The world today for gay 20-year-olds is almost unrecognizable turf for those who came out in the 1970s. If one had any expectation of offering them advice, or being a father or mother figure, or even feeling that your experiences are relevant, forget it. If I didn’t already have this sense, all I needed to do was read the article in The Grid about the “post-mo” lives of young gays that makes my experience redundant. And perhaps Gay Pride redundant, too.
One of the most significant gaps between 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds is AIDS. Young gays usually see it as a chronic, not fatal, illness. Like diabetes. AIDS is a past era’s problem. Like polio. It’s such a downer to try to explain what it was like when people started to get sick and no one knew what it was, or the terrible discrimination against those who suffered from the disease once it was identified, not to mention the terror of a diagnosis that usually meant you’d be dead in a year or so after horrendous suffering.
AIDS defined the gay experience, particularly for men. And it forged a community of gays and lesbians that, without it, tends to be explained more by consumer demographics than by conviction.
It’s difficult to be relevant to a gay 20-year-old when what you might share has never been an issue for him: There’s no discreet bonding over parental disapproval of lifestyle choices (many gay kids now have supportive parents); no quiet acknowledgment of triumphing over ostracism in school (guys go to the high-school prom with their boyfriends, although bullying hasn’t been eradicated); and little sense of the worry of being outed at work (they were recruited because they were gay, and their company wanted a diverse workplace). Since they’re too young to know who a “ friend of Dorothy’s" is, let along recognize the name of Judy Garland, what can you talk about?
The Internet has changed how people meet for sex and friendship. Gay bars are no longer as central in younger gays’ lives as they once were for an older generation. Good or bad, the bar experience was shared by most. You had to be social to get dates, not just photograph well for your cellphone or Facebook audition.
Gay marriage has certainly opened up a gap, too. Many of my fellow boomers saw themselves as sexual outlaws, or at least countercultural and fringe. Now we’re trying to understand a generation that’s picking out their china for the day they’ll marry their Prince Charming.
Of course, twenty-somethings are more insufferable than they used to be, straight or gay. Overconfident from constant praise from helicopter parents, entitled to the best, right now, and demanding promotion regardless of competency all tend to exacerbate the generational distance. Unless you’re rich or famous, being an old gay makes you invisible for a younger generation obsessed with celebrity and wealth.
Most galling are the rights that gay kids take for granted. Unless you’re from an ethnic background that loathes homosexuality, you’ve been free to express yourself since you were born in the 1990s. In fact, many of this generation assumes their rights, and easily considers limiting the rights of others – there’s less shared cause with other oppressed minorities, although causes such as the environment still have cachet.
Taking gay rights for granted is not a good idea, especially when the subject is entwined with religion and deep-seated cultural beliefs. Being different is not what history teaches is sustainable. It’s a different world than it was 30 years ago, but it can be a very different world again, and not in a good way.
Kids don’t understand that people’s opinions are malleable. Maybe that’s why I don’t connect too well with twenty-something gays – my 20s weren’t like theirs, and I’m concerned they assume their 50s will be like mine.
Kelvin Browne is a Toronto writer.