Greetings, fellow travelers!
I’ve been thinking about some things. As you’ll see.
I’ll start my train of thought by telling you that I’m a fangirl, and I have been pretty much my entire life. Those of us who participate in fandoms — especially if we’re from marginalized groups — find our tribes in them. We find inspiration, support, creativity, friends, lovers, partners, spouses.
I’ve found support in fandoms. And for those of us who are queer, fandoms have offered us safe haven from the shit all around, where we could tell our stories and offer each other queer rep when nobody else was doing it.
I find many vibrant, amazing, eclectic people in my communities and fandoms, many of them younger than I am, but I am so goddamn proud of the young people who are stepping up to continue the fight, who want to make things even better for as many people as possible. I love talking to them and getting their perspectives and learning from them.
Because that’s what community is about. Learning from each other. This is why I’m a fangirl. The people in my fandoms are my tribe, and for the most part, there’s a lot of love and support there.
And there’s always a but, because there are bad sides to fandoms. There’s anti-LGBTQ bias, racism, misogyny — in some ways, they’re microcosms of society-at-large.
I’ve been thinking about another form of marginalization at work in fandoms, thinking quite a bit about the role aging plays in a variety of arenas. We could be here all freaking year talking about how ageism is a thing (it is) and how it plays out in misogyny and androcentric societies (hint: age can marginalize women, especially, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways).
Those of us who are aging women — that is, those of us who are 40 and up — we start to notice these subtleties. And those of us who are aging queer women — well, ageism, as I’ve said, is a thing. In our own allegedly supportive communities.
Here’s the deal.
I expect to get dismissed and ignored by non-queer people. I expect it because I’m gender non-conforming and don’t present as “typically female” (though I identify as cis and female) and because I’m a woman. I’ve dealt with that all my life. I also expected that it would happen more and more as I age, and that it would come mostly from men.
I was right. But something else I’ve noticed, within the panoply of queer communities and fandoms I inhabit, sucks even worse.
And that’s when younger women dismiss, ignore, or even deride older, using ageism as a way to wound, claiming that older generations aren’t “radical,” haven’t done anything for larger causes — whatever it is. In the fandoms I inhabit, many of those young women call themselves feminists and identify as queer.
A gentle reminder, ICYMI.
It’s not feminist to marginalize older — or younger — women in fandoms and other communities. Especially when that community’s travelers include people who call themselves feminist and seek to understand and educate about intersectionality, and about how all kinds of -isms intertwine in systemic ways.
Except for ageism. That gets dismissed, like the women who bear the brunt of it in addition to the scars of their years.
But you don’t get a medal for surviving, or for building the communities that younger people have entered and call their own, even as some of them dismiss those of us who have been working for years to make sure that the generations that came after us wouldn’t have to fight the same battles, and could have it maybe a bit easier because, dammit, life should be about more than just surviving.
So let me tell you a bit about myself, because maybe it’ll give you some insight about some of the things I dealt with as a young, burgeoning queer activist back in the day and how it might still inform my journey.
I’ll preface with this: We are all part of our historical contexts, shaped by the events during our particular eras in which we came of age. Each historical context plays a role in shaping the next. History isn’t discrete blocks of time. It’s interrelated series of events and stories, a push and pull often defined by particular social and political movements and the individuals and communities within them. So what happened last year, last decade, last century, has played a role in what’s happening now.
I’m Gen X, so I came of age in an era when AIDS ravaged communities here and abroad, when doctors and nurses wouldn’t even touch queer men as they were dying in hospitals and the only people who stepped up for them were predominantly fellow queers, who washed and fed them and performed caregiving services in hospitals because medical staff didn’t want to touch some damn faggot or tranny.
‘Then lots of your friends or friends of friends get sick and sicker and then die. And you never ever quit being really really fucking pissed off about the whole thing. I’m alive today due to sheer randomness.’
‘If you were living in the Castro in San Francisco, everyone in the neighborhood was gay… So it wasn’t just your friends that were dying, it was your whole neighborhood. One day your mailman would be replaced, the next day that flower shop was gone… You wouldn’t be invited to the funeral, so it was just like people were disappearing.’
‘It was madness. It was terribly cruel…It was inexplicable and unexplained, for a very long time. Research was underfunded, and in many cases large institutions and public figures rooted for it to be happening. People died suddenly of unexplainable things. Toe fungus! Tongue thrush! Rashes. Eyes welling up with blood. Horrible shit.
And during this time, gay men and lesbians came together, when previously there had been tensions and dismissals between them.
‘It was, at the time, not at all unusual for gay men to snicker as the bull dyke walked into the bar with her overalls and flannels and fades. Much of the time, it was casual ribbing which they took in stride. But it could also be laced with acid, especially when lesbians began gravitating toward a bar that had until then catered largely to men.
‘When the AIDS crisis struck, it would be many of these same women who would go straight from their jobs during the day to acting as caregivers at night. Because most of them lacked medical degrees, they were generally relegated to the most unpleasant tasks: wiping up puke and shit, cleaning up houses and apartments neglected for weeks and months. But not being directly responsible for medical care also made them the most convenient targets for the devastating anger and rage these men felt – many who’d been abandoned by their own family and friends.’
‘These women walked directly into the fire. They came to the aid of gay men even when it was unclear how easily the virus could be transmitted…’
‘They provided aid, comfort, and medical care to men withering away in hospices, men who’d already lost their lovers and friends to the disease and spent their last months in agony. They’d been abandoned by their own families, and were it not for lesbians – many if not most of them volunteers – they would have suffered alone. And when there was nothing more medicine could do for them and their lungs began to fill with fluid, it was often these same women who’d be left to administer enough morphine to release them, given to them by the doctor who had left the room and would return 15 minutes later to sign the certificate (a common practice at the time).’— “Survivors of 1980s AIDS crisis reveal what happened to them” (GayStarNews, 2015)
There are thousands of stories like that from that era, thousands of people who died and left gaping wounds in the communities that had sheltered so many of us and became extended family. And we did the only thing we could. We fought for those extended families.
We spent months — years — organizing and protesting and trying to raise awareness of what was happening in our communities and to fucking fight for our lives. Because it was a matter of life and death. We did it with the means we had available. We organized, strategized, and participated. And in an era before cell phones/smart phones and the Internet, that was no small feat.
And out of those horrible days of turmoil, death, and loss came a movement that changed the world. Ordinary people with no background in activism or science or medicine educated themselves in those fields because there was such a stigma attached to AIDS and HIV that nobody was funding research and the government was ignoring the devastation.
Prior to 1984-1985, before French scientists discovered the virus in 1983 (U.S. scientists announced their own discovery in 1984) and started developing medications for it, HIV was an immediate death sentence, and there were no medications for it prior to 1984-1985, no testing, no idea how it spread, no support networks, no medical personnel trained in how to care for people with it. By the time people started getting sick with it, it was too far gone and soon, so were they. It was activists and ordinary people who built these infrastructures to deal with the crisis, in the face of cruelty, bias, and death.
The disease touched everyone in some way, whether directly or indirectly.
One of my friends from high school, for example — and I’m from a small, rural mountain community — had a younger sister who contracted it before we graduated in the mid-1980s. But I still consider myself lucky because I didn’t lose anyone close to me, but my gay male friends did in their circles. So I protested for them, and for the millions of people not only in the U.S. but abroad also ravaged by this terrible, terrible disease that wiped out huge swaths of queer communities in this country and that devastated communities in other countries.
So we organized through word-of-mouth, queer newspapers and newsletters, and via fliers posted at queer bookstores, bars, HIV testing centers (anonymous then, because of the stigma), and community centers. Wherever queers gathered. Actual brick-and-mortar spaces, because the Internet was not available to the public yet.
And a whole hell of a lot of us started to come out publicly to put faces to the people who were suffering. We did it for ourselves, for those who could not, for those who wasted away from AIDS right in front of their anti-LGBT families of origin, and for those who desperately needed help but if they revealed themselves, they would be even worse off. We did it to humanize those who had died and continued to die of the disease.
And the more of us who came out, the more doing so spread globally, and the more allies and fellow queers we found around the world. In a strange twist, the AIDS crisis actually helped create community, too.
Being out in that era cost me jobs, friends, and colleagues. It made shit a lot harder. Never as overt as it could have been (I’ve been lucky, and only harassed verbally and through microaggressions), but death by a thousand cuts is just as effective as a few devastating blows.
But like I said, I was one of the fortunate ones, because I wasn’t rejected by my family of origin and that was and still is huge for many of us.
So I know what it is to be marginalized in some ways. But because I have a privileged background in terms of class and race and health, I’ve made it my mission to work for social justice for as many people as possible who don’t have the benefits I’ve had.
I’m still doing it, whether it’s studying the history of the movements that came before me to learn from them, working on larger campaigns that address the systemic -ism bullshit that permeates everything, pushing lawmakers to do better, marching, and providing support in any way I can, even if it’s just checking in with someone on Twitter who seems to be having a hard time. Social justice isn’t always about hitting the streets, after all. It’s also in the day-to-day actions between people. It’s the spreading of love and support and resources and offering a hand when you can.
Which brings me back to fandoms.
This impetus to organize and bring change exists in a lot of fandoms, and in the past couple of years, especially, I’ve watched people come together in extraordinary ways via fandoms to help each other, to raise money for charitable causes, to offer support to those who struggle with the weight of each day. Fandoms are remarkably effective ways to organize, especially in the era of social media.
I found a home in fandoms, where I could be me. I found respite in them, when battles were lost or stalemated at the doors of power. I found comfort in them when the chronic depression I deal with fucked with my sense of self-worth and left me sleepless for days at a time, struggling just to make it from morning to evening. I found like-minded people, working for the same things, who dealt with things similar to me, and in all of that I found solidarity.
That’s why it hurts when younger women dismiss, ignore, and insult older. It’s a dismissal of not only us, but of our stories and our histories.
And it hurts, too, when older women do it to younger. Ageism works both ways. I got it when I was younger from my older peers. And for every one of me (now entering that older bracket), who loves talking with and working with younger people, there’s an asshole or two my age dismissing our collective future.
That’s why I made a vow as a younger queer that as I aged, I would do what I could to support younger people, and to offer what wisdom I might have accumulated along my journey. I’ve maintained that vow, because shit sure as hell isn’t going to fix itself, and collectively, we’re much stronger than when we dismiss and marginalize our own even as we fight for the larger good, lessons I learned during those awful AIDS years.
So rather than dismissing those who don’t share our age brackets, how about we instead get to know each other and share some love and knowledge?
Because — younger friends especially — we still have a lot of work to do (even where AIDS is concerned). I want to be part of your future as long as I can and help you in whatever way I can. So don’t forget those of us aging out of your bracket. We’re your past, after all, the building blocks for you, just as those who came before us were our building blocks. The ties between us all are much stronger than you might think, and each generation brings innovation and perseverance to the journey. Let’s not squander that energy by dismissing different generations.
Cuz age, my friends, ain’t nothin’ but a number.
Happy Friday and may the odds be ever in our favor.
And if you’re interested in the history of the AIDS crisis:
Randy Shilts’ book, And the Band Played On, 1987 (re-released in a 20th anniversary in 2007). Shilts was an investigative reporter who revealed some of the things that caused AIDS to spread unchecked in the early years. It changed and framed how AIDS was discussed. Shilts himself died of AIDS in 1994.
How the Advent of AIDS Advanced Civil Rights (Globe & Mail piece)
Survivors of 1980s AIDS Crisis Reveal What Happened to Them (2015 Gay Star News piece; links to a Reddit forum in which these survivors tell their stories)
Images from the AIDS era (Buzzfeed, 2016)
The first AIDS hospice opens in Seattle, 1992 (Mother Jones, 2014; in 1992, the number one cause of death for men in the U.S. aged 25-44 was AIDS)
30 Photos that changed how we thought about AIDS (ATI, 2017)
Posters and ad campaigns during the AIDS crisis (Smithsonian, 2013)
National Geographic, some photos of AIDS crisis internationally
7 New Yorkers recall the early days of the AIDS crisis (NY Intelligencer, 2014)
Avert, History of AIDS (timeline, includes international perspective)
And if you can, see the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague.