On Sunday at Fac251 in Manchester, promoter Paul Cons is reviving Flesh, his famous gay club of the early 90s for one night. As well as raising money for the Albert Kennedy Trust and the Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund it’s going to be a nostalgic night for older Manchester gays.
“When Flesh started we were using slogans like Queer as Fuck and It’s Queer Up North and it was all part of the very aggressive and self-confident gay explosion in the early 90s. Very sexually liberated. A very dynamic moment in gay culture,” says Cons. “As well as creating an amazing party, I would love Flesh to be the start of a conversation about what it’s like to be gay in your 30s, 40s, 50s in 2010. I think it’s a good moment to look back at your youth, celebrate it, reflect on it, but also look at where we are now and where we’re going.”
This set me thinking. I’m a staggering 51 – too old for alcopops yet too young for Midsomer Murders. So I asked my more mature gay followers on Twitter how they felt about middle age and got very different responses, from “It feels shit . . . Hate getting older, thank goodness for Botox, beauty therapists and booze,” to “Really nice. I wish I could go back and slap the 17-year-old me though.” Others asked why a gay man’s experience of middle age would be any different from anyone else’s. Well, we’ll come to that.
I thought back to my 20s and picked 10 gay men from the circle of my acquaintance and assessed their current circumstances. Back then we were all out and proud and full of frisky fun. What had become of us? Of the 10, six were partnered up, two were single and two were dead. Four had moved to the country, one emigrated to Australia and three remained in London. Four had gone bald. Two had taken cocaine in the last year (and complained that it wasn’t as good as it used to be). Three of us had contemplated adopting children or approaching lesbian friends with turkey baster in hand but it had all been talk and no issue resulted. Five had dogs, of which four were small and camp. Three had been out to a gay club in the last year, and two had pulled.
But my unscientific sample group may be way off the mark. I was surprised to read findings from a snappily named 2008 report, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, that there was “no significant differences in sexual behaviour between older and younger gay men. The researchers found gay men in their 50s just as likely as gay men in other age groups to report unprotected anal sex with a gay man who was HIV positive or of unknown HIV status.” The randy old trouts, is all I can say. This rather scuppers my theory that middle-aged gays wave goodbye to their promiscuous youth and leave the party while their dignity is intact, then embrace a spiritually and emotionally fulfilled life of monogamy – maybe with a bit of gardening on the side. That’s how I’ve arranged my life: one gentleman caller, two dogs, five chickens, two ducks and a lovely display of dahlias – not necessarily in that order of importance. Maybe I’m just jealous and deep in my subconscious I’d like nothing more than to prowl around Clacket Lane lorry park at midnight rogering strangers in the dark.
Back in the days when my pleasure-seeking friends and I were out at Bang and Heaven and the Pink Pussycat every night of the week (and rather putting ourselves about) we viewed anyone over 40 with suspicion. If they dared to approach us, they would get the full force of our disdain. They were desperate and musty and just wrong. Nightclubs were for young people like us, and those coffin dodgers had no business being there.
But it is how gay men of my generation feel rather than what they do that is more revealing. For all our partying back then, were we happy?
“I didn’t feel I was living the dream at the time in terms of my relationships or my sex life,” says Cons.
“In my youth I wasn’t officially gay. Now I live the life of a gay man. I am in a loving relationship and I’m happy and settled,” said one of my tweeters.
My own experience is that life has sorted itself out with no particular effort on my part: just when it would be unseemly for me to skulk in the dark corners of nightclubs, I no longer felt the urge to go. It all dovetailed rather neatly. I couldn’t put my finger on when exactly this happened – but I remember speaking to my mother one morning after the night before and she commented: “Aren’t you a bit old for that sort of thing?”
In my mid 30s, going to clubs was all about booty. As you grow older the success rate may fall below a level that makes the experience worthwhile. Also, it gets boring. In my youth, the early stabs at relationships were usually ditched for the thrill of getting back out there on the hunt. But with age comes the appreciation of what you gain from getting to know someone’s name and maybe more.
There are those who keep going – silver foxes who dance with their shirts off, fists clenched and stomach muscles pulled in, strangers to a carbohydrate. Good for them. But I have no desire to be the oldest swinger in town.
The difference, I conclude, between gays and straights when it comes to mid-life is that gays don’t feel bound to fulfil certain roles. Why should we? Having lived our lives on the boundaries of society’s norms we feel able to negotiate our way through the experience of ageing. And most of us do not have children to distract us from our self-absorption.
“The thing I’ve learned most about in 20 years is relationships. I’ve seen through my fantasy ideas of what a relationship might be like as a gay man,” says Cons. A similar sentiment came via Twitter: “Getting older feels great and, contrary to straight people, the fun just begins because you don’t need to waste your money on kids.” Another said: “For me it was being angry and confused as a youth, leading to denial and eventually to comfortable acceptance and happiness.”
The consensus is that middle-aged gays are happier than they were in their youth. And if they’re not? I think that on his 40th birthday every gay man should get a letter from his local dog’s home inviting him to come and choose the life companion of his choice. It would make a change from crabs.
If my theory is right, Flesh on Sunday will be a fabulous event, throbbing with portly middle-aged northern gays at one with themselves at last but still able to cut a rug on the dancefloor. I hope there will be a snug bar with a card table. You see, I’m thinking of going myself, if I can arrange a dogsitter and find a hotel close to the venue. I can’t walk too far these days. Not with my hips.
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