“See you later, boys,” said somebody on the street the other day and I turned and saw with a start, though not too much surprise, that the boys in question weren’t very boyish. Well into their 30s, if not beyond.
The use of the word “boys” to mean “men” can be tricky. Like the word “girls” applied to grown women, the term can be disparaging to the point of innuendo. In her biography of sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle (aka The Girls) Elspeth Cameron reports that the photographic duo of Charles Ashley and James Crippen were once widely known as The Boys.
But these days the B-word is a fun part of a gay life, a reflection of lightness and frivolity. When bartenders want to win your heart they don’t say, “Hi, men!” Usually it’s something a little more campy like “How’s it goin’, guys?” or “Thanks, hon'”. I myself can’t use the M-word without giggling. Sorry, but “men” are the other guys, not us. Nobody I know is that butch.
But if our use of the B-word says something about our distrust of traditional masculinities, it also signals a cultural attitude worth celebrating. Something silly but kinda noble.
Gays are often criticized for failing to grow up, for being obsessed with youth, for trying to act young, be young, hang out with the young. Lots of us refuse to have kids, party too much, worry about appearance too much. We’re superficial and trashy and irresponsible and just generally childlike.
It’s true that the whole Dorian Gray thing can get a little out of hand. I was looking at some pictures of old-style sweater queens the other day and it was weird the way one of them had kept his aquiline good looks well into his 60s. A halo of puffy silver hair surrounded his too-pretty features and he looked like nothing so much as a well-manicured poodle.
But of course we’re not alone in clinging to youth. Looking younger is just part of a larger cultural trend. People dress “younger,” which is to say, more casually, than they did a generation ago and that’s as true of straights as it is of gays. Some people pull it off better than others but everyone does it.
As Adam Sternbergh pointed out in New York magazine two years ago adults now act like kids and vice versa. He called his article, collected in the anthology New York Stories, “an obituary for the generation gap.”
So it’s not just gays. But I’m sure we started it. I mean what is the whole paedophile smear if not the suggestion that we’re acting out of synch with our age?
One of the gifts of being gay, goes the old saw, is looking 10 years younger than you are, but I think the bigger gift is having the wits to keep the best parts of being young and ditch the rest.
Novelist Milan Kundera says we’re all essentially children at heart. We can’t help it. Our experience is always being made redundant. Just as we learn to cope with life, life changes and we’re back where we started, children in spirit, if not in age.
But gays do it better, I think. With our sex jokes and diva worship and wry bitchery, we’ve held to a light-hearted loopiness that’s akin to, though slightly different from, youthfulness. Something serious but playful, frivolous but fulfilling.
Like effeminacy, with which it’s often confused, it’s part and parcel of standing apart from the crowd. Not being part of the mainstream, we’ve developed different ways to be an adult and one of them is to hold onto a certain youthful openness.
I don’t particularly want to be young again. I had a good time in my 20s but I’m not terribly impressed when I think back on what I didn’t know.
Nor do I particularly want to hang out with the young. Nobody needs to go around screaming “Oh, my, God!” for the rest of their life. (Or believing that a new set of clothes will change your life.)
But it’s worth holding onto the energy behind those beliefs. The openness to experience that says there’s always something new coming down the tracks and who knows what it will be. No point in worrying about the mortgage all the time.
If in doubt, have a look at the United Nations program on aging, which includes the International Older Persons Day (just passed on Oct 1). While espousing really obvious stuff like independence, dignity and self-fulfilment it also suggests that the overall goal is “to add life to the years that have been added to life.” One of the easiest ways to do that, of course, is to pretend that some of those years haven’t occurred and that you still have as much zest for life as you did when you were young. In that respect, at least, gays may have the advantage.