Mental Health

Aging with Grace: Dismantling “The Gay Death”

By June 21, 2022June 22nd, 2022No Comments

This evocative & heartfelt blog post on the topic of “The Gay Death” is authored by ISC Clinician, Sylvester Merritt. While this “aging” phenomenon isn’t often written about, it is frequently discussed and on the minds of many gay men as they approach the age of 30. Those seeking to learn more about the issues of aging and life transitions, or who experience anxiety or stress related to these issues, are invited to take part in our upcoming Aging with Grace: Queer Older Adults Support Group. Facilitated by two ISC therapists (including the author), the group begins in August and will explore, process, and reflect on important topics surrounding dismantling and overcoming the “gay death” related to ageism. It is open to Sliding Scale qualifying individuals only. For details on our therapy groups, click here. To sign up, click here & submit an Inquiry Form.

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Captain’s Log, Stardate 47634.44 (AKA, end of September, 2009): I awaken groggy and nervous on this voyage, knowing I have reached the end of a journey. I am crestfallen as I gaze at the horizon. The universe, so vast and wonderful in its splendor, seems insignificant compared to what lies ahead. The life I have known these 29 years is gone, and I am facing a new reality of caring for space critters while touring the Galaxy alone. As my comrades stated during our last conference, this would be the one day I feared most in my gay voyage: “The Gay Death”, that day when I would lose all vitality and beauty. That day has come, and all the colors of the world have turned gray: the day when attention from male suitors evaporates from existence. I am no longer beautiful, virile, and charismatic; I am instead an ancient relic. I am 29 years old and I will be forever alone.

Forgive the “Trekkie” style of the introduction, but I felt it was important to illustrate how dramatic an experience this was for me, and for many of my friends at the time. Turning 29 signified to many of us queer men in our late 20s that our lives were over if we hadn’t yet found the right partner by then.

Queer men in my generation were told so many times that our lives would be over. While shows like Queer As Folk, Noah’s Arc, and The Golden Girls showed us that our sex lives and the ability to seek out love weren’t over at 29, it was hard to conceptualize their stories into our own. We held these shows close to us but we thought of them as fantasy, and the lives of the TV characters we’d love forever (and still quote to this day) weren’t our lives.

So, what would The Gay Death look like?

  • There would be no more clubbing until the sun came up
  • There would be no more vacations to hot, sunny destinations with the most beautiful men from around the world vying for our attention
  • There would be no more one-night encounters to meet our sexual desires
  • Life would now mainly revolve around antiques shopping and having sassy comments full of sage wisdom for the younger generation

We believed that’s all we’d have to offer, and that this was our only remaining worth. Most of us now know this isn’t true, but we thought it was back then. Why were we so ready to accept this fate? How much of this do we internalize as we grow older? Do you feel your potential has significantly decreased because you’re aging? Can you still reach for your goals or follow your passions in your 40s and 50s? Does it depress you that it takes longer to get to your year of birth when scrolling online? And why is it so hard for queer men to love ourselves after coming out?

One of the reasons may be the conception of The Gay Death. Older men who mentored my generation of queer men were in the generation that was decimated by the AIDS epidemic. For the most part, from the 80s to late 90s, the life expectancy for men who slept with men was 25 to 34. That’s where the age of “The Gay Death” came from. Men at the time were highly encouraged to find a partner and not further explore their sexuality because of the risk of dying from AIDS. People were afraid, and rightfully so. Not feeling supported leads to internalization and rationalization of things we have no control over. We blame ourselves when the systems in place to protect us instead hurt and fail us.

So how do we learn to embrace ourselves and love who we are now? Do we allow the actions of our elders shape our fates? How do we not only accept the wrinkles and gray hair but also thrive because of them?

First, we have to recognize that we are struggling with aging and our relationship with aging in this community. Over the past decade, there’s been a significant shift in how age is viewed. We’re now in the age of “Daddies”, where age is seen as attractive and alluring (and has a lot of other complexities we can discuss another time). We also have to acknowledge and accept how much of what we’d previously learned about aging has been internalized from both community experience and heteronormative patterns. We are still beholden to the ideas of owning a house and being in a monogamous relationship. Let me be clear, if that’s what you truly want, go for it! But often, those heteronormative ideals can stifle us, suppress us, and limit us to the point we believe that’s what we should strive for, rather than seeking out what actually works best for us. With the world as it is now, changing careers is not the end of the world, owning a home seems impossible unless you’re making six figures a year, and our views of romantic relationships change and grow due to our own experiences. It’s okay if we don’t want those things in a specific way. It’s okay if we don’t want any of those things now or ever. Our primary focus should always be what makes us happy, what sustains us, and what success looks like solely for us.

Knowing how far we’ve come in this life, and how hard it was for many of us to accept who we are serves to remind us of our resiliency and ability to adapt and change. That didn’t stop when we turned 29, 40, 50, 60, or older. It took many of us years to live our authentic lives, and to allow our age to determine what our life should look like instead of what’s right for us seems defeating.

Aging is a gift, one that many in the generations before us were not afforded. There is beauty in the way we see the world, and in how we interact with wisdom that took decades to accumulate. Our lives are not over. We can still go out for a night out on the town, but may need more time to recover and some more water. We can change our careers if what we’re doing doesn’t satisfy us anymore, and we can find love in every variation that we are seeking.

Aging with grace means to love our current state, and to know that whatever changes come along, we will adapt and change with them, as we’ve always done. It’s easier said than done, but when we allow ourselves the emotional space to acknowledge the challenges that prevent us from living fuller, healthier lives, the less time will seem to slip through our fingers. Give yourself the gift of being present in this time (since we can’t go back to the past). The past is there to remind us of where we’ve been. Continuing to try and encapsulate a moment that’s passed can cause us to miss out on incredible opportunities that lie ahead of us, if we can allow ourselves to expand our view just a little more each day. No day is promised, except the one we have today. We always have the choice to either live today, or lose it by holding onto yesterday. I hope that recognizing you have choices encourages you to live a little more today.

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IntraSpectrum Counseling is Chicago’s leading psychotherapy practice dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, and we strive to provide the highest quality mental health care for multicultural, kink, polyamorous, and intersectional issues. For anyone needing affirming and validating support in their healing, please click here or email us at help@intraspectrum-chicago.com.