Guest Post: So Gay and So Old

 This guest post is by Sheila Roher, MPH, a veteran of the feminist and LGBT movements, who advocates a social movement approach to transform our social imagination around longevity. After studying with Dr. Robert Butler at Columbia University, she worked with “Age Friendly NYC”  at the New York Academy of Medicine where she focused on employment and educational opportunities for older adults. She is the founder of Radical Age Lab, a social enterprise business  and is working on a book about aging in the 21st Century.


What does it mean to say that someone is ‘so gay’”, asks my friend Jeffrey when he facilitates workshops on suicide prevention at high schools. “Nothing, it’s just something we say” is the usual response from students, “it doesn’t mean anything.” Picking up the ever-present chalk and walking to the blackboard, Jeffrey probes further, “Suppose someone says a movie is ‘so gay’? Or that outfit is ‘gay’–what words would you use to substitute for ‘so gay’?” For the next few minutes, they call out answers which he records without comment on the blackboard:
• stupid
• moronic
• ugly
• gross
• no good
• pathetic
“Now,” he asks,” how do you think it feels when you call someone ‘so gay’”? The silence is filled with recognition. 

Yesterday I asked people on the street, “What does it mean to be ‘so old’? As in, “he’s so old” These were the responses:
• finished
• out of it
• stuck
• can’t keep up
• decrepit
• no longer in one’s prime
• needy
• from another world
• not wanted

The responses make it clear that we risk contempt, irrelevance, and marginalization if we are viewed as old. And there’s a robust body of research showing how being viewed as old–and internalizing these attitudes–breeds powerlessness, rage, and despair. So, it is understandable that we want to distance ourselves from being ‘old’ and keep it, as someone said, ‘always fifteen years older than us.’ 

Yet, we should also consider what we lose by not claiming our age. I’m drawing a distinction here between ‘feeling’ and ‘claiming’. I’ve never ‘felt’ an age; or rather, as Proust captured so brilliantly, I feel all ages most of the time. (In fact, I think it would be an act of social wisdom to retire the phrase “act your age”, which basically means ‘conform to social expectations’. Let’s instead urge children and adults to ‘act your best selves’. Isn’t that what we really want?) 

Young people who claim their gayness or gender differences in the face of a homophobic culture show extraordinary courage in the true sense of the word, from the Latin ‘cor’, meaning ‘from the heart’. They have the courage to be authentic–to claim their own authority. 

Part of my authority comes from having lived six decades. I know things from having experienced and integrated them, and I can see connections invisible to the young. I am, as always, growing, changing, and continually ‘dying’ to my old self. So, although I don’t ‘feel’ old, I claim ‘being’ old. I recognize that part of my authenticity is my lived experience, and I’m not going to deny any of it; on the contrary, it provides a rich lodestone from which to draw resources to meet the new day. And yes, I can recognize more easily what is true for everyone but denied by most–that each precious day brings me closer to death. And, that knowledge informs my life in ways profound and practical.

As a playwright, let me draw a lesson from the theater. The greatness of a play depends on its last act. See a play with an electrifying first act and a weak third act, and you leave disappointed. See a play with a troubled second act that rises to greatness in the third act and you leave nourished and inspired.

I’m in my third act, and I’m claiming the right and responsibility to author it as best I can, creating an experience that is revelatory and rich. As a lesbian who turned sixty last year, I’m glad to say I’m SO GAY and SO OLD—deal with it!


This post first appeared on the Radical Age Movement blog.

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