I listened in on some straight kids at the gym the other day and I was struck by how obsessively they focused on appearance and attracting girls. They were completely into it and the conversation was completely one-note. There was nothing homophobic about the talk, but it was exclusionary. No way would a gay guy fit into that circle.
And that, it struck me, is the way it should be. Sexual orientation is never more important than when you’re young and one of the ways you figure it out is by hanging out with like-minded lechers. You are who you want and you figure that out by hanging with people who want the same thing. It’s a bonding bonspiel.
But the older you get the less central sex becomes and that turns out to be a problem, not for individual gay lives because every life heads in the same direction, but for the culture at large.
Put aside sex and older gays tend to look, act and think like all other older people (and by older I mean anyone over 40). They’re more concerned with their cholesterol counts and investment portfolios than with their body count at the baths. Yes, they still eat, think and breath sex but without the rabid concentration and fevered romanticism of the young. The daydreams are gone. We have seen the world and it’s a lot duller than we thought.
On some deeper level gays will always be different from straights, but on the surface, which is what I’m concerned with here, the image gets a little blurry, mostly, I think, because we can’t imagine any strong image of “gay” that’s not young.
It’s a funny thing about gay life: The structures are often run by the old, but the scene depends for its visibility on the young. It’s not that everyone is obsessed with youth, it’s that you can’t brand a gay identity without invoking youthful pleasures. Young sex, young clubs, young music. You can’t brand a gay magazine as gay unless you put cute, young, half-naked guys on the cover and you can’t advertise a gay play or film without the semaphore of steamy torsos.
The international symbol for gay is not the pink triangle or the rainbow flag, it’s the buff boy with a smooth chest. You can’t have a gay event without one.
I have no objection to cute, young guys. Beauty is youth, youth is beauty, as Keats once said. (Well, actually, he didn’t, but he should have.) And where would porn be without youth? College guys this and broke straight boys that.
Nor do I buy all that guff about the vast wisdom of the ages. Mostly that’s just the blank-faced equanimity that comes of being becalmed by age and knowing there’s no choice.
Still there are other ways of being and I wish the culture could incorporate them into its marketing campaign. As it is, the media-tized vision of gay life seems to stop at about 40 and then disappear into the void.
It’s not so much that the culture is ageist, as that it’s unimaginative. I seldom hear cracks about wrinkle bars, or the “open coffin” this-or-that any more, but neither do I hear anyone desperate to be older. And, really, considering the options, can you blame them?
Who wants to end up like, say, Quentin Crisp, alone in New York, with $1 million in the bank and a grotty bed-sit for a home. (See the latest installment of his cinematic memoirs, An Englishman in New York, for further tawdry evidence.) Or worse, the morose hero of Andrew Holleran’s second last novel (The Beauty of Men), a depressed queen who tarries at cruising spots and can’t get laid.
The problem, I think, is that we can’t quite figure out what an older gay guy is supposed to look like. We start from the template of “young” and add or subtract various qualities so that “old” becomes almost by definition a defective variation on a different demographic. Which is to say, the same as young but not as taut.
Yet, as somebody once remarked, age isn’t just a variation on youth, it’s another country. And if we are to see it whole, and establish a more expansive vision of gay life, it must have its own imagery.
It’s not easy to establish a new demographic identity. Look at poor Moses Znaimer trying to push a magazine for 50-plus straights and calling it, of all things, Zoomer, kind of like he wanted to reduce his readers to kids revving their toy cars. “Voom, voom!”
But with enough verve I’m sure we can come up with something iconic — our very own Ma and Pa Kettle — an image to rival American Gothic. I’m thinking something really snazzy like maybe a couple of old dears dolled up in gauzy-brimmed sunhats and crinolined skirts à la Princess Grace. That’ll shake the shackles of youth.