Growing up gay, I know what it is to be stereotyped, especially when the worst offender is your self. Nonetheless, prejudice is different in significant ways for gay people, people of minority races and ethnic groups, and old people. I remember when I was about 19-years-old and sitting in a room at the Wentley Hotel with a woman who was “out”- quietly, but in those days “out” was much more difficult to be. The red curtains in her room were tossing in a San Francisco breeze, and the street traffic there had a comfortable buzz about it to a neophyte city lover like me. She was playing a recording of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”- one I guess that especially moved her. I don’t remember the singer, but I remember that the audio included the sound of the hammer as the nails were pounded into Jesus’ hands and feet.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I’m so glad that I was born homosexual instead of negro (yes, “negro,” – it was that long ago!). People can’t just look at me and see that I’m different. I can hide if I need to.”
No wonder it took me years more to admit my own homosexuality.
That was one of the big differences between most gay people and black people. I could hide. Which meant that, in addition to the shame associated with most probably being gay, I could agonize over my moral cowardice for not owning up to it.
Elderly people, like black people, are immediately and visibly different from whoever happens to be “normal” today. We become old. And, since the whole culture is dedicated to being young and staying young, we’ve had a long apprenticeship in becoming stereotypical. We fight old age from decade to decade, flattered when people tell us we’re younger than we look, happy when we can still play a good game of tennis at 60-something, more joyful still when we’re assured that “we don’t look a day over…”
But the day comes when we find ourselves indelibly and permanently old. We share old jokes with other old people. In fact, it’s a rare conversation between one oldster and another that doesn’t include at least one bit of humor about age, usually about our increasing decrepitude. The jokes, of course, are designed to make it all more bearable.
But again, there are differences between ageism and racism, sexism, and homophobia. For example, the jokes are rarer in the other groups – maybe because the prejudice has had such deadly consequences for so many years, maybe because being old means we were once young; we’ve been on top. Isn’t it ironic and “ha,ha,” “odd,” to suddenly find ourselves on the bottom. We don’t feel old. Our self image only gradually becomes as old as we are.
Aside from economic misfortunes and matters of life and death, the worst thing about being stereotyped is that people no longer see you for who you are. You’re old; you’re not Jim, Marian or Mildred. Of course, old means you can’t see, hear or move as well as you used to, and in the case of stereotyping that means the old part trumps all the other characteristics that once described us as individuals. But damned if I want to be defined by the problems of old age or, just as bad, by how well I overcome them.
Louise Nevelson didn’t take up the making of more colossal works of art in her 80s to amaze the world about her age and agility. Elliott Carter isn’t still writing music at 100 + to impress us about his age. He has music to write. For both of them and other old artists, creating is an imperative of who they are.
Roni Bennett of Time Goes By, wrote a couple of posts ago about the media’s pleasure in the new “reinvention of retirement.” Everything from seizing the day in new jobs to bungee jumping. In other words, being younger. She suggests that as she has spent a lifetime becoming who she is, she has no intention of reinventing herself. She’d rather become more and more truly who she is, learn from it, deepen it.
That’s one of the privileges of old age and one of the reasons that old people are so interesting.