The following essay appeared in the Nov. 5, 1998 Windy City Times. At the request of a reader, we are reprinting it for Pride 2008 because the issues are still relevant today. Charles-Gene McDaniel worked for 16 years at Roosevelt University, retiring as head of faculty of journalism and communications and professor emeritus. He lives on the south side of Chicago.
While out riding my bicycle on a fine summer day, I passed a young woman who was wearing a T-shirt that read, 'Old age is not a disease.' As a relatively healthy member of the senioratrict set, I could not agree more. Tell that, however, to young gay men who treat older men as pariahs ready to be carted to an ice floe to drift out to sea and an icy death. On that bicycle ride I was wearing a T-shirt that read, 'Born in the U.S.A. a long time ago.' I'm old and proud and gay and proud.
Gay men and lesbians complain about homophobia and this grievance, as it should be, is the core of gay political action. But gay men especially engage in gerontophobia. And here phobia applies in its original sense, meaning fear rather than hatred, although the result is at least the appearance of hate toward the aging, whose presence is considered visual pollution when they appear on the streets in the gay ghettoes. Lesbians seem less obsessed with appearances and embrace their sisters across generational lines. The young gay hunks and pretty boys should take heed.
Old people hold the mirror of our own mortality before us and we do not like what we see. Even more pronounced among gay men is the disturbing reminder of the transience of youthful beauty and vitality, the inevitable wrinkles, graying and balding, vision and hearing impairment and the southward migration of various body parts. To the young narcissists, it is as though aging were contagious. There is no turning back the clock, though, even should we foolishly want to, and there is no vaccine against it.
Everybody gets old if he is lucky. Getting old is what happens when we live a long time. American culture in general puts a premium on youth because, for one thing, the young spend more money. That attitude is even more pronounced in the gay subculture, in which social institutions and services are geared to the young, with few available to the aging. Where are the gay retirement communities? Gay social groups for the aging? Gay nursing homes? Gay and lesbian people did an extraordinary job in coming together to press for specialized facilities for people with AIDS, who are overwhelmingly young. They also have devoted prodigious amounts of volunteer time into raising money and providing personal services to people with AIDS. Their interest wanes when it comes to caring for gay and lesbian people who are suffering from cancer or the debilitating effects of stroke or arthritis. The health-challenged gay and elderly find themselves isolated and alone or, if they are in an extended care facility, among people who share nothing of their culture, nothing of their past.
Among gay social institutions there is none more gerontophobic than the bars, which are notorious in the first place because of the attitude of the gay bar-goers, but where ther is mega attitude against any older gay man who might foolishly wander into one of these noisy, smoky dens seeking companionship among his 'brothers.' The young are offended if an older person even says hello to them. They may not only ignore the greeting but emphasize their disdain with a verbalized 'get lost.' A greeting does not mean the lonely older man wants to unzip the jeans of the younger, although were it to come to that, the younger men might learn that good sex does not have to be frantic but can be warm and caring.
Other cultures, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, venerate the aged. Even young gay men are friendly toward old gay men and care for them. They recognize what might come as a surprise to American bar bunnies: Gay geezers have a lot to share – the wisdom that comes from their long life of experience and learning. We fought the battles and suffered the indignities and abuse and imprisonment that made present liberation possible. Together we can make further progress toward gaining equal rights and ending gay-bashing.
Life is tough enough without suffering the added hurt that comes from rejection by other gay men. Next time an old man says hello, smile and return the greeting. Even give him a hug. It will make his day. Yours too.