Tales from an aging fangirl

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.

But.

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.

This photo, taken by photojournalism student Therese Frare became the one photo that most powerfully identified the AIDS crisis and humanized its victims. David Kirby is the man taking his final breaths in 1990, surrounded by family. He was 32. Read about it here.

And below are some of those stories, from a GayStarNews piece in 2015 by Joe Morgan, reporting on a Reddit forum in which LGBTQ people who made it through those times talked about it.

‘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.

This is a “die-in” protest. ACT-UP conducted bunches of these in cities around the country. Protestors would lie down as if dead, one of the tactics used to bring attention to the crisis. This die-in happened in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1992. See more at the Stigma Project.

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.

Protest during the AIDS crisis. Silence = Death was one of the slogans.

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.

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34 thoughts on “Tales from an aging fangirl

  1. Wow Andi very powerful words. i’m honored be part of those stepping blocks. Your are truly an awesome person and I’m glad to know you 😉

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  2. Important and well done, Andi. I lost some close male friends to AIDS and saw the devastation in the small queer community where I live. How the world might be today if we hadn’t lost so many. And, I agree with your observation of ageism in fandoms. Often, I’ve been hesitant to reveal my age because of fear from the thousand cuts. But, you’re right, we have much to share and to learn from each other. Thanks for this!

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  3. There were so many we lost. All that life, creative energy — who knows what some of those people could have accomplished had they lived longer? I think about that quite a bit as I watch younger people organizing and strategizing today. They have their own issues to deal with, and I’m in awe of how creative and open they are in doing that, but I sure hope they don’t forget where they came from. 🙂

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  4. So much truth to this article. Thank you for writing it. So many gone from that horrible disease. Finding a way to band together is so important. I remember as a youngster how little I paid attention to the earlier generations until I got a bit older. Now, I cherish my elders and try to mentor the youngsters. Unfortunately, it seems that the younger ones were just like me and don’t pay much attention to their elders. I don’t have a solution, but I do try to be available.

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  5. Thank you Andi. As an under 40, far from the US, woman who likes women, many of the things you said were new and traumatic for me to read, and my heart breaks that any of you had to live that reality. You are strong. And passionate. And loving. And wonderful. And I am grateful for that in ways I can’t fully explain. You have my unending respect and love for the things you have done with your life, and the lives you have changed with your presence. As we say here in NZ, Arohanui, ataahua mana wahine. Much love, beautiful, strong woman.

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  6. Thanks for putting so powerfully into words an important message… it is true we are discriminated against for all sorts of reasons and then suddenly we have aging as well (docs not taking symptoms seriously because we should expect it at our age!)… keep doing what you do Andi, it matters ❤️

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  7. This was well-done and well-written. I am personally passionate about ageism, among other things, so I appreciate your talking so much and so effectively about ageism. However, I also appreciate how you make it clear that you could still be oppressed and the oppressor, or oppressed in multiple ways.

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  8. Eloquently said, and thank you from an “older” lesbian. I can still remember the emotions that ran through me, when portions of The Quilt were brought to cities throughout the nation. My friends and I walked in silence, crying for those whose names were displayed. The quilt displayed in its entirety was something I did not witness in person, but still, just seeing it on a tv screen gave me chills.
    At the time, one of our friends was a woman who had been in the WACs during WWII. She had lost many friends over the years, and her partner of many years was in a nursing home. She was at Stonewall at the time of the raid! Her stories could leave you laughing or crying. But you always learned something from her about the history of AIDS, or Gay rights, or just life in general. Juette was born in 1922 and lived and loved during the most difficult times, and we lost her in 1998. It never ever crossed my mind to dismiss her value, or the value of what she had to suffer through to survive as a lesbian during those times.
    I hope that your words find their way into hearts of many of those who find it easy to dismiss the value of others, whether they are older or younger. Thanks Andi.

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  9. Thank you for this post, Andi. I hope people of all ages read this and realize that age is simply another one of the descriptors used to divide us, not unite us. My feet are deeply planted in the adventure of aging and my heart and brain are always open to receiving the thoughts of those who are younger and older than I am. Goodness and wisdom are owned by folks of many different ages. Thanks, again.

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  10. Your reminder of our gay history took me straight back to 1994 on Oxford St, Sydney Australia, marching silently down the wide road with hundreds of others, on a candlelit vigil for all those we’d lost to AIDS… we stood in the park, and took turns reading out their names… I still have the certificate of participation in my portfolio CV. I was a baby Queer, and young folks nowadays don’t understand how we couldn’t even SEE each other then: there was no internet/Instagram/Facebook. We fought and worked and hustled to build our communities, to spread information, to celebrate and mourn. Yes, I remember the Quilt touring too; I just wept and wept.

    Now I’m 51, silver-haired, wrinkled, still Queer, still passionate, still here. Your post fired up my blood, brought me old tears, and reminded me that discrimination often just changes form, but never truly goes away…

    You really did say it all, well done. I love this blog; the quality of writing from you fierce women (ageing or not) comforts me no end. In power and love, G in Australia xO

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    1. What an image, of that vigil. Gives me chills. There were so fucking many. And the early 90s wasn’t a picnic, either. The anti-LGBT right had galvanized again and there were anti-LGBTQ bills pending in various states. The battles I remember most from that era were Colorado’s Amendment 2 and Oregon’s Ballot Measure 9 (1992). The amendment in Colorado stated basically that if anybody refused service to LGBTQ people or hired or fired them on that basis that the LGBTQ people had no recourse. They were not allowed to sue for discrimination and the state was not allowed to enforce anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people. Here’s the text:

      “Shall there be an amendment to Article II of the Colorado Constitution to prohibit the state of Colorado and any of its political subdivisions from adopting or enforcing any law or policy which provides that homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, or relationships constitutes or entitles a person to claim any minority or protected status, quota preferences, or discrimination?” (link)

      Oregon’s was even more horrible and did that but also wanted to ensure that anything related to LGBTQ people was spoken of disparagingly, and that LGBTQ people were never affirmed:

      9. AMENDS CONSTITUTION; GOVERNMENT CANNOT FACILITATE, MUST DISCOURAGE HOMOSEXUALITY, OTHER “BEHAVIORS”
      QUESTION – Shall constitution be amended to require that all governments discourage homosexuality, other listed “behaviors,” and not facilitate or recognize them? (link)

      I helped try to get the word out about the Colorado amendment, since I was living there at the time but people were dismissive of it in Denver and the larger areas but I saw the organizing the right was doing outside the urban areas and sure enough, the measure passed, carried by the rural areas. And after that, it was open season on gays. Attacks outside of bars went up, harassment on the street…bad times. The amendment was challenged in court and in 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. Fortunately. But it’s been a policy of anti-LGBTQ organizations and individuals to keep trying to get these bills through on state and federal levels.

      Oregon’s measure was defeated, but those were horrible times there, too, and Oregon LGBTQ communities recognized the threat moreso than Colorado did, I think, and they formed alliances with other marginalized groups and organizations and that’s what helped them stop it. But the group pushing it continued to try to get the horribleness through the Oregon legislature for a few years after that. One of the activists pushing for the anti-LGBTQ laws has continued his activity and was at least partially responsible for the 2009 Uganda “kill the gays” bill.

      This is why it is SO important to know who the opposition is and who they’re talking to in local communities and government, so that you can build coalitions to keep them from implementing their exclusionary policies. Something like 129 anti-LGBT bills were introduced into state legislatures this past year, many of them the new incarnation of exclusion: so-called “religious liberty” bills, and I know that’s being talked about in Australia. One of the groups primarily responsible for those bills is working with groups in Australia. Hell, Tony Abbott has come to the US and addressed them twice in recent years. So these battles are no longer local. Theyr’e international.

      THAT’S another result of the AIDS crisis, was the pushback from anti-LGBTQ groups (almost all Christian Right). So those are the battles we’re fighting now, and they have their roots in that era, too. “Religious liberty,” as defined by the Christian Right, allows Christians to deny goods and services to LGBTQ people. Right now there’s a case being decided in the Supreme Court with regard to this matter. The decision will probably come in June. And if the Christian Right wins this case, it will legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people nationwide and thus create the tool to tear down other anti-discrimination measures.

      I wish more people would pay attention to the groups and individuals that are pushing all of this policy locally and internationally.

      Ah, well. Clearly, there won’t be much rest for us as a community in the coming years. Onward!

      And thank you for your words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Andi for that extensive explanation; Tony Abbott was a terribly conservative leader, BUT we just got Marriage Equality a month ago enshrined in law, & the gay weddings officially began on Jan 9th, so we’ve taken a giant leap forward which is going to have a profound effect culturally! 🌈🌈🌈🌈
        Trump is a disaster though, & yes, the community will have to pull together again… 🙏🏼❤ G

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      1. It’s amazing to think we may have crossed paths hey? Did you ever eat at Betty’s Soup Kitchen? I waitressed there for years… 😊
        We supported a lot of charities which were supporting the AIDS/HIV population… 🙏🏼

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  11. Hey Andi, Thank you for writing this article. Back in the early 80s I had the opportunity to work at the biggest gay bars in the Midwest. 1470 West was a place we could all be ourselves and I met so many wonderful people from all over the Midwest. I lost so many friends during that time. Men that were awesome human beings would just disappear. We would find out later they had passed from AIDS. The younger generation doesn’t understand the loss we experienced, the heartbreak we felt when our friend’s stopped coming in. You’re correct on that point and I thank you for voicing what so many of us feel.

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  12. More stories, please. If you’re willing to share, think about recording them. I was insulated, in my small mountain town, but I went to college in the mid-80s and started finding my communities. The mid-80s was still a horrible time for us, because the infrastructure to deal with the disease was nascent, but the way queers and the few allies we had helped get things moving was amazing. I can’t really talk about that era without crying. I’m crying now. Heh. I learned what collective action can do during those terrible days, and about what true support and unflagging commitment to a cause looks like. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story.

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  13. A powerful piece, Andi. Thank you for sharing! A reminder to all to be respectful of everyone’s journey, and appreciative of those who walked the path before us. Please continue to be the “Bringer of buts”. While it’s important to recognise the successes, it is just as important to shine the light into the dark corners where more needs to be said and done.

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  14. Thank you for writing this piece. As one of the ‘young’ fangirls (barely 23 lol) I was fortunate enough to not encounter this behavior, to the best of my knowledge and awareness, but I did realize that there is also almost no communication between the generations, which is ridiculous because 40-50 is not even old. As a person who reaps the benefits of the progress that those before me have achieved, I find it appalling that young people would behave this way. I think that with the internet being what it is, and people immersing themselves in community bubbles that consist of individuals that are not often that diverse in their believes and experiences, it’s easier to find fault with others. For example, I find it a challenge to talk to people that are older than me, because the language I am used to using online is not the language that many of them use. My way often comes of choppy or crass or too familiar and not curated enough to come of as respectful, if that is the word, while their way seems too formal and I feel like I have to go through an introduction that’s too long before the message gets to the point, even if its a short greeting sentence. The conversations feel awkward and there’s embarrassment on my side and possible theirs. I’ve been seeing the bridge between the age groups begin to form, but it’s still such a rare occurrence, and I hope that there will be more rapport and sooner rather than later. I think we need to work harder to engage with each other.

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  15. HI, fellow traveler!

    You raise most excellent points about communication bubbles. It’s true that there are generational gaps in language/expressions — I experienced it back in the day with, first, my parents and then my teachers. Now I’m reaching the other side of that fence (which is…interesting). Every generation has certain ways of expressing itself, whether linguistically or digitally and it’s so cool that you’re aware that some olds have a hard time communicating with some youngs. And vice versa. Heh.

    BUT! These things don’t have to be barriers. And they shouldn’t be. I think people can figure out if someone’s being deliberately asshatted, whether through brusque speech or not, so go ahead and hit up the olds. You can always call on me to translate. LOLOL 😉

    Glad to run interference for whatever. Plus, I love talking to all kinds of people from all generations. It’s enriched my life in many ways.

    Thanks for stopping by and for real — drop me a line if you want. I’m on Tumblr and Twitter where I spout off and fangirl.

    Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the words!

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