Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Our Queer Intergenerational Life

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | March 21, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: gay elders, intergenerational community building, movement, older gays

This piece was written in collaboration with Carmen Vazquez

If we want a beloved community, we must stand for justice; have recognition for difference without attaching difference to privilege. -- Bell Hooks

Building beloved community is a passion we share. An integral part of our vision of beloved community includes forging intergenerational partnerships. We are particularly committed to building those partnerships in a queer context. Our movement cannot move forward without understanding its past nor can it move without the vision, energy and new ideas of young people. Elders and young people are both needed equally and urgently in order for our movement to grow in ways that heed the lessons of the past and respond to the urgency of the present political and economic moment.

To its detriment, the queer movement has internalized societies devaluing of old people while at the same time actively engaging in dismissing young people. Can we really build a movement that is rooted in historical memory and a bold vision for the future if adultism and ageism are constantly unexamined and at play in our work towards justice?

This is the question that brought us to writing this blog together. It is the question that consistently motivates us to examine these issues in our own intergenerational, multi-racial, mixed gendered and mixed class relationship. We understand that our mutual survival simply depends upon it.

Carmen Vazquez: A Long and Proud History

I am 62 years old. I struggled alongside hundreds of thousands of Americans to end the war in Vietnam. I was among a group of radical students who shut down the City University of New York in 1969 and kept it shut until the college agreed to our demands to keep open admissions and create a Black & Puerto Rican Studies Department.

I worked to defeat the Briggs Initiative in California that would have barred lesbians and gay men from teaching in the public school system. My first of hundreds of speeches as an LGBT activist was at the 1978 SF Lesbian & Gay Freedom Day March and Rally. I was the first director of the San Francisco Women's Building.

I helped create the Lavender Youth Recreation & Information Center alongside some of the most brilliant LGBT youth I have ever known. I went to Nicaragua in support of the experiment in social democracy utterly destroyed by Ronald Reagan. I was on a US delegation to Kenya for the World Women's Conference in 1986. I have been a loud and unapologetic defender of sexual freedom for more than thirty years.

I am a founder of the NYS LGBT Health & Human Services Network which has succeeded in securing more than $55 million dollars in state funding for LGBT health issues. I was a founder and the principal author of "Causes in Common" a national LGBT liberation and reproductive justice coalition.

I led the effort to change the name and focus of Empire State Agenda from a civil rights organization to an organization working for equality and justice. I have been unpaid faculty at the Creating Change conference for twenty years and had the privilege of keynoting the conference on three separate occasions.

Throughout the last forty two years of my life I have understood and practiced the necessity of working in partnership with as many allies as I could find. This includes my partnership and alliance with Lisa and many, many young people and people I consider my own elders.

I have learned painful lessons about my own ageism and adultism, but for the most part, I have felt that I was working with my colleagues and very much in the present. Recently, that has begun to change. I wrote on Facebook: "Having an elder moment and I don't mean forgetting. Despite the respect that comes with the term, I often feel relegated to the past. Not having it. We have very young ones and elders who together have much to say about today and tomorrow, not just yesterday. That's a good thing. Let's behave with respect for our past and an embrace of our future that meets in shared leadership for a future of justice."

Fourteen people responded with comments ranging from support to anger to empathy with the notion that we are "wisdom keepers" expected to dispense that wisdom at appropriate moments; that we are to be honored for our past work and then told to "just sit over there." I deeply appreciated their support and outrage on my behalf, but for me the issue is not just the disrespect and ageism that keeps pushing us elders to the margin. It is the collective loss of resource, strategic thinking and experience that comes from our inability as a movement to understand the necessity of cross generational dialogue and organizing.

This is not new nor is it just our problem. The prevailing cultural norm is one that segregates people on generational terms from kindergarten on. It is one that objectifies youth and romanticizes the glorious "golden years" when we elders "should" be out of sight in some condo in Florida or Arizona and no longer clogging up work stations that younger workers can occupy on the cheap.

It is a culture that eschews the circular ring of life and one that medicalizes aging for enormous profit and when possible, erases us altogether. Unless, of course, you have enough wealth to decide that at 69, you are a viable candidate for the presidency as Mr. McCain did three years ago and Mr. Gingrich proposes to do again. For queers, the problem is compounded by decades of internalized fear of being called out as pedophiles when young ones are seen with older ones.

Whatever the reason, it means that there is an ever widening gap between those of us over fifty and activists and organizers in their twenties and thirties. We don't see each other, talk with each other, work with each other. We deny each other the opportunity of shared experience and what the experience of those of us called "elders" can bring to movement building, strategizing and an evolving vision of social justice. Our organizations create few opportunities for us to work together.

I am aware from my own painful dismissal from an LGBT organization and know from the experience of others, that many of us are simply dismissed. Our organizations create few opportunities (Southerners on New Ground being a significant exception) for the development of young LGBT leadership that gets home schooled not by reading what I wrote twenty years ago or what Audre Lorde wrote thirty years ago but by actually working with those of us still alive and healthy enough to be engaged in political work.

It denies young activists the opportunity to understand that "intersectional" work is not something they invented five years ago but the evolution of a long and proud history of social justice organizing and strategic analysis that have guided my work and the work of Suzanne Pharr, Achebe Powell, Amber Hollibaugh, Mandy Carter, John D'Emilio, Urvashi Vaid, Chrystos, and countless others of us in rural and urban communities who haven't had the kind of national exposure that we have had.

This willful refusal to create an intergenerational dialogue and movement is costing our young ones the songs and stories and organizing lessons to be learned from their elders and costing us elders the inspiration and new visions of our young leaders. It's just a terrible waste.

I know that the movement for racial justice and civil rights did not look like this. I know that the worker's rebellion in Wisconsin does not look like this.

I challenge both our mainstream LGBT movement and organizations and our radical LGBT movement to get off the dime and look ageism on both ends squarely in the eye. I challenge them to consciously develop intergenerational work and strategies that bring us together in shared leadership for a future of justice. Some of us are running out of time.

I remain forever grateful for the respect, leadership and vision that I share with Lisa, colleagues younger than her and many older than me. We need many, many more of those partnerships.

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz: The Shoulders Upon Which I Stand

I am so deeply aware that I stand on the shoulders of those that have come before me. I am so deeply aware that I stand on Carmen's shoulders and I do everything I can to acknowledge and pay attention to it. I pay attention to the organizing, thinking and vision of elders - particularly queer feminists of color - who have helped shape my worldview and my commitment to justice.

I literally grew up in movements for social justice with the support of elders who took the time to provide sage wisdom, inspiration, training and true partnership. Because of these offerings, I have had the space to grow and make mistakes with so much love and support. For this I am grateful.

I started doing racial justice work in the 90's in my local community. I was in my 20's and I knew that doing social justice work was what I was called to do. However, I didn't know exactly how to enter a world within which I had no previous relationship. As I began to turn out consistently to work on racial justice campaigns and community organizing efforts locally I encountered two types of elders.

On the one hand, I experienced adultism and patronizing attitudes from some elders who clearly felt that young people should be seen and not heard. On the other, I was able to forge relationships with wonderful elders who were committed to racial justice work and to building partnerships with young people who also shared this passion. It was these relationships that have shaped my thinking, organizing practices and vision for intergenerational collaboration.

I take my partnerships with movement elders very seriously. Yes, I said partnership rather than mentorship because I believe that a relationship based on shared leadership and power is key to building effective intergenerational collaboration.

The most powerful experience for me is when I am working with an elder who assumes that we both have something to learn and something to teach. Together, we are on a journey where we contribute to one another's thinking, deepening our growth over time.
I have woven elders into every aspect of my personal and political life. This means that I live and organize in a completely intergenerational way.

Through these experiences I have come to understand that movement elders are often taken advantage of for their wisdom and experience without a commitment on the part of younger people to forming relationships with them based on depth and reciprocity. Elders are not here to serve our needs but, rather, to remain embedded in the fabric, direction and vision of movements they have helped to move for much of their lives.

I have met many elders in my travels with whom I do not share politics or values. I also have experienced significant adultism (and other forms of oppression) from elders in various movements for social justice who believe that young /younger people should be seen and not heard. Elders always deserve our respect but this does not mean that we cannot disagree, challenge or speak truth to power.

In other words, not all elders are the same. They are not a monolith! Some elders are deeply committed to intergenerational collaboration while others are committed to maintaining their position of power.

I love elders I can truly collaborate with. I love elders who are deeply interested in growing and changing as movement's change, who love new ideas and thinking and who don't believe that things have to be done the same way they have always been done. I love elders who take risks, who listen and who are interested in strategizing right here, right now about the current political and economic moment.

With these movement elders I have made a commitment to not engaging in long term organizing or movement building efforts without making sure that they are embedded in the work. Why? Because I believe that the most vibrant organizing efforts start with a multi racial and intergenerational teams of people.

Elders committed to intergenerational partnerships often bring an experienced lens without imposing their agenda. They also bring a wealth of history, strategy, lessons learned and insights that can keep an organizing effort on track. Why waste time, resources and energy we don't have? Why reinvent the wheel?

Elders often raise critical questions and share layers of history that can either help us avoid or work through some of the most difficult organizing challenges we face out there in the movement. Combined with the energy, vision and strategic minds of young/younger people the organizing work we have the potential to do together can make movements move in powerful ways.

Allies In the Present: Fostering Respect for the Past and a Shared Vision of the Future:

We don't believe that what we present here is unique to our relationship or individual experiences. We are also aware that the cultural norms of Native American societies and communities of color vary greatly from the ones we work under in white led organizations. But it is hard not to internalize the prevailing norms of privilege.

Many of us have struggled for years to see and root out the internalization of race and class and gender privilege. We need to bring the same rigor to seeing and rooting out the devaluation of our young and our elders.

Finally, what we offer here is not just a critique of "mainstream" LGBT organizations. What we say is also something we have experienced within younger, progressive and radical organizations with a commitment to movement building and justice but a blind side to the significance of partnerships with elders. It is not acceptable in any arena.

We have often heard and applauded youth organizers who say: "We are not your future! We are here and present!" To that we need to add with insistence that elders are not your past! They are here and present.

They deserve not only our respect for creating the paths to social justice we all walk on, but an invitation to continue working and walking with us.

Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

I appreciate this article. I like how it is rooted in personal stories and shares an intergenerational perspective. I believe that through the opening of these types of conversations we start changing the story as it is being told.

I am also beginning to become frustrated with a lot of our lgbtq blogs. I read over and over again on blogs ranging from here to The New Gay to towleroad to Pam's House Blend to the Petrelis Files to ..., you name it I have most likely read and still read it, about what we as a community are not doing. Most of the time it is in relation to the large LGBTQ organizations like Equality California or HRC or NGLTF. Sometimes it is also about the smaller, more grassroots organizations. Often it is about the nebulous "community".

I am here to say that things are being done. And as just one person among many who have been doing on-the-ground organizing, seeing articles on LGBTQ blogs about how our community isn't doing "enough" or how it isn't building bridges, doesn't speak to my reality of community building amongst the storm. It's almost as if we can't even see the good work that is being done.

I am honored to be a part of OutLook Theater Project here in the San Francisco Bay Area. OutLook produces original community theater from a queer perspective. Our first play was titled "This Many People" and told the stories of LGBTQ elders. It was created over the course of three years rooted in partnerships with New Leaf Outreach to Elders, Lavender Seniors of the East Bay and LYRIC. It built (and still builds) the connections between and among the generations.

This is just one example, and it is an example that is easily overlooked because we are a very small company in an over-saturated community. We don't have the marketing or PR to help us get the message beyond the community we work with/in/alongside/for. We spend our time doing the work.

I know for certain other things are being done in other communities that are bridging the intergenerational divide from Minnesota to Indiana to Palestine to India. These small moments of connectedness matter. And they are sometimes able to be overshadowed by the huge divide between the generations and the lack of exposure to media (new, old, mainstream, alternative) outlets.

I do believe that there is more need for intergenerational programs/opportunities/partnerships/organizations. I also believe that this isn't unique to the LGBTQ community. I have done most of my work outside of the identifier of LGBTQ. It seems to me that the acceleration of technology and the sheer abundance and amplifier of new media creates an echo chamber where we can't even seen the moments of transcendence that are happening before our very eyes.

Last, is a comment about perspective. Personally, I am seeing a trend regarding too much emphasis being placed on the formalization of relationships (ie building partnerships between the generations). I don't always want or need a partner. And this trend has created making and sustaining relationships a "formal" process that must be "undertaken". Sometimes that is just too dang taxing and tiring. As radical as this sounds, I just want (and have) friends of many ages from many cultures with many diverse stories.

Great to see Carmen on the site contributing. She's one helluva woman - at any age!

So appreciative to see this conversation on Bilerico! I especially appreciate Carmen and Lisa for the way they bring these conversation in a way with strong analysis and also words towards building and uniting.
Very excited to continue the conversations with them and others about how we make and build real opportunities for folks to work together in trenches across age.

This is beautiful! Yes! We are engaged in a project amplifying generations of queer black brilliance ( Let's collaborate!
Alexis and Julia

Important topic. Kudos to you both for addressing it.

I have to say, though, that Weiner-Mahfuz seems to have installed herself as the resident scold of Bilerico. Every single article she writes has the same theme: "Our movement isn't doing this. Our movement isn't doing that. You ignorant people with your privilege(s) need to listen to me because I have an enlightened and progressive point of view."


Just once, could you assume a more humble voice, a more inquisitive voice--as opposed to the all-knowing, ever-wise voice? As another commenter adroitly pointed out, you might want to celebrate success stories and what IS happening instead of always complaining about what isn't.

I agree with much of what Carmen had to say. Especially about how queer people are directly affected by ageism. That's not to say we don't participate ourselves, but I think we're also disproportionally affected.