When I was in my 20s I watched the generation before me – what is the word? Oh, yes, evaporate. They went away. They went missing. I’m trying to convey the pervasive spookiness and desolation of a decade that found Boy George singing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and Ronald Reagan forgetting to mention an emerging pandemic.
I was just out of NYU then and working at a Broadway rehearsal studio while volunteering in the education department at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I kept getting promoted at both places because my bosses kept dying. I remember going into their files to see exactly what their job descriptions were. These were men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, who had just begun to tell me stories about Michael Bennett, say, or Harry Hay – and then they were gone. I’d have to figure out how to write year-end reports, where the janitors home phone number was, how to dance backwards in heels – and all by myself.
That young gay men today are not burdened by such pervasive dread is – and it’s the only word that will suffice – astonishing. That older gay men are staying healthy is also astonishing. Both facts suggest, among other things, that for the first time in history, an unbroken openly gay lineage is possible, comprising men who have sex with men and their elders. Yes, elders. And those of us who are elders should be happy about it. When men my age groan about aging, I think, Yes, you assholes, you have the privilege of aging because you have the privilege of living.
Don’t get me started.
The issues and language surrounding mentorship are everywhere, from Ophra’s couch to George W. Bush’s disastrous education policies. But what is rarely mentioned – and hardly ever discussed – is how older gay men should mentor younger gay men. Such mentorship no doubt involves being out, politicized, successful, and polite with each other. But it also involves preparing young gay men for their futures. And this means conveying hope – something I wasn’t exactly tutored in myself. Maybe this is why I respond with more than a little ambivalence to the notion of mentoring. You see, mentoring reminds me of never having been mentored. And when I feel like I don’t know how to mentor, I’m filled with a sense of failure, which then turns to shame – because I’ve become all the adults who didn’t mentor me (the gym teachers, the nuns, the closeted high school theater teacher who informed me that gay people lead “very difficult” lives). So sometimes when a young gay man comes to me in need of guidance, advice, or counseling I think, Why are you looking to me, you dewy-faced twink? I’m not skilled in mentorship. Which isn’t helpful.
Mentorship can also be fraught because – let’s face it – there’s an erotic component to it that can sensitize the whole business. The compelling reasons men of two different generations are drawn to each other can bring then close, closer, closest. Older men have wisdom. Younger men have energy. Older men have bigger apartments. Younger men look very good stretched out in them. The ageism that might have kept these relationships “platonic” in generations past seems to be evanescing among the latest generation, clearing the way for a sexual connection.
The ancient Greeks, Plato notwithstanding, had this down pat. But in 2007 we are more leery. We are encouraged to keep our roles tidy. When gay men so much as think aloud about mentoring, we risk stirring up the black dust of hysteria inspired by the misbehavior of Catholic priests and Republican congressmen. But it’s time to start being clear about what is abuse of power, victimization, inappropriate intimacy with those not of age, and being an adult of true intention who mentors younger adults.
Of course there are hurdles beyond the erotic that challenge gay men who mentor or those in need of mentorship; namely, finding each other. Other minorities have parents and families who share their experiences, but gays rarely find mentors in their families. Even if we grew up with our fathers, those fathers generally weren’t gay, removing a fundamental level of connection. Even with an extremely loving father who ended up being wonderfully comfortable with my being gay, there were still things I wasn’t going to learn from him, such as what gays did on a Saturday night. Mom wasn’t any more helpful here, but at least she was more immediately sympathetic. This is true for many gay men – that our mothers became fallback mentors. Lovely, fine, adorable, but these gals ultimately can’t help us get at the crux of the matter, which is how to become men who are intimately involved with other men.
As a teenager, I turned to figures in literature and pop culture. I devoured books by and about Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Joe Orton to help me learn how to become “one of them”. I combed through the lyrics of Erasure, Bronski Beat, and Morrissey. No wonder I had a few rather dynamic years early on (tea rooms, train stations, narcissism). Of course, there are many more public gay figures in the world these days – with their heads screwed on straighter than my faraway models – and, more important, many more opportunities for young gay men to know older gay men they can literally go to.
I find myself one of those go-to gays and I’m trying my best, I swear, but it’s still challenging in surprising ways. I have a friend who is in his 20s who is constantly calling me to bemoan the fact that all the gay men he meets want to marry, move to Jersey, and adopt children. And I think, Yes, I feel your pain. I too would rather exist in a child-free zone stocked with vodka, ice, and lemon peel, but is meeting hetero-aping gays who shop at Restoration Hardware your worst problem as a gay man? Don’t you realize how much illness, protest, and rage generations just ahead of you endured so that your generation could be crammed full of men you’d rather not date?
But then I simmer down. Because how much should the younger generation of gay men absorb of the older generation’s oppression and hardship? We should all know our history, yes, but let me speak directly to my fellow elders: Isn’t it the point that the youngsters should have it easier because of our struggle? Need we pummel them with our trials the way straight people who (for the most part) raised us pummeled us with theirs? Are we simply envious of all the possibilities the younger generation possesses, possibilities that were so remote to us as to seem utterly out of reach when we were coming of age?
If so, we who are at the forefront of so much innovation can surely do better. And we need to do better, because young gay people, even in light of recent strides, still feel enough “otherness” without having to feel it among those who would serve as mentors. We’ve endured too much these past 25 years to not put the pain to some good use. And here is a chance.
It’s time to mentor – even if it fills us with complicated feelings that remind us of our loss. Even if it makes us feel inadequate, anxious, or (age appropriately) aroused. We must encourage, even if we were not encouraged. We must esteem even if we were not esteemed. We must lead even though we were not led.
January 2007 edition
By Tom Donaghy
Reese and I are a gay married couple of 21 years. We met when we were 17 & 18, and have had 4 ceremonies – one a marriage at San Francisco city hall. Saved a young gay from death on the streets of San Francisco and gave him all our worldly possessions when we left to go live in the jungle in a tent. Now we live with Bob, a 68 year old flower farmer.
This month we were legally adopted by Bob, who is now Dad. We are now Reese Armstrong and Tolver Armstrong. We are now legally and medically responsible for dad, and he for us. We are all one happy family now, although Reese and I are not legally each others sibling – so no incest sex, drat!
And now the next step is for other gay elders to legally adopt their gay juniors. For us to create gay families, so that we too may share in familial love - and all the rewards that go with it. Not only does it establish legal rights to inheritance and medical care, it will give us fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, and we can fully share in the emotional bonding that was previously reserved for heterosexual family members. Young gays are OUR responsibility to raise, because the heteros won't. To take them in and give them some familial stability (a 22 year old needs stability), we will give ourselves strength and purpose in life. AIDS decimated us; society at large represses us; so we must help them in every way that we can if we want a better life for the next gay generations.
This is the direction that we should work in for the 2008 electoral season - Gay Mentoring and Adult Gay Adoption. It is all fine and well for Gay Adults to start new families by adopting children, but let us not forget all the young gay adults who need families just as much if not more than babies.