Credit: London LGBTQ+ Community Centre

Queer generational divides

By Tom Gilbert

Tom Gilbert explores the intergenerational divide between today’s queer youth and the queer elderly.

“It stems from a deep fear of ageing ourselves. It’s almost impossible when we’re young and beautiful to look at someone we consider not attractive and realise we too are going to become that person.” 

I’m talking to Trevor Diamond, a gay man in his 60s, about the queer intergenerational divide. Trevor taps into a sense of dismissal and exclusion that I fear has begun to characterise the older queer experience. In a community that places such emphasis on youth, how can we ensure that the older generations of queer people are both valued and listened to?

There is, I feel, a particular queer preoccupation with youth. Queer people are often denied the formative years of sexual expression and self-discovery in adolescence. While our heterosexual counterparts are safely afforded the possibility of first early romances in environments like the schoolyard, queer people can only access spaces where the same is possible for us, namely queer clubs and dating apps, when we reach the age of 18. This means that, in many cases, queer life doesn’t effectively start until the adult years. The result of this is an inbuilt sense of lost time and a constant fixation on youth.

This preoccupation with youth in the queer community is pervasive in pop culture. It is telling that the vast majority of popular queer films and television in the last decade have primarily focused on very young protagonists. With the exception of Marta Kauffman’s Grace and Frankie, you would be hard-pressed to find an elderly queer character in mainstream media. It seems, for the moment, the queer imagination is dominated by retellings of stories of youth. Shows like Heartstopper, Call Me by Your Name, and Euphoria have all found success in the mainstream, but should they be the dominant form of queer representation? This is not to call for fewer shows focusing on young queer characters; the benefits of representation to queer youth, and non-queer youth alike, are innumerable. However, there are stories to tell about the psychological development of growing up in the context of illegality and the AIDS crisis and how that might inflict the life and consciousness of an elderly queer person today.

More worrying is the potential for neglect of elderly queer people in public policy. A report by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) identifies a tendency for public health efforts to focus on early intervention rather than engaging with the issues that impact queer people in their elderly years. The same report highlights the specific additional needs of elderly queer people, finding that gay men over the age of 50 were more likely to have lower overall life satisfaction and to have attempted suicide than heterosexual men. Elderly queer people were also found to be more likely to have had negative experiences with healthcare providers, with 18% of older LGBTQ+ individuals feeling too uncomfortable to disclose their sexuality to local practitioners. Moreover, the report found that older queer people were more likely to find it difficult to create social networks and bonds in healthcare settings. This can, in part, be attributed to potential prejudices and exclusion that can emerge when elderly queer people are placed in environments surrounded by non-queer people of their own generation.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the older generation of queer people is more likely to feel isolated and have specific mental health care needs. Trevor told me of the difficulty of growing up as a queer person in the 1970s and not being equipped with the information to self-identify. “I had no idea what I was… there were no ways to access information”. Without access to personal phones, the internet and other resources, entire generations of queer people had to find their own means to counter homophobic narratives – the backdrop of this being society’s view of homosexuality, which was only legalised in 1967, as deviancy. This is not to mention the emotional and psychological trauma of living through an epidemic which severely impacted the queer community. I think it is easy for our generation of young queer people to forget this. While growing up queer is, of course, still often an isolating and challenging experience, we at least have the information readily and privately available online to counter homophobic narratives about ourselves.

It is clear that the older queer generation needs more attention, both in the cultural lens and in the practical sense, through increased healthcare provisions. While demand for specialised medical care for queer people might be met with some opposition thanks to the tightened strain of austerity and welfare cuts, there is more that could be done in terms of protecting elderly queer people. A starting point would be greater data collection. As it stands, NHS hospitals do not routinely collect data on LGBTQ+ people, which makes it difficult to identify and cater for the specific needs of elderly queer citizens. Once we acknowledge that older queer people have particular needs, we can begin to bridge the health disparities uncovered in the ILC Report and make social care more accessible and less isolating.

Likewise, in popular culture, a greater focus on the stories of elderly queer people in art might spike interest in the older generation and subsequently lessen the sense of exclusion some feel from queer spaces. This would be beneficial not just for older queer people but also for queer youth, with stories of the early days of queer activism and groups like The Gay Liberation Front and Act Up perhaps striking a chord with younger queer activists today. Lip Wieckowski, manager at the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre, told The Glasgow Guardian of the importance of “intergenerational friendships” and how young people can “find joy in learning community history”. Lip also highlighted the importance of young people hearing what has worked and what hasn’t in the history of queer activism to help with future battles that loom.

Initiatives like the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre, which provide a safe space for queer intergenerational interaction, are vital for queer people of all ages. A healthy intergenerational relationship in the queer community would ultimately be a two-way street. When we take the time to listen and engage with the stories of the older queer generation, we, as young queer people, gain insight into our history and culture. Simultaneously, a forgotten generation can feel uplifted and supported, a powerful tool in the face of mental illness and trauma. There is a lot to be done to bridge the queer generational divide, but listening to the stories of the queers who fought for our modern-day liberation, seems like a good place to start.


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