One night, at a nightclub where I was extremely popular, I tried to get into a VIP section, thinking it would be a piece of cake, as usual. But there was a new, 20-ish guy guarding the rope there and he was quite open about not wanting to let me in. As I walked away in dejection, I heard the guy mutter to a friend, “Tired old queen!” I was so horrified I nearly fell over and reached my inevitable death state. I was 29 years old — hardly ready for the glue factory yet. But in the gay club world, where aging seems to be particularly abhorred, I was already heading toward an AARP-like milestone and clearly not eligible for VIP status anymore.
And that was nearly three decades ago! By now, I should be a “tired old queen” times 1,000. I should be shipped directly to the Elmer’s factory on a no-return basis. I’m a walking billboard for the “It Gets Older” campaign, and someone young clubbies probably need to avoid, since older people are generally a reminder of mortality, not something anyone wants to think about when they’re drinking, dancing, and enjoying their own freshness.
But fortunately for mankind, it hasn’t worked out that way. I happen to have good genes, so I look younger than I really am — no, really. Also, all these years of immersing myself in creative scenes and writing about them have given me a certain cachet, so I’ve actually been getting more appreciation than revulsion these days. And I think there’s also been a sea change in the world, a “40 is the new 30” (and so on) feeling that people get better, not older — and gays, as usual, are on top of the trend. As people live longer and garner more visibility for it, there’s not as much ickiness surrounding the fact that they’ve survived. And survived. And survived.
I haven’t had anyone — even club kids — call me a “tired old queen” in years, and I’m thrilled about that. Of course there’s still a downside to being close friends with Father Time: For one thing, you don’t always get offered opportunities because the sense out there is that you’ve shown what you can do and it’s time to let other people try it. But it’s gotten better to be a TOQ, as long as you try to stay relevant without being too needily obvious about it. You need to keep up with the upcoming gays and their references without coming off like grandpa in a scrunchie. It’s important to not lecture too much or offer Sophia Petrillo-like stories of the golden days; they’re boring, even to other old people. (Except for the delightful 29-year-old story that I started this piece with, naturally.) But you also shouldn’t go out of your way to try to sound hip, unless you want to remind people of their grizzled aunt who insists on wearing bikinis by the public pool. In general, oldies should never act like they’re on the same plane as the young, unless they’re Madonna — the only one who can possibly get away with that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, sticking to my aged references may keep me in my comfort zone, but not in others’. Not long ago, I mentioned Liza Minnelli to a 21-year-old woman, who looked as blank as if I’d mentioned Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. She’d never heard of Liza, Cabaret, or even Judy Garland. Granted she wasn’t a gay man, but still, I thought for sure there’d be a little recognition bell ringing, even if just on the order of, “Wasn’t she in the Sex and the City sequel?”
But within the gay world, even preschoolers have heard of Liza, so things are OK. And as gay marriage becomes increasingly prevalent and paves the way for more people looking for partners who’ll love them when they’re old, I think the community will focus less on the vanity, self-consciousness, and fear of aging that has often plagued us in the past. We’re not as shame-based and superficial as we used to be — for the most part — and that carries over into the way we treat other members of the community and, ultimately, ourselves. Meanwhile, my own vanity has prevented me from joining groups like SAGE, which for 46 years has provided valuable support for older LGBTs, because that would be an admission of my wizened state that would be hard to turn back from. (It’s sad, I know, but getting older is complicated.) But I’m still ready to embrace many aspects of being an old gay, as long as my brothers and sisters make room for me and my hanging flesh.
And they have been! Even in bars! These days, the younger gays don’t go clubbing to get picked up — they know they’re going to take care of that via various sites and apps — so the sight of a senior on the dance floor is no longer considered a horrifying cock blocker. More inspiringly, there’s also an open-mindedness about different types of people and their right to coexist, thanks to increased savviness, so the presence of an old queer no longer seems like a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Future. If anything, the sight of Larry Kramer, Edward Albee, Harvey Fierstein, or maybe even little old me might perk up just about any party.
So when you see me coming, don’t start cringing and yelling “tired old queen!” Don’t even mutter it to your friend. Try instead to think of me as a welcome opportunity for some wit, insight, and Liza talk, as well as a source of information on the more oppressive (yet wilder) days of being gay. We finally woke up and were able to celebrate fat people as “bears,” why not treat older gays as pioneers and wisdom spouters? I won’t go so far as to say “Without me, you’re nothing,” but let’s face it, I definitely helped.
Illustration by Paul Tuller