A young friend of mine turned 21 the other day
Twenty-one is a significant birthday, given it used to be the legal age of majority in much of the world. In the UK where my friend lives, 21 was the age of sexual consent for gay men until 1994, when it was lowered to 18 to bring it closer to (but not in line with) the age of consent for everybody else. In the United States, of course, people can buy alcohol legally only after they turn 21.
My friend’s big birthday got me thinking about mentoring, internalized homophobia, and LGBTQ generations.
They say inter-generational friendships don’t exist among gay men and other queer people
Many people say that older gay men and younger gay men don’t connect, don’t form bonds, and don’t have community. Maybe that’s true sometimes. I can’t find any data to examine the question honestly. Any research students out there need a project?
All I know personally is that my life was immeasurably enriched when as a young man I formed a friendship with the elderly Quentin Crisp. I met him thanks to friends at SAGE, a national organization that provides services and advocacy for LGBTQ elders. Don’t know SAGE? Check them out!
Quentin wasn’t the only fabulous queer oldster I met through SAGE. I could write about Reggie, an elderly drag queen who used to let me cry on his shoulder, or Harriet and Mary, a retired lesbian couple my husband and I cherished. Leo and Hal spring to mind. They were in their early 70s when my 20-something self spent hours soaking up their stories. They’d been a couple since the Korean War!
So why do we queer folks hesitate to mentor youth?
Is that a strange question? To explain, I think that many of us mature (middle aged and older) LGBTQ people hesitate to engage with young people. I think we’re often afraid of engaging because of internalized homophobia or transphobia. I think we’re afraid of what people will think of us.
I wrote the following essay when my 21-year-old gay friend was still a teenager. I re-read it today, and I saw internalized homophobia in myself. I saw myself trying to justify behavior that SHOULD be celebrated. Check it out.
Anybody who has followed my writing for very long knows I’m a mentor. I don’t mean that in just the general sense, though it’s true in a general sense. I write a lot of stories and essays with a focus on youth. I often have young people in mind when I write.
No, I mean I am a mentor in a very specific sense. As a gay man, I often hesitate to talk about that. Stupid of me. Or is it?
I didn’t know what to write about today
I’d been so busy editing and promoting other writers that I’d barely given a thought to my own work. I’m committed to publishing every day, though, and I’m a driven person, so it was eating at me.
I let my ‘mentee’ know I was struggling. “What faux pearls of wisdom should I dig up and strew about willy nilly today, eh? Give me a clue!”
I was joking, and his answer was a deadpan joke. “Write about how to deal with anxiety and depression as a student.”
Fred Shirley was having a rough time preparing for exams. He’s in a rigorous scientific training program, and even though he’s brilliant and hard working, the pressure is intense. He’s handling it, but it’s rough.
He leans on me for support sometimes
Like all good mentor/mentee relationships, ours is a two-way street. Give and take. Back and forth. But I never forget that I’m the adult, and that Fred isn’t quite 100% there yet.
We’ve learned a lot from each other over the past year or more since we’ve known each other closely. Fred has been able to draw from my experience and knowledge. He’s been able to find a certain amount of emotional stability and validation in me. I’ve learned also. I’ve been able to sharpen my mind by following some of his studies and by engaging with some of his passions.
Here’s the thing. Fred’s a teenager. I’m in my 50s.
He’s a 19-year-old student who was 18 when we got to know each other. He’s gay. He is also, to speak frankly, attractive and charming.
If I were a woman or a straight man, I wouldn’t think twice about our relationship. As it is, I’m perfectly comfortable with it — for myself. I think of myself as old Aunty Jimothy as far as Fred is concerned, and I’ve helped him out with gay dating and relationship tips, always hoping he’s about to meet Mr. Right Now and settle down for a fabulous fling with a guy his age.
(For anyone who follows my Aunty Jimothy advice column, now you know where it started.)
Unconsciously, however, I find myself on the defensive. I find myself justifying my mentoring relationship with Fred to other people. Part of me recoils from discussing it, another part of me constructs unnecessary, elaborate arguments defending it.
I don’t need to defend a mentoring relationship. I shouldn’t have to. I should stop. I should reject entrenched societal stereotypes that position middle-aged gay men as sexual threats to younger males.
Naturally, I do reject them. Deliberately, consciously, and intellectually. That doesn’t mean I don’t still feel them. It doesn’t mean I haven’t internalized shame that shouldn’t belong to me.
We don’t live in a post-gay world
I’d love to think we do. I’d love to be at that place where sexual orientation is so insignificant that speaking of homophobia isn’t important or relevant. I’m sure we’ll get there one day, but we have a lot of work to do.
In the meantime, it’s up to me and all of us to examine our own prejudices, our own misconceptions, and fight for our own worth, value, and dignity.
It’s up to gay men to own our own manhood and our own masculinity — however we choose to define masculinity. It’s up to us to own our nurturing sides and not be ashamed of them.
It should be up to me to say, “I’m proud to be friends with a gay teenager who values my support and guidance.” But that’s not what I said, is it?
I equivocated throughout this entire piece by calling myself a mentor rather than a friend.
See what I did there?
I wrote that essay when Fred was 19. Now he’s 21, and part of me feels relieved, because even though 21 isn’t legally meaningful anymore, it feels meaningful. I’m no longer mentoring (or befriending) an adolescent. My friend is unquestionably an adult.
He’s a year away from earning his master’s degree and becoming a ‘real’ scientist.
I feel bad that I feel relieved. I feel bad that I always felt a little bit weird about having a gay friend who was a teenager.
I recognize that I felt bad because of internalized homophobia. I’m pretty sure that lots of older gay men feel the same way I do. We don’t mentor because we don’t like on-boarding imposed shame.
It’s not just gay men
All of us LGBTQ people put up with constant messaging about how we’re threats to youth. Drag queen story hour? You’re corrupting our children! Transgender kids? It’s a fad! Stop corrupting our children! Gender and sexual diversity training in school? Ick! Leave our children alone, you perverts!
We must rise above the shame
I think Fred could tell you that my friendship meant the world to him when he was 18 and 19. He badly needed guidance and perspective. I had it to offer, and I gave it willingly, even if I had to fight unfair shame sometimes.
All of us LGBTQ oldsters owe mentoring to our younger generations. Whether we’re in our 40s, 50s, 60s, or 90s, we have gained valuable life experience that younger people are thirsty to receive. Common wisdom may hold that queer young people are loathe to receive that wisdom from their elders, but I wonder.