Out With The Old, In With The New: The Generational Queer Divide

The growing generational gap within the queer community is only becoming more apparent. Whether it’s online or in-person, older queer people are rarely included in conversations about queer issues, and often find themselves being excluded from queer spaces. 

They are also regularly called out for using ‘outdated’ labels to describe themselves. These actions only stand to fuel further disconnect within our community. And by letting it happen, we risk missing out on having valuable conversations about the evolving nature of the queer experience. 

The older queer generation have lived through so much history.

And it’s important that we remember what things were like in the past so we can appreciate the present.

Take language for example- when John R, a 65 year old gay man from Surrey was growing up, all conversations about sexuality were in code. 

“One wouldn’t really talk about (it) in polite conversations, so we used euphemisms like ‘Friend of Dorothy’, ‘Click your red shoes’ or spoke in ‘Polari’. We didn’t even use the word ‘queer’ in the 60s and 70s, because we associated it with being hate crimed.”

He is of course referring to the phenomenon of ‘queer bashing’, a physical or verbal attack against someone who isn’t straight-passing. “Somewhere around the late 70s, it became known as ‘gay bashing’ which I found strange because in my mind, ‘gay’ was a positive word and ‘queer’ was negative. 

Then in the 90s, it sort of flipped- the phrase ‘We’re queer and we’re here’ started to become more popular, it was really our way of reclaiming the word. And ‘gay’ started to be used as a slur. I did still find it being used by some LGBTQ+ people to describe someone very ‘camp’- but in an affectionate way of course.” 

A crowd of people with the focus being on a rainbow flag with the words 'Queer & Proud'.
Image by Delia Giandeini from Unsplash 

The policing of queer language plays a huge part in fueling this communal divide. Our need to over categorise fluid identities only pushes us further away from each other and diminishes the diversity of our community. 

Another reason for this divide is ageism. Dr. Paul Willis, an Associate Professor in social work & gerontology says, “Older queer people are often stereotyped to be set in their ways. Because of this, they are often believed to be resistant to change.”  

But to John D, a 66 year old from London, the evolution of queer language was what led them to identify as non-binary. “I’d identified as a gay man for most of my life but always found the label ridiculous. Now I think of myself as non-binary because I feel neither male nor female, but a complex mix of both. Back then, you only heard of terms like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transsexual’, and ‘bisexual’ but now there are so many like ‘genderfluid’, ‘pansexual’, ‘demisexual’, I love it!.” 

And according to Dr. Willis, ageism can even extend into queer spaces. “Older queer people can feel excluded from clubs and bars because these spaces are primarily full of young people. This can make them feel invisible and sometimes even undesirable.” 

A person wearing a white shirt and sunglasses looking at another  person with a white t-shirt in a crowd of people dressed for a party.
Image by Sushil Nash from Unsplash 

John R can relate. “I’ve been stood up on dates multiple times by younger men- it really lowered my self-esteem and libido. I usually keep to my circle of friends when I’m out because I’m unsure if the people in those places would want to talk to us. Perhaps it’s because they just don’t want to know what they’ll be like in 50 years.” 

John D has had similar experiences. “I’ve been called an ‘old queen’ multiple times by younger people, but I usually just laugh it off. I’ve also noticed that my generation is far more reserved in revealing our sexual identities in public- probably I because we grew up in a time where we couldn’t.”

So how can we start to remedy this divide? John R suggests having more places to develop platonic queer relationships.

”I would love a community space where queer people of all ages can get to know each other simply for the reason of getting to know each other.

In London, there used to be a ‘Lesbian and Gay Centre’ back in the 80s but there isn’t anything like that now.”

I’ve really lost track of all the new words popping up. Certain words that I used to say when I was younger would get me ‘cancelled’ now. But that’s exactly why we need to interact with each other more so we can understand the evolving intent behind the words we use. It’s a discussion that should last forever, I think”. 

A white building with a pink and black triangle sign saying 'The London Lesbian and Gay Center' written in all caps.
Image source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/art-history/events/2019/mar/research-seminar-ben-campkin  

Fixing this divide isn’t only about reducing the disconnect. A lack of community support can often force older queer adults back into the closet in fear of being marginalised once again. So having safe, inclusive queer spaces can help foster intergenerational relationships where we can learn how to support each other better.

Dr. Willis, who has also worked with developing LGBTQ+ resources for care homes, stresses remembering the diversity of people’s histories. “We need to remember that older queer people have gone through decades of oppression and trauma. So it is important to start by building trust, and letting them know that this is a safe space where they can ask questions and express themselves freely.” 

Written by