It first dawned on us when the annual Costco run to stock the beach house yielded an eight-pack of reading glasses to share: We are, perhaps, no longer quite so young and fabulous.
The Boys and I have been spending summers on Fire Island together for nearly 20 years. To us the island has always represented a cult of beauty, a festival of youth, a summerlong dance party. When we first hit the scene out there, members of the generation just before us — who would have been in their 40s and 50s — were simply gone, wiped out by epidemic. The alternative to youth, it seemed to us, could be only death.
That impression was so stark, I remember, that I used to swear every summer that I’d step in front of a bus before I would hit 40. I’ll be 47 this year. I had just finished the sixth grade when The New York Times reported the first cases of what would come to be known as AIDS. Ten years later I was still in college, in Ohio. When I finally got to New York City, every guy I knew was under 30 or well past 60.
If we are no longer the Boys of Summer, who are we? We are the first truly post-Stonewall generation to have lived long enough to ask that question. We never contemplated growing older together because we never saw anyone else doing it. It’s not that we expected to die of AIDS exactly. We simply had no frame of reference, no role models for living long and living well as gay men. And we certainly never imagined the depths of friendship that could develop through so much shared time over so many years.
In retrospect we should have seen this coming a few summers back, when an island interloper asked one of us to describe what life had been like as a “disco-era Roxy boy.” In fact, none of us came of age during the disco era but the misconception can be forgiven: The Roxy was long gone by then and may as well have been Studio 54 as far as my (er, our) young interlocutor was concerned.
But oh were we Roxy Boys! To us it is incomprehensible that a new generation has not replaced the Roxy with another club, that Manhattan no longer even truly has all-night gay dance clubs, that demand for them has waned as a new wave of arrivals has been watching their predecessors living happy, well-adjusted lives beyond the clubs — and that we could be the ones they have been watching.
We are witnessing nothing less than the rebirth of a life phase that skipped an entire generation of gay men. The feeling of it is amplified, of course, by the microcosm of a Fire Island summer, but it applies more broadly to life in New York, San Francisco and other urban centers around the world.
What does gay middle age look like today? It looks like us, I suppose, but we’re honestly never sure what that means.
Last summer we booked a table at an Island eatery to celebrate a friend’s birthday. As I threw on what I thought was a festive tank top and prepared to leave the house, the Boys hit me with a disapproving chorus of “You’re wearing that?” At first I refused to budge, but ultimately I relented and changed into something with sleeves. When did we start caring about decorum? When did we start wearing shirts?
The Boys in the house who are still dating have noted recently that young men in their 20s and 30s are inexplicably drawn to — and often aggressively pursue — middle-aged men. This phenomenon is completely alien to us. Is it because we rarely saw middle-aged men when we were younger? Or is it because when we did see them, we automatically assumed they were sick?
And don’t even get us started on sex: Condoms meant survival to us. But new HIV-prevention drugs are changing that culture, too, bringing a kind of liberation to young gay men that is reminiscent of what the pill did for women. It’s scary and exciting to us all at once — and it challenges long-held beliefs that are core to our identities.
Rent or buy, lease or own, packaged gay cruises versus custom trips with friends, monogamy versus nonmonogamy, sleeves or no sleeves, even whether or not it’s still appropriate to dance all night at our age — the opinions are stridently expressed and argued ad nauseam in our house.
As we navigate this new frontier of middle age, some of us are embracing it with grace, some are flirting with bitterness and others are just dancing through it to see where we end up. But what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is what a wonderful, messy, intrusive and intimate dynamic we have as a group — as a family, really — and how beautiful it is that we’re all going through this together, tasting it, trying it on for size, experimenting with it and (I believe) growing and benefitting from it together.
As our lives have evolved beyond the dance floor, each one of us has settled into different ways of being in the world. Some of us married, some stayed single, some broke up. Some of us are monogamous, some are open, some started with one model and switched to another. Some of us adopted pets; none of us had children. Some of us have become wealthy. Some have become comfortable enough that at least we no longer have to mortgage our entire lives for a measly “quarter share” in a place we treasure more than any other.
Along the way every single one of us has vehemently disagreed with, questioned or outright challenged the others’ choices at some point in time. And we haven’t always resolved those clashing points of view. Somehow, sometimes we’ve actually embraced them and celebrated them by turning them into running jokes — to be hauled out again and again for affectionate prodding summer after summer. (“Let’s go out for dinner tonight. Just let me change into a tank.”)
I love every single guy in that house, warts and all. And by force of the sheer unavoidable exposure to everyone’s dirt and drama over so many years. I’ve learned from them and am a better person because of our time together — because they all have challenged me so often to think about who I am and what I value, just by being who they are and living it loud.
Astonishingly and in spite of any of our intentions ever to do so, I think, we’re all finally becoming men together. And it makes me happy, joyful even, to understand that this is a thing that can happen in the world we live in now.