Phil Reese

Gayneration Gap: Where have all of the gay big brothers gone?

Filed By Phil Reese | August 11, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Living, Media
Tags: generation gaps, HIV positive, mentors

This is the 10th anniversary of my first gay summer. I had come out the year prior, during the early winter of 1997/1998 (take that, Ellen!), but hadn't made any gay friends. The spring of 1999, I began hanging out with our openly gay religion teacher, Mr. Z. Mr. Z. impressed upon me the importance of self-acceptance regardless of how I choose to "be gay." Up to that point I really wasn't sure what I was going to do about the whole thing--I certainly didn't want to be gay or meet other gay people. But after that, I was ready to start seeking gay friends, besides the other closeted gay guy at school.

So that summer, I met my first gay big brother, Christopher, who took me to Ferndale, MI (the gayborhood) and Pronto in Royal Oak (my first gay bar; I still remember hearing Kristine W's "One More Try") he gave me my first gay literature, One in Ten, a guide for gay youth, and I picked up my first Between the Lines, Michigan's LGBT weekly. Not to mention safe-sex literature and talk: this was (what we thought at the time) the tail end of the AIDS plague; they'd lived through it, lost friends to it, and were looking out for me.

From Christopher, I branched out to have more gay big brothers until I went away to college and lost touch. After a few years away at school I had the chance to become the gay big brother. I always had hundreds of condoms to give away at my apartment, and folks knew I was good for a safe-sex lecture. However, our new generation was less concerned with AIDS and more concerned with DOMA and DADT and Matthew Shepard was still fresh in our memory.

Something strange happened the last year of my lengthy stay in my undergrad program. A few friends started calling me to tell me that they'd tested positive. This was a first. Everyone I'd ever met that was positive, was positive before I met them. I'd never known anyone who tested positive after I knew them, and here it was, like an avalanche. A few of the friends were older than me, but had come out after me as well. They were each the oldest among their groups of gay friends, in fact. No one ever acted as gay big brother to them when they were coming out in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

When a younger gay man is approached by a friendly gay man who is noticeably older--5 years or more--they usually act with suspicion. "This guy MUST want my wang." Coming out is different now than it was even 10 years ago. When I came out in my Catholic high school in the late 90s, I was an anomaly. Now, every high school seems to not only have a gaggle of gays, but a GSA to boot.

That means, however, that you don't have to go get friends in the gay ghetto to get acceptance. I had friends of all ages because in order to have the acceptance of gay friends, I needed to approach the community and become a part of it. Now, because young people find so much acceptance, the only reason they need other gay people in their life is for romance, and the internet is replacing gay bars in that regard. Newly out gay people have no reason to interact socially. They got friends.

The societal acceptance is good, but we're losing our generation-to-generation connection. Young gay men sometimes have no idea what came before them (well, anything that wasn't included in Milk). Where gay big brothers were mentors, teaching you where to go, how to pick a guy up, what to do on a date, and to ALWAYS ALWAYS use protection, a whole generation is getting lost in the woods, and we're seeing the nasty effects.

Young gay men react abrasively to older gay men when they're approached, which give older gay men no reason to bother with younger gay men. At the same time, however, young gay men who reach out to older gay men for friendship are often treated with disdain as well. "I've got a whole grown-up life, I don't have time for kiddie stuff." Those of us who've been out and who know what's what are obligated to seriously start worrying about our gay youth every day. We need to make serious efforts to reach out, regardless of the chilly reception we get at first. This is a matter of life and death. We need to be gay big brothers again, or doom another generation to repeat past mistakes.

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As a middle aged gay man, i am not the least bit sexually interested in twenty somethings so let's put that myth to rest. Having said that, gay youth in need is not a twenty three year old ADULT in my opinion. I am interested in the well being of gay teens and how they mature but not hateful twenty somethings whose vicious ignorance makes them think that all of us are going to sit in their delusions with them. Although it may sound like i am stereotyping, it still should be noted that the people between my age and the the gay teens in need are those barhopping brats that think gay history in all its greatness and ugliness is not theirs to possess unless they need it for personal gain. I am the one who can't be fucking bothered with them. They can go lie on their mattress on their rented floors and play with their cell phones. Believe it or not, it is easier for me to let them think THEY are not interested in me. That way i do not have to say what i just did. But since you asked..... there you go. I never ever disrespected older gay men when i was in my teens and twenties the way i see these fortunate self absorbed gay people do to others today. And that includes women too.

Phil, your points are well taken, but you also answer your own question: By mentioning the GSA groups that exist in many high schools, you hint that, in the luckiest of communities, the mentoring process is becoming institutionalized.

The GSA's in high schools, national groups like GLSEN and PFLAG, NYAC, and metro groups such as the one we have here in Indianapolis, Indiana Youth Group, are the orgs that are picking up the slack.

The best of them have a corporate structure so that they can receive government funding and public donations. They can work closely with the more generalized child welfare agencies in a way that individuals might find impossible.

They also are better positioned to address the problem of homeless youth, a situation that can pose the threat of jail time for an individual man if the youngster is under-age.

OTOH, such groups only exist in the largest cities, and that leaves youngsters in smaller towns and rural areas unmentored. Unfortunately, these are exactly the areas where the adults tend to be more closeted, making the one-on-one mentoring you describe more difficult to find. For these kids, the best answer I can offer is the one I used decades ago: when it is college time, choose a campus with a highly visible GLBT presence.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 12, 2009 9:18 AM

And did you ever :)

I live in a relatively small town and own the local music school and teach marching band for the school system. LGBT kids often come out to me first as far as adults go. I few of the parents turn to me when they find out that they have a kid who is LGBT, especially the Bi ones. So I do a lot of mentoring to teens and even some tweens who are LGBT. I would have to say that the ones who I see having the hardest time and most in need of acceptance would be the trans kids or the ones that are just non gender conforming but not really expressing another gender and sitting bit in between extremes.
I was teaching today at the school (band camp) and this is the first years that two of my kids are teaching and it is kind of cool to have my own kids teaching marching band beside me. But as I was walking down the hall I noticed one of the little LGB safe zone stickers on a class room. And it was cool because when my little girl was in the school she helped start the GSA and she was the one that went around and asked teachers to let her put those little stickers on. Now she has gone to college, law school and is teaching middle school and helping to teach marching band in the same place that she learned. And I know that some of the gay kids turn to my gay son for guidance sometimes and my daughter was helping with a trans girl in 8th grade this year. And I am still doing it too.
And it is just kinda cool.

This is an interesting subject to me, and you treat it well. In Fort Lauderdale, I begin to see what happens to gay men when they define themselves as officially "old". They generally have had the experience of having an overture rebuffed because of their age and they, horrified, retreat permanently into a self-imposed retirement. They think the only other option is to hit the gym with desperation, trying to fight off the inevitable droop of age. Men who do so are laughable. No one teaches a middle-aged gay man how to understand his continued attractiveness as it transitions from a finely tuned body into a finely tuned mind (both of which, incidentally, are equally attractive.) So. you're right, we lose a huge number of "big brothers" who are at home, grilling in their backyards with their own age-similar friends. What are we to do about this? I, on the cusp of several worlds, have some ideas.Stay tuned.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 12, 2009 9:22 AM

Oh Fr. Tony, you have summed it up beautifully. Who cares if a pretty body is attached to nothing else.

I'm an older man, and what I consider younger is probably considered an older man by some of the men you are discussing. I also live in Iowa, a rather rural state where kids don't have support groups available.

Some of my own hesitation to deal with very young guys is because of some fear that I would appear to be living out that stereotype of old gay men preying on young boys.

I think some of the personal intergenerational contact has been replaced by the internet, becauses I have certainly chatted up any number of men between the ages of 20-45 who are experiencing sexual orientation conflicts, in Iowa and across the country.

There are certainly lots of young men who struggle with this. In communities of color, immigrant cultures, religiously conservative areas, lower socioeconomic communities, all still struggle with finding someone they can relate to that they can discuss these issues with.

I hold no contempt for those who are out and proud at a very early age, but there are plenty of "young" men who are still struggling quietly in their own private worlds.

Many of the newly-out 20-somethings I know may have been self-sufficient enough to drive themselves places and do their own laundry, but that didn't mean they didn't need help.

All newly out people need mentoring. Check out my examples of the out-at-30-something, and out-at-40-something guys that ended up poz. Its really heartbreaking. Even full-fledged grown-ups need the help of someone who's walked the path already.

I was out and (somewhat) proud at a young age, and I still really needed guidance--which I got. Its not just affirmation. Its advice too. Many guys my age came out, did not seek the guidance of older gay men, and are facing the consequences of a repeated history in many ways.

Let's face it, our parents and teachers--nor even our loving straight friends--can give us good advice on being a good gay. We all need mentors.

Fr. Tony,

Remember in 'Permanent Partners' when Dr. Betty Berzon told us that when we gays couple-up we retreat from view, and noone in "the community" sees us, and this is the worst possible thing we can do, as this prevents us from debunking the subconscious belief that our own relationships are doomed to failure? I think it applies here too. Adult gay men need to provide positive examples to look to for the next generation.

Fr. Tony, I can't WAIT for your take! I'm so excited!

I agree with Rob about transgendering kids likely being the most isolated. In Daytona, a group of us 60-somethings met Sunday to do some planning for a fundraiser benefitting the very few GSA groups we have in our area. In walked a kid who was just starting college and introduced himself as FTM. Of course, we were cordial and immediately handed him all sorts of literature, web site info, etc., but it all pertained to the gay scene. We really couldn't be helpful at all about transgender support groups because there are none in the Daytona area. The best we could do was refer him to a counselor at his college who is the campus's official diversity person and hope that she can point him to supportive trans people. We also introduced him to the adviser of a GSA at a neighboring campus, and hopefully that may help the kid find a few friends who are at least "different," if not specifically transgender.

When I came out as a Gay male in 1973, I was very
lucky to have good LGBT role models. During the
1970's and 1980's, in additional to going to the bars, there was alot of socializing in individuals
homes. There were parties in which there were
a range of ages represented. In my opinion, there
seemed to be more respect for older individuals
than there is at present. I can remember going to
parties where lawyers, doctors, waiters, store clerks and teachers, to name a few, were all
socializing together. The LGBT community has changed over the years; some of these changes not for the better. Could it be that one of the factors for this is the web sites that primarily
place the emphasize on immediate impersonal contact? Years ago it seemed as if, in addition to sex, individuals wanted to get to know people
as people. Sometimes I honestly feel that the
younger generation is too dismissive of older (anyone over forty). Our mature members have a wealth of life experiences to draw on and share
with our youth. There is a generational gap and I really do not know how it can be bridged.

Chitown Kev | August 13, 2009 9:20 PM


First I have to say that I really, really enjoy your writing.

Second, not only do we live in the same state but we are from the same state and the same city

(Renaissance HS, Class of '85- First gay bar-Menjo's)

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject and I will be back to record them but I just wanted to say keep up the great, fantastic work

Thank you so very much! My first gay bar was Pronto... later my home bar was Male Box, and I always loved to hit up GiGis, Backstreet, Q, Soho and Menjo's when I could. When in the mood, I'd hit Adam's Apple or Gold Coast. We'd head over to Necto in Ann Arbor on Fridays, and then when I was up at school, Paradise (later Xcel) and Spiral in Lansing!


Good ole days! HA!

I am so glad you posted this - I can't agree more with you that there is more that needs to be done for the younger generation that are now coming out.

For the past four years, I have been doing my podcast where I do interviews with members of the GLBT community and our allies hoping that the stories that are heard will help the youth of today so they will not have the same issues that I did when I grew up in the 80's which was a very horrible time for me.

One of my proudest moments of the show was when I had interviewed a 19 year and how he talked about his struggles he had since coming out and another 19 year old had listened and could relate to what he heard. He wrote to me and told me that he came out to his family and they were very accepting. He kept listening to my show and I talked about how it is important to get your education and finish college. A few weeks later, he wrote back to me and said he enrolled and had met a new guy within two weeks of school.

I may not be able to help every person but it is worth when you can help one!