This past week I gave a presentation to my clinical psychology program on resilience in the LGBTQ community. One particular demographic I highlighted was the older LGBTQ population—particularly the older gay male population. We don’t tend to hear a lot about this group of people. Media representation tends to highlight the young and sexually appealing. We focus on problems like coming out, bullying in schools, learning how to date in a heterocentric culture…but we tend to ignore the struggles of those in the last stages of their life story.
Anyone within the gay male community quickly learns the standards of acceptance and belonging. Gay men are expected to have perfect diet and exercise regimens and thus perfect bodies. Additionally, gay men are expected to have perfect hair, perfectly manscaped bodies, the perfect level of masculinity, and savvy Instagram skills showing off a perfect life for other gay dudes to envy.
The only time many gay youth encounter the older gay population comes about in sketchy ways: creepy older men hitting on guys young enough to be their sons or grandsons on gay apps. Perhaps these older gay guys seek one more chance of connection; a reminder that they can still be seen as worthwhile and lovable by someone. All the while younger gay guys shrug and scoff, ignoring the reality they too may become creeping old men someday trying desperately to cling onto their youth.
Thankfully the LGBTQ narrative has more breadth and depth than just its hookup culture.
Many conservatives became furious when J. K. Rowling announced that her beloved character Professor Albus Dumbledore had a gay sexual orientation. It’s as if conservatives automatically assumed Dumbledore spent the weekend at gay strip clubs and hooking up with dudes in the background while Harry stumbled towards answers to defeat Voldemort.
But what anti-gay conservatives missed was Dumbledore’s humanity. He made a terrible mistake falling for a guy who would end up killing his sister, and he carried that shame with him his entire life. Yet out of that pain and shame came redemption as Dumbledore became one of the most powerful wizards ever to exist, and the strength of Dumbledore’s power flowed from his kindness borne out of grief and guilt. Dumbledore possessed an amazing sense of humor and a capacity for great compassion and grace, and yet he also carried the heavy realization that Voldemort’s final defeat would require the courageous sacrifice of Harry’s life. Dumbledore was profoundly flawed, yet stands out as one of the greatest characters ever imagined. He exemplifies a path for aging LGBTQs–and honestly all humans—that provides hope and meaning for the final season of our lives.
If you’ve taken a psychology course you’ve probably heard of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development, ranging from birth to old age. In each stage of life, a person encounters a struggle they must overcome to effectively develop the strength to navigate the next challenge. The narratives we tend to hear in the LGBTQ community centers around Erikson’s stages of Identity vs. Role Confusion and Intimacy vs. Isolation. Erikson believed in order to form healthy relationships with other people, particularly in a romantic relationship, a person must first become secure in their own identity.
Yet we don’t often see the last two stages of Erikson’s model lived out well in the LGBTQ community, at least not in the gay male community. Mental health professionals are trained to be aware that LGBTQ youth and older LGBTQs are both at particular risk of suicidality, likely from similar struggles of isolation. Within Erikson’s model, he described the next two stages as Generativity (the ability to generate and reproduce) vs. Stagnation and Integrity vs. Despair. It seems that many LGBTQs tend to falter during these last tough life transitions, leaving many gay men stuck without a clear future and unprepared to evaluate the story they have lived.
J. K. Rowling’s decision to give Dumbledore a sexual minority identity makes Dumbledore an incredibly empowering role model to the LGBTQ community. Dumbledore is a character who has navigated all of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, and while he has stumbled along the way, Dumbledore demonstrated generativity as he nurtured the lives of his students, faculty, and staff, and as he made an impressive difference in the world. Dumbledore also showed integrity by living a redemptive life that transcended his mistakes and transgressions and left behind a legacy to inspire others. Dumbledore revealed you can be old and gay, and pretty damn cool too. You don’t have to be that creepy old dude hitting on guys young enough to be your grandkids. You can nurture the next generation’s development and be a role model. You can show gay youth there is more to life that lust and sex, but also love, friendship, and meaningful connection. There’s a whole life to be lived and rich purpose to be explored.
Youth is fleeting, and maybe that’s a good thing as we learn to foster the inner beauties of kindness, respect, compassion, humor, grace, mercy, humility, wisdom, and so many other virtues. There is nothing wrong with physical beauty and we should steward our bodies and health so we can make the most of the time we’re given. But we should also work on developing our inner self. Our lives should have meaning and so much of that meaning comes through loving other people well. Dumbledore was beloved not because he had an awesome body and tons of sex appeal, but because his life revolved around extravagant love for other people and his conviction to make the world a better place.
Albus Dumbledore is the kinda gay man I hope to be at the end of my story.