2015 Was the Year of the Queer Senior

Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen in Grace & Frankie, Jeffrey Tambor as Maura in Transparent.
Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen in Grace and Frankie, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, Netflix, Amazon.

In the opening scene of Grandma, a woman dismisses the girlfriend she’s breaking up with by telling her, “You’re a footnote.” It’s a particularly effective putdown because both women are writers and thus exquisitely sensitive to the hierarchy of literary references, but also because septuagenarian Elle, who wields the barb, is at least 30 years older than Olivia, the woman she’s sending on her way. Elle, played with steely assurance by Lily Tomlin, could fill an entire bookshelf with the adventures she had before meeting Olivia, whose comparatively paltry life experience is the equivalent of a slim volume of haikus. Although Elle eventually heals from the loss of her long-term partner enough to reconnect with her blood family, the movie challenges one of Hollywood’s foundational beliefs: that young people are always more interesting subjects than older ones.

Grandma isn’t the only recent film or TV show about LGBTQ characters no longer in the first bloom of youth. Amazon’s Transparent focuses on the ways family members respond to a parent coming out as trans in her 70s. In Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, two septuagenarian law partners come out as life partners, spurring adjustments in the lives of their children and wives of many decades. Vicious, which airs on PBS in the United States, is a gloriously camp celebration of two gay men in their 70s who have been lovers for 50 years. And a trans 66-year-old was at the center of the year’s most talked-about reality show: the E! Network’s I Am Cait. The trend even spread to the book world, where one of the fall’s most lauded nonfiction releases was The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by 75-year-old Lillian Faderman. In the arts at least, 2015 was the year of the queer senior.

Why is the culture suddenly so interested in our elders?

One explanation for the current boom is that if you marginalize people long enough, they will eventually seem mysterious. It isn’t queer people’s fault that mainstream producers have ignored their stories, but the result is that our lives now seem novel. Lily Tomlin’s character in Grandma represents one of the thousands of women who came out as lesbian in the second wave of feminism, many of whom—like Elle—raised their children in ways that seemed revolutionary at the time. That first cohort of visible lesbian mothers are finally getting their moment in the fictional spotlight as they interact with their children’s children. (If the Weinstein Co. had followed its original plan and released About Ray in the fall, we would also have seen 69-year-old Susan Sarandon play a lesbian grandmother in that film.)

While it’s great that straight Americans are finally noticing their queer neighbors, I sometimes wish the filmmakers, writers, and journalists who tout their new discoveries would explain what took them so long. When Carol, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, was released in November, heterosexual critics at elite magazines rhapsodized Highsmith and bemoaned the invisibility of lesbian culture—as if those magazines had played no part in perpetuating that invisibility. Similarly, when critics claimed that Vicious was a tired retread, I longed to know which other shows—created, written, produced, and acted by out gay men, as Vicious was—have told the stories of couples who came of age when homosexuality was illegal, because I haven’t seen them.

Of course, some works of art are only appealing to mainstream audiences because of the still-pervasive ignorance about queer life. It’s hard to imagine a movie like The Danish Girl being made if people were familiar with the most rudimentary outlines of trans history. Although the acting is fine and the setting is pretty, the content is at the level of an elementary school primer. And Freeheld—about a dying cop’s fight to force local legislators to assign her pension to her lesbian partner—wouldn’t have become a feature film if there was more awareness of the real events it was based on or of the Oscar-winning short documentary that told the exact same story, almost beat for beat.

Audiences are also keen to see old dogs learn new tricks. Transparent, Grace and Frankie, and to a certain extent I Am Cait draw poignancy and humor from showing people of advanced years learning something new—for Transparent’s Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and Caitlyn Jenner, how to live in the world as a woman, and for Grace and Frankie’s Robert and Sol (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston), how to be openly gay after decades as a closeted couple. Navigating gay life for the first time as a seventysomething, and learning to live with a new partner after 40 years with someone else, are challenges with a high degree of difficulty.

The public’s new interest partly stems from the fact that old gays, like other gays, are more visible these days. I suspect that press photos of gorgeous and feisty 84-year-old Edie Windsor celebrating her 2013 victory at the Supreme Court, or the adorable shots of couples who’ve grown old together tying the knot when marriage equality became the law of the land have changed Middle America’s default response to the thought of “old gay couples” from “yuck” to “aw!” Of course, increased visibility for fictional characters and certain celebrities does not necessarily mean all queer elders are benefiting: A recent study identified an entirely new diagnostic category—“internalized gay ageism”—to account for the feelings of isolation and invisibility many older gay men report, even within their own gay communities.

It’s no coincidence that the senior-centric works of art I listed in the second paragraph come from sources where market forces don’t entirely apply: upstart streaming services, public broadcasting, indie-ish movie production companies, and the magical world of the Kardashian-adjacent. It’s still hard to imagine big movie studios or commercial TV networks—which, let’s never forget, make shows so they can attract as many eyeballs as possible, preferably young ones, to commercials for soap and condensed soup—firing all those young things with banging bods. The current fixation on LGBTQ elders probably won’t last, but even a temporary burst of attention is most welcome. Who knows, at some point in the not too distant future, mainstream cultural gatekeepers might even realize that old queers come in colors other than white.