The Angst of Diminishing Superficial Beauty
When I was 22, I sat across the table from a San Diego County Healthcare Worker who told me I had 6 to 18 months to live. That’s what they told newly diagnosed HIV positive men in 1987.
It seemed that getting old was not a state of being I’d ever need to face.
Until now. I’m 54 and healthy.
I’ve buried many friends who died during the plague, received a reprieve from death thanks to medications, and am now missing more than a half million peers who could be helping me sort out this aging stuff. And, as an added bonus, I now get to watch my face and body wrinkle and sag.
In all the chaos, fear, and grief of the plague, it never occurred to me that survival would include getting old.
The most glaring challenge of aging, and one I’m not hearing anyone talk about, is sex. Or, more to the point of this post, diminishing access to sex.
For gay men like me who have received copious amounts of joy and validation through sexual encounters, facing waning access to the quality and quantity of those encounters is psychologically daunting.
If you are a man who doesn’t relate to the swelling of contentment that follows one or more particularly hot sexual experiences, you probably should not read this post. That’s because a big part of me just doesn’t believe you.
Men want to stick it in.
Even when sex would literally kill us, we still wanted to stick it in. It’s a powerful force of nature that refuses to be tamed.
Denying the power of sexual energy is like denying global warming. Unwise.
I also don’t want to be judged for my sexual lifestyle and I’ve found that type of judgment usually comes from the white picket fence gays doing their best to adhere to the demands of a hetero supremacy culture.
I’m not interested in retiring like a straight person. Gay culture is not only more interesting, it serves my authentic mental, physical, and spiritual needs. And much of gay men’s culture is tied to sex.
In another post, I will explore what we might do on the other side 50 that is not tied exclusively to sex. I’d written a four-page post on those topics when I realized I was hiding my most shameful and painful real feelings about getting gay-old behind those topics.
My ego’s deep desire to avoid the topic of diminishing superficial beauty makes it clear that this is exactly what I need to be writing about.
So, here it is.
Before hitting puberty, I thought I was one of the least desirable kids at school. With lots of reinforcement from my older brother and one or two adults responsible for my care, I was under the impression that I was an idiot, that I didn’t know how to carry myself, comb my hair, or dress right, that I was an embarrassment to be seen with, and that anything I said only revealed how hopelessly stupid I was.
When I started having sex with men, and I started young (in Junior High), all of that changed. Much of that is captured in my memoir, Drama Club.
Sex and offers to have sex helped define my sense of self.
Suddenly everyone was laughing at my jokes. I was told how smart I was. I was often the center of attention. In this new secrete society of gay men I was popular. A man named R.L. Ferguson became not only my lover, but also my mentor regarding all things that active adult gays needed to know.
Sex was a form a protest against the establishment. Gay sex was illegal in the three states I grew up in. That just made getting a blowjob even more intense. It was defiant, liberating.
Through R.L., and the men he introduced me to, I learned about the 1978 realities of STDs, civil rights, things that get a gay guy arrested, and the slang we use to negotiate sexual tastes. This was all the stuff my older brother and adults didn’t know or would never tell me.
Being desirable afforded me protection, information, and what at the time I thought was most important of all, SEX!
Superficial beauty brought me more than my fair share of dating opportunities and sexual encounters, even with HIV in my veins. Without beauty, I doubt my first roommate situation would have materialized when I moved to San Diego in 1985. I would not have received my first job as a fry cook in a restaurant owned by a gay man.
Superficially beauty allowed me to pay my rent when I ran ads in Frontiers magazine as a masseur. It allowed me to travel to New York City for the Gay Games in 1992, and subsequently secure a room on Fire Island.
It got me access to clubs, VIP rooms, and private after parties. At sex clubs I could choose the guys I wanted to play with. It landed me a job dancing on a box at the Palm Springs White Party, a life event that made it clear (if only for an instant) that being the focus of desire has its limits in its ability to heal the frightened boy inside me.
It’s one of the big reason’s I won International Mister Leather in 2007. It’s the reason I could not keep up with all the offers from guys on hook-up apps.
But that’s mostly gone now.
That image of myself as a powerful being is threatened as age slowly takes away the attributes that once allowed me to have so much access to sexual validation.
I lived in West Hollywood for nearly 30 years, from 1991 until 2018.
Men would pull over and offer me a ride when I was waiting at the bus stop. Guys would usually try to catch my eye as I walked down the street. I received big tips as a bartender at Revolver and as a waiter at Figs. It felt like everyone wanted a piece of me.
So much so, that it was annoying.
That’s no longer a problem.
Guys I pass on the street invariably are not interested in checking me out or even making eye contact. My hook-up apps do not draw the onslaught of attention that they once did. My workouts at the gym are now free of guys offering me advice on how to work out, compliments on how my shorts fit, or the size and shape of any particular body part.
Now, it’s time for the younger guys to have all that kind of attention.
It’s time for me to learn how to be in the world differently.
While discussing this idea with a member of my gay family, who is also a therapist, the suggestion was made that I need to grieve the loss. The instant he said it, it felt right!
If the plague was good for anything, it taught us the transformative healing power of facing loss. Pretending people are not dead does not help us celebrate their lives or integrate the beauty of their love into our souls. And, pretending my circuit body days are not behind me will not help me honor the delight and stressors of that life or transform the journey into wisdom. Grief transforms experience into wisdom and wisdom brings peace.
I am also aware that daddy culture is a real thing.
I was “daddied” by guys before I was expecting it; calling out “daddy” during sex or on hook up apps was my unceremonious initiation into Daddyhood.
It appears to me that the daddy image can simply be a look, just as superficial as a circuit queen look. Stepping into it in that context, however, feels like I’m just moving closer to my sell-by date, repackaging aspects of a failing resource.
It’s still grasping.
I’m interested in “Daddy” culture that puts social responsibility on the Daddy to use the wisdom he’s cultivated during his extended time on planet earth. I’m intent on providing generative, protective, and challenging space for my peers and our younger brothers so that we can use our authentic intrinsic instincts (sexual energy) to bond, grow, and love.
Honestly, I wish I were above this kind of vanity. It would hurt less.
Ways through this?
- Clearly understanding the roles of youth, adults, elders, and ancients
- Cultivating mature masculinity (as opposed to “boy” energy)
Those will be in another post.
For now, as much as it must infuriate those that have never felt particularly beautiful, the fear and loneliness are real for me.
Judging by the waves of beautiful guys I’ve watched come and go through West Hollywood (and The Athletic Club, Golds, and Crunch) decade after decade, there are plenty who’ve felt, or feel, the same way.
I wonder where they are now, what they are doing, and if they’re ready for the next step of gay men’s evolution.
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