“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a gay man in his 60s and I spent decades involved in the gay rights movement. I helped start Pride and other gay events in my hometown at a time when doing so meant risking my reputation, my job, even my physical safety. Nowadays, I feel more and more out of touch with the younger generation of LGBTQ2 youth and activists. I want to support younger activists, but I have to admit that I can’t always keep up with “PC” language and ideas.
For example, we used to protest and get arrested for our right to be proudly and openly sexual! And now I hear (on the web, to be honest) some young folks saying that we need to take sexuality out of Pride because it’s “triggering” and “bad for kids.” Honestly, that’s just what the homophobes used to say to us—and some of them still do!
I don’t mean to be offensive, but I honestly don’t understand it. Maybe there’s just no place for old white faggots like me in “the movement” anymore, and I can sort of understand that. But sometimes it seems like people forget that we started the movement. I lived through AIDS, and I got arrested at Montreal’s Sex Garage back in the 1990s so that kids today can use PrEP and hook up on Grindr. Don’t I deserve just a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t? Anyway, anything you can do to help an old fag get “with it” is much appreciated!
OLD and GAY
I am sincerely, truly grateful to receive a question about bridging the Great Queer Generational Divide! I think you’re bringing up a huge, vastly understudied issue in our community. As a young(ish) trans woman of colour about town, I’ve noticed myself that there is tragically little intergenerational transmission of knowledge, skills and mutual care among us. I don’t think it has to be this way, OG; indeed, I think that all queers— young ones and elders alike—are going to need each other more than ever as we plunge toward a post-COVID-19 world.
I don’t think that I can help you get “with it” (mostly because I would never presume to be a paragon of “with it”-ness myself), but what I can do is try to trace where communication often starts to break down between queer generations. I can also answer some of your specific questions and make some suggestions for moving forward.
To begin with, OG, you’re definitely not the first older queer person to tell me that younger activists aren’t respectful of older queers, or appreciative of what older generations have done for our rights and freedoms today. While I certainly don’t speak for all millennials or zoomers, what I can say is that I imagine you’re at least partly right.
To some extent, it’s the nature of the young to flout the wisdom and the experience of elders. I think that this is especially true of young queers, because most of us grew up in heternormative families and don’t typically meet queer elders until young adulthood or even later. No one taught us to appreciate the suffering, survival and accomplishments of queer activists in school; in fact, I had never even heard of the AIDS crisis until around the end of high school (and even then, only because I read about it on my own on the internet).
The great tragedy of AIDS, of course, had an intergenerational ripple effect: By the time millennial queers came of age, a huge number of queer boomers and Gen Xers were no longer around to mentor us through our sexual and/or gender awakening. We came out as a generation of Lost Boys, Girls and Non-Binary kids, into a community still echoing with the trauma of a past time. And I do believe that this trauma went into our bodies as well, manifesting as unsafe or violent sexual experiences, gender transitions in a hostile world with no one to guide us and disconnection from the queer struggles and stories that came before us.
You see, OG, I grew into queerness and transness without any elders—sure, I knew some older gays and lesbians (no trans people yet), but for the most part they seemed either disinterested in me or creepy and exploitative (think: White gay dudes in their 50s and 60s fetishizing my Asianness and trying to convince me to sleep with them when I was 16 or 17). I learned survival on my own and from my friends, and before very long I was the mentor of queer and trans kids not much younger (and in some cases, actually older) than me.
As I grew up, I watched my generation of queers both flourish and flounder: We developed new vocabularies, systems of ideas and strategies for fighting oppression. We also hurt each other, loved each other, betrayed and disappointed each other. I imagine your generation did the same, OG—but where was yours when mine needed answers, wisdom, support? So many of you were already gone, many of you had traumas of your own to deal with and perhaps we younger folks didn’t know how to listen to the stories you wanted to tell us.
And now here we are, in a crumbling world with a new pandemic tearing through our ranks. I think you’re right that many, even most, young activists don’t give past generations of fighters their due. We don’t give credit to your strength, what you fought for.
At the same time, I think many of us do wonder: Was the world you fought for the one we got? And was it meant for all of us? Did the gay liberationists of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s think about the people of colour, the trans women, the marginalized queers still suffering violence and deprivation today? If the earlier gay liberation activists really were fighting for me, then why did I still experience so much racism and sexual violence at the hands of older gay men?
I think that we can—we must—hold both of our experiences at the same time, OG: Your pain and also mine. The hurt of older generations of queers who feel disrespected by younger movement builders, and the hurt of younger generations who feel that older activists weren’t there for us. We can accept the truth of both of these, as well as the truth that younger and older queers have always benefited from each others’ fight for survival and freedom.
When it comes to being “PC,” well, the truth is that even younger queers struggle with staying “up to date” with activist terminology. This is an ongoing problem with much of leftist activism: Staying accessible and relevant to a wide range of people, including older folks. I think we can separate the problem of language from the deeper differences in how generations think about fundamental issues like sexuality and gender.
You mention in your letter that some members of the queer community have advocated for putting restrictions on displays of sexuality and kink at Pride. Here, too, it’s important to remember that there is deep conflict even within queer generations—I know plenty of younger folks who feel very strongly that Pride should be a safe space for sexuality (myself included), and I also know plenty of older folks who think that Pride ought to be “family-friendly” (as though people with families never have sex). We could just as easily frame this issue as a respectability versus liberationist debate as we could a generational one.
However, I will say that my understanding of the younger generation of queer activists is that our movement-building has perhaps had a greater focus on the notion of safety than previous generations. Trauma-informed language and ideas such as trigger warnings and “safer spaces” are often woven into our organizing with the intent of protecting people from unintended harm.
There is much to discuss here, more than we have space for in this column (and I should note that I am not a sociologist nor a historian), but my own sense is that older generations of queer activists organized primarily toward the achievement of particular freedoms—the freedom to engage in queer sexuality, to express themselves outside of traditional gender norms, to build alternative kinship networks. My generation, on the other hand, is more oriented toward safety—or rather, freedom from heteronormative standards, non-consensual sexuality and other forms of violence.
Here, I think, we can locate the heart of the issue around sex at Pride and the deep generational difference in understanding it: When you speak of fighting for your sexual liberation, OG, I hear you saying that you experienced repression and your perspective is shaped around pushing back. But when I hear other queers (of any age) saying that sexuality at Pride triggers them and they want to restrict it, what I hear is them saying that they experienced neglect—a lack of protection—and their perspective is shaped around demanding safety.
I personally believe that freedom is more important than safety in this context. But to answer your broader question about connecting with younger generations, I think the answer isn’t necessarily about one side “correcting” the other. It’s about holding each other through difference and valuing our shared experiences—and our shared needs—more than being right. And it certainly is about all of us getting the r-e-s-p-e-c-t that we deserve from one another, if only because we are not likely to get it from the cisgender heterosexual world.
And here’s the thing, OG: Whether or not you signed up for the role, to younger queers, you are the elder. Which means that in some ways it is up to you to model simultaneously holding your boundaries (as in, not putting up with abuse or disrespect!) while also being open to listening. You have a lot to share with younger queers, and you can show them how to learn from your experience and opinions without having to agree with them.
The same goes for you: You can appreciate younger queers without having to agree with everything they do and say. In other words, this isn’t about being “with it” so much as it is about learning how to be with each other. This is about you learning how to really be an elder, and it’s about them learning how to really respect you as one.
If our communities are going to survive the coming weeks and months and years, we will need intergenerational solidarity. We will need the wisdom of those who survived AIDS, and we will need the idealism of those who were born later. We will need revolutionary spirit to fight for freedom, and we will need compassion and emotional skill to keep each other safe. Not one of us is expendable.
And I do believe that when we find a way to hold all of who we are in our hearts we are capable of surviving anything.