In my search for media representations of old gay men, I stumbled upon Beauty before Age (1997, J. Symons, producer), a short documentary on gay men’s anxieties about old age. I had forgotten that I had seen it back in the late 1990s, when it came out, and that my dear friend and colleague, Rafael Diaz, was featured in the film.
This is a pioneer piece, as significant discussions about old age rarely took place in gay culture until the mid 2000s. Credit to Mr. Symons for touching on the salient themes around growing old and being gay: the negative stereotypes, the cult of youth and muscular physique, the (exceptional) ageless love, the aging we faced during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, and the active participation of gay men, young and old, in maintaining the invisibility of the old.
More precisely, the film is about aging in the Castro. And as I watched it (this time), I wondered if, and how, this phenomenon is an artifact of capitalism. Youth is a product, a commodity, an attribute that is sold and bought. Sexual attractiveness and performance and musculature go along with youth and they are marketed, sold, and consumed. But I’m thinking that the work of capitalism goes further: youth, as a commodity, gives as a sense of being. It makes us believe that we are powerful, attractive, productive, healthy, and strong. It provides the illusion of a full and purposeful life in the midst of the alienation and hollowness of contemporary capitalism.
I’m referring to youth as manifested in our contemporary and dominant white gay culture, not to a “universal” sense of youth. There are, of course, alternative ways of being young and queer, but they are not visible. And even then I wonder if any of those choices escape the rejection of old age.