[EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.
When I agreed to write this column for TGB, I figured I better do some research. After all, what credentials do I have? I'm just a lifelong lesbian who is aging and who blogs.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that there was a book entitled Gay and Gray. I was a little less enthused by the subtitle, "The Older Homosexual Man," but what the heck? Fortunately I was able to find a used copy.
Originally issued in 1982, and reprinted with new material and a new prologue in 1995, Raymond M. Berger's book is a serious social scientific examination of the lives of gay elders. It leans on all the apparatus that academic researchers use to support their conclusions: interviews, case studies, a questionnaire, reference to other research.
And, especially for its time of publication, Mr. Berger came up with a delightful thesis. In the prologue to his second edition, here's how he described it:
"...being gay can actually be an advantage in adapting to the aging experience. Every gardener knows that placing his seedlings in the harsh outdoors early in the season creates plants that are better able than the greenhouse variety to withstand the stressors of the growing season. So it is with people, gay positive scholars have argued. Early weathering promotes survival."
He goes on to contend that because many gay men have to leave their families of origin in order to live fully into their orientation, they also, earlier and perhaps more fully than heterosexual men who have mothers, girlfriends and wives to fall back on, have to learn to live as competent, independent adults.
"Later, when faced with the losses of old age - loss of job, status, friends - the older gay man can draw on the skills he learned as young adult."
Sounds to me like the kind of facile pop psychology peddled by those throwaway "magazines" inserted in Sunday newspapers. And like reading them, there's a certain guilty pleasure in playing with the idea mentally, before throwing it away. I don't think any of us have to be gay to play:
- Did you feel at some point that you had to leave home or family in order to grow fully into yourself? Was it painful, surprising, or just "growing up"?
- Has your particular experience of "weathering" made getting older easier, harder, or maybe just no different that any other life challenge?
Lots changed in the LGBT world between the two editions of Raymond Berger's study. The AIDS epidemic vastly changed the circumstances of the gay male population while concurrently gay people began to win civil rights and wider acceptance. In 1995, having viewed the trajectory of those changes, he made some predictions that seem to me still interesting after another 13 years.
- "Chronic illness will play an increasing role in the lives of gay men of all ages."
Indeed yes - the AIDS plague acculturated many urban, gay men from a young age to be exceptionally aware of and sensitive to dealing with sickness and disability.
- "Lesbians will assume an increasing role in the leadership of gay community groups..."
Yes, again. On the one hand, this simply reflects that an entire generation of men who would have occupied leadership roles died off prematurely. But in consequence, many LGBT institutions got used to the experience of having women in leadership. Though the plague has receded, many lesbians still occupy highly visible leadership positions.
- "Older gay men will become a large part of gay community institutions." For Berger, this predicts declining ageism: "Even the traditionally youth-oriented bars and social clubs will increasingly cater to the more numerous and affluent gay men."
I think on this topic he underestimated the power of generational marketing. Wherever any affluence exists, our society creates a niche commerce to exploit its potential. So we all have even more institutions encouraging expense and consumption for the young - and for the old.
- "Gay men will increasing adopt 'traditional family values.'"
He means stable relationships and parenting. Sure - it's true. When you aren't living as an outlaw, it is a lot easier to live responsibly and care responsibly for others.
- "Senior-specific, gay, social service agencies will continue to be rare."
I don't have the expertise to evaluate this, but he is probably right that general purpose social service agencies have become more adept at recognizing and accommodating the needs of gay elders. Whether LGBT elders trust the agencies is another question.
- "The aging of the gay population will enhance the political clout of urban gay communities."
This is something I do have some expertise in and I think he's generally right. Older people are simply a more reliable base of voters than younger age groups. And we have more money to throw at politicians. Still, the rising influence of urban gay political communities has depended on a lot of factors besides the aging of gay communities that would take a book to explicate.
- "Older gays will play an increasing role in the environmental movement."
This was a long shot at the time and I don't know if it has panned out. Berger opines that, because of the sophistication that gay men of sad necessity had to develop about public health and immune dysfunction, they might lead the way in our growing awareness of how our thoughtless civilization is poisoning the world.
Perhaps as a community, we gay folks are still little more conscious about public health. But everyone has had to get more aware quickly when facing such new threats as West Nile virus and a potential bird flu pandemic.
For an older book, Gay and Gray has held up pretty well and remains thought provoking. How about that?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, TravelinOma recounts a sweet event about enormity of love in Remember Me.]