Growing Older, Gratefully

First published at Between the Lines News on May 21, 2009

This column hits the internet on the eve of my fortieth birthday. Forgive a middle-aged columnist for indulging in some reminiscing.

Little reminders of my age keep creeping up, like the fact that I had to re-word the last sentence after initially writing “This column hits the newsstands…” My column used to appear in print (and still does, in some markets). At least I’ve learned to say “music store” instead of “record store,” though I don’t think I’ve purchased a record since 6th grade. (It was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.) And even saying “music store” probably dates me.

When I came out at 19, there was no internet. Usually, we met other gays by going to gay bars—when we could find them. When traveling, I’d grab the local phone book (remember those?) and hope to locate something under “Gay,” “Lambda” or “Rainbow.” Then I’d look for a pay phone.

If the telephone search didn’t work, I had an alternate method. I’d go to the nearest mall and find a Gap, where nine times out of ten I could spot a gay salesclerk. (Yes it’s a stereotype, but it was a useful one at the time.) I would chat him up so he would fill me in on the local scene—no joking. Who needs when you have plain old-fashioned gaydar?

Reflecting on ways the world has changed during my life, I feel a bit like my grandfather when he talks about when gas was twenty cents a gallon. (Did I mention that, after locating the gay bar, I would walk ten miles to get there, uphill, both ways?)

Like my grandfather, I do find myself occasionally referring to “these kids today.”

As a college professor, I know many of these “kids” as students. When I started teaching, I wasn’t much older than they. Blessed with a youthful countenance, I could easily be mistaken for their peer. (And yes, the photo accompanying this column is recent.) Now I’m old enough to be their dad—something I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around.

I am both awed and pleased by some of the ways in which their lives will differ from mine. Mainly, I’m filled with gratitude.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to start a gay and lesbian group at schools that don’t have one, and then watch as all of their flyers get either torn down or scribbled with words like “faggot.” I’m grateful that such frequent ugliness has become the exception rather than the rule in America.

Most of these kids don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where, in most people’s minds, gay=AIDS=death. I came out in 1988. AZT was just becoming available, and protease inhibitors were some time off. I watched friends and acquaintances die with alarming speed. I’m grateful that most of today’s youth don’t know that horror—although I wish they would take more care with their sexual choices.

These kids live in a world where, in a handful of places, they can marry whom they love. Seeing this as possible, those in the other places can hope for, and work for, change. I’m grateful for that progress.

I’m grateful that gay sex is no longer criminal in any U.S. state—though grieved that it still warrants the death penalty in parts of the world. For seven years of my adult life I lived in a state where homosexual sodomy was criminal. I cried tears of gratitude when that changed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003.

I know that there’s much work left to be done, and I’m grateful to be a part of that work.

I’m grateful for readers from around the world who send me words of encouragement. I’m grateful for family and friends who have supported me. And I’m grateful for my partner Mark, who has been the love of my life for the last seven-and-a-half years. He, more than anyone else, makes me look forward to the next forty.

All in all, it’s a good world out there, which makes growing older something to embrace.