Friday, March 6, 2009
On gaze, acceptance, history and connection
Black Gay Men and Aging
by Charles Stephens
Read more from Charles here on LifeLube.
Usually it’s at a conference or a workshop or a meeting. I will come across another black gay man 55, 60, 65 or so. Most of the attendees will greet him politely but cautiously. Watch him from afar, without trying to look at him, not wanting to stare. Avoiding gaze. The gaze symbolizes desire and we are careful how that message is sent, economical. Curious but guarded. Awkward. As gay men, far too often our social interactions are mediated by desire or shade.
If the facilitator knows him, or is familiar with him, he will give him attention, reference his age. The audience will respond. Maybe through applause, or through nodding their head, or the “mmm hmm,” affirming that the brother is still here with us. But then do any of us really wanted to be affirmed? Wouldn’t we rather be accepted? Fit-in? Be in the in-crowd? Among the beautiful?
He might speak-up. Even outspoken. I find that often, when a black gay man of a certain age, especially an elder, crosses my path, he is hungry to share his story, to share his experiences. Even entitled, especially in groups. But then, why wouldn’t he be? Any survivor — and if a black gay man is 50 or more he is a survivor in more ways than one baby — would feel compelled to share his story. However, we have failed to erect the appropriate monuments. We have failed to carve out those spaces for that sharing, at least outside of pathology, support groups, and clinical settings. Our stories have to exist outside of mental health settings.
It’s unfortunate how we banish our elders to the forests. Send them away. That is our challenge, to figure out how to honor them, retrieve them, and give them space to share themselves.
Sometimes, in a group setting it can be awkward. Sometimes, the brother of a certain age, can take up lots of space. Too much space. There is an eagerness to be acknowledged, to be recognized, an urgency. An eagerness to be heard. In conference settings, unlike club settings, we are forced to listen to each other. Listen to him. And if he goes on and on, we might look at our watch, or stare at our phone, or look outside, or cough, flip through conference books, or ramble through our bags.
In club settings, and more explicitly sexualized environments, the young, the beautiful, the selfish, have the ability to ignore. It’s even encouraged. Rewarded. What’s more desirable than a beautiful asshole? Or online, especially online, we can filter out who we want to talk to, filter out the undesirable. In conference settings, we are polite, we know we have to be polite, so we listen, we acknowledge, at least most of us try to. Or fake it.
He will sometimes talk about Stonewall. Often Stonewall. “Outside of New York, it wasn’t a big deal,” he might say. Or those 80s, “I went to funerals every week for years. I got so tired of wearing that damn suite.” They were in New York and DC and Philadelphia and knew Marlon and Joseph and Essex. Remember Charles Angel, the founding of GMAD, Other Countries, and so forth. I try to see myself in him, I try to imagine myself as I grow older.
I try not to be vain about aging. I barely made it out of my quarter-life crisis in one piece and now I occupy that bizarre space between young adulthood and middle-age. Of my quarter-life crisis, it was less about fading beauty and more an anxiety around not feeling like l have accomplished enough, achieved enough, done enough.
Maybe it’s because I never valued youth, that I refuse to be vain about aging. Not really. I would never be 20 again. I swear to God. And I have always been more sexually attracted to older men. Always. As a youth, an identity that was always ill-fitting, I never much cared about advocating for youth or youth issues, even as I was frequently tokenized as “youth,” or “queer youth,” the spokesperson for this youth or that youth. Don’t get me wrong, I chose to be that, to do that, who wouldn’t like being invited to things, to feel special, but it always awkward since I never saw myself as youth or young.
Now that I’m no longer considered youth, and I creep up on 30, I want to look forward to the time when I will be some old man sitting in a conference, and people having to listen to me. Or I could start doing DILF-oriented porn. I also look forward to a culture where aging isn’t seen as a burden.
Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer and activist. Check out his blog.
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