institution on its way out. I was so nervous that I had to leave after five minutes before I vomited.

Even today, I live my life as a separatist. Despite our progress in the last decade, I continue to see the United States as an archipelago rather than as a continuous mass. My country is Dupont Circle, The Castro, and Hell’s Kitchen, not Washington, San Francisco, and New York. Chicago has one of the few remaining urban gay neighborhoods with discrete borders. In Boystown, my gym is gay. My bookstore is gay. My coffee house is gay. The street is demarcated by a series of rainbow pillars in case a confused tourist or drunk frat boy wanders in out of Wrigleyville. “Oops, I’ve clearly gone too far.”

In this bubble, I have co-opted the baby-boomer divisions. I see our senior citizens as distinct from their senior citizens. Their senior citizens don’t understand their privileged place in society, how lucky they are to be politically enfranchised, and how lucky they are to have had the opportunity to grow old and to have lived their lives openly with society’s embrace.

My view of the world is no longer tenable. It’s time to come out to Grandma before I’m a gay version of Walter Mathau in Grumpy Old Men. The world changed faster than I did. My 1970s nostalgia is as obsolete as it is implausible for someone born in 1986. I would much rather live in a world where being gay is mainstream, where kids are safe at school, and where I can roll my eyes at yet another Crate and Barrel bridal registry. What I had resented about (straight) senior citizens is that they are both politically enfranchised and had the good fortune to grow old with the esteem of society and recognition for the wisdom they have accumulated. Ten years ago I didn’t see those things as the future of my community. That is no longer the case.

A number of our elder statesmen mourn their generation’s worldview. Larry Kramer says my generation doesn’t understand how hard it was in the early years of AIDS. He’s right. We don’t. We weren’t there. But I think he’d be encouraged to learn how many fresh-faced nineteen year olds were telling middle-aged straight tourists in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square this summer to forget seeing The Book of Mormon that the revival of The Normal Heart was the best thing on Broadway. (I couldn’t get tickets because it was sold out.) Today, Rent is a common high school production and Angels in America is required reading.

Andrew Sullivan says gay culture is over, that assimilation is our destiny. He, too, is right, but in the same sense that he was right when he declared the end of the plague in 1996, undoubtedly to the chagrin of the old guard. It isn’t that AIDS or gay culture are over. But they are different. The future is not the end of history. As Chancellor Gorkon said to Captain Kirk in Star Trek VI, “If there is to be a brave new world, our generation will have the hardest time living in it.”

Here’s to the undiscovered country.

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4 responses to “Don’t Care About the Old Folks: Gays and the Elderly

  1. Your writing will always amaze me. It is not the words themselves but your ability to be so candid and honest about issues most people still, unfortunately, choose to avoid. Once again you have written a beautiful and poised essay that shows your insight and incredible intellect. I am proud of you, proud to know you, and so deeply respectful for all the ways I know you are and will change this world.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Melissa.

    When it comes to the generational shift in understanding (despite the gap mentioned), my generation has become one not merely of tolerance but largely of acceptance. This is true, at least for me, almost exclusively because of people like you. Intelligent, honest, open, admirable individuals that are willing to express and explain their worldview to someone who has not seen, understood, or felt the same experiences. A ‘scalpel of candor’ if you will.

    Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Senior gay | Myvinylexpress·

  4. Pingback: Tuesday Teasers: Stuff I’ve Been Reading [#7] - The Pursuit of Harpyness·

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