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The Gay Generation Gap

2008: Proposition 8 protesters  

These unnuanced generalizations, as everyone who makes them quickly notes, do a gross injustice to both groups. The gay community—or more accurately, communities—is hardly monolithic, and its divisions, not just of age but of race, gender, region, and income, are too complex to paint with a broad brush. And Pride Week—which this year falls on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots—is a reminder that we have always been able to unite when faced with either a common cause or a common enemy. It’s when we’re not on the front lines that tensions flare. “On its simplest level,” says Jon Barrett, 40, the editor-in-chief of the 42-year-old gay magazine The Advocate, “we think they’re naïve. And they think we’re old.”

Even on those front lines, it’s a complex moment. Last November, eight days after the election, I found myself marching with thousands of gay men, lesbians, and friends of the cause from Lincoln Center to Columbus Circle to protest the passage of Proposition 8 in California. The air was charged; many of us were eager to call out the enemy—a well-organized, well-financed coalition of conservatives who were using churches as political-action bases designed to roll back civil rights for gay Americans. And our response was anger. We held up signs with slogans like TAX THIS CHURCH! We yelled ourselves hoarse.

But the demeanor of many of the young attendees felt unfamiliar to older protesters. They were smiling more than seething, and I noticed that many of their picket signs—LET ME GET MARRIED, LOVE ISN’T PREJUDICED, NYC LOVES GAY MARRIAGE—were more like let-the-sunshine-in expressions than clenched fists. Shouting did not come as naturally to them.

There’s nothing duller than a young gay man whose curiosity about the world doesn’t appear to extend past his iPod.

Activism is an unlikely realm in which to spot a generation gap; by definition, a rally attracts people who identify themselves by a shared goal. But it’s sometimes an uneasy union; the march marked an encounter between age groups that, although part of the same community, had previously spent little time together. And a difference in outlook was unmistakable. “After Prop 8 passed, a tremendous number of young people who had never been to a protest before wanted to release that energy,” says Corey Johnson, the event’s 27-year-old organizer. “And that night was a great example of the two generations being bridged in a productive way. But my impression is that there is a difference. Young people are, I think, upset, but it’s not with the level of anger that a lot of older folks feel, and perhaps there’s more hopefulness involved.”

To many young gay people, the passage of Prop 8 was shocking but not alarming; it has jolted them into action, but one suspects it’s out of a Milk-fed belief that identity-politics activism can be ennobling and cool. What doesn’t seem to be driving them is fear; their cheerful conviction that history is going their way seems unshakable compared to ours. That can lead to callousness on both sides; we patronizingly warn them that their optimism is dangerous; they patronizingly tell us that we’re too embittered by our own past struggles to see the big picture.

The notion that anger no longer has a primary place in the gay-rights movement can feel awfully uninformed to anyone raised on the protests of the late eighties, when say-it-loud outrage was one of the movement’s only effective weapons. To some of those whose identities as both homosexuals and activists were forged in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, this new aura of serenity is way too “Kumbaya.” It’s hard to overstate the centrality of the AIDS crisis in any gay generation gap (the divide between those who are currently 45 and their elders once yawned at least as wide). If you want to know where you stand in gay history, ask yourself where you were in 1982, when the disease took hold in public consciousness. If you were already sexually active by then and you’re still here to read this, you are someone who surely knows that fury has its uses. If you were in your teens, wondering how to take even your first steps into life as a gay man in a world in which a single encounter could become a death sentence, you understand fear, and its warping effects down through the decades. And if you were a kid, you grew up seeing AIDS as an unhappy fact of life.

But what about the ever-growing cohort of gay men who weren’t even born in 1982? For most of them, AIDS is not their past but the past. No wonder some of us feel frustrated; when we complain that young gay men don’t know their history, what we’re really saying is that they don’t know our history—that once again, we feel invisible, this time within our own ranks.