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Two Generations of Gay Men Collide in SF

For the first time in decades, two generations of gay men are alive and kicking—together.

I’m in a popular weeknight club in the Castro. A glittery girl in her mid-20s passes by with a boy wearing a costumey hat, flouncy tie and black vest. The girl points to a nearby man, mid-40s, sporting more or less the same look: same hairstyle, same brimmed hat, same vest. “Look,” she says, “it’s your dad!”

This is the job of youth culture, to draw these kinds of lines: on one side, kids who get to have fun; on the other, their elders, who should be at home in bed. But as a 44-year-old, now on the latter side of that dividing line, I’m struck by something else: how rarely I hear comments like this in the city’s gay community.

Today, nightlife is all about shared interests, like dance music or drag shows, and not about us-versus-them. This may be an outgrowth of a simple statistical fact: At this point in history, two adult generations are sharing the stage—the Millennials, born after 1980, and Gen X, born in the 15 years previous.

Back at the club, young gay boys and their gal pals dominate the crowd, but there are plenty of people here twice their age, and everywhere I look, younger and older intermingle. This night is jointly promoted by a drag superstar and her 29-year-old DJ protégé, and every week, there’s a long line of people waiting to get in, not all of them 25 years old with trendy haircuts and cute shoes. A percentage of the men here do indeed look old enough to be father to the rest. But, the occasional joke about “your dad” aside, I don’t think anyone minds.

My friend D. has been involved in gay nightlife for nearly 30 years. He confirms my hunch that there’s been an upswing of intergenerational mingling. But rather than something new, he thinks it’s a return to the nightlife of the ’70s. “When I was first coming up, the older queens would spot you, pull you over and school you,” says D. “They’d make sure you knew things, like who Myrna Loy was.”

As D. sees it, the practice of a “gay mother” adopting the new kid on the scene faded in the ’80s. “There was a gap,” he says. “That gap was AIDS. A whole generation died, or they were home taking care of the dying. A lot of people grew up without anyone to guide them through the gay world.”

I was a 20-something in New York City in the late ’80s, and back then, my gay elders were activists fighting for AIDS research; they had more pressing concerns than teaching me about screen divas, and not a whole lot of interest in joining me on the dance floor. Friends my age often tell me they grew up without someone to look up to, that they created their cultural identities from scratch. To use a much-abused term, we had too few role models. As we Gen Xers hit 40 and start grappling with the term “middle-aged,” we’re finding ourselves unsure of what our roles are meant to be or how we’re supposed to relate to this generation coming up behind us.

When I tell one friend that I’m writing about intergenerational gay nightlife, he complains, “The kids all stand there texting under the disco ball.” Another marvels, “I had to tell this boy that Liza Minnelli is Judy Garland’s daughter. That’s like having to explain that Jesus was the son of God.” Last year these differences in behavior and knowledge were dubbed “the Gay Generation Gap” in a much-quoted New York Magazine piece, which argued that 20-somethings think 40-somethings are boring, depressed and unable to stop talking about AIDS; the old, in turn, see the young as shallow, uninterested in the past and unable to grasp anything beyond their handheld devices.

There’s a kernel of truth in this, but it’s not the whole story—at least not recently in San Francisco, where the perfect storm of Prop. 8 and Milk put everyone on the streets together in protest. Since then, something new seems to have blossomed.

“I’ve always looked for older friends,” says J., 24, a DJ who sees himself as “an apprentice,” learning the scene from a promoter-partner two decades older. “I came to San Francisco looking for a family,” says C., 26, whom D. has taken under his wing (no doubt teaching him about Myrna Loy). C. grumbles that guys his age know about Harvey Milk “only from that movie,” but he adds, “A lot of us want to know more.”

“I don’t see age,” M. tells me. He’s the young promoter of new drag night in SoMa. Drag here is served up by the reigning queens of the scene alongside a new wave of aspirants still
learning how to lip-synch and move their legs at the same time. When I ask M. if he intentionally set out to reach across generations, he says no: “I just want good people there.” But he makes the point that in the drag scene, “the older queens” are a big deal. It’s not just about getting advice on covering up those manly eyebrows; it’s about tapping into a shared cultural legacy. As M. puts it, “I need to know whose shoulders I’m standing on.”

Coming out under the shadow of AIDS, I never fully believed I’d reach middle age—I never really knew what middle age looked like. Where nightlife once seemed like something that separated the generations of gay men; now, nightlife seems like a chance to get people away from their computers and back together, no matter their generation.

As I exit the Castro club, I say goodnight to a 40-something friend I’d seen dancing in a huddle of boys much younger than him. He tells me, “When I’m on the dance floor, I’m 15 years younger.” One of the boys has overheard. “Not younger,” he corrects. “Ageless.”

K.M. Soehnlein’s new novel, Robin and Ruby (Kensington Books), is out this month. He’ll be reading on April 1 at Books Inc. in the Castro booksinc.net and April 5 at Book Passage in the Ferry Building bookpassage.com. He lives in SoMa.

Taken from the pages of 7x7’s April “Sex and Love Issue," now on newsstands