Versions of this talk were delivered at the National Conference of Black and White Men Together / Men of All Colors Together in Philadelphia, PA on July 29, 2009 and at the plenary session at the LGBTI Health Summit in Chicago, IL on August 16, 2009
In order to learn from our elders or from our wise youth, we need to connect intergenerationally.
By Chris Bartlett
I’m an old-school gay.
I came of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when we were burying people every week. Leadership was needed in numerous places, and we can be grateful that many men and women stepped up to lead. Many people in this room know what I am talking about. At that time, I was lucky to be a part of ACT UP Philadelphia and I had the great blessing to be part of an intergenerational group of men and women who believed strongly in not only fighting for people with AIDS, but also for people of color, and women, and immigrants rights, and a woman’s right to choose abortion, and for poor people everywhere. So I was taught to lead out of that context—with a big picture attitude that did not view LGBT people as something unique- we were just one of the many targets in a great tradition of American oppression.
What did I learn about leadership from ACT UP Philly? I learned that leadership is largely claimed, not given. I learned that effective leaders are powerful listeners- they’re able to understand the needs both of individuals and groups. I learned to listen to my elders- and to have them teach me everything they knew. I learned to celebrate the passion of youth—their incredible diversity of vision—and their ability to think outside the box. And I learned to appreciate the adults in ACT UP—the men and women who paid the bills, made sure the doors were open, welcomed and blessed the youth, and included and celebrated the elders. ACT UP gave me all of that—and twenty years later, I am still friends with many of the men and women I met in those rooms.
From that incredible experience, forged in the fire of the AIDS Crisis, I saw what worked, and I learned consequently about the power of leadership and how to cultivate it. Out of those lessons, and from many since, I know now that the number one challenge we face in LGBT leadership is our inability to successfully pass our history, traditions, ethical culture, and racial and social justice legacy from elders to adults to youth. Intergenerational transmission of culture and history. How many people outside this room know that BWMT conducted bar surveys to document racism in local gay bars? How many people outside of this room know that LGBT people have been at the forefront of health activism for generations, or how many people outside of this room, or even within it, remember all of the movement leaders who have died from disease, or poverty, or old age? How many of us know what Barbara Giddings stood for, or why Essex Hemphill matters? I’m not asking these questions as a trivia game. But I do wonder how our leaders can do their jobs powerfully when they don’t always know the lessons and strategies that were honed by those in generations before them.
In order to learn from our elders or from our wise youth, we need to connect intergenerationally. We queer folks have a challenge connecting intergenerationally. We’re fearful of being tagged as chicken hawks (if we’re older) or gold diggers (if we’re younger). We don’t know where or how to meet men of other generations. Once we do meet, we’re often unsure how to get past sexual energies, attractions, romantic interest. Intergenerational friendships require stretching our comfort zone a bit.
But I’m telling you now- in order for us to succeed in the next fifty years, every man and woman in this room must take the lead in connecting intergenerationally. This is no longer optional. Each of us must be willing to claim our unique role in the movement, and share what we know with others of all ages. We must connect both with those who are older, and those who are younger. It is a two way street.
But first of all, you need to understand where you are yourself.
Youth. Adult. Elder. Or Ancestor.
Once you know what you consider yourself (and it is simply a matter of claiming that category)--- you can go about thinking about how you will connect with the other categories.
Here are some suggestions for leaders;
1. If you are a youth, learn about adulthood from an adult. If you are an adult, learn about elderhood from and elder, and if you are an elder, learn about ancestorship from an ancestor.
2. Secret mentorship- make a list of men and women you can be of service to
3. Create a ritual of adulthood – a gay bar mitzvah
4. Create a ritual of elderhood
5. Creatie opportunities for adults and elders to bless the youth—three times. If you are not blessing the youth, you are cursing them.
6. Create opportunities for youth and adults to honor the elders
7. Document your history—put it on the web where everyone can find it
8. Create opportunities for celebrating the elder role—show younger gay men that they can become elders, not just olders.
Intergenerational connection is not rocket science, but it does require using our imagination to interact in new ways. To create opportunities that might have been invisible in the past. That is the work of visionary leadership at this time. I do want to acknowledge the powerful leadership in this room for doing much of this work already. I know you are doing it, because you have been doing your incredible work for more than three decades.
I want to acknowledge you for your leadership in taking a stand for LGBT liberation—looking at the intersection between LGBT struggles and the other significant civil rights struggles of people of color, women, trans people, etc. This breadth of vision provides opportunities for a diversity of populations in your work.
I want to acknowledge the incredible leadership in this room, because this is one of the places that you are making leadership work—otherwise you wouldn’t still be here. But I suspect that you know there are areas for growth—creating space for youth, solidifying the job descriptions for adults, and more fully accessing the benefits to be provided by elder participation. Perhaps you see new opportunities for intergenerational dialogue, or for mentoring someone younger or older. My one request is that each of you leave today feeling inspired to break down the intergenerational divide in your own life. If you’re already doing this—take the next step. Show someone else how to do it. Create a conversation that courageously explores our fears of each other.
I said earlier that this work is not optional. Why? Because the first generation of LGBT liberation activists is in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. If we “ancestor” them out of the movement—by that I mean close off their possibilities for ongoing participation, we do a disservice to LGBT folks of all generations. Youth and adults will see what is in store for them down the line, and if they are smart, would take their organizing energies elsewhere. If we don’t bless our youth and provide them opportunities for leadership, If we don’t support our adults and connect them to youth and elders, they will likely burnout and move on.
But if each of you in this room takes on the task of intergenerational connection and transmission of history and traditions, we can expect that both youth and adults will jump into the work and fun of LGBTI Health, secure in the knowledge that there is a lifetime of possibility.