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New York Times
8 Apr 2023


NextImg:Opinion | Where Is the Road Map for Growing Gray and Staying Gay?

One afternoon not long ago, I was walking with my partner near Times Square and we were approached by a man passing out leaflets. “Take one for your mom,” he said to my partner. I stopped cold.

“What did you say?” Sonja’s arm was around my shoulder, and I wriggled free to face the man head on. “Do you think I’m her mother?”

The man looked into my eyes. He was probably 40 — 10 years younger than I am. I was wearing a mask. I pulled it down. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he stammered. Sonja tugged at me to leave. We did, but once we were halfway down the block, the man followed us to try one more stab at reconciliation.

He pointed at my backside, and said it looked like a peach.

The price of the ticket back into the realm of youth was objectification.

I was upset, and to placate me, Sonja said that the mistake could be chalked up to his occupation. The man had to scan hundreds of faces in an hour, maybe thousands; he wasn’t really looking at anyone. All he saw was my hair, which is gray, and he made a quick calculation. Sonja is two years older than I am, but her hair is nearly all strawberry blonde. “You still have a baby face,” she said. “To think you could be my mother is insane.”

But then it happened again. Another man, another street corner. “You and your mom sure look sweet,” he said. This time, I started to think seriously about dyeing my hair.

Sonja asked me not to do it; she likes my silver streaks. I wear my hair messy, and I think I look cool, but maybe I’m confused. Maybe I just look like one of those older women using scissors to cling to their youth. Am I an older woman? The words feel like marbles in my mouth.

The men on the street may have mistaken me for Sonja’s mother because of heterosexual bias: They simply couldn’t see queerness, even with the cues, even though my arm was tucked around her waist. The question is: Why do I care? I suppose it’s this: The trouble with not being seen is we don’t always know how to see ourselves.

I remember when I was a kid and all the other girls talked about growing up and getting married. They fantasized about their future husbands, and I felt a pit in my belly knowing that, somehow, I wouldn’t have that life. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t fit in, but rather that I simply couldn’t imagine myself at all. I didn’t know any gay people, didn’t have the language for what I would surely become. My future was void of vision.

Something similar is at play now. I don’t have the cultural context for imagining my own aging. There are only a few North American movies about middle-aged or older lesbians — significantly, “The Kids Are All Right” from 2010, and a small movie called “Cloudburst” from 2011, about a lesbian couple who break out of their nursing home for a road trip to the Canadian border. There are much tinier art films that capture older queer women — notably Barbara Hammer’s “Nitrate Kisses” from 1992. This came out when I was in college, though I didn’t see it until much later. “Nitrate Kisses,” it seems, is only available on DVD now, so it’s not in wide circulation, but it features clips of an older couple having sex. It was subversive then, and still is.

When I was in college at U.C. Santa Cruz, I met an older lesbian professor who I kind of fell in love with. She was in her 70s and I was in my 20s, and she offered me one vision of getting older that I hold on to still. Marge Frantz wore her short hair white (I can’t imagine she ever fretted about dyeing it) and lived near campus with her long-term partner, Eleanor.

Marge taught in what was then called the women’s studies department, and I learned from her about the intersection of Marxism and feminism. I followed her everywhere, not only because she was brilliant but because she offered me a path I had never seen, not in my family or neighborhood or in any media. Marge was intellectual and old and gay. It seemed like I could have a life.

Marge died in 2015, long after I had moved to New York and she and I had lost touch. She was in a nursing home at the end, and I read that Eleanor, who lived to be 108, was by her side.

I wonder how Marge, and Eleanor when she visited, were treated at the nursing home. This was in Santa Cruz, a famously lefty town, so maybe they were respected as the partners that they were. I would hate to think they were downgraded to friends, but apparently, only 18 percent of long-term-care facilities nationwide have nondiscrimination policies for sexual orientation.

As I think about Marge, and the man on the street mistaking me for someone her age, I realize that it isn’t the fear of looking like an older person, but of becoming an older person, that roils inside. To grow old and gay seems like a free fall. I’m afraid of losing my community, my sense of self and, quite frankly, my livelihood.

The truth is, I’ve lived a nontraditional life — I’ve filled it with chosen family, I’ve parented a teenager from my community who’s in no position to care for me down the line, I’ve held many illogical jobs to survive as a writer. (The good thing about queerness is that it breaks the bonds of expectation; you’re already doing something astonishing, which allows you to live your life in other ways beyond the picket fence.) But it’s not so good for long-term planning.

There are almost no studies on aging queers, and the few that exist look pretty terrible. We have significantly less savings than our straight counterparts, and we’re 20 percent less likely to gain access to government services like housing assistance, meal programs, senior centers and so on. We’re less likely to have health insurance, less likely to go to doctors. We face more medical conditions; more of us live alone. And on and on.

Maybe my partner and I will be able to slip into one of the few L.G.B.T.Q.-specific retirement communities, though I doubt we’ll be able to afford it (ahem, writer’s salary). And besides, as far as I can tell, there are only 10. I can’t imagine too many older lesbians are actually tooling around on golf carts, but maybe they’ve all packed off for the desert; I can’t tell.

Like I said, I don’t see too many of them around. Perhaps there isn’t the critical mass of visible older queerness because, simply, older queers didn’t have the same opportunity to live in an obvious way in their youth. With more homophobic laws and culture, they were more often forced into the closet, and so they stayed that way. My generation is the first to expect equal treatment, or something like it, as we age.

It’s not that I want something specific that straight people have that I don’t — it’s that I want something I can’t see, or understand, just yet. Just like I’ve had a queer way of being young, I want a queer path forward into growing older.

It’s hard not having a road map. After all, if we stop being seen as sexual at middle age, then how can we be seen for our sexuality? Straight women are still accurately marked as the wives or mothers that they are — there’s a place for them in the popular imagination. But we lesbians get misidentified. We become our partners’ moms or sisters or friends, and I cannot bear it. I’ve built a whole life now proudly marking my tracks as a queer person — standing out — and I don’t know what it means to suddenly blend.

Maybe, if I could talk to Marge now, she’d tell me I’ve got it all wrong and aging is the great unifier. Maybe there isn’t a queer lens on getting old because it doesn’t matter all that much when the stakes begin to shift. Of course, it’s important to have your partner visit you in the hospital, to be treated with dignity for the life you’ve lived, but also — we all go toe to toe with our mortality, and there’s simply nothing gay or straight about that. I wonder if I’m looking for a queer answer to a universal problem.

And still, I know there is a specifically queer angle to all of this. As the man on the street showed me, I’m not just afraid of growing old but also of losing the self that I knew. I’m not only afraid of being misrecognized but also of not comprehending myself. As I prepare in the years to come to grow more frail, or to forgo my agency, memory or ability, I also forgo my identity in a world eager to erase me. It would probably just be easiest to dye my hair, to go back to at least looking like a younger scrappy dyke amid all the other queers like me, and in the mirror, where I can still imagine I have all the time in the world.

Cris Beam is the author of five books. She teaches writing at Columbia University and N.Y.U. and is currently at work on a collection of essays.

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