No one who is young is ever going to be old. — JOHN STEINBECK, East of Eden
A flurry of articles on the LGBT community and ageism have been published over recent weeks, but there seems to be an increasingly blurred line between ageism and “I’m upset because younger people no longer think I’m cool.” Ageism, on one hand, is a very real thing that affects the livelihoods of many of the elderly. Ageism-ish, as I shall call this new breed of invented societal folly, is akin to when wealthy celebrities claim to be “bullied” when whining about audiences making fun of them.
In The Advocate and Huffpo, articles addressing ageism and gay men (but not gay women because lesbians are born old amiright?) in which the authors cite being called “old men” by younger gays and narrowing social circles as examples of ageist persecution. These events are newsworthy because youthful disrespect or disinterest in their elders is a very new societal trend. Why, it was only around 419 BC that Socrates bemoaned:
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
Or around 350 BC, when Aristotle observed that “The young are permanently in a state resembling intoxication.” After just over two millennia, youthful disrespect has been reinterpreted as ageism rather than human nature, and elders complaining about the young morphed from cliche to fighting inequality. What a wonderful world we live in when almost any legitimate inequality can be co-opted by a sore ego.
“In Defense of Aging,” an intelligent and beautifully written piece that ran in The Advocate, author Jon Bernstein clearly expresses his experience as a gay man growing older. In no way do I dismiss, reject, or disbelieve in the slightest that he and other gay men struggle with aging. He opens by describing The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s classic book on the innumerable costs of pursuing endless youth. Bernstein observes that “Interestingly, the impossible quest for eternal youth is an actual mental disorder called the Dorian Gray syndrome, which is characterized by narcissism and an obsessive physical pride. Possessing an extreme fear of aging, sufferers of this syndrome often have multiple cosmetic procedures, which can actually lead to disfigurement. An inability to preserve their looks often leads to depression and suicide. As demonstrated by Wilde’s vain character, narcissism leads to a sad end.”
Those in possession of Dorian Gray-esque symptoms cannot blame their unhappiness on young people, no matter how rude, for possessing what they want and no longer have. Everyone is young. Then everyone is old. Every young person at one point (but usually many, many points) begins to doubt the wisdom or worth of the generation that birthed them. It is inevitable, and has been a tolerable irritation for as long as humans have had the ability to express irritation over those younger than themselves.
Next, Bernstein cites “A recent survey, commissioned by San Francisco’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, found that 15% of the city’s LGBT residents between the ages of 60 to 92 years old had “seriously considered” committing suicide within the last 12 months.” According to The Trevor Project, ⅙ high school students have “seriously considered suicide in the next year, about 17%. Furthermore, LGBT youth are 4 times more likely than their hetero peers to actually attempt suicide. These suicidal LGBT tendencies are therefore not a symptom of ageism, but a symptom of “being gay in America.”
Finally, Bernstein tells a story of first hand(ish) ageism in my own neighborhood: the gay mecca of West Hollywood. “A few months ago at Pride in West Hollywood, I was standing on the crowded front porch of the bar Micky’s, waiting to enter, when an extremely handsome 50-something friend of mine stormed past,” he recounts. “I asked where he was going and he replied, ‘Home. I’m pissed.” Why? “Some queen just shoved me and said ‘Get out of the way, old man.’” The horror and surprise! A gay man insulting another gay man in the club? Or just a young person in the bar scene mocking fun of an older and therefore less cool patron? How strange. How odd. How utterly unprecedented.
“LGBT People: Let’s Talk About Ageism” takes Bernstein’s melancholy if poignant dwellings and interprets them into a full-on issue. The author claims “Ageism can mean the attitudes we internalize about our bodies and our life chances over time. It’s the dreaded birthday; the off-handed remark about “feeling old” or “being too old”; disparaging jokes about seniors… Ageism is the obsession with products, medication and surgeries to keep one feeling and looking younger. It’s Dorian Gray.”
That is not ageism. That is not liking getting old, and a feeling shared by virtually everyone. You can’t compare “feeling old” with “institutional discrimination against the elderly,” which is what ageism actually means. Being addicted to makeup or plastic surgery is not akin to racism or sexism, two actual problems, or legitimate “ageism.” How older people feel about themselves is not the problem, or fault, of younger generations. Kat Williams put a similar stance perhaps most eloquently when he famously said, “Stop sayin’ ‘You fucked up my self-esteem.’ Bitch it’s called SELF-ESTEEM! It’s esteem of your mothafuckin’ self. How am I gonna fuck up how you feel about you?”
While I can’t agree that “young people rejecting old people” is ageism rather than just the way young people are, I understand that rejection or jealousy is difficult at any age. I get it. It’s hurtful. I am hurt that I have $25 in my account. I imagine the sense of loathsome jealousy older people feel when they look at me is similar to the loathsome jealousy I feel when I look at their wallets, cars, and houses. Young people are pretty and poor. Old people are less pretty but overwhelmingly wealthier. C’est la vie.
At this very moment I am lounging by a pristine pool, nannying a lovely 13-year-old. At the moment the girl adores me, but soon enough she and her ilk will rise against me just as my generation rose against our elders. Jean Cocteau once said that “Youth can only assert itself through the conviction that its ventures surpass all others and resemble nothing,” and I agree that this cycle is inevitable and ultimately necessary for the continued evolution of society. In time my youth will fade, but for now I’ll forget fate and bask in the feeling that to be young and clever and wanted is to be perfectly alive.