The Gay Generation Gap

1991: AIDS activistsPhoto: Marc Geller

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.

2008: Proposition 8 protestersPhoto: David McNew/Getty Images

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.

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.

The Gay Generation Gap