Unpacking the LGBTQ generation gap

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Sven Salvador teaching a private cooking lesson to a young chef
Sven Salvador teaching a private cooking lesson to a young chef.

What’s dividing the community?

Linda Slodki and wife Arleen
Linda Slodki and wife Arleen.

The concept of a “generation gap” has been around since the 1960s. Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, were noticeably growing apart from the generations before, with their own distinct opinions on social and political ideologies. As time goes by, generations continue to pass and society continues to see more of these gaps form and widen, to the point that now grandparents, parents and children under one roof may have polar- opposite belief systems.

Often, this phenomenon is viewed through a wide lens, comparing all human generations to one another. However, when you isolate LGBTQ people and focus on the LGBTQ community, you may see a deeper division impacting a so-called “family” once united.

“I don’t know if the gap is wider today,” Linda Slodki, a 71-year-old Philadelphia resident said, “but it happens enough, and it’s common enough that I see it as a problem.”

Slodki, a self-identified “fem dyke” and “leather woman,” has been with her wife, Arleen Olshan, a 78-year-old, self-identified “butch lesbian,” for 25 years. The couple married each other three different times throughout their years together.

From 1976 to 1986, Olshan co-owned Giovanni’s Room, a popular bookstore and LGBTQ safe space in Philadelphia.

Olshan says LGBTQ people of all ages gathered there as one community.

“It was a sanctuary, in a lot of ways, for young people coming out. People would come out and tell their stories and feel safe and feel welcomed,” Olshan said. “They could sit on the couch and they could read books. We had parties, we had book signings, and all kinds of stuff like that. It was a heartwarming place to come to, and I don’t feel that there’s anything like that at this point.”

Both Olshan and Slodki recall that point in time as a moment when the LGBTQ community, as a result of the shared fight for liberation, was forced to band together. And even though there were still noticeable divisions and disagreements in the community — such as the ostracization between the leather community and lesbian feminists, Slodki noted — the collective whole of the LGBTQ community still made an effort to communicate and work out differences.

“There was always that kind of underlying tension, but there were institutions and there were individuals that said, ‘let’s talk about it, let’s discuss it, let’s go face to face,’ because our community is bigger than this and because we needed each other,” Olshan said. “Life has changed drastically, with a lot of new laws and permissions in the general population. So, as a result, we don’t need each other as much, but we really do.”

Historically, the LGBTQ community has always been composed of diverse members. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities have always had their own subdivisions within them that helped further describe the color of one’s gender and/or sexuality.

However, the labels used to describe identity in the community have since expanded and grown. Now, identities such as non-binary, gender queer, and gender-non-conforming are seeing greater public attention. While some believe these identifications are a positive result of the progress made by the older LGBTQ generation’s fight for equality, others worry the community is becoming too divided by identities, thus contributing to the gap between generations.

Like Olshan, Don Cook, a 74-year-old gay man, and current Marlton, N.J., resident, remembers the days when the LGBTQ community seemed more unified. For many years, Cook co-owned Equus, a popular gay bar and music venue in Philadelphia’s ‘Gayborhood.’ In a similar way to Giovanni’s Room, Equus was a space where all members of the LGBTQ community, and allies outside of it, came together to enjoy one another’s company.

Don Cook at his volunteer job
Don Cook at his volunteer job at JFSCC in Cherry Hill

“That to us was very important because that’s what generates into the outside community that things are, ‘let’s move along with these people and let’s be happy with these people,’” Cook said. “And I don’t know if the younger people understand that.”

For Cook, Olshan, and Slodki, it seems a major factor feeding into the LGBTQ generation gap is, in part, identity politics — a concept often heavily debated within the community.

In a nutshell, the term “identity politics” refers to the concept which, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, “groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”

In earlier years, one could say identifying as a member of the LGBTQ community was its own form of identity politics. However, as the LGBTQ community continues to expand, younger generations are moving away from identifying as a part of the whole, and rather, identifying as niche identities, still branching from, but different than, just being an LGBTQ person.

“The community is dysfunctioned. It’s fragmented,” Cook said. “It’s all of these letters. I don’t think it brings the community together.”

Identity politics and the nuances of LGBTQ identification is something 26-year-old transgender woman Gillian Omotoso has seen on a microcosmic level within the trans community. She is concerned that the blurry lines of gender identifications are lessening the seriousness of the trans experience.

Gillian Omotoso
Gillian Omotoso

“A lot of people seem to think nowadays that being trans is just something of a vanity, or something to escape yourself through, or something to escape gender through, and it’s not,” Omotoso said. “In fact, it’s very gendered. It’s very much yourself. It’s very much grappling with yourself and working in tandem with it, and doing things accordingly. And that is lost on some level now.”

In conversation, Omotoso also referenced noticeable differences between older and younger generations of trans celebrities, specifically 50-year-old trans actress Laverne Cox and 26-year-old trans TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney. When the two met for the first time at the 2023 Grammys, Cox gave some advice to Mulvaney about sharing a lot of her life experience as a trans woman on the Internet.

“[Cox] was kind of accosting Dylan a bit because Dylan has kind of laid it all out there. Laverne told her to, basically, ‘make sure you have some space for yourself, for your own privacy,’” Omotoso said. “What’s beautiful about Dylan Mulvaney is that she is kind of allowing that to be seen, but I get also why some people are a bit annoyed by it because transitioning is no joke. It’s not necessarily something that everyone should get to do necessarily, and it’s something that is really serious.”

Like Omotoso, Cook, Slodki, and Olshan are equally concerned with the division seen within the community. Cook worries that the lack of togetherness seen in younger generations only disadvantages the community in the current time when anti-LGBTQ legislation is heightened.

As someone who has experienced the horrors of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the initial fight for marriage equality, Cook is, as are Slodki and Olshan, concerned with the younger generation’s perception of LGBTQ history.

“Hearing LGBTQ history is one thing, and learning it is another.” – Don Cook

Hearing LGBTQ history is one thing, and learning it is another. That separation of lived experience from learned may contribute to the current generational divide.

“They don’t have the hurt in their face,” Cook said. “We had AIDS. We lived with AIDS. My partner died of AIDS… They don’t have that hurt quite so much today.”

Cook noted that he believes the trans community may have a better understanding of the hurt older LGBTQ communities faced in the past, given that laws are now being passed to restrict gender-affirming care. However, he isn’t sure whether the rest of the LGBTQ community understands or feels the heaviness and darkness of LGBTQ history.

“I don’t know if the younger, gay, queer kids that are not trans understand quite that push,” he said.

Cook, along with other members in a close-knit South Jersey community, talks about the disconnections they feel with younger LGBTQ people in a small support group called Aging with Pride. The group, hosted through the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, is a space where LGBTQ people over the age of 50 years old gather to openly share their feelings and discuss their experiences as elder LGBTQ people.

In addition to this group, Cook has also been associated with a collective called The Rainbow Table. Also operating out of the Jewish Family & Child Services of Southern New Jersey (JFCS), The Rainbow Table attempts to foster a space where younger and older LGBTQ people can learn from one another. Cook says sharing spaces with multigenerational groups is key to preventing history from repeating itself.

“If you don’t understand history, you don’t know history, you don’t know what happened. It’s going to repeat itself because you’re vulnerable to allow that to repeat itself,” Cook said. “I think that’s a direction we try to go in within that group.”

Cole Zaccaro, a 30-year-old gender-queer transmasculine person from Asbury Park, can admit that LGBTQ history was something from which they have previously felt disconnected.

Sven Salvador teaching a private cooking lesson to a young chef
Sven Salvador teaching a private cooking lesson to a young chef.

For 10 years, Zaccaro lived in Washington, D.C. And it wasn’t until they moved back to New Jersey and immersed themselves in conversations and spaces with LGBTQ elders that they felt a better understanding of history and themselves within it.

“I think that particularly with the HIV crisis, and the negligence that allowed the better part of an entire generation of queer history to be lost, I felt prior to moving here that I was disconnected from my own history and from my own community,” Zaccaro said. “[Due to] both the lack of visibility of LGBTQ elders because of the mass deaths that ensued, and also just the erasure of LGBTQ people from all of history.”

Zaccaro works for Asbury Park’s LGBTQ VNACJ Community Health Center. Through both their work and surrounding community of LGBTQ elders, Zaccaro has come to build connections to their local elder LGBTQ community that, in some ways, have helped mend the generational gap.

“I’ve had this unique honor to connect with queer elders in a way that I didn’t think was possible before, because I just didn’t know where they were or how to find them,” Zaccaro said. “That being said, that has led to its own sort of gap. Because now, I think for a lot of people, that connection to even share space is missing. And now that I am able to share space, there are some cultural gaps that I’m still grappling with.”

Even through shared spaces, Zaccaro has felt the need to be careful with their use of terminology associated with LGBTQ people. As an example, they point to the word “queer.”

“I know that that word, for me, it’s empowering, and for me, it’s reclaimed, but I’ve had conversations with somebody who’s really like a community leader and a pillar here in Asbury, who is an older generation, who still associates that word today with being chased around by people wielding baseball bats with intent to cause bodily harm,” they said.

Terminology is something both generations both old and new struggle to find synergy with. This is especially prevalent when it comes to pronouns.

Although the use of “they/them” pronouns to refer to a singular person has been documented throughout history since the late 1300s, its modern relevance has been somewhat of a polarizing debate. Politically, they/them pronouns have been mocked by far-right conservatives for dismantling gender as a binary construct. And within the LGBTQ community, the pronoun debate has also disrupted generational understanding.

Sven Salvador, a 32-year-old Hispanic, nonbinary educator and chef from Newark, NJ has run into this issue before. While attending Newark’s Harvest Festival Week, an event where locals are shown the variety of community gardens in the area, Salvador attempted to introduce themself to an elderly gay man. The response they received was unexpected.

“I was trying to introduce myself to him and tell him my pronouns, and he was like, ‘you know, I’m gay and everything, but like, that’s just too much,’” Salvador said.

These types of responses from some elderly LGBTQ people can often shut down channels of communication. For Zacarro, older generations who lack the willingness to learn newer concepts often cut deeper.

“Transness and non-binary pronouns are not necessarily broadly understood by older people in any community, including ours, and that’s frustrating,” Zacarro said. “I think that some [elder] LGBTQ people have been willing to try to understand and to learn, but a lot have not.”

They continued, “When the fire is coming from inside the house, it burns hotter.”

Despite these misunderstandings and disconnections sometimes felt by younger generations, Salvador believes it is important that the younger LGBTQ community stop and think about elders’ history before reacting.

“I think we have to just be more understanding of each other and really think more into things at times,” Salvador said. “Like, okay. This person was from this generation, not to stereotype, obviously, either, but during this time period, these things were happening. Could this have maybe influenced the way that this generation was raised? And why might they think differently than us?”

Underneath the layers of contributing factors to the LGBTQ generation gaps lies a seemingly common consensus between young and old generations — a lack of unity and communication. And while there will always remain differences between one another, one solution, suggested by all generations, to mend the gap is for the LGBTQ community to communicate and try and understand that, despite our differences, the LGBTQ community is still one family.

“I just think we’re too quick on the draw, to be castigating people in our gay and queer families,” Slodki said. “We need to be more understanding, take a deep breath and realize you’re not talking to an enemy. The goal is to try to educate and open doors, not close them.”

“Recognizing everybody and trying to have those kinds of discussions would be really very helpful in our going forward, both politically, socially, education-wise, surviving in this world of lots of hatred that’s going on around us, and recognizing that nothing is really given,” Olshan said. “We have to continue to work at our freedom.”

“I think people just need to hear each other,” Omotoso said.

“I think the community needs to identify itself again as a community,” Cook said. “I think it’s lost.”

“I think people just need to hear each other,” Omotoso said. “Yes, we’ll have different ideas about things and ideals about things and ways of doing things. Just listen to people. That’s the main thing.”

“There’s going to be times where you don’t know how to communicate, and there’s gonna be hiccups with communication, but we have to be able to learn ways to confront each other in a healthy, safe way that you can talk things out,” Salvador said. “We’re from the same community, number one, and then we’re all fighting for the same thing.”

“I think that the beauty of queerness is, maybe we don’t share lived experiences, maybe we grew up in very different times, maybe we grew up in very different ways, but the one thing that we all do have in common is at some point in our lives, we looked at the world around us, and we looked at who the world wanted us to be, and we said, ‘No, that’s not what I want. That’s not who I am.’ And we then had to figure out how to make our own way,” Zacarro said. “And that’s really empowering.”