The POLITICS of AGEISM:

A Statement to the Lesbian and Gay Community

by Michael Alhonte

Abstract: Ageism is a topic which many individuals in the Lesbian and Gay community have given little or no attention to. As gay youth, we feel that it is necessary to raise consciousness on this subject in order to avoid conflicts which may arise out of ageist attitudes. In this article we attempt to define ageism and show how it manifests itself within the community. We point out also how ageist behavior threatens the efficiency of the community as a whole, and provide suggestions as to how concerned individuals can rid themselves of their ageism.
The spectre of ageism haunts large segments of the community. Ageist attitudes and actions are so commonplace and so accepted that the major difficulty in combating this problem is simply convincing people that there is a problem. It is ironic that the very same people who are swamped in ageist attitudes are usually those who fight most vocally against racism and sexism. Perhaps it is merely symptomatic of the depth of their ageism that they do not even recognize our complaints as valid.

But what exactly is ageism? Simply stated, people are guilty of ageism when they:

ignore a person's ideas or contributions simply because of that contributing person's age;

fail to recognize a person's abilities due solely to his or her age;

imply that a person's behavior stems directly from his or her current age.

Ageism has its own vocabulary, its own behavioral code ~ even its own culture. When we refer to an action as ageist, there are several levels upon which this can be so. We have heard the ageist motto, "Children should be seen and not heard". This is oppression in its purest form, but there are many more subtle manifestations of ageism. these range from the outright neglect of young people to cliched put-downs of a young person's volunteered opinion.

When a person uses the word "childish" to describe immature behavior, (s)he is being ageist. When a department store refuses to admit people under 16 "unless accompanied by an adult", it is being ageist. When a parent speaks of "puppy love" as being cute or trivial, (s)he is being ageist. And when society refuses to try a 14-year-old as an adult, this too is ageism.

It is not surprising that ageist remarks and attitudes are plentiful in the gay community. It is surprising that the members of the community who hold these attitudes have forgotten the sufferings they themselves underwent at the hands of ageists, so soon. They have forgotten the parents, teachers, and family members who attempted to force them into the conformist mold without considering their individuality. They have forgotten the experience of having ideas you know to be correct brushed aside or given no credence. They have forgotten the experience of sitting in a restaurant and being ignored by waiters while adults receive prompt service. They have forgotten the embarrassment of being called "Junior" by an adult one-half your height. They have forgotten what it is like to be young in America.

Ageism is a unique form of oppression in that it is a) never permanent and b) fully reversible. Oppressed becomes oppressor just as surely as day becomes night. And this apes on through such socially sanctioned methods as the father's moans, "When I was your age I was already. . ." or "When I was your age I couldn't even..." which both imply that behavior advances in easily designated stages and no one should be permitted to act in a manner considered inappropriate to his/her supposed stage. This cyclical, self-sustaining action is what makes ageism so dangerous. When a child's ideas and feelings are suppressed or invalidated, it is very easy to replace these ideas and feelings with those which are not necessarily the child's own. After this occurs, the child is merely a tiny clone of his/her oppressor - ready to support, in thought, word, and deed, every action of that oppressor, which (s)he has been mistakenly led to believe would have been his/her own action in similar circumstances.

Another danger of ageism is the stagnation it is liable to bring to the movement. Squelch the voices of the young and you squelch new ideas, new outlooks, and new patterns of thought - those which have not been tainted by the years of hypocrisy and self-contempt which have afflicted so many who came out before Stonewall. The young are famous for our radicalism ~ attributed by some, ageistically of course, to our "naivete" and our "optimism". Supposedly we have not experienced enough of the world's ways to have become cynical enough to understand that "we can't change anything." This ageist doctrine merely wastes the power of youth to help change the world; whatever the source of our energy and radicalism it still exists and should be cultivated rather than denigrated.

Gay Youth of New York is a pioneer group ~ founded fully four months before Stonewall. Few other groups can make this claim. Even before the gay rights movement as we know it had begun, youth had already started to take a stand ~ to affirm their identities ~ to try to change the world.

I have shown to you the threat posed by ageism to the sustenance of this movement. Eliminate the young people and you eliminate any chance of a future.

So how can one overcome one's unconscious ageism and raise one's consciousness? The first step is to examine one's vocabulary. Check to see if it contains words like "child", "kid", or "baby" ~ when used in a pejorative way to denote unruly or immature behavior. Or phrases like "Lesbians and Gay Men", which fails to note the large gay male population under 18; like "(S)he's at that age" or ''(S)he's only a kid", which attach unfair behavioral judgments to certain age levels; or "You're old enough to know better", which implies that knowledge and age must always grow in direct proportion to one another.

Many who hear about ageism dismiss it simply as another attempt by "those young whippersnappers" to bully adults into letting them run about wild and do whatever they want. What these people fail to acknowledge is that the whole point of any kind of liberation movement is for its participants to gain the freedom to do "whatever they want." Youth liberation is no different in this respect from Women's Liberation, Gay Liberation, Third World Liberation, or any liberation movement. To dismiss youth as unworthy of this freedom because "they're just kids" is of course in itself the height (or should one say the nadir) of ageist acts.

This article deals with ageism against youth. But let us not forget that there is equal ageism directed against the elderly. Charges of senility or similar excuses are often used to suppress the voices of our older generations. American society sloughs senior citizens off like dead skin ~ funnelling them into nursing homes or hospitals where they sit and collect dust. No one seems to understand that old age is an inevitability ~ and that once one realizes the rage and frustration of being cast from the society one has served for so long, it will be too late.

The conquest of ageism should be an important goal of the present-day Gay movement. Young people are some of the most involved, dedicated, vocal, and efficient people currently active in the community. We, who work equally hard towards liberation for all as any adult, should not be subjected to the indignities of oppression by those people who would deny our efforts. So we will not take the seat in the back of the bus so many would prefer to see us in. We will not idly listen while decisions are made concerning us without our consultation. We will not allow ourselves to be overlooked, overpowered, or ridiculed. We will not continue to internalize the ageist propaganda fed to us by parents and teachers. We will not agree blindly to anything told us merely because the person telling us is three times our age. We WILL BE HEARD!!!!

(Michael Alhonte wrote this at 18, while a member of Gay Youth of New York.)

This article is from The NAMBLA BULLETIN, Vol. 4, No. 3 (April, 1983), Pg. 8.

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