Are We Allowed to Age? Growing Older as a Gay Man
“Growing older can be a wonderful thing, where we feel that life just gets better with each passing day. . . . It can also be a time when we’re not so certain about where we fit in a culture that is quite often very focused on youth.”
Chief Executive Officer, San Francisco AIDS Foundation
“Are We Allowed to Age? Growing Older as a Gay Man,” held May 23, 2012, marked the first event in San Francisco AIDS Foundation and STOP AIDS Project’s new Real Talk community forum series. The goal of the series is to host timely, interactive dialogs and exchange knowledge and resources around topics at the forefront of discussions in our community.
As foundation CEO Neil Giuliano observed in his welcoming remarks, aging is “something we all either are facing or will face in our lives,” and it can be joyful, challenging, or both. Forum panelists, each of whom represented an “age decade”—twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties—spoke frankly about their personal experiences of aging in San Francisco’s gay community.
Panelists included Derek Brocklehurst, nurse study coordinator at Quest Clinical Research; Demetri Moshoyannis, executive director of Folsom Street Events; Matt Sharp, writer and longtime AIDS activist; David Sims, attorney at Saveri & Saveri; and Steven Tierney, professor of counseling psychology and chair of the Community Mental Health program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. For a truly interactive conversation, audience members were invited to share their own perspectives, both by taking the microphone and by texting responses to survey questions throughout the evening.
Moderator Hank Plante, former anchor and political editor at San Francisco’s KPIX-TV, started the conversation by recalling the recent death of 49-year-old gay therapist Bob Bergeron, who committed suicide just weeks before the scheduled publication of his self-help book, The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. “You never know what’s underneath the surface,” said Plante.
Bergeron’s death sparked an intense community dialog, with some men admitting in Facebook conversations that, as they age in a youth-oriented gay culture, the idea of suicide is never far from their minds. Indeed, Plante cited a 2002 study revealing that 12% of urban gay and bisexual men had attempted suicide at some point in their lives—a figure three times higher than the population in general.
The purpose of this forum was to continue the community discussion and create a safe space to exchange perspectives on aging. “Our goals tonight are simple,” said Giuliano. “We want to connect, share some experiences, learn, and hopefully leave here with a better understanding . . . and appreciation for the unique experience of growing older as a gay man.” Following is a summary of key questions and issues that emerged during the panel and audience discussion.
Do we, as gay men, allow ourselves to age?
“I think you become aggressive in fighting the battle against Mother Nature and Father Time. So in a way, you’re not allowing yourself to age.”
Panelists agreed that gay men fight aging, although their own experiences varied. “We definitely struggle, absolutely,” said Derek Brocklehurst, at age 28 the youngest panelist. To Steven Tierney, now 61, photos from his younger days speak eloquently of the changes that come with age. “I have a picture of myself at Fire Island. We used to go over the summer, a group of eleven of us, . . . back when we didn’t all have to think about senior housing or dermatology or anything like that, which we now have to think about.”
“When I turned 50, it struck me that I’d missed a lot of my life because of HIV,” said Matt Sharp, who tested positive in 1988. “There was a big chunk of it missing, in a way, because I was on the streets being arrested [for protesting] or I was deeply into my own illnesses or whatever. So suddenly I turned 50 and I was doing well—and then I realized, ‘Oh, I’m old.’”
Demetri Moshoyannis mentioned that he and his friends of similar age find themselves rethinking their priorities as they age. “I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties in the bars, thinking about guys and cruising and dick, and looking good to do that” he shared. “And now that I’m 40, I’ve kind of had to stop and think, ‘Well, what now?’ . . . If I’m not spending so much time concerned about physical appearance and all those kinds of issues, then how do my values develop and evolve as I age?”
Moshoyannis’ observations led to an important question: What does it mean to be an older person in our community? “For me, it’s always just meant cheering the elders in the Gay Pride parade,” he admitted, but now, “I’m going to be one of them! That kind of realization gave me pause to kind of think about who I want to be as I age, and how my values are going to change as a result of that.”
An audience member offered his take: “I don’t know what you’re all talking about. At 60 I felt like a young spring chicken! I’m 72 now, and I don’t feel shunned by my gay community.” He had lived in San Francisco since 1975 and lost three lovers to AIDS. “Wild sex is not in the cards anymore,” he said, but “it’s my decision. And I don’t mind just doing things one does at my age: going to the theater, to the movies, walking a lot, reading a lot, stuff like that. . . . So I don’t have any problem with being older.”
Moshoyannis, who is 40, said that although he’s a bit embarrassed to admit it, going out with a much younger man five years ago changed how he felt about aging. “The gay community does somewhat embrace the ‘daddy’ culture,” he said, “and I feel a little more comfortable getting older in the gay community along that line. And, yeah, it was a hook-up that led me to that point! But honestly, I’ve been comfortable with it ever since.”
Is there a generational divide between gay men?
“The young and old do not mix. . . . It doesn’t feel like a sense of community.”
The panelists agreed that age often divides the gay community, although Sharp pointed out that this sense of division is not unique: “Ageism is pervasive in our society. We don’t respect our elders in this country.”
What is unique, however, is how the AIDS epidemic contributed to the generational divide among gay men. As one audience member observed, “There used to be this huge population of my generation—I’m fifty-seven—and it’s a generation that we lost.” Added Moderator Hank Plante, “It certainly affects your psyche, doesn’t it?” He spoke of the loneliness that accompanies getting older without the friends he lost in the 1980s. “A lot of us who are here tonight went through that.”
One older audience member suggested that “because of AIDS, and because of acceptance among young people of ‘queerness’ in general, . . . those who grew up after the 1980s are different in lots of ways.” For example, he sees more young gay men today in monogamous relationships. “It isn’t just because we’re bad to them or they’re bad to us. They have different values.”
Moshoyannis noted that he sees attendees at Folsom Street Events trending older. “San Francisco is an aging community,” he said. “And that’s great, as there are more and more people aging and gay men feel more comfortable . . . but we need a youthful place in our community, as well.”
One man in the audience offered this example of his changing relationship to his community: “I used to be learning stuff about the ‘70s from my friends in New York, and now people are asking me about the time in the ‘80s, and it’s like they’re asking me about the past, like: ‘What was it like before World War I?’”
Another audience member shared feeling excluded: Looking to meet people online, he found postings for “‘twenties to forties for fun outings.’ I’m like, ‘Gosh, I’m not 50 yet, not for a full month. Can I still get in? Will they kick me out?’” Another man, age 23, related that it was easier for his family to accept his 37-year-old boyfriend’s HIV status than his age.
A further divide, the panelists suggested, relates to the age at which individual gay men come out. Brocklehurst said he and his friends find actual age differs from “gay age,” depending on how long an individual has been out. David Sims, who is in his thirties, agreed, adding, “When you first come out to yourself, to your family, to your friends, or whatever you consider coming out, that’s really almost when your life begins.” People who came out at very different ages can have trouble relating to each other, Sims said: “They can literally be the same age, but they have nothing in common because they really are in two different aspects of their lives.”
This idea rang true with audience members, who suggested that life stage divides the community as much as age. One man who had recently moved back to San Francisco lamented, “All my old friends had disappeared—not because they had died but because they’d paired off and they wouldn’t come out anymore. They’d become homebodies.”
Another member of the audience agreed, observing that the divide he notices most is about lifestyles changing with age, as the people around him couple off, buy houses, and work steady jobs to pay their mortgages. “If you think about people in their forties, who are in midlife, and you make a list of everything that people tend to be involved in at midlife, and you think to yourself, ‘Well, I’m in midlife but I don’t have any of the accoutrements and the infrastructure of midlife,’ then the whole question of what generation you feel part of isn’t so much a function of chronology.” He summed up this concept neatly: “It’s possible to have a past in common but not necessarily a present in common, even if there are lots of people around who are your age.”
Calling for solutions, another man remarked that “we’re always going to have a generational problem; that’s just the nature of things. We have to create what’s going to be next, what’s going to bring us together.”
Tierney had a simple suggestion for bridging these divides and bringing back a sense of shared community: “I think tonight is a wonderful opportunity for us to take a look around the room, and make sure the next time you see somebody walking down the street you just stop and say hello.”
Do you feel invisible or irrelevant as you get older?
“As we grow older, gay men are irrelevant. We’re not even there. We’re not even noticed.”
Plante posed questions about feeling invisible or irrelevant directly to the audience—with lively results. As one man shared, “I just passed the point of no return even on sites like DaddyHunt! . . . When you hit that magic number, you’re gone. Even though supposedly people are looking for ‘daddies,’ you’re invisible.”
Another man shared his experience re-entering the dating scene in his sixties. His gay friends told him, “‘Forget it! Nobody’s interested in you. You’re an old fart.’” He accepted this verdict for a year or two: “I became an old fart at sixty-three. And then one day I woke up and said, ‘This is bullshit. I do five miles on the treadmill three times a week! I hike!” The realization paid off: “I started taking some chances, taking some risks—and I haven’t found that much rejection. Some, but it’s not as bad as what people say.”
In a similar vein, another audience member questioned what makes gay men feel relevant to their community in the first place: “Are you only relevant if some twenty-four-year-old wants to talk to you?”
Plante added that the need for relevance often increases following retirement. “I think a lot of us who approach the dreaded ‘R’ word, retirement (or semi-retirement), are aware what that means,” remarked Plante, recently retired himself after 25 years as a TV reporter. “Who are you if you draw that much identity from your job and suddenly you’re not doing anything?”
“Male, female, gay, straight, whatever, people have problems with aging, and it’s the ‘relevance’ part,” stated another man in the audience. “I think here it’s the relevance that you want in a community,” and that community, he opined, has never truly been about older people. “We’ve lost a large portion of our population, our older generation, to the AIDS crisis—but you know what? We didn’t create that culture for the older people. What doesn’t change in the image that is ‘gay’ is this idea of youth, and beauty, and partying, and drugs, and stuff like that.”
He raised another interesting point: We are saddened and infuriated by stories of gay, bi, lesbian, and transgender youth committing suicide or turning to drugs because they feel alienated by their peers and communities, “but then we get to a certain age and we do it to ourselves. We decide to create that generational gap. Of course you’re going to be anxious if you feel like you’re not a part of your community anymore.”
Are you where you thought you’d be at this point in your life?
“I think gay men have to learn this: There is no timeline.”
Traditional milestones for straight life stages, like getting married and starting a family, aren’t always viable—or even desirable—options for gay men, the panel agreed. The panelists varied in how much they had attempted to apply this roadmap to their own lives, and in how well they felt their current circumstances lived up to their expectations.
“When I first came out, I had this image of me and my husband and two kids, two dogs, living the gay dream—or what I thought was the gay dream,” said Sims. Today, “there’s no dogs. There’s no husband. There’s no kids. Don’t get me wrong: I am very happy. I am happy in my life. . . . I learned that I couldn’t live up to, I guess, the straight scenario of life, of happiness, that I was trying to convert to the gay world.”
For his part, Brocklehurst is content: “I have a stable job, I have stable friends, stable community, stable housing. I’m where I want to be at 28.” Tierney offered a similar perspective, noting, “What gives me happiness is being involved with the community.”
Sharp’s experience differed: “Who knows? This question is really difficult for me because I’ve always gone with the flow; I never made a business plan for what was going to happen in my life.” Also, HIV and related illnesses “are going to affect how I get older. These things are going to impact any dream life that I could have had.”
Picking up on the issue of HIV, Moshoyannis shared his perspective: “I seroconverted when I was 23, so I kind of thought I’d be dead by my early thirties. That was pre–protease inhibitors, so back then [the expectation was], ‘You’ve got ten years.’” Given this dire early diagnosis, “I never thought I’d actually be at this point in my life; I pretty much thought I’d be dead by now.” Ultimately, he’s happy with his life’s trajectory, even if he didn’t exactly plan it: “In retrospect, I feel like my twenties were all about exploring life and having sex and my thirties were about dating. And [at 40] I have a wonderful husband.”
How have your expectations for romantic relationships changed as you’ve grown older?
“I’m from the generation where, when you had sex with someone, they actually had to be in the same room.”
Each panelist shared how his relationship expectations and priorities have shifted over time. “In my twenties, I was trying to boost my self-esteem; I was having sex with as many hot guys as I could and exploring my sexual identity in that way,” said Moshoyannis. In his thirties, his focus switched to longer-term partnerships—or rather, the lack of them: “I was much more concerned about, ‘Okay, I’m 30 and I haven’t had a relationship last longer than eight months. What’s wrong with me?’ . . . So my thirties were really about the relationship thing. And I’m pretty much married now.”
Tierney picked up on the theme of marriage, noting that before the push for marriage equality, “that wasn’t a possibility, and there was no way to memorialize our relationships. . . . A lot of people my age are still in that world,” which informs what they expect from relationships. Sims shared that his expectations used to be unrealistic, “like there was this perfect person for me.” As he’s gotten older, he says, “I’m much more negotiable!”
Brocklehurst came out in his teens and soon learned that monogamous relationships weren’t for him. “I think in my twenties I’ve been exploring sexuality more.” He cautioned that, “with the hook-up scene, I think we should be careful not to devalue or put down people who want sexual satisfaction and short-term gratification.” He hears other gay men criticizing the use of Grindr, a mobile app that helps gay and bi guys locate and meet others nearby, “but I’m of that generation—you know, ‘I’m horny and right now I’m at the gym.’ . . . And I think that we shouldn’t vilify that.”
An audience member piped up with his own unconventional love story: “My first real relationship started at a bear orgy when I was 56.” He had a message to older men in the audience: “Love can come at any time. It never really came throughout the years I was expecting it to, and it came later.” He also encouraged older gay men to keep exploring both their sexuality and their community: “There are groups where you can get spanked once or twice a month! . . . You don’t need to be limited. I thought I felt my best at 30, but I was wrong. You can be hot when you’re 70.”
These comments raised another important question: How much do our looks matter as we get older? “I think we all wish they didn’t matter,” quipped Tierney. “I was a ballet dancer and I’ve always been athletic,” said Sharp. “To watch my skin start drooping and my muscles start fading is difficult. It’s really a challenge, no matter how you try to not be vain! Plus the HIV comes in: lipodystrophy, effects on body shape.”
Sims agreed that looks matter. “There’s no doubt,” he said. “We’re trying to attract what we want, and we focus on our looks.” He sees this as a greater pressure on gay men than on his straight male friends: “They don’t worry!” Moshoyannis joked about this double standard: “There was actually a very funny Family Guy skit about this. There’s a gay guy who says, ‘I’m straight skinny but gay fat.’”
As you get older, how are you getting the support you need?
“Nobody commits suicide because he’s gay. People commit suicide because they’re isolated and alienated. . . . Some people who are lonely and isolated will consider that an option. I want us to change that, because if we as a community and a society stop the isolating and alienating of gay men, lesbians, transgender folks, and bisexuals, those suicide numbers go away.”
In terms of support, Tierney emphasized the importance of community connectedness to people who come out as gay: “I like to think that it’s not so much coming out as coming in.” Along the same lines, an audience member shared how important strong social networks are to him and his partner of 47 years: “This has actually been the happiest part of our lives that I can recall ever having,” thanks largely to networks the pair have cultivated over the years with people who share their interest in the arts, travel, sailing, and politics. “That has kept our living together exciting and thriving and happy. And I wouldn’t change that for anything else in the world.”
Another audience member expressed fear that lack of culturally competent social services could hurt gay people as they age: “If you don’t have services to address the older population in terms of cultural issues among seniors in the gay community and HIV-positive community, then it’s kind of a train wreck. . . . I worry about our growing-older population—that we will turn to more substance use and alcohol because we’re sitting in our apartments alone and feeling frustrated and sad and depressed.”
To highlight resources available to people aging in San Francisco’s gay community, a number of organizations brought materials to share and spoke briefly during the forum. Among these were representatives from Alliance Health Project, providing mental health services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, including a support group for gay and bi men over fifty; Bridgemen, STOP AIDS Project’s community-service volunteer group for gay and bi men in their thirties and forties; the San Francisco Therapy Collective, which specializes in mental health for gay, bi, lesbian, transgender, questioning, and intersex people; the LGBT Community Partnership, serving seniors and people with disabilities; Openhouse, offering housing and support services for LGBT older adults; and Positive Force, another program of STOP AIDS Project, providing health education and social events for gay, bi, and transgender guys with HIV.
What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?
“Just be where you’re at. You’re fine. Love yourself.”
Although the panelists differed in age, their responses were remarkably similar. “We grow up thinking that we’re so different and that there’s something wrong with us,” said Brocklehurst.
“For me, it was really important as I was aging through my twenties to know that there wasn’t necessarily something wrong with me around dating and relationships,” added Moshoyannis. “I think there’s a lot of stigma that guys in their twenties carry around with them” he said, “and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that things got better. And now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Sims agreed: “I would say the same thing: not having fear. I definitely remember a lot of fear about so many things: being young and gay—and young and gay and black.”
Tierney’s advice to his younger self? “Just take a chance . . . and meet people out there.” As he explained, “we often don’t do it because we feel limited by age or race or size or HIV status—and sometimes it’s because we’re afraid of what they will think of us. You know what? So what!” He continued, “The fact of the matter is, the gay community has always been a community of lovers, a community of sexual outlaws. And now we have married folks, as well. It’s all of that. Just take a chance.”
Resources for Healthy Aging in San Francisco
Alliance Health Project
LGBT Community Partnership
San Francisco Therapy Collective
Reilly O’Neal is the editor of BETA.