By Eric Burkett
Is an age-specific social group exclusionary? Are guys in one age bracket discriminating against men in another age range because they want to hang out with guys their own age?
Aging is a challenge for anyone and, admittedly, some seem outwardly to handle it more gracefully than others. Then, there's the rest of us. Overwhelmed by a process that makes little sense and seems only to pack more and more unpleasant surprises for us as we move farther down the path, we feel as if getting older is little more than a poorly-timed joke and we're the butt of it all.
For gay men, particularly those of what we shall politely call “a certain age,” aging can bring with it a few more unpleasant surprises. In a subculture widely seen as youth-obsessed, those of us on the other side of 40 – to pick an arbitrary but not unloaded milestone – may find ourselves feeling cast aside. As a 48-year-old man working as a sous chef in a private high school, I am astounded by how invisible I am to so many of the kids I deal with on a daily basis. Anecdotally, however, pretty much all the adults seem to be invisible to the students unless they're in direction interaction.
That extends to our wider social interactions, too. Very occasionally, I find myself in the Castro on a Friday night and I'm almost always taken back to my days as a young gay man in my late teens and early 20s, back in my hometown or in my younger haunts of Montreal, Toronto, and New York. For all the great memories, I wouldn't relive that period of my life if I had to. Wander past bars like The Cafe, Badlands, or Q Bar, and the sidewalks outside are filled with young 20-somethings having terrific break-ups and fantastic meltdowns. The drama is palpable as you squeeze your way through crowds doing the Castro circuit.
Life lessons are being learned, the often treacherous channels of love and sex are being navigated – awkwardly – and the remarkably messy process of growth is being played out among those who are experiencing a great many of life's grand moments for, more or less, the first time. It's great fun to watch and I'm grateful I can just continue walking by when I see it.
While it would be lovely if these experiences were handled a bit more gracefully, in truth, few of us ever manage to really accomplish that. Within our own subculture of kink and leather, these same lessons are tackled daily by a seemingly endless stream of young men, figuring themselves out, exploring their options and their kinks, and – arguably unique to our community – often looking for guidance and experience from older men.
As a guy pushing 50, and enjoying the surprisingly large number of cruises I get from men in their early 20s and 30s, I appreciate that. On a more profound level, when I was their age, I wanted those same experiences and looked to older men for those opportunities, as well. Yeah, I've always had a thing for older guys, as the presence in my life of two wonderful men – 59 and 61 – might attest. But, in addition to the aesthetics – how many hot 55-, 65-, and 75-year-old daddies have turned your head? - there's the practical aspect of that. Older men tend to have more experience. Older men have picked up a technique or two and, most notably, older men have been through much of it all ready and can offer some much needed advice on negotiating life.
I pursued older men but they didn't always return my interest. You know that point I brought up in the last paragraph about older guys having more experience? Turns out, they're often looking for that in partners, too. It devastated me when I was in my 20s when a man I thought was hot wasn't interested in turn, but it also made me look forward to being older.
The other day, a new social group for men from ages 18 through 39 was announced on Race's Bar, a popular Facebook site for the men's kink community in San Francisco. Calling itself Kink Under Forty, the group hopes to organize events for the city's younger gay kinksters. I posted a congratulations to the organizers as I was happy to see a group like this forming, despite the fact I couldn't participate. When I was that age, I would have loved to be part of a similar group, an organization of my peers who could understand what I was going through because they were experiencing it, too.
Not all the other posters felt that way, though (However, a great many more did), and expressed disappointment in what they saw as yet another expression of ageism, discrimination against a particular group or individual based on age. That sparked a debate. Is this new group being ageist? The organizers didn't seem to think so or, at least, seemed to be uncomfortably squirming their way through an effort to say they weren't being ageist per se but the accusation was out, splayed across the table for everyone to see and everyone who saw it had an opinion.
Why won't the organizers just own up to the fact they're being ageist, wondered some of the grumblers? Why indeed?
Let's face it. Organizing a group defined by the age of its members is ageist. There's no way around that. For some of the group's critics, it no doubt stung a bit to see themselves written out of something merely because they didn't fall within the age requirements. I have to confess to feeling a slight sting when I see a profile online that catches my eye and then read something like “no guys over 40” or “no guys under 55" although I suspect it's probably not as profound a sting as "no Asians or blacks" might be for many others.
This is different than a hook-up site profile, though, and has much broader implications and I don't think the critics (men I know and respect, by the way) are considering all the implications. Luckily, a few posters did. One described running into a bunch of men his own age, for a change, at a popular regular play party:
I was very happily surprised to encounter a bunch of younger guys there, for the first time. We played and laughed and chatted and fucked and had a great time: not exclusively among ourselves, but it was a relief to find men my age. Yes, a RELIEF. Because I almost always interact with kinky men older than me... and it makes me feel like even more of an oddity than I already am. Being around people you identify with is important no matter what stage of life you're in.
I agree. Because of my penchant for older men, I didn't actually know the experience of hanging out with other gay men my own age as an adult until I was in my late 30s. It was a revelation. Similar experiences and similar cultural baggage meant I was able to relate to them in ways that just hadn't been possible with my older friends. I might have been knowledgeable about things they knew – such as music or culture – but it wasn't the same as actually sharing similar life experiences.
So, yeah. Our under-39 crowd is being ageist – hell, the group is called Kink Under Forty – but the bigger issue we have to address here is the lack of support they feel that made such an organization necessary. At Leathermen's Discussion Group, those of us who serve on the board are continually trying to figure out how to pull in younger men to participate. Other groups, such as The 15 Association, struggle with the same issue.
Groups like KUF are addressing that issue, by providing an opportunity for younger men to explore and process their experiences with their peers. Groups like this will help younger guys find their footing so they can come into the community more sure of themselves and what they want. They'll be better men for it and, if my experiences are any indication, they're gonna keep coming back to their older friends because, hey, what's hotter than a 48-year-old sous chef into fisting and breath control?
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily represent the views of Leathermen's Discussion Group.