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Older Gay Men: Intersectionality of Age, Race and Sexuality

By Laura S. Page, 2012.

Introduction

One of the most marginalized and often overlooked populations within the LGBT community is the “over-fifty crowd” – the group of older gay men whose age, sexuality and regional identities intersect to form unique experiences and life histories. In North Carolina, this intersectionality is especially apparent when issues of race collide with those of age and non-heteronormative sexual identity. The oral history interviews of southern gay men found in the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program offer insight into the ways that such intersectionality of identities affect the entire life histories of interviewees. 

The Southern Oral History Program

The Southern Oral History Program, housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was begun in 1973 with the goal of preserving the voices and texture of the southern past. Since its formation, the SOHP has grown to include more than 4,200 interviews of ordinary southerners – “from mill workers to civil rights leaders to future presidents of the United States.” A link to the website for the Southern Oral History Program can be found here:[[1]] A resource rich with the stories of southern life and everyday experiences, the collection of interviews in the SOHP offer a relevant and insightful look into the lives of LGBTQ-identified men and women in the South – including those with the unique experience of being over fifty years old, a Southerner, a member of a racial minority, and a participant in non-heteronormative sexual activities.

Interviewee Bill Hull

Bill Hull is one such interviewee. Born in Durham, North Carolina, in 1945, Hull attended the University of North Carolina and quickly became involved with the ‘gay scene’ in Chapel Hill. Now living in Florida, his interview speaks to one of the most prevalent issues facing older gay men: exclusion from the gay social world. Speaking about his past social life – specifically the bars he used to frequent - Hull said, “I didn't go because I was not young and gorgeous anymore, I was maybe 30[2].” This emphasis on expectation – how a typical gay man should look and act – is an incredibly important consideration when studying “older” gay men. Exclusion from social spaces raises issues of community inclusion, involvement in the gay social world, and existence of factions within the gay community: if gay men begin to feel excluded from their own sexual minority group as young as the age of thirty, how can one identify gay men as a community?

Reeling in the Years: Ageism in the Gay Community

In his book Reeling in the Years, Gay Men’s Perspectives on Age and Ageism, Tim Bergling discusses this apparent prejudice in terms of young gay men’s views on their older counterparts. Cruising for partners online, two internet users wrote, “If you’re gay and gray, stay away!” and “No old people, and if you have to ask, you’re too old[3].” Such outspoken prejudice raises again a deeper issue in the gay community: the question, ‘what does a gay man look like?’ Those who identify with racial minorities and those over fifty seem to be relatively excluded from the traditional image of a young, white, affluent gay male as a representation of the gay community. 

Interviewee Calvin Allen

Calvin Allen discusses his personal difficulties in coming to terms with the intersection of race and sexuality in his oral history interview, saying, “I mean it's such an oversimplification to talk about margin and mainstream, but I think there's so much incentive to feel part of the main stream[4].” Continuing in a discussion of mainstream vs. margin, Allen goes on to discuss his views on the current gay rights movement and its evolution, noting that a shift has been made from liberation ideology to a more ‘mainstream’ assimilation – including parenting areas at pride parades for gay couples with children and an absence of subculture visibility in groups such as the HRC and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force[5]. Allen’s age and experiences also come into play in his analysis of the current movement. Finding a place for himself within the politics of liberation as an African American gay man over forty requires a deep understanding of himself and his politics – wading through discrimination felt on more than one level, Allen feels deeply that his involvement in the struggle for gay rights is aided by his unique life experiences. Through the words of Calvin Allen, insight can be gained into the politics of minority identification – both racial and sexual. The issue of finding a personal place and achieving visibility within the gay rights movement is affected by one’s age, race, subcultural identity and class.

Conclusion

In researching the life histories of gay men in the North Carolina, one can find countless instances of the expression of intersectionality – mostly in regards to age, race and sexuality in the South. An often forgotten demographic, older gay men comprise a population that is at odds with the popular view of what a typical gay man looks like – gay men over fifty whose lives are affected by their racial and sexual identities face discrimination from their own communities as well as those outside the LGBT community. Experiencing exclusion and seclusion from the gay social world, prejudice from younger gay men and complications of finding a place for oneself within an ever-shifting struggle for gay rights, older gay men’s experiences are incredibly valuable in their ability to complicate and enrich our understanding of LGBT history.

References

(1)http://www.sohp.org/content/our_mission/

(2) Interview with Bill Hull, by Chris McGinnis, June 21, 2001. Interview K-0844. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).

(3) Tim Bergling. Reeling in the Years: Gay Men’s Perspectives on Age and Ageism. (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004). 20.

(4)Interview with Calvin Allen by Ian Leinbaugh. April 3, 2007. Interview U-0199. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007). p. 4.

(5) Ibid., p. 9-10.