Old, gay, and gray

  • by Lou A. Bordisso
  • Wednesday May 6, 2015
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Based on my casual observation over the years, it is my opinion that many, if not most, gay men have difficulty getting older. We resist being old, gay, and gray and our "age-phobia" is manifested in ageist attitudes, poor self-image, and social isolation.

I have news for you, unless your name is Dorothy and you own a pair of ruby slippers that you can click three times to return to your younger days and youthful looks, the aging process is happening whether we like it or not. Trying to recapture our younger days is simply magical thinking. is here to stay and returning to Kansas is not an option, even if we are in denial and make desperate attempts to alter the reality.

No matter how hard we try to recapture our youth with facial creams, tummy tucks, facelifts, hair replacements and dyes, and lie about our age and try to "pass" as younger than our chronological age, time marches on with or without our consent. At a deep level, we know that time is getting short and this chapter of our lives is the beginning of the end.

The fact is many of us fear, and are anxious about, getting older. Our image of getting older is canes, electric wheelchairs, and hearing, vision, and memory impairments. The older we are the more we have a history of living in the days when gay bars were raided by the police, the stress of living a life of duplicity, experiencing excessive discrimination, and multiple losses of our friends and loved ones due to HIV/AIDS. Given our time in history, many of us live in exile from our family-of-origin. Hence, when our heterosexual counterparts can count on friends in their senior years, most of our friends have died and we are more likely to be living in social isolation with very little or no support.

Due to ageism in the gay community we are subject to being social outcasts in bars and bathhouses alike. Unless we were once married and have children, our support network of adult children and grandkids does not exist. For those of us who have Alzheimer's or related dementia or disability of any sort, we can count on the double stigma of being old as a gay male and being cast off for having a disability. For example, as a senior gay man with young onset Alzheimer's and Lewy Body dementias, my spatial judgment is impaired and I have an unsteady gait; I need to either use a cane or a walker to keep my balance and avoid falling. It has been my experience when walking in the Castro or on Polk Street in San Francisco that other men will not even make eye contact with me when I am using my cane or walker, whereas when I don't need the aide of either, other gay men will make eye contact. My sense is that a walker or cane is an explicit reminder of the very thing we fear the most – frailty aging! Hence, the lack of eye contact, denial, and avoidance.

Given the bleak picture I just painted it is no surprise that so many gay men attempt to fend off growing old. However, the byproduct of age-phobia in the gay men's community comes down to shame. The effect that shame has is expressed in many disparaging ways such as our language when we use terms like, "wrinkle queen" or referring to a Castro watering hole for older gay men as the "glass casket." Our language speaks volumes about how we view ourselves as older gay men.

The good news is that the anecdote for age-phobia and shame is pride. If we strive to age gracefully, we have to replace shame with pride. Our rich history as a gay community validates the value of pride. When we embrace pride rather than shame as gay men getting old, we become a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We can help to extinguish ageist attitudes and beliefs by first accepting ourselves as we are and not as we once were or how we want to be in the future. As gay men we need to celebrate, rather than simply tolerate, our chronological old age and all that comes with it.

So, dear companions, even if our name isn't Dorothy, we don't own a pair of ruby slippers, and we are not returning to Kansas, we can still be a "Friend of Dorothy" (a delightful term used in our LGBT history) and follow the example of her companions by aging with courage (Cowardly Lion), wisdom (Scarecrow), and having a compassionate heart toward ourselves and others (Tin Man) as we enter the final chapter and revel in being old, gay, and gray.


Lou A. Bordisso, Ed.D., LMFT, lives on Mare Island.