Thursday, September 07, 2006

On aging as a gay man

Since I am 63, I suppose I really should say something in my blog about aging as a gay man. I should, however, make clear at the outset that this is not a topic that preoccupies me very much; I really don’t often think about my age and, in fact, even regard people 15 years younger as my contemporaries. But perhaps my lack of concern with the topic is, in fact, part of the issue.

It seems that many gay men feel that growing old presents a special problem for gay men not shared by straights. The alleged gay obsession with youth and beauty supposedly brings us closer to the position taken by women on this issue. But it is conventionally accepted that women resort to make- up and cosmetic surgery to maintain their youthful power to attract men, while this solution is still not viewed among most men as an acceptable masculine solution to the problem of a turkey neck, sagging chest and ass, or wrinkles. Straight men are supposed not to care (but many of them, believe me, secretly do), while gay men supposedly live in terror of being branded aging queens or, in fact, even think of themselves that way. For most gay men, cosmetic surgery is still viewed as an attack on their masculinity.

The issue of gay fear of aging, however, involves several myths, the most important being perhaps the gay obsession with youth and beauty itself. If such an obsession exists, it is hardly limited to gays. The middle- aged straight man who cheats on his wife with a younger, more physically attractive woman is, in fact, a cliché. Men in general seem to be, at least in part, biologically wired to gravitate toward younger, sexually active and fertile partners. It probably has to do with increasing our reproductive potential; it is, therefore, not our gay identities, but rather what is straight in us that send us toward young, strong, and physically healthy partners. It is, hence, not really a gay problem.

The parallelism with the straight situation can be carried even further. Just as many women are genuinely turned on by older men because of the power and protection they project, a fair number of younger gay guys prefer older men precisely for the same reasons. (I am talking about authentic sexual attraction--- not about sexual predators of either sex or orientation looking for sugar daddies.) This attraction seems, moreover, to be somewhat independent of active or passive sexual roles. Healthy older gay men who have kept themselves in decent shape, are well groomed, and who have not made themselves ridiculous by trying to seem younger through make- up and a dye bottle will confirm that there always seem to be enough younger men around to keep them busy.

There are, of course, problems. If an older straight man wants a female partner of his own age, he will have little problem finding her. In fact, he’ll have to fend aspiring aging girl friends off with clubs. But an older gay man looking for a contemporary as a partner--- who doesn’t want to deal with the generation gap--- will have a much harder time. Most older gay men, since they are, in fact, men, prefer younger partners and thereby are unavailable to their contemporaries.

Even more difficult is the role reversal required of the no longer young, protected guy who has to assume the daddy role later in life. This is not simply a matter of physical sexual roles, but much more importantly one of who protects whom. But the situation need not be so bleak. Just as there are young women who get off on protecting their aging husbands, there are young gay guys out there who find great fulfillment in protecting their aging partners.

So much for the youth part of our alleged obsession with youth and beauty: How about beauty? This is, in fact, an easier issue to handle. Canons of both male and female beauty have been constantly in flux throughout the ages (Marilyn Monroe would be considered fat in 2006 and most 1930s Tarzans would seem to have unremarkable bodies to us.) There really are no absolutes here, and as the general population ages in the West, it’s likely that the “ideal man” will also begin to look older. In the gay community, the “bear” phenomenon has also made canons of male beauty much more flexible in the last few years.

The major problem is, in fact, not so much one of attracting sexual partners but rather one of our own self- image. Straight men, who are most likely just as vain as gay men, have less of a problem adjusting their canon of male beauty to conform to an ageing face and body, since they are not overtly attracted to the younger version of that face and body. Because they have no internal younger standard to compare themselves against, they more readily accept their status as potentially attractive older men. They may wish they could play football the way they did at 25, but they don’t really care much about looking 25.

A gay man, on the other hand, is--- to be honest--- generally turned on by a handsome 25 year old guy, at least physically. And in gay sexual attraction, there is almost always an element of desired emulation. Most of us, in our heart of hearts, really wish we looked 25 no matter how often we have evidence that we are sexy at 60. We may have a bevy of young bucks groveling at our feet --- precisely because we are 60 --- but we still wish we looked like them and not like the bundle of sags and wrinkles we see in the mirror. A lot of this problem is really in our heads, guys.

Another area in which ageing may be more of a problem for gay men than it is for straights has to do with a loss of control. We all, gay or straight, get older and thereby suffer a process out of our control, but it may be that the control issue is more serious for us. For most straight men, their sexual identity is simply a matter of fact; for us, on the other hand, the discovery that we are homosexual was frequently fraught with fear, confusion, and denial and in many cases the feeling that our sexual orientation was somehow imposed upon us without our consent. Our sexual identity itself becomes something beyond our control.

Even those of us (and lets hope it will one day be all of us) who have accepted our sexual orientation and are happy with it may still at times feel that our homosexuality is a trick nature has played upon us--- God made me gay---. And aging is yet another one. The straight guy grows up seeing his sexuality and his aging process as integral to himself; a gay man may very well look upon these phenomena as something imposed upon him, things they he may even enjoy, but still things beyond his control.

This intensified feeling of helplessness may be why many gay men obsess about getting older. Even those who have partners who love them, active sex lives, and a circle of admirers seem to spend more effort than straight men do on staying in shape, grooming, staying sexually active and other things we can do to counteract the onslaught of the years. These measures are, of course, things we can do to reassert our control over our lives. It may be just an attempt to regain control, and not so much our desire to attract, that makes us go on that diet, sends us to the gym, or has us pay $75 for a haircut.


Blogger Ur-spo said...

that was nicely written.
Do you mind if I 'borrow' it in a paraphrase? It would be good to pass onto others the good ideas therein.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Thanks. Be my guest.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Felix said...

This is absolutely fantastic ! I think you have really hit the spot and have many many fresh and interesting points ..

I wonder if u would permit me to link this entry on my personal live journal as I think many of my friends would really benefit from your writing.


10:00 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks for the kind words. By all means. Go ahead.

3:06 AM  

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