By STEVEN PETROW | The New York Times
Every other Tuesday, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” (Workman, 2011), addresses questions about gay and straight etiquette for a boomer-age audience.
Q. Dear Civil Behavior: Your comment in a recent column about gays at midlife finding themselves “suddenly invisible — aged out by the young, restless and beautiful” resonated loudly with me. At 59 I am single and almost friendless. I live in Philadelphia, which has a reasonably sized gay community, yet I feel like an outsider. Many of my friends died two decades ago and my contemporaries have started retiring to Florida. I would like to go out dancing sometimes, but I don’t feel comfortable going to bars anymore. The Internet seems full of people looking to do drugs. I remember the distaste we all once had for “old people,” but I’m tired of staying home on weekends. Do you have any advice? —Stephen W., Philadelphia
A. Dear Stephen: Believe me, I understand “the middle ages” can be difficult for anyone, gay or straight. After all, wasn’t it Phyllis Diller who cracked: “Maybe it’s true that life begins at 50 … but everything else starts to wear out, fall out or spread out.” The ability to laugh — and laugh at ourselves — is key to our happiness.
Still, there are some unusual and disproportionate challenges to aging within the gay community that your experiences highlight. “Many L.G.B.T. older people experience high rates of social isolation,” says Michael Adams, executive director of Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T. Elders, an organization dedicated to helping older members of our community. “We’re twice as likely to be single and to live alone, and three to four times as likely to be childless. And many of us are estranged from our families of origin, and so are only half as likely as our heterosexual counterparts to have close relatives to lean on for help.” Adding salt to these wounds, a 2004 study, “Old, Gay, and Alone?” reported that 44 percent of older gay men “feel disconnected from or even unwelcomed by younger generations of L.G.B.T. people.”
This isolation is partly explained by our community’s extraordinary place in history. Many of us lost lovers, friends and family in the depths of the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic, so we find ourselves short on these lifelines just when we need them most. (This might also help explain why the situation is more difficult for gay men than it is for lesbians: The study I noted previously showed that lesbians “tended to have networks that were more resilient and showed less fluctuation in response to changes with aging,” probably because their support networks were not nearly as devastated by H.I.V./AIDS as gay men’s were.) Those who survived the plague can only be grateful — yet, like you, these losses continue to prick our hearts.
But before we start taking meds, host pity parties or just become shut-ins, let’s remember that our generation is still one powerfully large cohort, and our sheer numbers dictate that we confront ageism in our community. Consider Stu Maddux’s award-winning documentary, “Gen Silent,” which garnered so much attention by putting a face on the plight of older members of our community. “They’re often afraid to ask for help or are isolated from their families,” Mr. Maddux told me, adding, “The good news is that mainstream aging organizations are waking up and realizing, yes, these folks do have unique issues we have to address.”
So if you’re determined to find friends or even lovers, of any age, what do you do? First off, you’ve got to be willing to go out into the world or you’re not going to meet people, period. If bars don’t work for you, stay out of them. Second, friendships can’t be taken for granted or put on autopilot; in fact they often take more energy than what some people are willing to invest in them. Ask yourself: Are you willing to do that?
If the answer is yes, start by doing a quick search for your nearest L.G.B.T. community center; you’ll probably be amazed by the number of activities on tap like those at theWilliam Way Center near you in Philadelphia. Nationwide, our generation has founded its own social and support networks, like Prime Timers Worldwide (with more than 80 chapters in the United States and a smattering overseas), Old Lesbians Organizing for Change and the National Association of Black and White Men Together.
But let’s not completely write off the Millennials and Gen Xers, many of who are interested in befriending folks our age (if not seeking more). As a 30-year-old posted onmy Facebook page in response to your question, “I find having friends who are gay and older helps me learn about the gay community’s past struggles and truly understand where we have come from, where we are now, and where we’re going as a society.” Another, a happily partnered woman, suggested that you “Look for people who like older people and enjoy being with them. They’re out there to be found. I know, because one found me.”
Of course, at 59 you’re only six years away from retirement, when you can join your brothers and sisters in Florida or Palm Springs. Believe me, you’ll be considered quite the spring chicken when you get to those communities. Above all, try to remember we’re lucky we’ve gotten to see and live through our middle years; so many of our loved ones did not.
How different do you think aging in our society is for gays versus straights? What has your experience been?
Steven Petrow can be contacted at Facebook.com/gaymanners and @stevenpetrow or his Web site http://www.gaymanners.com. If you need advice about gay/straight situations or issues (geared to a boomer-aged audience), send them to Mr. Petrow firstname.lastname@example.org. (Unfortunately, not all questions can be answered.)