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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
This article was published in 1984. Most of the issues discussed are still relevant thirty years later.
This article appeared in The Advocate, March 1984
Is It Time to Grow Up?
Confronting the Aging Process
Probably simply because of gay men's desire to appeal to prospective partners, homosexuality (and especially gay-identification) seems to inhibit aging. Have we discovered the Fountain of Youth? Or are we trapped in illusion?
Middle age is creeping up on the post-Stonewall generation—"the first generation of liberated gay men," who discovered their sexuality and came of age during the turbulent years of the late '60s and early '70s. We are soon to reach our 40s. A few of the more precocious of us already have; and a few of the then already-adult men who were swept up in the youth rebellion of the '60s and joined the ranks of the "liberated" are now in their 50s, 60s and beyond.
A curious quality of being gay is apparent in these men, especially when compared with their nongay contemporaries: classmates, brothers, boyhood chums—most of whom have married and raised children. The gay men generally look more fit, trim, boyish and sexy; in a word, younger. Probably simply because of gay men's desire to appeal to prospective partners, homosexuality (and especially gay-identification) seems to inhibit aging. Have we discovered the Fountain of Youth? Or are we trapped in illusion? Have we missed out on aging? Are our souls, like a Dorian Gray painting sequestered somewhere in each of us, corrupting while our faces and physiques stay beautiful?
The current health crisis undermines our confidence that because we look youthful, attractive and healthy, we have staved off time's power over us. Ironically, the health crisis seems to manifest a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy most of us made impetuously (in the days when we "couldn't trust anyone over 30") when we said we dreaded getting old and stagnant and wished instead to live intensely and meaningfully, then burn out and die young—perhaps even martyring ourselves for the causes of justice and freedom.
This is a familiar theme of youth. The boy saints like Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, whom those of us who are Catholic were taught to emulate in parochial school, prayed to die young, devoured by the intensity of their spirituality. Today, in the ominous shadow of nuclear holocaust, teen-age punk rockers glorify death in a similar way as an escape from mediocrity and unattractiveness, and from what seems (from the perspective of a hyperkinetic youngster) like the boredom of the long afternoon of middle age: "Die Young, Stay Pretty," sings Blondie.
The phases of the body—childhood, pubescence, aging, health and illness, decrepitude and dying—are mechanical realities of the organic machines that are our bodies. They are also consequences of how we think of ourselves. Paradoxically, modern science is showing us that things are less mechanical than we've thought. Nuclear physicists find that their subjective expectations and observations influence the outcome of objective experiments. Brain researchers find that subjective self-image and expectation influence even the body's so-called autonomic systems.
The body manifests the psyche. The raw protoplasm, first formed by messages encoded in our DNA, continues to be formed throughout our lives by our lives. Not having magical paintings sequestered in attic rooms, all of us bear the consequences of our pasts and the implications of our futures in our own physiognomies. (The obvious "proof" is that gay-identification is obvious to us. It is not the jeans or mustache or keyring that makes a man a gay clone. His flesh itself takes on the group characteristics, just as, it is said, long-time couples, and dogs and their owners, come to resemble one another.) As much as from cellular deterioration and loss of tissue elasticity, aging results from alteration of personal identity and self-concept.
At least as long as the Baby Boomers are reasonably young, American consumerism will continue to make youth seem like a treasure to be carefully preserved. We homosexuals are not the only ones who are engaged in the battle with time. In an article in the October 1983 Esquire, David Hellerstein bemoans the psychological damage that occurs "When Men Won't Grow Up." Hellerstein, apparently a psychiatrist, a heterosexual and a member of the Baby Boom generation, reports on an epidemic of the "Peter Pan Complex" among his contemporaries. Hellerstein cites the work of Jungian psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von Franz, who elaborated Jung's notion of the archetype of the puer aeternus ("eternal boy"). According to Von Franz, "puers" are delightful men. They are charming and enthusiastic, adventurous and open to new ideas. Internally they are often intensely spiritual and externally caught up in social causes. They are sometimes remarkably successful. But they generally feel restless, dissatisfied, inadequate and unfulfilled—because their dreams are so much greater than the reality they see—and occasionally suicidal.
Puers make poor husbands and fathers, since they are apt to run off on new adventures. Domesticity is for them a vice that threatens both their freedom and their integrity. Their greatest problem is loving and being loved. Hellerstein explains that puers are afraid of making commitments; they don't want to give up adolescent freedom; they resent being pushed to choose some options and exclude others. They have great expectations for the future of what they'll do, whom they'll love and who will love them, but frequently they lack the wherewithal to fulfill their fantasies.
In the psychoanalytic literature, the qualities and shortcomings of these men are explained as "narcissism." Frequently homosexuality is cited as one of the shortcomings of the puer aeternus. It is to Hellerstein's credit that he makes no references to homosexuality (though he'd be myopic not to see that gay culture exemplifies the psychodynamics he describes). Hellerstein, in fact, dismisses the old psychoanalytic characterizations and explains the currency of the puer personality as a cultural phenomenon: "It's not that these men are immature but that the world has changed: the solutions of previous generations don't really work anymore."
The problems that Hellerstein sees among heterosexual men now in their mid 30s are problems that, perhaps for slightly different reasons, gay men are facing collectively. The health crisis—this sudden confrontation with mortality, this demand that we make choices and limit our options—is forcing us to assess the roles of sex, love and relationships, and to seek new models for gay life. For us too, love is a primary issue in our experience of growing old. Our culture has been so focused on vitality and sexiness that, at least according to the view popularized in our media and in our culture-shaping institutions, we seem to have dismissed love in favor of fleeting sexual infatuations. We've appeared to judge our partners and ourselves less on personal lovableness than on physical attractiveness. Because it promises to take away our sexiness, aging represents a massive threat.
There's recently been a rebirth of interest in relationships among gay men. AIDS has made monogamy look attractive and prolific promiscuity (lionized in the porn industry, if not actually lived by most homosexuals) look lethal. The media-presented image is changing. Andrew Mattison and David McWhirter, the new gurus of relationship, estimate that 50% of homosexuals are in lover-type relationships. (That's a startling statistic—not that it's wrong, but that it calls into question how we've thought of ourselves and how our culture has presented us to ourselves.)
One aspect of the health crisis—and one of the reasons why it discomfits even those of us who don't seem to be likely candidates for AIDS-is that it is forcing us to face our mortality. Of course, it is true that AIDS is really killing people. But it is also true that men like Larry Kramer, who have done so much to alert the community by describing their shock at seeing their friends die, would have begun noticing deaths around them anyway, simply because they've reached the age at which friends and peers do die. That is to say that not only are we having to face adjustment of our sexual mores, we are having to face adjustment to the reality of time—an adjustment this "first generation of gay men," and this whole society influenced by the consumption patterns of the Baby Boomers and by the dizzying speed of modern life, have been trying to avoid.
As Hellerstein comments: "The solutions of previous generations don't really work anymore." We are casting about for new models of living and especially of sexualizing and loving.
That "gay men have a difficult time with love" is an old chestnut. It is true but seems to say something it really doesn't: that gay men have a more difficult time with love than heterosexuals do. That probably is not true. It's just that the heterosexual relationships and styles of loving that are touted as models for everyone look so different from homosexual ones that ours seem to suffer in comparison. In fact, gay men have developed some remarkably adaptive, sophisticated, and nonneurotic styles of relationship that surpass the heterosexual norm.
The major difference, of course, between the two sexual orientations is the purpose and function of sex, love and relationship. Heterosexuality implies childrearing. Rules (exclusivity, persistence, custom, etc.) guarantee patrilinearity, family stability and social acceptance. The presence of children—both potentially and actually—changes things totally. After a child arrives, the identities of the adults change. They cease to be lovers and start to be parents. Their relationship is freed up from the pressure of intense intimacy. The joint relationship with the child substitutes for the relationship between the two of them. The love they each express for the child is seen as an expression of love for each other and, at least in theory, holds them together. As their identities change, their self-perceptions change. They begin to see themselves as parents; they begin to feel appropriately older. Their sexual projection is less central to their experience.
Most homosexual men do not experience this transition into the parental, elder identity. Attraction, desire and need for self-affirmation (to allay feelings of inadequacy that may be symptoms of "internalized homophobia") continue to be motivations for seeking sex and love. Sexual projection remains centrally important.
To deal successfully with the double dilemma of AIDS and aging we need to change our self-concepts and develop support networks consistent with these new selves.
One solution to our dilemmas may be inferred from the sociobiologists' theory of homosexuality. Very loosely, they argue that in the old-time extended family—children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all living in close proximity—nonreproducing members too played a genetically selected role that enhanced racial survival. Homosexual men and women were "good uncles" and "spinster aunts" who acted as role models and guided children in exploration of the world without embroiling them in such emotionally and psychologically complex relationships as · those with their parents.
That extended family gives a good model of a support system that includes people of various ages in various forms of relationship—some sexual, some not; some biological, some not. Isn't that what many gay friendship networks look like? And aren't the appropriate nephews for our gay "good uncles" young homosexuals seeking initiation into gay culture?
Being a good uncle over time to a young man (or good aunt to a young woman) allows an adult to observe the maturing process, to identify as an elder, and to feel properly ensconced in time, with a past and a future through which to move with grace. It allows the youth to profit from the experience of the adult and to find a role model for living gay life. The older person brings to the relationship wisdom, knowledge, consistency and stability; the younger adventurousness, spontaneity, youth and sexual vitality.
In doing our study of teen-age hustlers, Toby Marotta and I found intergenerational relationships based on the "good uncle" model fairly common. But more familiar to most of us are those based on the Romeo-and-Juliet limerence model. These romantic relationships are problematic. The partners simply aren't equal. The adult is not the adolescent peer he'd like to imagine himself. The expectations are contradictory. The adult often becomes a daddy when he wants to be received as a lover, to prove to himself that he hasn't really grown old; yet the youth is attracted to him precisely for his age and not for his sexy youthfulness. The adult's need is for assurance and security; the youth's for liberation, adventure and variety. The sexual implications are different.
Mattison and McWhirter have found that an age difference of seven to fifteen years enhances relationship; they report that the age difference "cuts down on competition and makes it less worrisome for the couple to give and take and trade." This suggests that the age difference is comfortably acknowledged; the problems occur when it is denied.
The adult must identify as an adult, exercise and demonstrate responsibility, and not be manipulated. Contrary to popular beliefs, in such relationships it is generally the young person who possesses power—if only because he often controls the sex. He may simply not be equipped to exercise such power over an adult.
The "good uncle"/"good aunt" relationship is not necessarily nonsexual (though this certainly depends on the actual age of the youth; there are bottom limits): Sex is one of the things young homosexuals need to learn about. Sex may be part of the exchange that every relationship is necessarily premised on. But the sex is not the center of the relationship. The center of the relationship is, for the adult, the opportunity to participate in the youth's maturation and to alter his or her own self-concept so that aging becomes a grace instead of a curse.
Developing good uncle relationships with younger gay men—or even with actual nephews—may not suffice. Aging is difficult. Professional assistance may be needed. Across the country there are gay-identified psychotherapists who have honed their professional and interpersonal skills so they can be of service to gay people facing dilemmas that are specific to us. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression are serious problems in our community that frequently result from failures in making necessary and natural transitions through the stages of life. Our community's affluence is wasted if we don't spend some of it on professional assistance in improving the quality of our own selves, instead of spending all of it on gimmicks that promise unconvincingly to put off the inevitability of aging.
The obligation we all bear towards our souls is to learn to accept our bodies' aging, to envision positive and loving futures for ourselves in which we will still be loved and valued and in which we will have more to recommend us than just the freshness and sexiness of our bodies. Unless we really do prefer to stay pretty and die young, we need to prepare for future stages of our lives and to learn to watch with gratitude and gladness as our replacements on this earth grow into the men and women we once were ourselves. One of the most remarkable things about the gay liberation movement has been its continued intention to make the world better for future generations, even at great cost to our present selves. The greatest cost of all is of our very identities. This is precisely the one time demands.
Edwin Clark (Toby) Johnson's In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld: A Mystical Journey was published last summer. He says he's started wearing coat and tie to remind himself he's grown up now.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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