Op-ed: In Defense of Aging
BY Jon Bernstein
August 27 2013 6:00 AM ET
The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only published novel by the renowned gay scribe Oscar Wilde, tells the story of Dorian, a beautiful young man who trades in his soul to stop his body from aging. While his peers grow older and grayer, Dorian stays the same — eternally young, healthy, and an object of desire. “To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders,” states Lord Henry, a character obsessed with Dorian’s youth and beauty. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
Wilde, whose main character was ultimately destroyed by his own vanity, did not have the opportunity to grow old either. He died a middle-aged man in shame, poverty, and exile after a series of public trials that punished him for his sexual orientation, “the love that dare not speak its name.” Over a century later, these stories are more or less the same. Our society is still struggling with many of the problems faced by Wilde during his lifetime — the shame of being gay, and, within the gay community, the shame of aging.
I am 47 years old — about the same age as Wilde when he died alone in a seedy hotel in Paris. But it seems as though all my life I have prepared for death. I remember, in 1981, hearing the first news reports of men dying of pneumonia and skin cancers in hospitals in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I was 15 years old and still closeted. I had never even kissed another boy. But already a fear began to take hold in ways I could not yet articulate.
By the time I had reached my 20s — the age when young people first begin to fall in love and develop serious romantic relationships — the people I loved began to die. Going to hospices and funerals became familiar rituals. The simple act of making love resulted in an excruciating two-week wait for test results. For years I awoke from dreams unable to remember whether I was HIV-negative or -positive. The grim reaper was forever lurking in the shadows.
Thanks to science and the work of our community’s advocates, medications were developed and distributed that seemed to stem the tide of death. The survivors went on with our lives and grew older.
But then something happened. My friends began to die again.
Bob Bergeron was preparing his manuscript for publication; it was titled The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. It was meant to celebrate the aging process, to be a testament to the enduring wonder of life. He was found in his bedroom, dead, with a plastic bag over his head. He left a note, which stated, “It’s a lie based on bad information.” He also drew an arrow, pointing to his title page.
His book was never published.
Thanks to organizations like The Trevor Project, American society is becoming ever more aware of the problems faced by LGBT youth, who are exponentially more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. But for LGBT people “at midlife and beyond,” depression and suicide also remain very real threats.
A recent survey, commissioned by San Francisco’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, found that 15% of the city’s LGBT residents between the ages of 60 to 92 years old had "seriously considered" committing suicide within the last 12 months. The city’s mayor, Ed Lee, called the survey the "first of its kind." Perhaps there should be more. It’s worth exploring why so many of us, after surviving a virus that tried to wipe out our community, are now considering taking our own lives.
For gay men, I believe the problem is that we don’t know how to grow old. We lost a generation of teachers and role models to the AIDS crisis, a tragedy that continues to haunt and remind us of our own mortality. Moreover, many of us feel like we lose a connection to our community of support when younger generations ignore us or brush us aside.
A few months ago at Pride in West Hollywood, I was standing on the crowded front porch of the bar Micky’s, waiting to enter, when an extremely handsome 50-something friend of mine stormed past. I asked where he was going and he replied, “Home. I’m pissed.” Why? “Some queen just shoved me and said ‘Get out of the way, old man.’”
Short of a Wilde-esque literary miracle, the boy who pushed and insulted my friend will also soon grow to be an “old man,” regardless of the work and money he invests in his appearance. Interestingly, the impossible quest for eternal youth is an actual mental disorder called the Dorian Gray syndrome, which is characterized by narcissism and an obsessive physical pride. Possessing an extreme fear of aging, sufferers of this syndrome often have multiple cosmetic procedures, which can actually lead to disfigurement. An inability to preserve their looks often leads to depression and suicide. As demonstrated by Wilde’s vain character, narcissism leads to a sad end.
Those of us who lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic know all too well that growing old is a gift. We need to start believing it. Growing older gives us the opportunity to build deep and lasting friendships and to discover our authentic selves. Past our surface, deep within, are hidden contours and deeper dimensions that we never knew were there.
The journey of self-discovery takes a lifetime.
I hope we are the generation of gay men that talks about surviving the AIDS years. I hope we live through the legalization of gay marriage and bear witness to mainstream acceptance. I hope we are the generation of teachers and role models to younger gay men, who must come to realize that they too are growing older. We are spectators to our own transformation. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, and we must live to tell the tale.
As Oscar Wilde urged in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.”
JON BERNSTEIN wrote the screenplays to the feature films Beautiful, Ringmaster, and Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. He is a contributing writer to Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, released August 6 by Gotham/Penguin.