It seems like every gay man I know over the age of 40 is moving to Fort Lauderdale. Generally, even the idea of vacationing in Florida is about as appealing to me as eating glass, so I'm not even tempted to join this migration.
Lots of reasons are given, and mostly they're the same reasons heterosexuals give for retiring in Florida: the beach, the slower and comparatively inexpensive lifestyle, the fellowship of your own community. A good many of the men I know who are moving there are HIV-positive, living on disability payments or insurance settlements, and I understand Florida has more accessible state-supported medical services. I remember in the worst days of the epidemic in the '80s, a lot of people I knew moved to California for that reason.
But mainly I think this is about finding some refuge as you grow older. My friend Bob is quick to explain that Fort Lauderdale is very unlike neighboring Miami, which, he says, is overrun with "brain-dead" partying young guys. When I told another friend that escaping the ageist eye of younger gay men was not worth moving to a cultural desert, he told me I was only a "few wrinkles" from changing my mind. I told him that, in fact, I had recently received, to my horror, an unsolicited invitation to a botox party but I still had no urge to live among flamingos.
Gay culture is infamous for idolizing youth. I don't think this is really any different from heterosexual culture, although its consequences can feel a bit crueler to gay men. We don't grow up with the etiquette that regulates (or inhibits) the sex lives of straight people, so we tend to be more sexually active. When two men are involved in the game of seduction, it's easy to see how sexual competition gets amplified -- and how a certain increased level of cruelty can ensue. A younger gay man can be very quick to call an older man's age a liability in the battle for sex. And an older man can dismiss younger men, as my friend Bob did, as "brain dead" because of their lack of experience. We have names for the two types: "troll" and "twinky."
The condition of aging gay men in America right now is unique. We are the first generation of "out" gay Americans to enter middle age. Anyone over the age of 40 can tell you that one of the battles of coming out used to be shaking the stereotype of what happened to older gay men. Supposedly -- and it's somewhat true -- they disappeared from public life and sublimated their sex drives by painting erotic scenes on porcelain plates or hosting endless drunken dinner parties with a few toupee-wearing others. In other words, they went back into the closet.
Thus, facing mid-life for many gay men is another step in coming out because it requires facing the culture's ageism -- to say nothing of our own. Dreadful, isn't it, to be openly gay but not young and beautiful? I encounter my own ageism every time I dine at the Colonnade, which is well-known for its clientele of aging gay men. I sometimes see a familiar face from 20 years ago and I think, first, that it's nice to see someone else who survived the AIDS epidemic. My second thought is, "But damn he looks old." And my third thought is, "Oh my God, he's thinking the same thing about me."
A primary way older gay men reinforce ageism is their often-documented preference for younger sex partners despite the intergenerational enmity. "Older gay men are not attracted to men their own age usually," a young friend observes. "A young lover is considered a trophy. At the same time, a young guy who rejects an older one on the basis of age is considered prejudiced." Obviously, if you reject men your own age, it's hardly less ageist to criticize those who reject you for being the same age you reject. And fetishizing the young does not entitle you to their bodies, in any case.
One can make choices to delay the appearance of aging to attract the young, or at least to avoid the general culture's ageism: hormone replacement therapy (or steroids), hair transplant, cosmetic surgery, botox, constant hours at the gym. Viagra can give you a youthful erection of steel. And don't think for a moment that middle-aged men moving to Fort Lauderdale aren't often making these same choices. The idea that they are all headed south to age "gracefully" is way off the mark. But it is unique in history that we openly support one another in our aging, talk openly about it and rage, rage against the dying of our libido with one another.
Ageism, we should remember, is not inevitable. It really is a product of consumer culture, in which the new and shiny is continually valorized. One may, as the Spanish do, admire youth without fetishizing it. Here again, gay people -- adventurers by nature -- have a choice to lead the culture rather than adopting its pathology.
Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is www.soulworks.net.
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