The Queer Take: Moving past the LGBTQ community's entrenched ageism requires that we first confront it
In this week's 'The Queer Take', Joshua Muyiwa writes: Seeing older gay, bisexual and men fade away into invisiblity makes me hyper aware that there is something to the invincibility I felt in my younger days
The reason I knew my flame was going off soon was because in our community, especially among the gay, bisexual and queer men, ageism is rampant.
We are told to worship at the temple of youth. We put it on a pedestal.
Seeing older gay, bisexual and men fade away into invisiblity, makes me hyper aware that there is something to the invincibility I felt in my younger days.
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
I don’t know if it was because I’ve always been queer, or because I was young, but I remember thinking: I want to die when I turn 40. And until my 20s, I held onto this feeling like it was the gospel truth — it didn’t cripple but catalysed me. In discovering that pleasure, pain, love, friendships, relationships and life in all its grease, grime and glory wasn’t going to go the conventional way for me, I seemed to gravitate towards those that had discovered similarly. And here, everyone seemed to want to live for the moment too; if it can’t happen now, it will never happen again was the battle cry. And in this community, I wanted to have every experience I could, occasionally putting myself and others in uncomfortable situations, but we were young enough to forgive each other for our iniquities. And it was exactly those things that we placed a premium on — being young, being able to forgive.
Echoed in this community that I had gravitated towards was our collective desire to destroy the notion that the things that our bodies wanted made us wrong. So, one quickly learned to use one’s body as a tool to chip away at this nonsense. Forgive me, I’m going to grand-stand and say: it felt self-affirming. It felt like a rush, like rebellion, like revolt. And of course, I wanted to tell all those who had put me down, and continued to do so, “You said this was disgusting, but it is desired and damn delightful”. Going from one mattress on the floor to the next one, it felt good. Or if good isn’t the word, it felt liberating. This isn’t to say that the duration spent on those mattresses was draining — emotionally more than anything — but who had the time to ponder, to pause, to process? We were going to be young only for so long, we were going to die soon.
It has been more than a few years, and I can see my 20s in the rear-view mirror. There isn’t any regret: my ultra skinny jeans, a t-shirt and bomber jacket look didn’t allow for any excess, even emotional. But the reason I knew my flame was going off soon was because in our community, especially among the gay, bisexual and queer men, ageism is rampant. We’re told to worship at the temple of youth. We put it on a pedestal. We give it power. And wielding it is fun. The young are the ones allowed to rush onto dance-floors, twist, turn and tease our bodies into shapes that presently seem impossible to me. Being young allowed us to dismiss, to disregard, to divorce from things that don’t spark joy. We didn’t have to put up with anything. Or at least, one seems to have been granted permission to behave badly in my community, especially among the gay, bisexual and queer men because one was young. It was enough, one didn’t have to do anything else. Rather, it was best if one didn’t. I might be painting everyone with the same brush but I see older gay, bisexual and men fade away into invisiblity, which makes me hyper aware that there’s something to that invincibility I felt in my younger days.
We might have to come up with a formula to calculate gay years much like dog years. I mean, for each one of us, the birth is different. But in that first year, the growth can’t be compared to those on the narrow, straight path. We have to cut down the weeds to even take the first step and that effort can take its toll, it can be maturing in a way nothing else can. And so, in a way, you learn to value youth in the body while searching for something else in the mind. Though, in the present mode that our community functions, never shall the two meet.
Men over a certain age are painted out to be sleazy succubus rather than survivors. And in our current climate of be coupled or be a corpse, it is even harder to be older, single and identify with this community. While this ageism stems from the fear of becoming old at the physical level, it is also fear of isolation and rejection from a community that demonises those who aren’t young. And instead of acknowledging, then adapting and adopting ways of breaking this mould of ostracising our own, we expect people to play at being young or disappear if they will not.
If I am being honest, since the beginning, I’ve always had one foot with the older ones in my community. I’ve always been interested in finding out the ways that others had tackled something. I have never been good at going the whole way on my own. Or more like, I’d rather not. Now, I have found that even while eye-rolling I was absorbing from them — the perfect way to turn my wrist to lay my shawl on my shoulder, run fabric between my fingers to tell the difference between weaves, to talk about my feelings in a way that isn’t cloying, to have an opinion that is informed, to make every meal a good one, to have an ugly cry, to take care of my body, and to find tendrils into other communities so that I stand steadier with all the help I can get among so many other lessons. I’ve learned that becoming older is the biggest rush, rebellion and revolt. It is the ‘up yours’ that you were telling but couldn’t show everyone when you were younger.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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