Through our collective experience, the stereotype of the lonely, desperate old gay can be discarded, says Andy Kane.
In life there comes a point when we can’t wait to get older, and for good reason. Besides buying booze, getting into bars and moving out of our parents’ houses, age brings wisdom, self knowledge and the opportunity to grow into the people we always imagined we could be.
When it comes my encroaching mortality, the older I get the less concerned I become. What is age but the number of times the planet has orbited the sun since your birth? As long as my sense of achievement and enjoyment measure up to my years, I try not to worry – however, there have been times that, as a gay guy, rather than anticipating milestones, I’ve dreaded the rolling of the years.
In my teens I was lucky to not suffer much shame around my sexuality. It wasn’t until my early 20s when I began looking for role models that being gay began to make aging seem foreboding. I remember going home from bars with men in their 30s (or 40s, or 50s – I guess I had some Daddy issues) to cold bedsits on the South Circular Road, attraction suddenly turning to terror that I was catching a glimpse of my own future.
As kids we are raised to see marriage and children as goals, but with the emergence of my sexuality, these heteronormative visions threatened to become pipe dreams. I didn’t see these paths represented in the lives of the men I was meeting, and the alternative of living alone with shelves of Madonna CDs and bottles of vodka for company perturbed me.
Often these men seemed invisible, shunned by society. Even on the gay scene, they were treated disdainfully by younger men who viewed them as creepy, something I was sometimes guilty of too. In hindsight, my behaviour may have been born out of a sense of recognition, a discomfort caused by identifying parts of them in myself. Feeling invisible was something I could relate to.
Having always been an outsider, even among gay people, it occurred to me that as I aged I would also fade from view and become irrelevant. Through this identification I was able to sense a certain vulnerability in some older gay men who didn’t have a community around them. Men who, because of when and where they had grown up, hadn’t been able to be open about their sexuality in their youth, and because of that didn’t have strong peer support. It felt worryingly familiar.
Considering recent political advances, it’s easy to forget that homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland in 1993. I wasn’t even nine years old then, but I was already aware I was different. With no representations of gay people to identify with, I felt isolated. Even when gay characters did appear in the television shows, their sexuality was played for laughs, intended to be abhorred and ridiculed.
When it comes to breadth of representation, Ireland has always lagged behind. In the ’70s and ’80s, Irish queer subcultures remained in the shadows, depending on secrecy rather than pride. Even in the ’90s there was no paradigm for what a gay men could become. Graham Norton, one of the most recognisable gay Irishmen, didn’t have success until the mid-’90s, and that came after he, like so many others, left for England.
Since then gay culture has come in from the fringes. Through the advent of global media we have become used to seeing successful queer celebrities and gay characters on television. The gay community has come out of the shadows and in the process has become the master of their own representation. These days, being out of the closet is the norm, and simply by being honest about our sexualities, we have broken down cliches and deconstructed societies ideas about what it means to be gay.
A friend of mine once joked that gay men don’t age, they merely change genre. As I approached my 30s, like a Pokémon, I began to evolve. I started to reconsider the kind of man I wanted to be, finding there was now an abundance of models to follow. Where I had once felt limited by archetypes, suddenly there was an ever-expanding list of types and traits that gay people could ascribe to.
Gay men in particular use many labels to denote their physical appearance and cultural identity. I’ve heard men self-identify as bears, otters, twinks, twunks, pigs or pups – but even these concepts are becoming outdated, much like the camp gay stereotype that brought the homosexual experience to the limelight.
Our sexuality is now understood to be only one facet of our experience. We can play with our femininity, or our masculinity, without being defined by it. No one version of gayness speaks for everyone’s. If anything, the people who have inspired me the most are those who have found a way to express themselves and their sexuality in ways that don’t rely at all on the prescribed parameters of gay culture or of society at large.
Both age and sexuality are becoming more or less redundant when it comes to showing the world who we are. As gay people we are able to create our own paradigms that are as involved or as separate from our sexuality as we want them to be. In owning our sexuality we have become multifaceted, pushing beyond two dimensional homosexual representations.
As the first generation of truly ‘out’ Irish gay men and women, we have become utterly diverse in our self-representation. When it comes to who we are both individually and as a culture, it is up to us to find beauty in ourselves and our experiences, and to express it in a way that makes sense to each of us at any point in our lives. As each of us changes and ages, and acceptance grows, we all have responsibility to continually redefine ourselves and expand our culture to make space for everyone, no matter who we want to be.
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