Jason Tseng

Gay Generation Gap: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Filed By Jason Tseng | July 27, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: AZT, gay history, gay youth, generation gaps, marriage, older gay men

With the passing of the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, many in the gay community have taken the opportunity to reflect upon the historic moment in our collective queer history and how the community and movement has changed. The days of police bar raids and mass funerals of AIDS victims are quickly becoming a distant memory, replaced by the new gay identity of DINC consumerism (Dual Income No Children), HIV/AIDS as a manageable condition, Absolut Vodka-sponsored Pride parades, and gay marriage. And for an increasing number of gay men, these memories aren't even memories. It's history.

Mark Harris writes about this "Gay Generation Gap" in New York Magazine, commenting on the inevitable generational tension between the gay men in their 40s and 50s and those in their 20s. A tension particularly conspicuous as queers of all ages assembled over the past few months for Pride celebrations.

"And at some point, a group of gay men in their forties or fifties will find themselves occupying the same bar or park or restaurant or subway car or patch of pavement as a group of gay men in their twenties. We will look at them. They will look at us. We will realize that we have absolutely nothing to say to one another... there's no topic, from politics to locker-room etiquette... that cannot quickly devolve into 'What are you, 17?'... 'What are you, some Stonewall-era relic?' sniping...

"And here's the awful stuff they throw back at us... At 45, I write the word 'us' from the graying side of the divide... We're terminally depressed. We're horrible scolds. We gas on about AIDS the way our parents or grandparents couldn't stop talking about World War II. We act like we invented political action, and think the only way to accomplish something is by expressions of fury. We say we want change, but really what we want is to get off on our own victim hood. We're made uncomfortable, or even jealous, by their easygoing confidence. We're grim, prim, strident, self-ghettoizing, doctrinaire bores who think that if you're not gloomy, you're not worth taking seriously. Also, we're probably cruising them."

Reconstructing Our Queer Identity

Harris offers a surprisingly even-handed critique of the seemingly perennial inter-generational skirmishes that Millenials and Boomers/Gen Xers constantly find themselves locked in. Gay Millenials are naïve, entitled, know-it-alls who are too quick to offer advice without putting in the time and suffering to gain sufficient experience for such opinions. On the other hand, to the 20-somethings the older generations of gays seem antiques of a political movement mired by self-serving identity politics emphasizing victimhood and perpetual struggle -- the idea of a free and equal society so far-fetched that actual victories are unnoticed.

These generational struggles between Gen Yers and Gen X/Boomers fall well in the wider clashes between cultural generations. It's no surprise that the 40-and-50-somethings resent the younger generation for enjoying the freedoms that they fought so hard to attain. This is the same kind of infighting that occurs between parents and their children, simply playing out in a culture which is not organized around such kinship systems.

However, I believe it's too easy to just chock up this generational gap of perspective to the cyclical nature of cultural change. There is something to be said about how this new generation of young gay men socializes and reconstructs their queer identity in a different manner than their forebears. Ours (being the 20-something... I'm 22) is a generation that has never known true isolationism. We grew up as our society's means of social organization were radically expanded and complicated by technology and the internet.

No matter how isolated or sheltered a childhood we might have had, we were only a few clicks of a button away from a wealth of information on those unknowable gays and lesbians. Much in the same way that young men, both gay and straight, learn about and shape their sexual identities within the comfortable privacy of their personal computers and internet pornography, young gay men often learn about and replicate gay culture through the messages given to them via media, the internet, and popular culture. This is a radically different method of cultural reproduction than what existed in previous generations of gay men.

The Method of Cultural Transmission

Harris notes that before the information age, the exceptional taboo surrounding homosexuality caused one of the only viable ways for gay men to learn how and what it meant to be gay was from their lovers. These lovers often were older gay men who took younger gay men under their wing and into their beds. This initiation of sorts into the gay life allowed for the integrity of a contiguous gay identity to be maintained; strung together from lover to lover-- one generation to the next. In this way gay men were connected to the previous generation of gay men and the stories, mannerism, social norms and mores were passed on organically.

This method of cultural transmission has, for the most part, been broken. My generation of gay men were brought up with homosexuality being an apparent and at times unavoidable presence in society. Regardless of how undesirable the concept might be, gay people at least existed in the communal imagination. Whether monstrous, comical, or realistic; gay people were a part of the conversation.

My generation of gay men has not been shaped in the same way that some major events in modern queer history have affected older generations. The peak of the decimation caused by the AIDS epidemic among gay men had for the most part passed by the time I entered elementary school. My gay generation never knew the horror of the unknown that HIV/AIDS presented to an entire generation of gay Boomers.

Rather, I found my gay education supplied by secretive viewings of Queer As Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and late night airings of In The Life. Dawson's Creek, Will & Grace, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all featured gay and lesbian characters which comprised key parts of my queer cultural quilt. And so, is it any wonder that my earliest ideas of what it meant to be a gay man drove me to purchase a pair of tight black denim jeans and floral print dress shirts the moment I came out? I forced myself to pour over fashion magazines so that I might 'queer eye' my straight friends. My early queer identity stemmed directly from the media images of gay men that I consumed.

It was only after taking courses on the history of the modern gay and lesbian movement that my eyes were open for the first time to terms like polari, rough trade, and AZT. I learned about where and how the modern gay identity developed and about early queer rights leaders like the Mattachine Society, Harry Hay, etc. It was through learning about the history of the gay & lesbian and queer movements that I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for where we are headed as a community.

The Same Political Pendulum

It may be true that the politics of the country have changed in a way that dates older gays and their political priorities, but in the same respect I continue to be shocked by the general lack of knowledge of modern queer history on the part of young gay men. Risky sexual practices like barebacking are having a resurgence despite safe-sex education efforts; HIV infections rates continue to rise for MSMs; a widespread political apathy amongst gay men severely limits the effectiveness of our advocacy; and continued systemic racism within the gay community are all signifiers that we need to take an even closer look at where we came from and where we are going.

Sure, many scholars are calling this generation the first "post-white" "post-homophobia" generation, implying an inevitable victory in the culture wars for the queers and the left in general. However, I do not believe our struggles can be won by mere leftward cultural drift.

Although this is perhaps for further discussion on another post, much of the rhetoric which epitomizes this marriage-obsessed generation of gay rights activists is oddly reminiscent of that which came about during the 1950s. I find it interesting that conservatives during the 1950s sought to strengthen the institution of marriage to accomplish many of the same goals gay marriage activists seek to change about gay men; namely making them less promiscuous, more long-term-relationship oriented, and more industrious.

They regarded marriage as being a prime stabilizer of men so that they might become a productive and reliable workforce for the growing American economy. But we now know that the proposed stabilizing affects of marriage are largely overstated, if true, at all. With divorce rates in America hovering around 50%, it is clear marriage is far from a risk-averse investment. If marriage was a bond, it would certainly not get a AAA rating.

In the same way, gay marriage advocates now claim that marriage rights will cure a whole host of problems which afflict our community: promiscuity amongst gay men, workplace discrimination, health care access, end of life decisions, even the continued prevalence of homophobia in our society. While I am sure some of these problems might be affected or mitigated by more gay people getting married, it is wildly optimistic to assume that being married will somehow prevent you from getting fired for your sexuality, or spared a beating at the hand of a bigot.

So, while it may be true that the Gay Boomers and the Gay Gen Yers have developed in very different times with dramatically different results, it seems that we all are headed back into a more conservative swing of the political pendulum.

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There are gay comfort zones in the USA in which younger gays may find a wonderful world. These areas tend to be in the NE Atlantic coast, and much of the west coast, but not far inland. It is usually in these areas that (spoiled !) younger gays are quick to forget not only gay history, but to imagine it as ancient history. They also tend to forget or ignore the lives and challenges that gays of all ages face in most of America. They ignore the strength in very recent times of the far right. Because anti-bias laws may have been in effect just before they entered the work place, they don't care about what other gays face all over America. They went to schools with gay studies programs or at least with officially recognized gay organizations on their college and university campuses. They don't care what it took to get these resources established. This generation tends to not see the need, nor to support financially the major national gay organizations. I hope that there is a full conscienceness raising so that we may see progress for gays who who live outside these gay comfort zones in America. The whole world ain't like your school and shopping mall kids!

A very good post, and thanks for raising the subject
By the way, I am 50, and remember reading in the newspaper on a regular basis (what, you don't know what a newspaper is ?) when gays were fired all the time from their government jobs , simply for being gay. We saw attempts under the recent Bush administration to stop hiring gays at the US Department of Justice. Nirvana is not yet here for gays. Speaking the reality is not "victimhood".

I guess all these issues have some merit. But it seems to me that young queers have a ton of energy, and they mostly want to party, as we did. They also think they're immortal, as we did.
Old queens, on the other hand, have a bit of knowledge, which we can't share with the young because, as always, young people already know everything. There's also the sexual tension that has kept us apart for decades. Many older men what to make a thirty year old. If we don't, if we prefer someone who can actually hold a conversation, young men take it as an insult, a sign that they're not attractive. So youngsters are suspicious or dissmissive toward us.
There's also internalized homophobia, which has done so much harm to the community, and which seems to afflict young people almost as much as the olderds.
None of this is new. Most of it seems more like the human condition than anything specific to our community.
PS. Don't you dare say we're uptight curmudgeons. I'll send Miss Virginia Plum, and she will exfoliate you in all the wrong places.
I'm not sure what that means.
But the bottom line is: we love to party. It just gets tired after thirty years. And it's easier to make room for civic responsibilities. That's also common to old people, gay or not.

Re: Drake & wilberforce

I'm not sure sniping at gay Gen Yers, calling them superficial, party-obsessed bimbos is really productive (even though many of them wel... are). Age doesn't automatically make you smarter than those who are younger than you. I've met people my age who are smarter and dumber than me, and I've met plenty of older people who are smarter and dumber than me. The correlation of intelligence to age i think is largely overstated. Either you're smart, or you're not, no matter what age you are.

but i also have to note, I in no way am trying to say that I think older people have nothing to teach me or contribute. Very much the opposite. I just don't like it when people look at my 22 years on this earth and assume I'm a shallow circuit twink who only cares about designer clothes and my next fuck.

I don't know how smart you are. But I know a ton more than I did at 22 simply because I've had 29 adult years to learn it. If you're not interested in the things some of us have discovered over the years, that's fine. Young people usually aren't.
One thing I've learned is not to take things personally, but to look at myself objectively without letting emotions cloud judgement.
And in case you didn't notice, I took a swipe or two at older people. I think it's important that we all own up to our weaknesses if we're going to learn and mature.

I just wanted to say: kick ass article Jason! I completely agree with your analysis and I think you delved into these issues in a very even-handed, intelligent manner. I would love to see an accompanying article about the Dyke Generation Gap sometime. Even though I'm sure you would come to similar conclusions, I think it would be equally interesting and have its own distinct analysis.

Thanks for the comment Femme! I'd totally love to write about the Dyke Generation Gap... the only problem is... i'm not a dyke! :P

While I don't believe that one must be of a group to be able to speak wisely about them... i honestly feel like I'm still learning basics about lesbian culture. I've always had an affinity for lesbians and often considered myself a "dyke tike" but having only recently been introduced to ideas like "stone butch" and "stone femme", I think i have a lot more studying to do before i can write that article!

i'm glad to see that your opinion it's more open to the rest of the community. it's funny how Harris writes an article about a gap, while he's writing just about gay men, wich is fine, but it's not like the issues he's talking about are exclusively of gay men, as a lesbian i ask, WHERE ARE THE LESBIANS? lesbians fought along gay men in all the fights he mention, lesbians as well as transgender and bisexual people. It's this the real issue here? Or we should talk about the deep riff between them and us? Why don't we talk about this community center in gay men? It's not like we haven't suffer as much as them. At his age, i'm sure he knows the damages of invisibility, and if he doesn't maybe he didn't go to that many protests

antu, I was wondering the same thing. It's typical for a gay man to not even care to do a tiny bit of research on other parts of the community and think their experience is the same for others. It would be nice for someone to fill in the missing pieces left out by Mark Harris.

I agree with what you say; I'm 50 and occasionally hang around with people in their late 20s or early 30s and have to constantly remember that I used to be just like them and value the same things. Luckily I've never let physical age factor much into a friendship and I think that has enabled me to enjoy people both younger and older than me.


i absolutely agree with you. I would have loved to write more on the lesbian experience, but being that I am male bodied and have grown up mostly as a gay man (though I identify as queer now), I felt that my expertise on the subject was suspect. I would really encourage anyone with more experience with Gen Y Lesbians to join the conversation. Not only because lesbians tend to be the stage managers of the gay movement (i.e. integral but backstage... pardon the theatre lingo), but I'm just really fascinated by lesbian culture. I have a younger cousin who recently came out to me as a lesbian and she had some very interesting opinions on the shift of gender politics of boomer dykes and gen y dykes, basically saying that Gen Yers tend to be less gender rigid and more androgenous,leaving behind the butch/femme dichotemy etc.

And this also totally goes for intergenerational trans stuff too. I'd actually love to hear about that. I get the sense that there's a shift in boomer transpeeps for whom living stealth was the pinnacle of a successful trans life, but a lot of the younger trans people I meet are very open about the fact that they are trans. Granted, the fact that I know they are trans skews this, as I may very well have met many younger transpeeps who pass perfectly and live stealth.

Andrew Conte | July 28, 2009 9:10 AM

I am 62, from the Stone Age..uhhhh Stonewall era. This has nothing to do with gay. It has all to do with perceptions of age. I like to muse that I am proud of every one of my wrinkles and psychological scars. Being old does not make you wise, but you can't have wisdom without age. Unlike the Native Americans (and some other cultures), American culture not only does not revere age, but we loathe age. What a shame. I cherish my moments of childhood, riding my bike around the neighborhood and stopping to sit with an older person on his front porch and just listen. Some times no words were ever spoken. That silence was educational. There are those in the 20 something category who see me as old. There are those 20 somethings that see my wrinkles and scars as necessities for becoming an elder. I live in hope.

I tend to agree with Andrew, except that I'd amplify that it's not so much age that brings wisdom, it's experience. As fallible humans, we often learn best by making mistakes. Those of us who have lived longer have made more of them, and have had more opportunities to learn. I know I've made my share, maybe more... :-) And one part of wisdom is humility, and being able to acknowledge just how much you really don't know, and being able to live with uncertainty.

For what it's worth, I'll turn 48 tomorrow. I'm gray and bald, sure, but I feel that my best years are still to come. Basically, I'm happy and optimistic. I try not to judge the young, nor the old, just watch, learn, and laugh.

Sounds a lot like my house. I'm the older queer who has been an activist and yada yada yada while my son is 19 and isn't interested in activism or anything like that. He doesn't tend to be too dismissive but he does often tell me to get over things.
But we do find a meeting place, usually with guitars in hand, because we are both guitarist. A
And I think back and I was a party animal at his age but I was an activist. Some of his generation is more activist oriented I guess.

"These generational struggles between Gen Yers and Gen X/Boomers fall well in the wider clashes between cultural generations. "

Why is Gen X getting lumped into the Boomers lately? I don't recall the Boomers getting erased and put into the WWII generation or anything like that. I suppose it's par for the course; we've always been an afterthought. I resent being aged prematurely though, lol. Everyone is either 20, or they are over 50, and there are certainly no people in their 30's at all... People in the middle get split by today's demographics.

well, Gen X is called the Lost Generation. Part of what typifies Gen X as a generation is the feeling that they got scammed and cheated out of their lives. I didn't mean to homogenize Gen X and the Boomers. sorry if it came across that way.

Oh I don't mean to put all that on you, I get what you're saying. I just noticed this trend lately of pretty much telling "Gen X" that it's over the hill and needs to get out of the way, mainly coming from Boomer types who want us to worship their "Gen Y" progeny.

The youngest of "Gen X" turns 30 this year or next year depending on how you see it. And the idea that we're all old and decrepit is a reflection of boomer culture, not ours. But that's always been the problem hasn't it? They've written their own insecurities and foibles on to the "useless" people that came after them. Just read some of the marketing work done back in the 90's on us kids.

The boomer generation was very much built on Us vs. Them. If you've been in the workplace as an X'er you probably noticed that the boomers had a party and we were definitely not invited. But now in their waning years the divide has changed, so its Gen X/Boomers... and then the kids who are "the future". Bah! lol

There is a trend of driving wedges in the US, whether it is by age, skin color or economic status. Boomer culture drove one between them and X'ers, and now they want to drive one between X'ers and Y'ers. Us vs. Them. But it isn't going to happen this time. There isn't going to be Us vs Them any more when it comes to this generation game, not like it has been the last couple decades.

I think we may have been in the shadow up till now, but that time is coming to an end. The gray ceiling is evaporting, finally bringing the opportunity that has been delayed these many years. Our best is yet to come.

twinkie1cat | July 28, 2009 2:30 PM

If you don't remember your history, and learn from it will come back and bite you in the butt. We don't have gay marriage yet. There are cities, states, and school systems that don't have non discrimination clauses and AIDS could go from manageable to epidemic again with a simple genetic mutation. The fundies are still after the community and desperate to declare to all the world once and for all that homosexuality is no more than readily changeable behavior, that gay people don't exist.

The change in the world remains superficial. The boys no longer have to call themselves simply "friends of Dorothy" and the drag queens don't don a single piece of male clothing or pull of their wigs to avoid arrest. But just like racism remains, so does homophobia.

And just like only 10 years ago when I took a 15 year old gay boy to two old, experienced transwomen so he would not look like a sausage in the clothes of his alter ego or sing the boy part on "Barbie Girl" when he did a show for his 16th birthday, it is time and past time for the gay communities to unite, to find common goals and to learn from one another.

The youth have enthusiasm and a sense of immortality. But they tend to be arrogant and think it is all about the body. They don't necessarily see social justice as a goal, but simply assume their right to it. The boomers have wisdom, knowledge and a sense of perspective but think they know everything. Put the two together and we may find our Martin Luther King, one who won't be assassinated before he or she can lead the gay communities into community, defeat those who will deny its existence and maybe, in a few more years, bring in true equality in our one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.

It needs to happen and soon. Civil Rights for African Americans only happened when the leaders put their petty differences, like those between Malcom X and MLK aside and united in the most important aspects of their cause. So it must be again. It is not just sex. It is who you want to be free to spend your life with and who you want to be.

Rick Sours | July 28, 2009 4:56 PM

Both my Partner and myself served on the Board of
Directors of a local PFLAG chapter. We saw first
hand the achievements of LGBT youth during our
annual college scholarship program for needy LGBT
students. There is also an organization, the Point
Foundation, which awards scholarships to needy LGBT students. These individuals are truly among America's "best and brightest". As one of those
"older" members of the who came out in 1972, I remember who things used to be for LBGT individuals. I remember being told by other LGBT individuals that I was as good as a straight person but to always remember where my place was and to stay in it. There was a sense of community among LBGT individuals which we have lost. Alot of LGBT young do not care to learn of our history as LGBT individuals. Having lived through the 1980's I clearly remember the impact AIDS took on the LBGT community. I personally lost atleast 50% of my closest friends during that time to AIDS.
I remember going to social events and I could go
around the room, in my mind, and count the number of LGBT people that had been fired from a job.
Of course, there was always some excuse for this
happening. In the years since 1973, society has become more socially accepting of members of the LGBT community. We all know how AIDS is transmitted and are aware of safe sex. Sadly,
many young people do not practice safe sex.
The LGBT community has made alot of progress
socially since Stonewall yet alot of LGBT young
do not truely understand the struggles it has taken to get us to where we all are now. That
brings us to the present. Today ALL members of
the LGBT community are under attack. We must All
unite to achieve our common goals of full equality.

I'm sort of on the cusp of Generation X and Generation Y, but my sensibility in some ways has a little more in common with those of the older generations.

I do think a lot of young gay people today are spoiled, including me. It's not necessarily our fault -- as Mark Harris wrote, we were born into what is turning into the world that the older generations sought to create.

That has made us more optimistic, but I think it's made us complacent as well. Because we have Will & Grace and even gay marriage in a handful of states, that all is well, but we forget too easily that we still don't have full, equitable treatment in this country. In many places, we can still be fired from our jobs for not being straight; 30 states ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions; hate crimes happen everywhere, including in the most liberal places; the list goes on and on.

I think we younguns need a greater sense of urgency than we have. As twinkie1cat said, the gains we've made have been meaningful, but superficial, and many could be reversed with a simple ballot initiative and a bit of demagoguery and dishonesty. Until we have full civil rights protections in all 50 states and at the federal level, we're still ripe for the picking by the religious right, but too many people in our community regard the religious right (and its anti-gay efforts) as a petty nuisance, a threat to someone else far away or as a gang of comical buffoons who will just go away on their own.

My experience is different, being a European and having been educated where and when I was.

We wanted to transform a nation.
The best that we could do was to save its democracy one February day in 1981.....

It is not uncommon to dismiss and disdain the women members of the LGBT community as "Lefty Liberal Lesbians"

Well, yes, we have many leftist liberals in our ranks. That makes us dangerous, not invalid. Though we certainly have our elitist, self congratulatory and self indulgent members; a fire of passion for equality and freedom, fueled by anger, burns within many of us. When abortion is duscussed, those are our reproductive rights being sacrificed and compromised. When artificial insemination is denied to single women "as an act of conscience," those are our rights again being written away in laws that permit our oppressors 'freedom' to deny us our birthright citizenship and parity with women in 'christian' marriage.

The old radical dykes are a different breed. The other end of the spectrum is occupied the elitist garden party salon dykes, though there is more than a bit of overlap in that particular Venn diagram.

As a 19-year-old history student who intends to make an academic career out of studying the history of queer culture and queer movements, I really identify with and applaud this post. I particularly liked your section about methods of cultural transmission--that's an idea I hadn't thought about very much before, so thanks for bringing it up!

I think one of the biggest changes in how gay (male) identity is constructed today is the relative absence of the "disease" model. Recently I've been reading accounts/memoirs of gay men who came of age and into the community in the '50s and '60s who said that even though they had a gay community or had same-sex partners or were out in some contexts, they maintained the sense that what they were was "sick" or "diseased" or somehow a physical aberration--not just "wrong" or "immoral" or something like that, but a malady that could be cured. Partly it's that our culture at large is not quite so obsessed by curing perceived psychological problems as it was in the middle of the 20th century, but my sense is that today even men who are having a lot of difficulty coming out or accepting their orientation are much less likely to conceive of their identity in terms of that psychological model or a sense of being "mentally ill."

As to lesbians: it seems to me that since the rise of second-wave feminism, lesbian communities have been characterized by how closely or significantly they identify with a feminist or women's movement. Since that movement is a lot less cohesive now than it was in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, I think the position of the lesbian community has also changed.

Oh and one more thing: for today's young men and women alike, it seems as if there's a greater tendency to label oneself as bisexual, queer or some other label than the tried-and-true gay or straight. Broader societal acceptance for LGBT people has begun to erode the necessity to choose between identification with the mainstream and identification with the marginalized--plenty of people (myself included) sit somewhere in the middle.

This is exactly the stuff I spend most of my day-to-day life thinking about, so thanks again for writing a post about it! Just as young Americans all learn American history in school, so should everyone (but young queerfolk in particular) learn queer history and consider where they stand in relation to it.

Andrew Conte | July 29, 2009 12:19 AM

Robert Angelo. You are right. It is experience. That is why I phrased it as I did. "Being old does not make you wise, but you can't have wisdom without age" That agrees with what you said. You cannot have wisdom without age because of the experience factor.