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Janis Ian Advocate Cover

In Praise Of Older Women

Originally published in The Advocate
Issue #727, January 6, 1997

The published article was heavily edited to avoid making it look like The Advocate was being singled out; this is the original.

"I am so sick of that magazine" grumped Mr. Lesbian, nose-deep in her current issue of Dogfighting for Sport & Profit.

"Which magazine?" I asked, trying not to look. Sometimes my beloved's taste leaves me speechless. And breathless.

"That rag you still write for - the one with all the straight people on the cover - you know, The Avocado." She sneered.

Oh no, I thought, she's going to take over another column. Memories of her last writing effort, If This Is My Community, Where's the Closet Door?, danced before my eyes. I felt faint.

What's wrong with The Advocate? I asked.

"What's right with it is more the point. Besides, it's the New Year" she said, gazing at the Doberman with interest. "Things have to change around here. I'm tired of reading funny columns about meaningless things. I'm too old to read about meaningless things. Let me write a column." My career flashed before my eyes.

"You steal the words right out of my mouth for the end of each column, sanitize my quotes, refuse to write about anything really important, then spend three days a month whining about how hard you work. It's getting old. And then you add insult to injury by not even asking me if I want to write the year-end column this year!"

I saw my Christmas gifts going down the drain. Honey, you're in law school; I thought that was a full time job. I thought you didn't have time to discuss the column.

"Of course I don't have time - why would I waste an hour talking about being gay, something I've always taken for granted, when I can spend it learning how to keep drunk drivers out of jail? But I can't help noticing that a certain laissez-faire has crept into your work at that magazine of late. Don't you have ethics any more?"

Ethics? that's my middle name! What do you mean?

She sat up and glared at me. "Look into my eyes - what do you see?"

I scrutinized them carefully -- still green, still beautiful. I told her so.

"No you idiot, not that stuff! Look again."

I put on her reading glasses. Those little lines around the edges? I ventured. Is that what I'm supposed to see?

"Yes," she said with satisfaction, "those little lines. Each one a merit badge on the road to 50."

Phew, so that's all it is - fear of old age. I don't care if you're older, you're just as cute to me, I say with a smile.

"Aha!" she pounced. "You say that because you're also older than you used to be! But what if you were twenty now? or even thirty?"

I hastened to reassure her. Age doesn't matter; it's the heart that counts.

"And the heart that wears out," she answered. Then she moved in closer for the kill. "If age doesn't matter, why aren't there any old people on your covers?"

My covers? My covers? This was definitely unfair. I'm just a columnist, I have no control over the magazine.

She sniffed. "You're still aiding and abetting the enemy."

The enemy?

She sighed, a deep, tragic sigh. The sigh of someone who'd hoped to be understood, and been disappointed time and time again. A deep sigh. A "there will be no sex tonight" sigh. A worrisome sigh.

"Honey, do you remember standing on the balcony of the National Press Club at the Triangle Ball in '92? Thousands of gay people gathered in Washington to celebrate the election of Hilary's love-slave." I remembered it all too well; Mr. Lesbian maintained that any politician who reached the presidency was already crooked, and Clinton would jettison our cause as soon as possible. Starry-eyed with victory, I called her a hard-hearted cynic, accusing her of paranoia.

"We looked down at the dancing couples, and after a while you asked 'Where are all the old people?' And I reminded you about AIDs, and I told you that people on fixed incomes couldn't afford tickets, and you wept. Do you remember?"

I remembered.

"You had a great idea then. You wanted The Advocate to do a special issue on older gays - people over sixty, especially couples over sixty. You'd just met Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and told them how their book Sappho Was a Right-On Woman had changed your life back in 1972. You hoped to interview them for the cover. Remember?"

Of course I remembered. That night, dozens of couples had come up to me and whispered things like "We celebrated our 30th anniversary at your show; it was the first time we'd ever held hands in public. Thank you." They'd told me things that moved me to tears. I grew up in a world where there were no happy gay couples in the books, where psychiatrists called us promiscuous by nature and incapable of long-term relationships. Martin and Lyon were the first to make me see that a society which denies you the benefits of marriage, church, and state also denies you the props that enable a community to function coherently.

I'd gone home and written a letter to my editor, explaining what I wanted to do. I wanted The Advocate to back me up on it. Among other things, the letter said "For people in my age group, an issue like this is reassurance that there is life beyond 40. And for your younger demographic, gay youth age 12-25, it can provide a framework for their futures that may not be accessible to them in their daily lives - the sight of old folk,s happy and healthy in their queerdom, is something that benefits us all." It was a beautiful letter. Maybe too beautiful.

"Don't you remember that group of women here in Tennessee who called themselves 'The Jane Adams girls'? They stretched from 65 to 95, and when we got to meet them, the oldest one cracked you up by saying 'Face it, girls, we're all homosexualists here'."

My spouse was right; I'd been fascinated by those older women. I grew up surrounded by older people; grandparents, great aunts and uncles. Old age was just a part of life in my life. But with the advent of nuclear families and the loss of agrarian culture, most of the people I knew had very little contact with the elderly. In the gay community, there was next to none; groups grouped according to age and economics, and there was no place for old people in a young people's world. I'd thought it would be good for everyone to see old folks happy and healthy in their queerdom. And purely from a selfish viewpoint, I thought a lot of old people might buy that issue.

It was a good idea, I said. It was a real good idea.

"No, it was a great idea!" she countered. "Where'd it go?"

Down the drain.... The then-managing editor found it 'intriguing but unsaleable', and I put it out of my mind. There were other things to fight about. So I told her the truth. They wouldn't go for it; too risky. Not attractive enough. And as soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew I was sunk.

My partner, the love of my life, slowly turned to me and said "Oh. Not attractive enough...hmm. What will the editor say when he's pushing 50? Will he notice that all the old people are a lot younger than they used to be? No, I suppose there isn't anything attractive about sagging breasts and pot-bellies," she continued, warming to the subject. "There's certainly nothing attractive about duty, or responsibility to the community you live off of, or responding to the trust that community has placed in you."

I winced. I tried to explain. Honey, you know it's a jungle out there. The Advocate competes with hundreds of other magazines. If they don't sell copies, they won't stay in business.

She looked at me in disgust. "If they won't take risks, they don't deserve to stay in business."

I cringed, remembering their words on hiring me: "We'd like you to be our resident iconoclast, someone who's not afraid to speak from the heart. We'd like you to take the gay community to task, to be unafraid. You might attract some anger, you might get some bad mail, but that's what we'll be paying you for." Yeah, and when I come up with a really radical idea - old people on the cover! just imagine! - it's shot down.

I recall demographic studies, advertising figures, suggestions we skew things toward a younger crowd with more disposable income. I'm ashamed I've let it go this long. After all, why should we compete with other magazines, just so we can become "the second Out" or "the next Deneuve". Why can't we just be what The Advocate has strived for all these years - a magazine that reports the news of the whole community, to the whole community.

Or as Mr. Lesbian says, "A community that does not treasure its elders, does not deserve their wisdom." And that about sums it up.

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