Despite its deeply unfortunate stock illustration, there’s an op-ed in The Advocate today that’s well worth your time. In his piece, screenwriter Jon Bernstein eloquently addresses a phobia endemic to American culture but suffered with particular intensity within the stereotypically image-conscious gay male community: the fear of growing old.
Looking to gay literary history for a way into a prickly subject, Bernstein uses Oscar Wilde’s accounting of the terrible costs that come with the quest for youth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as a cautionary tale. But what makes this piece unique is that instead of adding to the well-worn genre “gay narcissism rebuke,” Bernstein offers a compelling explanation for the issue itself:
For gay men, I believe the problem is that we don’t know how to grow old. We lost a generation of teachers and role models to the AIDS crisis, a tragedy that continues to haunt and remind us of our own mortality. Moreover, many of us feel like we lose a connection to our community of support when younger generations ignore us or brush us aside.
There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. Though some artists and filmmakers are finally beginning to grapple with the “community memory” that AIDS has stolen from younger generations of gay people, the contours of that void will take decades to map completely. And the pain of the loss is doubled when you recall that “gay culture” is not something that can be passed down biologically or through other traditional means. Instead, we depend on self-made, ad-hoc “families” of friends and community members to teach us, as David Halperin so perfectly puts it, “how to be gay.”
But as Bernstein points out, even those who made it through the AIDS crisis are now finding their place in the ever-growing gay community—more of us are born every day, after all—uncertain. Because of a few bad apples and a great deal of youthful short-sightedness, many younger gay guys perceive the older generation as nothing but a bunch of letchy old men who, absent their youthful looks, should just retire from public gay life altogether. This situation is bad for everyone: dangerous for older men who, as Bernstein describes, become socially isolated and depressed, and dangerous for younger ones who, because of a kind of historical isolation, miss out on the wisdom that their elders might provide.
For myself, I can say that some of my most valued friendships are with the older gay men in my life. They connect me to a hard-won (and fragile!) cultural lineage that I can be proud of and help ground my actions in the knowledge that, as a gay writer and, really, a person, I have a lot to live up to. I share Bernstein’s hope that more older gays will be willing to make themselves “teachers and role models to younger gay men, who must come to realize that they too are growing older.” And with that realization, I hope that more of us will be willing to learn.