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The Gay Generation Gap

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Were we that uninterested when we were that young? Actually, no, we weren’t; we were thirsty to acquire the vast range of knowledge, tastes, and encoded references that seemed to derive from some mysterious User’s Guide to Homosexuality, because even if we then rejected them, they still constituted a lingua franca (in an era well before LGBT studies programs or even many books on gay history made that kind of information easily accessible). Now, a familiarity with those movies, those plays, and those books will likely get you branded an “old queen” by people for whom “old” is by far the worse of those two epithets (unfortunately, a morbid fear of aging is one of the few ideas we seem to have done a good job instilling in the young).

For gay men who came of age 25 years ago in a tougher environment, knowing your (sub)cultural iconography was not only a way of connecting to past generations but a means of defiantly reorganizing the world, of asserting your right to literally see, hear, and perceive things differently. The need to hide yourself was thus transformed into the privilege of joining a private club with a private language. But to many younger gay men who grew up with gay public figures, fictional characters, and references, it’s a dead language—a calcified gallery of Judy Garland references and All About Eve bon mots that excludes them as much as it does the straight world.

So they react, as they react to many things, with a pose of bored indifference. Which is, of course, infuriating: There’s nothing duller than a young gay man who ornaments his ignorance with attitude and whose curiosity about the world doesn’t appear to extend past his iPod, certain that anything not already within his firsthand experience is by definition antiquated. But once we start blaming gay twentysomethings for not having gone through what we did, we turn into sour old reactionaries telling ourselves self-flattering lies about how misery builds character. Worse, we may in fact be doing damage. According to a 2005 report by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, our “emphasis on suffering reflects not the current reality of many LGBT adolescents so much as recollections of previous generations’ own ‘horror’ … LGBT adults’ residual fears and pain may be acting to magnify the real difficulties of LGBT teens.” Put simply, we talk too much, telling nightmare stories about AIDS and the Reagan administration when we should be listening—and then we get angry that they’re not listening to us.

“We’re just like our parents,” says a colleague of mine who came out right after college, in the mid-eighties. “We fought really hard so that our children would have things easier than we did, and now we resent them for it and sit around complaining that they lack character because they had everything too easy.”

That parent-child analogy also points to a larger cultural change, one that helped breed the hurt feelings that created the gay generation gap, which is that young gay men are, by and large, not our kids, even symbolically. The last twenty years—thanks to political progress, activism, education, the dying-off of a lot of homophobes, the Internet, and the mighty guiding arm of popular entertainment—have brought about a remarkable growth in straight America’s acceptance of homosexuality. Without forgetting that for too many gay kids, coming out is still hell, we’re also witnessing the rise of a parallel generation of gay kids with unflinchingly supportive parents, buddies who cheer their comings-out on Facebook, high schools with gay-straight alliances—in other words, kids who have grown up in a world that’s finally beginning, in a few places, to look like the one we wanted to create for them, or for ourselves.

And it would be dishonest to suggest that those kids—brash, at ease in their own skin, exuberant, happy—are being greeted by older gay men with nothing but uncomplicated joy. We can’t help but wonder how our lives might have been different if things had been easier for us, too. Some envy, some wistfulness, even some resentment is only human. And to add one further injury: Those kids don’t seem to need us anymore. For decades, gay men functioned as unofficial surrogate parents to the newly out and/or newly outcast. They’d offer reassurance that being gay didn’t mean being lonely. It was a bond that linked many generations of gay men across the age spectrum and created a real emotional connection, even if what necessitated it was pervasive prejudice. Today, though, the notion of quasi-parental gay mentorship feels ancient, a trope out of Tales of the City.

Unlike heterosexuals, most gay kids don’t grow up around adults who are like them, and gay adults in their forties, fifties, and sixties don’t have many occasions for routine, ordinary contact with a younger group of gay people. One of the benefits of Pride Week is that, however artificially, it breaks that barrier down and restarts the conversation. That’s appropriate for an occasion that’s meant to be steeped not just in optimism but in an awareness of history—a history that, by the way, includes a generation gap of its own. As author David Carter reminds us in his excellent 2004 book Stonewall, back in 1969, gay New York was deeply factionalized. Gay older men “passing” in coat-and-tie jobs on Madison and Park Avenues and then discreetly meeting each other in Turtle Bay bars had contempt for long-haired, sideburned Village hippies, and the reverse was also rudely, robustly the case. Even though gay Americans seem to have lived a century of tumult and progress since then, it’s good to know we still have something in common with our ancestral brothers-in-arms.


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