As a gay man of 23 I have lived my formative years in a completely different world to anyone over the age of 60, but particularly anyone who’s gay. When I was 10 years old Tony Blair came to power along with changing public attitudes to gay people and gay rights. When I started to tell people I didn’t fancy girls at the age of 14 I did it in the subconscious knowledge that that was ok, and the majority of people weren’t going to think that that was sick or wrong. Since then, the internet has opened up online dating and networking for gay men living in small communities, or for people who didn’t know where to start, and there are mobile phones with apps which show you the nearest gay person registered to the same mobile application. A gay man is no longer assumed to be a mincing queen and is allowed to be as complex as anyone else. As a confused 14 year old, you can now turn on the TV and see gay men in rugby, national politics and Olympic swimming, as well as in fashion, music and theatre. You can buy gay-themed feature films, or stumble across a gay storyline in a soap. Of course there is still some way to go, especially when you look at bullying in schools and the relaxed derogatory use of ‘gay’; but without a doubt being gay is easier now than it ever has been.
It is hard to talk about ageing as a young person without sounding naïve or patronizing, especially given the massive changes that have taken place in the space of a generation. When I talk to older gay people, I often think that they spent most of their lives in a country very different to the one we have now. I would be surprised if I were the only one who feels a slight sense of guilt about the freedoms I have. Hate and anger towards gay people still exist in the world: homosexuality is still illegal in 81 countries, and you have to be prepared to lose your life for it in eight of them. I have moments when I think I should go to Pride marches in Krakow or Moscow; but, needless to say, like the majority of happy British gay men, I don’t.
I haven’t had to go on marches or be worried about losing my job or being discriminated against in order to be openly gay. I haven’t lived through the worst of AIDS. AIDS hasn’t gone away and in some ways sex education needs to be more vocal when it comes to safe sex, but I have not had to live through many of my friends dying. So I feel slightly in awe of previous generations of gay men for what they have achieved, and lucky that many of them had so much courage.
The older generation helped to shape the gay rights movement, whether or not they were active in protesting. Yet I suspect that being older and being gay is difficult for many. The issues are not the same as when you’re old and straight. Most gay men don’t have kids, and this helps to explain a ‘gay culture’ which looks outwardly selfish and mainly consists of things being flogged to us, whether it’s the perfect body or the perfect clothes and cologne. If you open a gay ‘culture magazine’, you’re not going to see adverts for family cars or features on schools, you’re going to see glamorous hotel rooms in Venice or Morocco, and adverts for £600 cardigans.
It is hard to imagine that this remains very appealing or particularly relevant when you’re in your seventies. The dream that much of the media aimed at gay men promotes is a hedonistic world of money, sex, and nice interiors: a kind of Elton John outlook on life which is an ultimately depressing fantasy, in which men run around buying things to give their lives meaning. The problem is that Age Pride doesn’t really exist in our society, and is definitely not big on the gay scene. The general consensus is if you’re old you’re going to be having less sex, with uglier people, and if your ‘scene’ is sexually-based that looks pretty grim.
There is no real precedent for gay men’s lives when they get older – no cultural norm, or respected path, and this gives gay men a scary, but quite exciting possibility to create our own old age, which isn’t likely to be mapped out by kids and the responsibility that comes with that.
Youth and sex will no doubt continue to dominate the gay scene – not least because they sell. But you can be much happier in your 60s than in your 20s and, as we become accustomed to greater numbers of older gay men, I suspect attitudes towards being old and gay will change. The numbers of gay men overall are relatively small, and the communities are concentrated in towns and cities. If you go into gay bars in Soho or Newcastle, you do see gay men in their 60s sitting next to younger gay men; there are places where men of any age can hang out. And there is a respect for and gratitude towards the older gay generation. We have older gay role models like Peter Tatchell and Ian McKellen, as well as famous actors, fashion designers, and theatre directors, who are only ever really shown in a positive light, in the mainstream media as well as the gay press.
I suspect there will always be pressure for gay men to stay looking youthful but, as more gay men marry, and as society becomes ever more unconcerned whether you’re gay or straight, gay men might embrace old age as a time when they can kick back and feel less of that pressure. Gay men will always be a minority, and for that reason, age and race should be unimportant. Just as gay teens need role models who are happy in their twenties, we all need role models in their sixties and beyond.