I was recently reminded of one very specific moment from an early episode of Will & Grace. It’s a scene where Jack storms through the door of Grace’s design studio and nearly collapses to the ground: exasperated, tortured, and defeated. His hands grasp at his face, and he wails, “Oh my god. I’m thirty. Do you know how old that is in gay years?”
[Cue: Laugh track.]
[Also cue: distant, plaintive sob.]
I won’t use this column to speculate on the sociological roots of the obsession with youth and self-preservation (using night creams, I mean; not spears) that tends to permeate contemporary gay male culture. I’m just offering Jack’s tortured beseeching of the gay gods —who are a lot like the other gods, except they hold Sunday services over brunch—to illustrate the universal dismay and self-reflection that seems to accompany aging.
I recently turned the big “three-oh” myself. Hence the birth of this column, which is intended to provide representation of an LGBT generation (or at least one member of it, which is probably the safer, less-likely-to-generate-hate-mail claim) that isn’t particularly well served by the media: not by youth-skewing blogs speculating on where the Jonas Brothers fit on the Kinsey Scale, and not by publications that offer well-intentioned retirement advice to an American dynasty that is increasingly unlikely to ever stop working. (Assuming that it starts working, which is a wholly separate problem.)
But don’t worry. Necessary introductions aside, I promise not to induce eye rolls with Eat, Pray, Love-style ruminations on the quest for self-actualization. (With all due respect to Lena Dunham, this won’t be Girls gone gay.) After all, enlightenment doesn’t happen on a timetable, and there is no itinerary for reaching Nirvana. (It’s also not on Google Maps. I checked.) But milestone birthdays—30, 40, 50, and so on—are important, if only because American pop culture treats them that way. They are referenced in self-help books, joked about on sitcoms, and responsible for entire store shelves filled with novelty gifts and birthday cards trading on the idea that, any moment now, absolutely every bodily function will begin to fail. At face value, all those messages seem silly. But they’re not. Cultural consensus has power.
And I think there’s something to that Will & Grace quip about “gay years,” and the strange amount of stress, self-imposed or not, that gay men face as they age. Maybe that’s why, as perennial gay icon Madonna trots the globe on her current MDNA Tour, you’ll hear plenty of gay men get positively irate as reviewers trot out tired assertions that the performer is “too old” to be doing this, that, or the other thing. (The actual concert, they somewhat begrudgingly agree, is pretty spectacular.) I consider Madonna to be “my” gay icon. (It’s best we get this out of the way right now.) Her career, like me, is thirty years old. I happen to be blessed-slash-burdened with an exceptional long-term memory, and I actually use her songs and hairstyles as timestamps plotting the points of life events. Hell, she probably taught me as much as anyone about men – and maybe even about being a man, which is something that, when you say it out loud, sounds half ridiculous and half awesome.
At some point, every pop culture pundit has professed Madonna to be “over.” She never is, and I have no doubt that the latest spate of criticism, which focuses on her age-appropriateness, will eventually evolve into a form of reverence: just as her once-“offensive” displays of female sexuality and gay culture are now more regarded as trailblazing and taboo-breaking.
But in the meanwhile, it’s hard to not take the nastiness personally. Am I right, gentlemen? Early on, many of us sought a cooler-than-thou role model in mass media, and looked to Madonna as an influence and inspiration. So when we hear messages that troll on her age, urging her to quit the age-defying gym routine and the boy toys, and to fade quietly away before she embarrasses herself among the kiddies—well, I guess we feel like those messages are somehow aimed at us, too.
In fact, whether you’re a gay man who worshipped at the altar of Judy, Liza, Bette, Cher or Madonna, there is one affront you’ll eventually experience: at some point, guys half your age will start talking about your icon in the past tense, questioning her “relevance,” and requesting that she hand over her crown to a newer, younger queen. That hurts, not (just) because you’re a fanatical member of a cult of personality, but because you strongly suspect that the next generation, in its haste to usher your idol offstage, is failing to appreciate her history and her accomplishments—and thus (here’s where it gets kind of pathological) is failing to appreciate your history, and your accomplishments. When a kid argues that, say, Lady Gaga pushing gay rights in a post-Glee world is the bravest thing anyone has ever done, it’s because he probably doesn’t realize that Madonna was torching crucifixes and making gay porn books in a less accepting era. And the kid who adopts “Born This Way” as his theme song probably doesn’t recognize that Madonna was singing “Express Yourself” to a still-largely closeted community ravaged by the AIDS crisis.
Of course, many other gay icons—those that belong to someone else, someone older than me—did other amazing things before Madonna ever appeared on the scene. So really, the protectiveness one feels over any given idol has nothing to do with respective accomplishments: nothing to do with this one or that one, Madonna orLady Gaga, newness or coolness. It’s about whether you happened to live through the age of the Stonewall riots, or Matthew Shepard’s murder; witnessed the American Psychiatric Association remove homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders, or the military repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; saw part of your world experience reflected in Angels in America, or in Rent. It’s about getting older, and realizing that the once-obvious value of the people, events, and zeitgeist that shaped your life now needs to be explained to younger people by Wikipedia.
That’s why Madonna continues to inspire me, even as I get older: she seems pretty determined that, if she’ll one day wind up in the history books, she’ll make sure she gets a damn long chapter. That seems like a fine lead to follow. And I think Jack would understand.