Alex Blaze

Toward a better understanding of age in the gay community

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 16, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, larry king, Ramin Setoodeh

Buried in a longer throw-away piece on how femmy TV gays are hurting the movement (no, the Bush years weren't just a nightmare - it's really 2009 and someone's still arguing that) is this paragraph on the old-young divide among gays:

For gays, that schism falls along generational lines. Older gays who spent their lives fighting for civil rights continue to want to stand out, to argue that acceptance means nothing if it doesn't apply to the most outré members. Younger men and women, for whom society has been more tolerant, think of themselves as "post-gay," meaning their sexual orientation is only a part of who they are. Last month, gay groups held a march on Washington for marriage. The older folks gave speeches. The younger ones seemed more interested in snapping a Facebook picture of Lady Gaga.

(I'm trying very hard to ignore how he characterized the march as "for marriage" and trying to figure out what a "Facebook picture of Lady Gaga" is.)

It would be easily forgettable as general mainstream media idiocy on gay culture if this sort of (and I use the term loosely) analysis weren't so common among gay folk. Older gays are anti-assimilationist, aggressive hippies! Younger gays just care about living the American dream. Will they ever get along?

It's something that, as a young gay, I've experienced a lot. I don't think a single person in the comments here at Bilerico has ever, ever, ever mentioned my age unless it was meant to discredit me.

Since the beginning of this past summer, we've been treated to a veritable parade of gay men (mostly, although I've seen a couple women say it too) between the ages of 40 and 70 declaring themselves part of the "new generation" of gay or LGBT activists. For them, "new generation" means people who are less patient with the status quo, more "entitled" (to use the exact word that a NEM organizer used), more willing to take grassroots action instead of working within the system, and more comfortable with using web 2.0 to organize.

None of these things is bad or good in and of itself; I just don't think that it splits at all cleanly between generations. There are plenty of people in their 20's working for the national organizations, which have been condescendingly dubbed the "old guard" by people who never paid scant attention to what they were doing before. In fact, they might be the group of people most willing to put up with the low salaries typical of these orgs and have more spare time (due to young people's high unemployment rate) to donate to them.

And there are plenty of older, established politicos working in grassroots for marriage, marriage, marriage. In fact, one of the reasons I got into blogging was because there didn't seem to be much space for opinions outside the gaystream "marriage is everything/We're the same as you" perspective.

Take the NEM, for example. It was called for by a retired Clinton Administration official and a prominent HIV/AIDS activist from the 80's. Neither of them could be accurately described as the "new generation." On the other hand, the two biggest organizers of it were both in their 20's. Unlike the supremely asinine analysis Newsweek offered before the jump, younger LGBT activists weren't just there to take "Facebook pictures" of Lady Gaga; they were busy booking her and the other speakers.

Instead, the qualities that go with the "new generation" tend to be whatever qualities the speaker wants to see in the wider community. It's a Rorschach of sorts; how gay people describe the "future of the gay community" says a lot more about themselves than it does about the actual future of the gay community.

This is all because being the "new generation," in the US, is always better than being the "old guard." There's a history there of fetishizing youth itself, as if because an idea is new, or a zeitgeist has just been named, that it's somehow better than previous thoughts and thought systems.

To some extent, this is part of the dynamic we were seeing when many people getting ready for the march were looking for ways to explain why their definition of "full equality now" hadn't already happened before 2008, under the "old guard." We'd see it in expressions like these:

  • "One fight, not 50," implying that the reason their list of legislation hasn't been enacted was because too many resources were being spent at the state level.

  • "We're no longer asking for equality, we're demanding it," implying that the reason a piece of legislation hadn't already happened was because LGBT activists were too passive.

  • "The old guard values access over results," implying that the reason Bush didn't push for or sign any pro-LGBT legislation was because HRC and gay activists who were involved before Obama took office were coddling him.

  • "Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools got more people to show up at a post-Prop 8 action than ever before," implying that the reason that that list of legislation hasn't been passed is because we weren't up-to-date on tech before the 2008 elections.

  • "We're rejecting the laundry list of legislation and asking for one simple thing: full equality under the law," implying that the concept of multiple pieces of legislation around the same goal is just too complicated for Congress, and that's why they haven't enacted this stuff.

I could go on, but the point is that people who got involved with the movement after Prop 8, who really didn't express much interest in it before, are looking for a reason this legislation wasn't passed even though their straight friends are generally supportive of it and the country is generally supportive of most LGBT legislation. And usually their explanations fit the narrative that the "old generation" didn't get anything done because they're incompetent, and the "new generation"'s preferences and tastes and ways of thinking, which are happily the preferences and tastes and ways of thinking of the speaker, will be what saves this movement.

The narrative assumes, falsely, that these people who got involved post-Prop 8 and after Obama's election, because of Rick Warren and the DOMA brief and Congress's slowness, are physically younger than people who were involved before. It also makes the assumption that they're anything near a monolithic group and not as messed up and divided as everyone else from before.

I've never been part of the "new generation"

I've been blogging at Bilerico since I was 23, but I have never once been referred to as part of the "new generation" of gay men or LGBT people. I've seen the label "the future of the gay community" slapped on gay men who are physically older than I am, but never on me. (I'm not bothered. I'd like to think my writing speaks for itself.)

I don't really know why it is, though, since others who are even older than I am get read as "the future of the gay community" and "the new generation of gay men" and "gay youth." It's not that people don't know that I'm young - quite a few middle-aged gay men (always men) try to put me in my place when they disagree with me by reminding me of my age ("I guess a 20-something wouldn't know..." "Before you were born..." "Young gay men don't get..."). In fact, I'd say it's the most common personal attack that I get around here, even more than a direct "You're stupid."

It seems more likely to me that I just don't fit the stereotype of a young gay man, which means, therefore, that I'm simply not a young gay man. Which I am. So the stereotype is wrong, which is obvious from the fact that there are multiple stereotypes of young gay men, many of which contradict each other:

  1. "Young gay men only think about the next nightclub and next fuck."

  2. "Young gay men are more monogamous and form more straight-like, long-lasting relationships than ever before."

  3. "Young gay men care less about safe sex because they think catching the virus is inevitable."

  4. "Young gay men care less about safe sex because they don't think they can get HIV."

  5. "Young gay men care less about safe sex because they're vapid."

  6. "Young gay men never really experienced homophobia and have it easier."

  7. "Young gay men are more assimilationist than previous generations."

  8. "Young gay men are less likely to care about fitting in than previous generations."

  9. "Young gay men are more entitled and angrier about not having full equality."

  10. "Young gay men are unaware of politics and care more about taking a Facebook picture of Lady Gaga than passing ENDA."

  11. "Young gay men are 'post-gay,' which means that they don't care about gay culture."

  12. "Young gay men are prouder of being gay because they didn't have to go through so much homophobia."

  13. "Young gay men are more feminine because they don't have to worry so much about social stigma."

  14. "Young gay men are more straight-acting because they're less concerned with maintaining a separate culture.

  15. "Young gay men are less 'neurotic' than previous generations of gays."

  16. "Young gay men party, party, party and it's all very self-destructive."

Some of these might actually be true, but there's a lot of bullshit on that list. And when someone tries to dismiss what I say with what amounts to "STFU, boy," I'm always left to wonder which stereotype it is exactly that makes them think that what I'm saying is untrue or unimportant. And, on the other hand, the glaring absence of anyone calling me part of the "new generation" of gay men makes me wonder which important stereotype I don't fit into.

Are younger gay men more or less concerned with assimilation than previous generations?

The Newsweek column's basic assumption is that younger gay people are "turning it down," and, therefore, should be more likely to win marriage (which the author contrasts with TV representations of gay men, which are all too femmy, and therefore misrepresent us and hurt our chances of taking part in "sacred institutions" like marriage and the military). But is that true?

Assimilation, or the idea that "We're just like you except for loving the same-sex," is not by any stretch of the imagination a new idea among gay and lesbian people. It goes back to Mattachine.

What did change, since the mid-90's, is that it stopped being a dominant or the dominant understanding of ourselves and became the only understanding of ourselves. And that goes all the way up the age brackets. The vast majority of gay men and lesbians of all ages right now have trouble even imagining another way of living or other goals.

(A bright example of this was how "Bash Back," a radical queer group focused on destroying institutions like marriage that made headlines when they protested at a Michigan church a while back, was discussed on several LGBT blogs and its action was evaluated in terms of its effectiveness at obtaining marriage. There are lots of gay and lesbian people who just don't know anything else.)

So it's easy, and lazy, to say that the "younger generation" is more assimilationist. While I wouldn't rule out the possibility that young people are more assimilationist than older gays and lesbians (if someone would actually study the situation and find numbers), changes throughout the gay and lesbian population are more important than younger people being different than older people.

Another way of thinking of the queer time

There will never be a moment when the old guard hands over the reigns to the future of the LGBT community. There won't be a ceremony, there won't be a rally, and there won't be a party.

Instead, there will be a continuous process of turnover, as there is with any large institution. Someone will retire from an org, and someone else will turn 18 and move to DC to get involved. Someone will get fed up with this loose band of catty queers known as the LGBT community and move to Madagascar, and someone else will come out at 45 and want, earnestly, to make sure that no one else has to go through what they did.

Instead of thinking of generations as discreet classes, maybe we can start to speak with more nuance? Just because someone is in his 20's doesn't mean he or she acts or thinks a certain way. Race, gender, sex, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, class... all those are still important, and are necessary when discussing why people feel the way they do, or why a society is changing. Without this nuance, the result a very white, middle-class analysis on generational changes that focuses on how white middle-class gays from the 70's are different from white middle-class gays from the Bush years, and then applies the analysis to working class Asian lesbians.

It's true that populations change over time, but only part of that change comes from one generation being different than the previous generation. Sometimes the entire population changes, middle-aged and older people included. There were people of all ages who were "post-gay" before the 2008 elections who became interested in LGBT politics this past year. It wasn't just young people.

By the same token, sometimes the generations aren't that different, and a lot of what we see as difference is more how our own minds cherry-pick data to fit a pre-conceived narrative on how society as a whole is changing, which might not even be true. People, especially Americans, want to think that society is constantly improving, constantly evolving. And because it's an idea that people want to believe, it should always be suspect when evaluating it for truth.

While it's true that America's always changing, it doesn't mean that it's getting better. But lots of people are attached to that idea, so they look for good qualities in young people and call them "the future of the gay community" more out of hope than out of objective analysis.

About the article itself...

The entire article at Newsweek is rather depressing. I really thought we were over this stuff:

The problem with the Glee club is that Kurt and the rest are loud and proud, but their generation has turned down the volume. All this at a time when standing apart seems particularly counterproductive. Marriage (and the military) are sacred institutions, so it's not surprising that some heterosexuals will defend them against what they see as a radical alteration. But if you want to be invited to someone else's party, sometimes you have to dress the part. Is that a form of appeasement? Maybe. It's not that gay men and women should pretend to be straight, or file down all their fabulously spiky edges. But even Rachel Maddow wears lipstick on TV. The key is balance. There's so much more to the gay community than the people on TV (or at a gay-pride parade). We just want a chance to live and love like everybody else. Unfortunately, at the rate we're going, we won't get there until the post-post-gay generation.

I know that Newsweek is conservative and has a history of homophobia, but I didn't think they'd go out of their way to tell us to tone it down in terms of gender expression. The only response, from one member of the "new generation" to the author of the article, who seems to be part of the same generation: If we're really supposed to do all that we can to seem like straight people, then why don't we just shack up with opposite sex partners? It'd save us all a lot of trouble.

Or you can find a more thorough response from the pop-smart Michael Jensen, who isn't in his 20's. He knows more about Lady Gaga than I do.

As disappointing as the article is, at least the comments on Newsweek are almost uniformly on the right side (outside of a few out-and-out homophobes). It's heartening.

What's the most annoying, though, is that Newsweek thinks that the guy who wrote an article a year an a half ago blaming an effeminate junior high school student for his own death because he "flaunted" it has something deep to say about the intersections of gender, sexuality, politics, and culture. Ramin Setoodeh, the writer, clearly has issues with feminine gay men that he seems to be trying to work out in straight media in front of the entire country.

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I think basically any time someone starts talking about generational divides in the LGBT community they're basically just bound to start spouting nonsense. The generational divides in the gay community aren't really the important ones and invariably when I see someone try to define a meaningful generational difference what they actually wind up doing is identifying some other divide in the LGBT community and pretending that divide is really all about age. Half the time I suspect that what the writer in question is doing is just generalizing some dynamic in their group of friends to all of America. It's usually not even that hard, any time you find someone arguing "old LGBTs are like this, young LGBT are like this", to go and find someone assigning the same traits to opposite sides of the supposed age divide.

Younger folks are conformists and older folks are anti-assimilationists? I agree that any discrete proclamations on generational differences is going to be an oversimplification at best, but all observations I've had go directly counter to this stereotype.

Growing up with queer parents, I've found myself in a somewhat unique position to have a lot of exposure to an older queer generation. With one or two exceptions, none of my parents friends could be described as anti-assimilationist. 90%+ of the anti-assimilationists I know are under 40. I don't think I've ever seen someone over 40 at a bash back meeting. Out of all of my friends, none were willing to join me in the campaign against Oregon's constitutional definition of marriage as one man one woman because the campaign was too assimilationist (in their defense, it really was, they asked bi and trans folks to stay closeted when they worked for the campaign).

I do know anti-assimilationists above 40, some are my mentors, some are my close friends. But still, I'm baffled by the suggestion that young queers are more gender conforming and assimilationist than the older generation. Where does that happen?

I totally agree - antiassimilationist folk I know who are active trend younger.

I think the idea comes from (and it's not just newsweek, I've seen it in plenty of places) people assuming that if times aren't as tough for LGBT people, then they will assimilate more. It's probably a case of people observing with their brains instead of their eyes.

Or maybe it's just someplace neither of us have been to.

Sister Mary FP | November 16, 2009 5:05 PM

"There's two kinds of people in the world: those that divide the worlds into two kinds of people..."

The section of the article you reference (the rest being not merely demonstrating homophobia but homophobia's ugly stepparent - misogyny) seems to be guilty mainly of wanting to paint with a big brush. Generalization and sage head-nodding (yep yep that's the way it is) passing for journalism.

If I were to make a sweeping generalization about the young people who came out after the Prop 8 passage, it would be 'they were surprised and angry.'

I don't see the shock and dismay of our young folk their being 'assimilated,' or having been complacent about the possibility of passage, but having held a more optimistic and positive view of their fellow citizens.

Old drag nuns - not surprised, and angry. Not bitter, not resigned, and not assimilating, and thankful for the energy and optimism coming from the younger folk. And for Lady Gaga.

There is so much going on in this Newsweek article.

The "generational" argument about apoliticality of youngsters seems out of place and more about the writer's own issues with age. As well, is there something else about old vs. new media written in that statement too? Facebook photos versus Newsweek articles--who has the right to construct representations of the march?

The "post-gay" and "post-post gay" labels are tired. What does these mean, really? If these are used to reanimate the "same vs. different" debate, looking to media representations of gays (where was the rest of the "community" in that article?!)seems silly. Characterizations imitate the real, but never fully capture it.

Generations-as-characterizations fail to be inclusive, hence your (Alex) ability to locate yourself.

Hell, I got old just reading this thing. No youngin' could write that much! *snickers*

I'm not surprised you took the age discrimination tact on this one, Alex. I considered writing about it today too, but in defense of the fey man. :)

Good article. I hate stereotypes especially those that we use on one another in the community.

Most movements against social injustice are lead by young people who serve as its champions; they have the passion and energy to do it. But passion and energy are tempered as one gets older, but wisdom and experience ad another dimenion.

As a member of the older LGBT community, those of us who are seniors can offer direction, and resources should not be wasted. When combined with the energy and passion of the young, together we can be a powerful force for change.

William B. Kelley | November 19, 2009 12:12 AM

An amazingly perceptive, even if long, piece.

And by such a young person. :-)

I'll look forward to reading more from him and wish his kind of thoughtfulness were more common.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | November 19, 2009 8:32 AM

When I started so many of the elder Gay men were so far in the closet they were Republicans. Despite our disagreements Alex, I have never had anything but respect for your intellect. Unlike yourself I was not raised by far left liberal parents. We had different starting places in different decades, but that does not mean that we do not want many of the same things ultimately.

I guess I come from a place where I do not conflate our civil rights struggle with economic systems, militarism, imperialism or political systems which is territory you feel very free to include. I believe we should confine it to LGBT issues and feminism (silly old dinosaur that I am).

Great points, as usual Alex.

Of course, that is only if you value the opinion of a late-transitioning, probably non-op mid-baby boom transgender female.