Part two in a series of essays
By guest Gero-Punk
I am writing to you from The Castro District in San Francisco on Pride weekend. Today, Sunday, July 29th, 2014, I marched in San Francisco’s Pride Parade with SWANABAQ (Southwest Asian and North African Bay Area Queers), a great organization for Middle Eastern LGBTQ individuals. I have been here since Friday, and I have made some interesting observations about myself, queer culture, and identity politics, in relation to my last post about living with intersectionality and aging on the queer margin. In this essay, I will share some of my experiences being in San Francisco for the weekend, and will use that as my way into further exploring a theory of queering gerontology which was supposed to be this week’s post but will be postponed for later this week.
Writing on queer theory and history while sitting in a cafe in The Castro was for me an experience of deep awe and reverence. After all, this is one of the first queer centers of America, this is where those whom I deem as my forefathers and foremothers by virtue of our shared marginality and queer identity toiled against their oppressors and marched for freedom, ending the historical cycle of brutality and persecution. This is where I, through the lives they lived and sacrifices they made, earned my social liberty, dignity, and right to full citizenship as a queer man living in America.
However, after that moment of awe, and in seeing the festivities of pride in the streets of the city, I must admit I felt a sense of disappointment about and alienation from the ways in which queer culture has been seized by the mainstream and commodified as social capital, a money making space for corporations and the entertainment industry to promote social pretense, irresponsible freedom, and absolute indulgence as what defines being LGBTQ. This was especially evident by the amount of corporate marketing visible in the pride parade and, on the darker side, in the significant substance and alcohol abuse and unsafe promiscuity I witnessed (my problem here is not moral but simply a concern for the health and safety of fellow beings). In fact, the LGBTQ mainstream has become such a confusing space. Through one message it is promoting a progressivist gentrification of the queer identity by asking queers to assimilate into society through marriage and capital, and through another, it is promoting an indulgent and irresponsible image of queerness to support the free market (that isn’t free).
The shock was that this space of safety and human worth that the first openly queer generation had created for us through struggle was being manipulated by the mainstream. It was clearly not a place for the aging to thrive, nor a space for the older to celebrate or be celebrated. It was concerned with younger sexier bodies willing to do silly and unwise things, and even as a twenty-three year-old, I wasn’t about to fully participate.
I enjoyed marching in the parade with our countries’ flags unified and felt it was especially important for making non-white queers visible and creating awareness about the persecution of LGBTQ individuals in the countries from which we come. Also, I was honored to meet individuals whose stories closely intersect mine and with whom I can speak in my mother tongue. However, while doing all that, my impression was that queer lives in the mainstream are consumed by the identity politics of “gay.” Please note that here I am making a separation between having a physical and emotional desire and attraction for the same sex as a universal natural phenomenon in minds and bodies, and what we have culturally constructed from that (e.g. “gay” and all the other associated labels) as a way to socially and politically position individuals in the western world, and create uniformity and power through an organized community.
For such a label, similar to gender, and in a city like San Francisco, there is social demand for a constant and loud identity performativity; a pressure to perform our sexual orientation through a set of identified behaviors, codes, attitudes and views, day after day, and year after year. While this may be the result of an inner desire to be visible, and to be approved of, it was manufactured by a heterosexual society relative to hetero-normative standards and expectations of masculinity and femininity.
As I talked with LGBTQ folks in this city, I heard traces of emptiness, disappointment and despair. This demand to be a certain way, to be the good and right kind of gay, stripped many persons of their agency and their choice and made queer performativity a vicious perpetual cycle that will never end the need to be visible or the hunger for social acceptance, nor will it ever satisfy the mainstream or meet its standards. This and the unfortunate, judgmental, and brutal way I saw LGBTQ individuals treat each other, probably justifies the despair I sensed. Within the current matrix, LGBTQ individuals are declared failures relative to the hetero-normative and the mainstream queer-normative hierarchic culture and find no true comfort in the space they expected to be a safe haven.
Can you imagine aging within such a space?
I am certainly not setting myself apart or defining myself as the antonym, nor am I any better or more righteous than anyone. I am sharing what I witnessed and, perhaps, offering gratitude for the life I have created in Portland, Oregon, my chosen home. Ever since my eyes were opened to how different and diverse we are as LGBTQ individuals, I have realized that as a population we certainly have enough in common to create a political alliance but definitely not enough for a solid foundation that would create community.
In fact, this reality can emancipate my identity as I age, for without the expectations of identity performativity or the constraints of communal codes, I am free to make choices about how I want to present and position myself in the world. This does not mean I am or can always be on the margin, but rather that I have agency to negotiate with the mainstream structure to preserve my freedom when and if I wish to participate in it.
Furthermore, it is a joy to know that I am not alone for I have a family of individuals who, like me, dwell on the margins in their own communities because they have chosen the path of authenticity. It is what makes us positively queer, positively marginalized, and united by virtue of the high price we pay for our dissidence on behalf of emancipation and liberty. We are queer even though we are of all sexual orientations; some may be heterosexual but are not hetero-normative, some gay but refusing to conform to a gay stereotype emphasized in mainstream culture, either through promotion or ridicule. These folks handle me well as I grow, fluctuate, and age. They support my desire to be healthy and sound, even when they do not agree with my choices.
This experience in San Francisco has renewed my commitment and desire to age intentionally. If anything, I have found that as I age, I want to learn the art of practicing agency, both internal agency within the mind and in self-identity, and external agency in navigating and negotiating with social structures, and transgressing these structures when needed. To me, living queerness is an aging path of emancipation from the conformity of static identities and required social and gender performances; it is a path to free oneself from the shackles of identity, approval, and assimilation. It is a refusal to be deceived – by self and by other. Perhaps an appropriate expression of my praxis is the revival of a larger truly queer space that allows individuals to be, one that strategically transgresses against normativity in its subtlest forms and resists the marketing of the queer identity as a capitalist and modernist enterprise.
I hope I can convince more fellow queers to revive the Queer and to age with me in this expansive flexible margin I am learning to sustain.
In my next essay, I will delve more fully into how queer theory can revolutionize our understanding and practicing of aging.
Pascal Aziz was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He has a BA in Psychology, a BA in Interdisciplinary studies and a Certificate in Gerontology from Marylhurst University. His main interest is doing further research in gerontology, as well as participating in senior citizen advocacy. He is looking forward to attending graduate school in the fall of 2014.