Andrew Belonsky

Respect Your Elders

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | July 25, 2010 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: ageism, Netroots Nation, News, politics

So many of the conversations here at Netroots Nation have revolved around what we have yet to achieve: marriage equality, ENDA, a DADT repeal... notoageism.jpgThe list goes on. Clearly these are pressing, essential issues. As we move forward, however, it's also important that we look back and acknowledge the many, many gains the movement has made in a relatively short period of time.

Looking back can be a bit hard for people; not because they have developed amnesia, but because many of the younger activists, or even just younger LGBT folk, have absolutely no concept of what it was like to be gay in the pre-Stonewall era. That's unfortunate, because there's a lot to learn from that time period and the people who lived through it.

It's no secret that ageism runs rampant in gay communities: too often have I heard my peers describe 40 as old. People, 40 is not old. If it were, then we 20-somethings would be middle-aged, and that's not a concept I embrace. This pattern could quite easily be broken if younger queers were to actually talk to our lavender elders.

I've met so many amazing people here in Vegas. A man named Gene Eldridge, however, makes my top ten list. We found ourselves in a circle with mutual friends and as happens, made our introductions. It wasn't long until we broke off into our conversation, during which Eldridge told me of his experience growing up closeted in the 1950s, how he almost became a Jesuit priest to avoid getting married, and eventually came into his own in the 1960s, when he moved to San Francisco.

Though now out and proud, Eldridge also pointed out that his past experience -- that is, growing up in an environment in which homosexuality simply wasn't discussed -- has left an indelible imprint: "I'm easily closeted," he said. Eldridge isn't ashamed of being gay, certainly, but does sometimes find it a bit frightful to come out to complete strangers. Men and women who came of age in the post-Liberation world aren't as likely to have that problem.

Though Eldridge and I didn't have any deep political conversation, I walked away from our encounter with a refreshed sense of how far gay communities have come, and how much we owe to people who overcame their fears to overcome societal oppression.

We owe a lot to our elders and we can still learn a lot from them too. To dismiss or deride someone for their age isn't simply ignorant, it's irresponsible because you're depriving yourself of what may be an extremely educational interaction. And those learning experiences should not only make you grateful for our forefathers' efforts, but can help alleviate the sense of defeat that so often permeates our political discussions. A little positive thinking can go a long way.

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Seriously, younger LGBT activists don't even have any concept of the 80s...or 90s for that matter. As is evidence by the number of people who think returning to GOP controlled congress would be better than this.

Good points, and I think that older gay men could stop routinely insulting young gays as vapid, drugged-up, young dumb and full of cum party bois who just don't get how important anything is because they've never experienced discrimination/the AIDS epidemic. It's annoying after a while.

It's heartening to see younger gay men remind their brothers of the importance of learning from their elders.

I'm 48 years old and was an activist in the 80s. I was doing P.R. for the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights in D.C. when I met Jim Kepner, an historian of the Mattachine Society. He was in his 70s at the time. He gave me a button from the first big DC march in 1979 and we talked for awhile. He told me to keep telling my story, so it would be easier for the next group of kids, tossled my hair (I still had hair) and left.

I was thrilled to speak to someone who I had only read about in my studies of LGBT history.

Those of us who are middle age are ready to tell our stories and share what we have known with you. We welcome you to ask. Many of my brothers died during the AIDS holocaust, so there aren't as many of us to tell you about our experiences.

We need however to pass on our stories and hopefully help build traditions of older to younger conversations that you in turn will have 20 years from now with your younger generation.

Although I fear that the online world can make people more distant from each other, perhaps in this case it is a place where we can share stories, advice and perspective, back and forth across the age lines and in both directions.

What did we learn about activism? What have you discovered? What advice do we have about relationships? How are yours different from ours?

Finally it is wonderful to wake-up every once in awhile and realize I did do what Jim asked me to do, I told my story (and fought my battles) so it is really and truly easier for the kids that have come after me.

I'm 46, so I came of age post-Stonewall, but nevertheless in a very different world. Most dramatically different for gay men, perhaps, in that , before the mid-90s, there was no effective anti-viral /anti- HIV treatment, so men were constantly dying all around. And also no internet, which meant both that information and community were in some ways much harder to find, but also that we were perhaps more motivated to create some kinds of face-to-face community in cities and gay ghettos. The level of gay visibility and inclusivity across the culture 20 years ago was maybe 5% of what it is today.

It was truly life during wartime; ACT_UP & Queer Nation were our response to that reality.

I think it is difficult for men under 35 or so to imagine or understand my generations experience; the world has changed sooo much, largely for the better, happy to say. Not blaming the kids for not understanding, it's just an observation . And fortunately there will always be those who are drawn to study history. Note to writers and academics: now is the time to collect oral histories of the Queer 80s and 90s...

Andrew, thanks for your comments. It has been very disheartening to more and more see the rembrance of Stonewall replaced by "Pride" celebrations.

I have seen both gay and non-gay young people express utter disbelief when told how police often raided gay bars and hauled men off to jail merely for being in a gay bar and that their names would be printed in the newspaper the next morning saying they had been arrested in a place of perversion.

They have not heard the stories - long before Stonewall - of the Widow Norton many times taking a group to the San Francisco jail at 2 am in the morning to stand there and sing "God Bless Those Nellie Queens" after the police raided a SF bar.

It is so good to see the name of Jim Kepner mentioned in the comments. In 1991 when CA Gov. Wilson vetoed AB 101 which set off demonstrations all over the state which culminated in a huge 3 day rally at the Capitol.

In one of the marches I found myself surrounded by Harry Hay, Morris Kight and Jim Kepner. Yet none of these icons were recognized at anytime during the 3 days of the Sacramento demonstrations. The young people were in charge.

I met Jim at a gay pride coordinators conference in Vancouver. He was a charming man. His knowledge of glbt history inspired me to take a deeper look at our history.

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | July 26, 2010 6:45 PM

Thanks, Jerry [and everyone!]
Yes, people definitely do themselves a disservice, and undercut our "equality" mission, if they dismiss someone based on their age. A terrible trend that I would like to see end, but we all know how stubborn youngsters can be...

Hank again | July 28, 2010 4:50 PM

Andrew, I think I was trying to point out that there was a whole generation between you and Stonewall, with a very different experience from either, and that what we did, is just as much a part of the story of why you are where you are today, as Stonewall is. We are not even mentioned in your ( admittedly brief) piece. It is as though the world consists only of 20-somethings and Stonewall veterans. Of course there is some truth to that, because so many of my age cohort died...Still, those of us who survived are you elders too.

Thank you for this blog post. I'm a 51 year old lesbian and i work at AARP. AARP is quietly working on many fronts for the inclusion of lgbtqi folks in the 'aging industry' in terms of cultural competence, in terms of public policy, at its annual 20,000+ Member Event in Orlando (featuring Kate Clinton! Woohoo!) and in many other ways. AARP is about as maintstream as it gets, and when it takes up a cause, the cause benefits. I'm also co- chair of the employee group, Prism. There's also an online community. And an award winning Stonewall page. Count AARP as an ally.