Like other “isms,” ageism is a multifaceted bias in gay community

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Brian McNaught
Brian McNaught

Two guys and a dog

“An Old Gay Man Walks Into a Bar…”

“I feel invisible,” my friend told me. “I walk into a bar, and no one sees me. It makes me lonely. It’s ageism.”

“If you don’t look to be seen, you won’t feel invisible,” I replied. “It’s wanting to be noticed that creates the let down, and the loneliness.”

I know the feeling. I’ve hoped for notice from other gay men as I’ve aged. I’ve wanted affirmation that I still belonged, even though my hair is gray. Its crazy how many ways we can create to torture ourselves, isn’t it? Why should I care what others think about my attractiveness? I’m not auditioning. I have everything I could possibly want. But, still I do it, so, I can identify with the lament of my old gay friend, who happens to be younger than me.

Like other “isms,” ageism is a multifaceted bias, rooted in fear and ignorance, and perpetuated by extreme stereotypes. The bias is both external and internal. At its worst, we collaborate with our “oppressors” by letting them set the rules, and then abiding by them.

“Old people smell funny, their genitals are wrinkled, they’re feeble minded, and forgetful. Old gay men may have been pretty at one time, but they lost their good looks a long time ago. Now, they just talk about their ailments and meds, about sex, and about the past.”

Growing older is something we start to do the moment we’re born. It is natural. It’s a privilege. It can be the happiest time in our lives. But, not if we hate being in the moment, and not if we buy into the myth that aging is rotting, rather than ripening perfectly.

When we older gay men walk into a bar, filled with young, muscled men who are there for possible marriage proposals, for impersonal sex, or just for fun with their friends, they won’t notice us unless we make a spectacle of ourselves, and then we’re not going to get the kind of attention we want. If we, too, are there to find a husband, or hot anonymous sex, we need to consider the odds of our success. If we’re there with friends for fun, we won’t feel invisible.

Older lesbians, and aged transgender people can have similar experiences, but aging in Western culture is likely to be more challenging for gay men and straight women than it is for lesbian women and straight men. Youth and beauty, complemented by a striking physique, are the necessary ingredients of being seen and coveted in the gay male community. Such appearances are employed to sell everything from vacations to bath soap. We’re trained to respond, like Pavlov’s dogs, to the bells of being buff. If you don’t believe me, be a passenger in my car as I drive. You will hear Ray say, “Skin on the right, but watch the road, honey.”

So, what do we do when we notice the expiration date on our youth and beauty coupon? We either find, or create, a different culture in which we’ll feel seen and valued, or we hope for scraps and prepare ourselves for unwanted feelings of uselessness. Many of us had fun when we were young, good looking, and thin or otherwise had some ticket to the ball, such as money, power, or fame. We had our day. And, just as pro athletes decide to hang up their uniforms before they’re booed off the field, we are called by nature to smile appreciatively, and then find another way to entertain and affirm ourselves.

When I go looking for company, it’s no longer for approval. I’ve learned to give that to myself. It’s fun and/or intellectual stimulation that I seek. I don’t walk into a bar, because I know it would be more challenging to find there that for which I long. “Who here likes to play cards?” “Turn the music down, would you, please? I want to find people here who share my hunger and thirst for awareness.” Rather than the bar, I’d walk into a gathering of LGBTQ community donors and activists, and into an MCC, CSL, or other religious group celebration.

If we cling to yesteryear’s criteria for success, as we walk around in this year’s body, no matter how much we spend on our costume and cosmetics, most of us won’t make it to the swimsuit competition. We can wail against the cruelty of ageism, but the problems we experience in aging can be self-created. No one can make us feel invisible, unless we give them the controls of our self-esteem.

Is it physically and emotionally challenging to age? You bet. Most of us will encounter ailments and losses that drain us. When we retire from our jobs, many of us feel lost on how to answer the question, “Who are you?” The secret to success in loving your age and appearance as an older LGBTQ person is burning the old rule book, and writing a new, wiser guideline for happiness.

We have to look at the canvas from a different angle, maybe use a different brush, and varied colors, and paint ourselves as beautiful, interesting, and as a person worth knowing. Maybe we quit trying to present ourselves as Michelangelo’s “David,” and focus instead on the beautiful soul that has been nurtured over the years, beneath that cold, hard marble.

What are the secrets to being happy as we age?

What I’ve observed is that people who are in service to others don’t feel invisible. People whose lives are guided by loving kindness don’t feel useless. It’s okay to turn your head while driving to look at attractive skin, as long as we don’t do so with lust. Look with gratitude for our own, previous experiences of youth, wish the young person a happy life, and then keep our eyes on the road ahead.