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The Gay Generation Gap

Forty years after Stonewall, the gay movement has never been more united. So why do older gay men and younger ones often seem so far apart?


1991: AIDS activists  

This week, tens of thousands of gay people will converge on New York City for Pride Week, and tens of thousands of residents will come out to play as well. Some of us will indulge in clubbing and dancing, and some of us will bond over our ineptitude at both. Some of us will be in drag and some of us will roll our eyes at drag. We will rehash arguments so old that they’ve become a Pride Week staple; for instance, is the parade a joyous expression of liberation, or a counterproductive freak show dominated by needy exhibitionists and gawking news cameras? Other debates will be more freshly minted: Is President Obama’s procrastinatory approach to gay-rights issues an all-out betrayal, or just pragmatic incrementalism? We’ll have a good, long, energizing intra-family bull session about same-sex marriage and the New York State Senate, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Project Runway and Adam Lambert.

And at some point, a group of gay men in their forties or fifties will find themselves occupying the same bar or park or restaurant or subway car or patch of pavement as a group of gay men in their twenties. We will look at them. They will look at us. We will realize that we have absolutely nothing to say to one another.

And the gay generation gap will widen.

You hear the tone of brusque dismissiveness in private conversations, often fueled by a couple of drinks, and you see the irritation become combustible when it’s protected by Internet anonymity. On the well-trafficked chat site DataLounge, a self-described repository of “gay gossip, news, and pointless bitchery,” there’s no topic, from politics to locker-room etiquette to the proper locations for wearing cargo pants and flip-flops, that cannot quickly devolve into “What are you, 17?”–“What are you, some Stonewall-era relic?” sniping. And some not entirely dissimilar rhetoric is showing up in loftier media. In April, a 25-year-old right-of-center gay journalist argued in a Washington Post op-ed that many gay-rights groups are starting to outlive their purpose, and chided older activists for being stuck in “a mind-set that sees the plight of gay people as one of perpetual struggle … their life’s work depends on the notion that we are always and everywhere oppressed.” The scathing message-board replies pounded him at least as hard for his age as for his politics. “You twentysomething gays seem to think being out equals acceptance … Don’t be so quick to dissolve the organizations that made it possible for you to be so naïve,” wrote one reader. Another, blunter response: “Forgive me for not falling all over myself to do exactly what an inexperienced 25-year-old decrees … Don’t waltz in and start barking orders, little boy.”

Public infighting is a big minority-group taboo—it’s called taking your business out in the street. And it may seem strange to note this phenomenon at a juncture that, largely because of the fight for gay marriage, has been marked by impressive solidarity. But let’s have a look. Here’s the awful stuff, the deeply unfair (but maybe a little true) things that many middle-aged gay men say about their younger counterparts: They’re shallow. They’re silly. They reek of entitlement. They haven’t had to work for anything and therefore aren’t interested in anything that takes work. They’re profoundly ungrateful for the political and social gains we spent our own youth striving to obtain for them. They’re so sexually careless that you’d think a deadly worldwide epidemic was just an abstraction. They think old-fashioned What do we want! When do we want it! activism is icky and noisy. They toss around terms like “post-gay” without caring how hard we fought just to get all the way to “gay.”

And here’s the awful stuff they throw back at us—at 45, I write the word “us” from the graying side of the divide—a completely vicious slander (except that some of us are a little like this): We’re terminally depressed. We’re horrible scolds. We gas on about AIDS the way our parents or grandparents couldn’t stop talking about World War II. We act like we invented political action, and think the only way to accomplish something is by expressions of fury. We say we want change, but really what we want is to get off on our own victimhood. We’re made uncomfortable, or even jealous, by their easygoing confidence. We’re grim, prim, strident, self-ghettoizing, doctrinaire bores who think that if you’re not gloomy, you’re not worth taking seriously. Also, we’re probably cruising them.

To some extent, a generation gap in any subgroup with a history of struggle is good news, because it’s a sign of arrival. If you have to spend every minute fighting against social opprobrium, religious hatred, and governmental indifference, taking the time to grumble about generational issues would be a ridiculously off-mission luxury; there are no ageists in foxholes. But today, with the tide of history and public opinion finally (albeit fitfully) moving our way, we can afford to step back and exercise the same disrespect for our elders (or our juniors) as heterosexuals do. That’s progress, of a kind.

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