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Where are the gay adults?

by Paul Varnell

After I wrote recently about the impediments — or lack of inducements — society presents for gay men to become adults, a reader referred me to an article on “Gay Adults” by Los Angeles psychologist Don Kilhefner in the magazine “White Crane.”
Although the article contains too much Radical Faery politics and spirituality for my taste, Kilhefner’s main point about the need for recognition of “gay adult” as a stage in the gay life-cycle is important and he develops it thoughtfully.

Kilhefner writes that one time after a public discussion about gay men’s lives during which he discussed gay adulthood, “a bright, 30-something, gay man shared that he had never heard of the concept of a ‘gay adult’ ... and he found it intriguing. He always heard people talking about “older gays” and “younger gays” but he had never heard of gay men having an adult stage of development.”

Maybe things are a little worse in the Hollywood fantasyland of perpetual youth, but perceptions are probably not much different elsewhere.

Don Kilhefner is a
contributing writer to ‘White Crane.’
Kilhefner critiques the rationales (or excuses) offered — that I too have offered — for why gay men so often seem not to mature into adulthood.

Consider the supposed delayed adolescence of men who come out in their 20s. He points out that adolescence normally lasts about eight years at most. So, he wonders, “why am I seeing large numbers of gay men in their late 30’s, 40’s and 50’s still thinking and acting like 20-somethings?”

He acknowledges that AIDS took the lives of many of the gay 30-65 generation, but cites CDC estimates that only eight-12 percent of gay men have died because of AIDS. “Where are the remaining 90 percent of gay men who are not missing in action?” he asks pointedly.

His critique of the “absence of children” argument is the weakest, depending on his notion that gays as a group have some purpose and that purpose is “the spiritual survival of the species.”

That sort of unprovable metaphysical speculation won’t convince many people. But I think better arguments could be offered: Gay men who marry or otherwise join their lives to a long-term partner generally act more mature. And even single men who see their own immature behavior mirrored in younger gay men eventually find the sight distasteful and abandon it.

I think there are counter-arguments to each of these, but they may be only partially successful so the critique of gay immaturity has considerable force and deserves a serious hearing.

There are actually gay adults around in considerable numbers. They run gay businesses, the gay cultural institutions, the gay bars and clubs, the community health and social service organizations. But perhaps they are inconspicuous to young people focused on the bar, party and hook-up scene.

Still, there are millions of gay adults besides those. And indeed, where are they? Perhaps they withdraw from the gay community because they view being gay as largely about drinking, drugs and fast-food sex. That is a sad misunderstanding.

More than anything, gay adulthood is about Civic Life. The gay community is an affinity group. It is about interpersonal empathy, friendships, social and political progress and cultural creativity.

For those who do not know how to stay involved: we need gay adults to volunteer at gay organizations, to serve on committees that can use their skills, to hold a fundraising house party, or even start a new organization or group when the need arises, as all the AIDS organizations once were.

From time to time, I get emails from readers saying, “I wish there was a group that ...” to which I usually reply: “Start one!” Gay adults are the ones with the knowledge and self-confidence to be entrepreneurial about such things.

(For instance, a young artist I know is currently forming a gay artists and art photographers network.)

And we need gay adults to engage in an unobtrusive calming and mentoring of young people (and juvenile adults) in the arts of growing up. They can do this in large measure just by being themselves. They can exemplify simple maturity and self-possession, an example of someone with a source of internal authority and sense of what is appropriate in varying circumstances.

“We have been busy mothering (i.e., accepting) each other and our young,” Kilhefner writes, “accepting behaviors that are clearly self-destructive to us individually and collectively — at a time when we need to be fathering (i.e., communicating expectations to) ourselves and our young — developing a community-wide ethos ... that expects young gay men to become adults.”

And I add: Sometimes it may take more overt social pressure. We have all seen people behave stupidly and thought to ourselves, “Oh, grow up!” Maybe we should occasionally say that out loud.

— Many of Paul Varnell’s previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org). His email address is Pvarnell@aol.com.

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