When I first came out as a gay man, a maxim I often heard was that growing old in the gay community meant you would be lonely, depressed, bitter and alcoholic and that it was better to die young. (Unfortunately, many of my generation did die young, of an epidemic we had not yet realized was amongst us.) For those of us who have been fortunate enough to survive, far too many have allowed this maxim to become self-fulfilling. Age is often considered a liability, and older gay men, especially, struggle with positive self-esteem: “OMG, I’m almost 40 – no one will want me.”
The dynamic of age pervades personal and social interactions, though it is seldom openly discussed. For better or worse, age informs many of our decisions about personal and social affiliation.
Generally speaking, age plays out differently in various segments of our community. Gay male culture tends to revere youth, so gay men often view each birthday as a sign of their waning desirability. Among lesbians, age may be revered and found to be an attractive quality. This column will focus primarily on the gay male experience; other segments of our community and different perspectives may be addressed in future columns.
I remember my frustration as a young gay man when my interest in getting to know someone was misconstrued and sexualized. I found myself struggling to decide whether continuing to engage this person would be misleading. I didn’t want to end up rejecting someone I may have enjoyed coming to know. As an older gay man, I know that my friendliness is often misconstrued as an unwanted sexual advance, and I am now experiencing the other side of this same dynamic. Older people are often dismissed as less relevant.
Age often informs our choice of who we allow to become part of our tribes. I do not believe that it is necessarily ageist to want to hang out with people our own age. Neither is it ageist to not feel attracted to someone because of their age, whatever that may be, just as not feeling attracted to Asians or blacks is necessarily racist. But using an age filter, be it young or old, to restrict our interactions also restricts the depth and richness of our lives.
Interestingly, in our community we do see age differences in many of our couples, sometimes by a decade or two and even more. Some have suggested that younger men may be attracted to older men in part because they may serve as a role model and a stabilizing influence. The older partner may benefit from a vibrant and active partner and new perspectives. We tend to pathologize such relationships and to assign self-serving intent, but who is to say that relationships between individuals of different ages cannot be healthy?
Erik Erikson, an early developmental psychologist, developed a model of sequential psychosocial stages with distinct age-related challenges that either stimulate healthy growth, autonomy and fulfillment or arrested development and despair. The last four of his eight stages describe development from adolescence through the rest of life and are relevant to our discussion.
According to Erikson, in adolescence – typically considered to be between ages 12 and 18 – we are faced with the basic conflict of “identity vs. role confusion.”
Much of this plays out on the stage of our social relationships with peers, such as in school. (Consider the added burden of growing up in families and communities where it may not feel safe to be our authentic selves.)
During this stage, we develop a strong sense of self-identity or we emerge with a weaker and confused identity.
In young adulthood, between ages 19 and 40, we face the basic challenge of “intimacy vs. isolation.” This is the age of relationship-building and the exploration of intimacy, and it can lead to loving, fulfilling and satisfying relationship connections or loneliness and isolation.
In middle age, between 40 and 65, we are challenged with the dichotomy of “generativity vs. stagnation.” The developmental task in this part of life has to do with caring through work, other constructive productivity, and social or cultural contributions or parenthood. This task has to do with creating or nurturing that which may outlive us. It is interesting that so many gay individuals choose careers in teaching, health care, theater, the arts, and fashion. This has to do with our legacy to the world. Success leads to a sense of achievement and accomplishment and a stronger identity, and failure leads to avoidance or a shallower involvement in the world and a more vulnerable sense of self.
In maturity, typically age 65 on, the developmental task is about “integrity vs. despair.” This is a time of reflection and integration; older people need to tell their stories to come to terms with the significance and meaning of their lives. Those who have successfully navigated the developmental challenges tend to achieve wisdom, fulfillment, and a graceful adjustment, and those who have been less fortunate may struggle with regret, bitterness, and despair.
No paradigm or model is absolute, and in real life, of course, these stages overlap and are much more complicated. Each life stage, each decade and generation has its own levels of maturity and challenges, and these influence and inform our interactions with different ages, be it a primary intimate connection, a friendship, or acquaintance.
But just as perceived beauty often becomes a filter to our willingness to interact, so does age. Often, young people dismiss older members of our community as less relevant or has-beens, feeling that their time has passed and that they should stay home and allow the younger people their time. When we limit diversity by omitting those who are older, we also miss out on the richness of insight and wisdom that may be available from those with more experience. When older members of our community avoid younger people and youthful activities, their world constricts and they become less relevant and more prone to isolation and despair.
Older members of our community are challenged with finding ways to continue to remain active, connected, and relevant. In other cultures, such as France, there are pubs/bars specifically for older gay people. Older members of our community must allow youth to have their spaces and explore their own relationship connections. Younger gays can benefit a great deal from being receptive to the influence of elders. Age diversity and inclusivity offer benefits and balance for all ages.
• E.H. Erikson’s book Identity and the Life Cycle
• Input from conversations with numerous individuals, including Rodney Harrington, David Codrington, Travis Fischer, Rick Hoover, Cory Maxwell, Brad Shook, and Jeff Holt.
Jason Carrigan, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist practicing at Diversity Counseling. He is active in the leadership of the Greater Kansas City LGBT-Affirming Therapists Guild (www.lgbtguild.com).