In a recent series of interviews, Christopher Hajek, a communications professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, talked to 40 middle-aged gay men about growing older. One had a particularly negative opinion of guys his age who dye their hair and wear tight jeans.
“You’ll see a 40-something TOFA [Too Old for Abercrombie] wearing these clothes and my friends and I will laugh,” the man told Hajek. “You can’t control getting older but you can control looking like a fool.”
He paused. “I have gotten Botox three times in my life,” he added.
“You’ll see a 40-something TOFA [Too Old for Abercrombie] wearing these clothes and my friends and I will laugh. You can’t control getting older but you can control looking like a fool.”
Contradictions like this were a prominent theme throughout Hajek’s interviews. The men he spoke with often said they were beyond youth culture, but still wanted to be perceived as young. While this desire is not unique to the gay community, it seems to be more prominent in a group traditionally typecast for its interest in appearance, attractiveness, and sex, according to Hajek. So how does a gay man at midlife cope?
Earlier this month in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Hajek published a study that introduced what he calls a “grounded theory of social identity management” for the middle-aged gay men he interviewed—basically a model of their struggle to come to terms with aging. The theory is based on a labor-heavy process of reviewing all the men’s responses to his questions and “coding” them into distinct categories, then using those categories to assess broad trends.
According to the model, many men developed specific strategies for dealing with their fading youth as they aged. While almost all men entering midlife denied growing old (“I still think of myself as being in my 30s,” one 47-year-old said), those who successfully settled into middle age found ways to redefine themselves, such as looking down at youth culture’s annoying habits (a phone obsession, for instance), focusing more on accomplishments and less on looks, and embracing epithets like “old queen” and “sugar fossil.”
The study’s approach captures only “a static form of something very fluid,” Hajek admits. But he finds the snapshot valuable. “It helps us understand how people categorize themselves and others,” he says.
Looked at cynically, the study’s model of settling into old age isn’t so far from the five stages of grief. And Hajek agrees that it reflects a dark reality many gay men face. “We’re scared of aging more than a lot of other people would be,” he says. “Ask younger guys what their future will be like, and a lot of them say they have no idea. They don’t perceive of a future, because they think they’re not going to have kids. They don’t have landmarks for progression through life that a lot of heterosexual people have.”
Still, he sees promise in his interviewees’ adaptability. “The good news is how we can actually find ways to turn lemons into lemonade,” Hajek says. “Hopefully this study will alert people about the ways that we can handle age transitions in a psychologically healthy way.”