Michael Shernoff: Why Be Afraid of Growing Older as a Queer?

In both the stage and movie versions of Lerner and Lowe’s Gigi, one of the male leads sings a song entitled “I’m glad that I’m not young anymore” in which he gives all the reasons he is thrilled not to be a young man. The song is a bit tongue in cheek, but is nevertheless an ode to the joys of being older.

Ok, so I admit that I’m a Broadway musical queen; I believe that there’s a lyric or line from American musical theater to fit any occasion. I know that this admission already places me in a specific generation of gay men; yes I am almost 50. Several friends and I (only half teasingly) refer to ourselves as “the new face of middle age.” But, we also pride ourselves on being part of a generation of men who, as we grow older, are comfortable with our age and see ourselves as role models for the younger gay men now in early adulthood.

“The Greeks used to say that there is not a short life or a long life. There’s only the life you have. And the life you have is the life you have been given, the life you work with. It has its own shape, defines its own arc and it is perfect.”
Henry Geldzahler, former NYC commissioner of cultural affairs

Very little has been written in either the professional mental health literature or in the popular gay press about how to age gracefully.

“Amidst the demographic bulge of baby-boomers, many gay men and lesbians are entering or traversing middle age,” notes Dr. Robert Kertzner, a Manhattan psychiatrist and one of the few professionals who has researched and written about the topic. “Yet, particularly in the case of gay men, there is little community awareness of how individuals successfully negotiate midlife transitions.”

This shortcoming, in Kertzner’s view, is tied in part to the history of the past two decades: “AIDS has resulted in the inestimable loss of voices that would have described many stories of successful life transitions. An untold number of present and potential lovers, friends, mentors, and protegees have died, thereby diminishing all gay men’s experience of bonds that bring together members of different generations and remind us of the continuity of life experience. In addition, some currently middle-aged gay men have survived the deaths of virtually all their contemporaries and feel that no one is left alive to serve as a reference point for growing older.”

Men like myself are not bitter about being older, and do not resent younger men, their bodies or the ways they choose to have fun. When you stop to think about how many gay men who would have now been in their 40s or 50s if not for the plague, aging should be a source of pride and triumph for all of us. I am writing this as a very contented middle aged queen, whose life is blessed with a very interesting history, rich friendships, a satisfying career, enough money and an abundance of stimulating and satisfying things to do socially. Not that life is perfect for any of us. While some of my generation has been coupled for one or two decades, there are others who are widowers or just plain single.

Not everyone is financially comfortably or in good health. Yet there are enough robust middle aged gay men for gay culture to begin to address the special issues that aging gay men have. In the Broadway show Mame where Vera Charles asks Mame: “How old do you think I am?”

“Somewhere between forty and death!” Mame responds, a comment which leads to a pregnant silence in which Vera shoots daggers at Mame.

Kertzner described that many gay men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s whom he interviewed for research studies and in his psychotherapy practice describe a sense of invisibility about getting older, citing an absence of role models and an absence of milestones to help define life changes associated with aging. One of his patients said he could only foresee the land mines, not the landmarks of getting older. Another said that his perception of gay men’s aging is that gay men went from adolescence to obsolescence with nothing in-between.

Kertzner believes that these are misperceptions and that they exist for several reasons. First, the relatively novel concepts of gay identity and community in their current forms for only 30 years or so, better address the tasks of coming out and creating a new life than the incremental, but universal experience of growing older. It is no secret that commercial gay culture is overwhelmingly youth oriented. For years critics have noted how almost all the images of gay men portrayed are young, hyper masculinized, buffed, hairless and almost exclusively white men with impeccable bodies. It would be refreshing and also help to reduce young men’s fears of aging if marketing aimed at gay consumers began to incorporate pictures of men of all ages, and if magazines featured at least some clothing and styles appealing to older men.

Despite the tragedies of burying my beloved partner too many friends, each year has gotten better as has each decade. How do I account for this?

First I have the good luck, despite being HIV positive, to have almost flawless health. My physician tells me that I am in better physical condition than at any time for the past fifteen years that she has been my doctor. Part of this is that I take exquisite care of myself by paying careful attention to what I eat, not doing any nonprescribed drugs, exercising regularly, and getting enough rest. Sure I do not have the same muscle tone I had twenty years ago, but actually I am in better shape despite being in my late 40s.

I used to be part of the disco, drugs, and sex circuit that predated the current scene, and I loved it. But somewhere in my mid 30s, I began to lose interest in that recreation. I am not trashing bars, clubs, dancing or a moderate use of recreational chemicals, but once I ceased to enjoy that world I moved on with no regrets. Part of aging gracefully for me has been not trying to do everything I did ten, twenty or more years earlier.

Doing AIDS prevention work many younger gay men have confided in me that part of the reason they did not engage in safer sex is that they did not want to live long enough to become an old queen. Having several friends in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who are vibrant, interesting, fun men with fascinating histories they generously share, I was shocked by this rationale. My older friends possess a wisdom, serenity and breadth of life experience that are invaluable resources that I have counted upon for support when facing difficulties in my own life.

Numerous gay men — of various ages– complained to me about the lack of inter-generational contact among gay men for mentorship, role modeling, friendship, guidance and the cross pollination that happens when people of different ages and generations come into regular contact. Growing older as gay men need not be something to be feared.

I believe that my personal perspective can be extrapolated to many other people as well. My friend Rand who is 75, chides me when I describe myself as middle aged.

“To me you seem to be quite young still,” he tells me, adding that though he knows he is old, he does not feel or think of himself as old. “Old is fifteen years older than I am,” he tells me chuckling.

There is no reason why gay culture should not parallel the world of food and wine where there are marvelous young cheeses and wines that are best consumed before they age like Beaujolais Nouveau which is anxiously anticipated each autumn. Yet many cheeses are not even sold until they are properly aged, and some of the world’s finest wines, cognacs and liquors are those that have been allowed to age to perfection. Many of the elder members of our queer tribe lead happier and richer lives precisely because they are not any longer in their youth.

Approaching Middle Age With Grace and Dignity

There is no magic about the process of growing older. Luck can play a factor, but many issue require planning. And there’s promising indications that many gay men are achieving success in their transitions. In a recent study Dr. Kertzner conducted with gay men between the ages of 40 and 51, more than one said that the current years of their lives were their best ones. Most of the men in the study described greater self-acceptance and self-knowledge, and more comfort disclosing their sexual orientation. Many described life satisfaction that derived from a sense of increasing proficiency in what they considered the important tasks of life, whether vocational or creative, or being a good friend, lover, or family member.

Getting a Life

Each stage of life has it’s own priorities. It is completely appropriate that many young gay men while starting a career, also place priority on what I call the five “Ds”: Dick, Disco, Drugs, Dishing and Dining. Yet as Dr. Robert Remien, a Manhattan psychologist notes: “In order to age with dignity and grace it is essential for each man to develop personal interests, nurture relationships, and engage in meaningful work, thus doing things besides focusing on the physical (looks, attractiveness, etc.) and sexuality.”

Accepting the Changes

Dr. Marshal Forstein, a psychiatrist in Boston, argues that aging comfortably is linked to making peace and with the loss of youth and with the ability to fantasize about prospects in the future with different types of reward than just physicality. He suggests that:

“Aging is about finding new ways to understand yourself and others, and grieving what is lost in order to be able to anticipate with joy and wonder what may yet come. By feeling connected to both the past and the future in a balanced way we maintain some integrity in the face of our mortality.” Kertzner agrees with the points made by Forstein and adds: “It may be that gay men who successfully move into middle age are those who continue to create their own definitions of what is important and are correspondingly engaged in life, let go of what did and didn’t happen during young adulthood, and feel that their disparate life experiences make sense as part of a story that takes on increasing meaning and coherence during middle age.”

The men I know who are aging with the least amount of anxiety are men who do not try to do the exact same things they did when they were younger. Even if you have a great, muscular body in your 40s or 50s, you might want to think twice about trying to compete with the young gym bunnies by wearing tight and revealing clothes. Even if you look great in them, the overall effect might make you appear foolish.

Fitness and Vitality

Contemporary gay culture is, of course, focused on the cult of the body, yet maintaining physical flexibility and muscle tone (and mental agility) is critical part of aging with grace. Regular exercising, accompanied by appropriate stretching, maintains cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone, and strength, prevents stiffness, and are crucial to slowing down and even preventing the worst ravishes of aging.

Planning

It is much easier to be an aging or old queen who is financially comfortable than one who is not. It is never too early to begin to invest and plan for your later years. Yes, this takes discipline, but it is a way of building a secure, even affluent future. But it is the rare young adult who is financially well off, living comfortably, and saving for their future simultaneously.

Leaving A Legacy

Each of us hope that our lives will have made an impact and that we will be remembered after we are gone. For most heterosexuals that means children. As more gay men choose to become fathers, this is one way to meet the needs most people have for what therapists call “generativity.”

“For me becoming a father and feeling invested in the future of the world for my children has been an important aspect of feeling part of the universe in a more historical and cosmic way,” says Forstein.

For many of us, queer and AIDS activism will be part of the legacy we leave. “Generativity can take any form that makes us feel that we have made a difference, or tried to, in making the world better than we found it,” Forstein argues. And I think that once you really get the fact that you can’t take all your toys with you, there is some sense of moving towards a more spiritual than physical plain of existence.”

All of these issues obviously apply to people of all types, but rarely have they been directed specifically to gay men. As Kertzner notes: “Not only are individual lesbians and gay men moving through different stages of life, but our understanding of gay life itself is maturing as we recognize that midlife is not an afterthought to gay life; it is a dynamic time of transition during which many individuals go from coming out to coming into the fullest measure of life yet experienced.”

Kertzner’s perspective is echoed by Dr. Alex Carballo-Dieguez, another Manhattan psychologist. He suggests that, “Our old age goal should be to be able to say, quoting the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, ‘Confieso que he vivido’ (I confess that I have lived).”

About the Author

Michael Shernoff, was an openly gay psychotherapist in private practice, serving the community since 1975. He was the author and co-author of seven books, most recently “Without Condoms: Unprotected Sex, Gay Men and Barebacking” published in 2005 by Routledge. Michael passed way in 2008. Read Michael Shernoff’s obituary at the NY Times website.

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