The new play, You Look for Me, by playwright Paul Harris, recently caught my attention because it tackles an issue so rarely portrayed in our newspapers, magazines, art, literature or theater: older gay men.
The play, which had its New York debut June 16, traces the 35-year relationship and love affair of two gay men, Chris and Jack.
When the play opens, we meet Chris and Jack as two idealist young Peace Corps volunteers who meet in Colombia. They are a couple of just-out-of-college kids full of idealism and hope, bursting with the desire to change the world. But they soon discover their desire for one another is at least as strong as their naïveté. And for a short time, at least, the two men revel in their love, covert as it has to be.
But when Jack returns to the United States, he finds himself tortured by his own emotions. He calls off the affair with Chris, visits a psychiatrist and even gives electro-aversive therapy a try-out. None of this changes his gayness, of course, but Jack nevertheless pursues a heterosexual life, marrying a woman ( named Mary, naturally ) . He eventually turns to law and keeps up the appearance of a heterosexual life, complete with two daughters, in suburban Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Chris, after repeatedly failing to persuade the man he loves that their feelings for one another are normal and it is society that needs curing, returns to live the life of an openly gay man in New York City. His early idealism gives way to constructing shopping malls as he falls in and out of love with a string of men. When he does, finally, meet Mr. Right, their time is short-lived. His love is snatched away by AIDS.
In the play, the two men maintain a lasting friendship, delivered to the audience via the reading of letters they've written to one another, a sort of gay Love Letters.
A gay love story is no longer unusual. And even with the social and political advances of the gay-rights movement, neither is the story of a man who can't embrace his sexuality and opts instead for the façade of heterosexuality.
But what makes this play different is that Harris did not abandon the story line in youth. He followed it right through to old age, to the end of the love story when Jack dies, ironically, of prostate cancer.
Harris, who is 43, wrote the play partly as a rebuttal to the youth-crazed culture of gay America today. "We have such an obsession with youth," says Harris. "The stories of older [ gay men and lesbians ] are almost never told."
He also made a point to cast the play with two openly gay actors over 50. "I very rarely see older gay characters or older gay actors on stage, and I wanted to see them there, so I put them there," he states.
Harris attributes the invisibility of older gay men and lesbians to a host of factors, including: the fact that older gay men and lesbians had to lead their lives in secrecy, and thus fewer of them are out; the fact that AIDS "has cut a swathe through the gay community," and claimed many men who, if still alive, might be visible and out; and the fact that older gays are not seen as a "market" by advertisers who court younger crowds.
And a big part of why older people are conspicuously absent from gay culture in a way they are not invisible in society at large, believes Harris, is that gay culture is so heavily focused on sex, "and we don't think of older people as sexual."
That theme is poignantly touched touched upon in Harris's play through Chris, who at one point writes, "It used to be when I walked along the street in New York I'd get the occassional nod from another gay man. Today with the graying of my temples I am pretty much ignored. Youth is all!"
I'd add another reason to the list of why older gay men and lesbians are so absent from our culture: If we are honest, getting old is dreaded by just about all of us. I'd even go as far to say that older gays are the most feared subgroup within gay America. That's why we've collectively made them more invisible than any other subgroup I can think of. They are more rare in our collective consciousness than even a member of NAMBLA or a whip-wielding African-American dyke in leather chaps or any high-heeled drag queen with big hair and fake boobs you could find.
The reason is quite simple: They represent not only our own mortality, but an uncertain future. What does it mean to be an elderly gay or lesbian person in America? Most of us have no idea, and it scares the hell out of us.
Even today, most of us are unlikely to have children, that great heterosexual insurance policy. And so we wonder: Who will be there to hold our hands when the time comes? Who will recognize our achievements, forgive our failures? Who will hear our stories, and make sure they are recorded in the collective consciousness of the next generation?
I don't know the answer to those questions. But I hope Mr. Harris' play is part of a growing collection of recorded gay art and history and visibility that helps us all move toward answering them.