Can We Listen to Our LGBTQ Elders Without Patronizing Them?

Older gays have more to offer than just old stories. 

Andrey Malgin / Shutterstock.com

I’m a big fan of cross-generational gay friendships. Some of my closest gay friends are decades older than me, and I’ve benefited both as a young gay man and as a human being from spending time in their company. We talk about the mundane things all friends talk about—movies, books, lovers, the wine, etc. But over time, they’ve managed incidentally to teach me about my community’s history, about the thrill of gay liberation and the horror of the (early) epidemic years that I was born too late to witness firsthand, about amazing old basement bars and ancestors lost too soon. These relationships prove to me regularly that the idea of a shared sensibility among our chosen “gay family” is a real, profound thing—despite the gulf between us in terms of years and experience, there’s something deeper that connects us, something that confirms my belief that gayness can be more than mere sexual orientation.

Of course, these kinds of relationships are relatively rare among gay people for a variety of reasons: the base ageism of youth-worship; shell-shock over the AIDS crisis; anxiety over whether gay age-gap interactions can ever be truly platonic. This is a shameful state of affairs, so when I see anything encouraging interaction between the gay generations—especially efforts focused on getting young gays and “post-gays” to listen to their elders—I am usually effusive in my support. Such was my initial reaction to the viral video of the moment, “Senior Gays Give Advice.” But after sitting with the clip for a while, my enthusiasm has waned.

The clip—a production of YouTube personality Davey Wavey in collaboration with the LGBT Community Center of the Desert—features Wavey interviewing a handful of queer folks over the age of 60 about their lives, essentially inquiring how now is different from back then. Some of the interviewees’ statements are genuinely funny and moving by turns: “I’m gay … very gay,” one man admits when asked how he identifies. And later, a lesbian offers a powerful reflection on gay identity that’s at odds with the assimilationist, it’s-just-a-small-part-of-me ethos of the day: “Our queerness—that thing that sets us apart, that can cause us to feel unwanted, unloved, rejected, and alone in the world—is a gift.”

These and a few other moments are nice, but the general framing of these surely lovely people is unfortunate. Annoyingly, the film presents the “bad old times” segment in a somber grayscale; color (accompanied by cloyingly sappy music) only arrives when the subjects begin to discuss the glorious present, triumphant as it is with gay marriage and a relative decrease in overt homophobia. To be fair, the interviewees are clearly and understandably moved by the rapid success of the gay rights movement; many of them break down in tears while reflecting on the changes they’ve witnessed over the years. But the editing of the video makes it seem as if being gay before, say, 2000 meant a life defined only by fear and pain and police raids—hardly the case—and it encourages an orientation of pity to these men and women rather than one of curiosity and respect. Young gays watching Wavey’s video can sit safe in the knowledge that we have reached the technicolor telos of gay progress, the dreary struggles of our elders merely the province of TV Land reruns.

I realize I’m being a bit hard on a well-intentioned YouTube video, but I think it’s worth pointing out how these kinds of presentations can reinforce a troubling and all-to-common age dynamic: Older gays are only good for harrowing stories about the horrible past, stories that really only serve to make the younger generation feel self-satisfied and complacent about the present. The truth is, the past wasn’t all bad (based on what my friends tell me, far from it) and the present is hardly perfect. We need to listen to our gay elders, but we shouldn’t just treat them as passive recollectors of history or adorable relics from a pre-Grindr age. They are our gay peers, our cultural family—and you don’t condescend to family.