In his excellent book, Good As You – From Prejudice to Pride: 30 Years of Gay Britain, journalist Paul Flynn writes powerfully about how he befriended a much older gay man when he was a younger.
Flynn, then 23, had his first full-time job as a journalist and went to interview a man who had published a memoir. Although there was almost a 50-year age gap, the two began to hang out together.
The older man’s partner of 40 years had recently died, and Flynn says: ‘It was the first time I had heard of a gay relationship lasting longer than the time it takes most young men to change haircuts.’
The friendship had a deep and lasting effect on him.
‘I learned early that if role models are missing from life then it’s probably wise to find some.’
Friendships between young and old gay men are not common. They can be portrayed in a suspect fashion, notes Flynn.
Older gay men are sometimes wary of showing friendship to younger ones in case their interest is misconstrued. Some younger gay men presume that any older man who shows an interest in their life has one thing on their mind.
However, as a photo project that coupled younger LGBTI activists with older campaigners explored, there’s a real benefit to fostering intergenerational relationships.
Lack of role model
I had scant gay role models when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. The ones that were out there were mainstream figures of fun: camp comics like Kenneth Williams and Larry Grayson.
It heightened my sense of being alone: that being gay was something that would lead to a life of ridicule.
It’s difficult to over-play the importance of role models both in the media and in real life. Nowadays, here in the UK, things are much better. There are openly gay actors, broadcasters, doctors, teachers, military personel … you name it and we’ve got a gay one.
And where the mainstream is still lacking, social media can fill in the gaps.
‘Take a look on Instagram and you’ll find a global community of trans people supporting each other and collectively adding to the ongoing understanding that being transgender is actually cool,’ she writes.
That’s a development that wasn’t out there just a decade ago.
‘Isolation can drive some LGBTI people to extremely dark places’
Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion hosted by UK Black Pride on racism on the gay nightlife scene. DJ Biggy C talked about the power in going out to his first gay black clubs as a young man and seeing people who looked like him. Seeing other black, gay men in a club was nothing short of life-changing.
It is the sense of isolation that can drive some LGBTI people to extremely dark and lonely places: Places that too many of us are familiar with.
Flynn recounts another role model from his past: a theatre director of a youth theatre he joined as a teenager.
They worked on a play together, and after the production had finished, the director – sensing Flynn had developed a bit of a crush on another boy in the cast – handed him a card and told him not to open it but to remember it when he needed it.
Flynn, like any curious teenager, opened it as soon as he got home. The message inside said: ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re confident, happy, well brought-up and everything’s going to be OK.’
The two had never discussed sexuality, but the message, to Flynn, was clear. He wasn’t alone.
‘You never know who might be watching and taking note’
I worry about the gay kids growing up in some parts of the world that have little access to role models: people who will show them that they’re not alone and that they will be OK.
In some countries, such as Russia, specific laws prohibit children from seeing anything other than ‘traditional’ family values. The emotional damage such laws inflict is immense. They heighten the importance of role models only further.
Being a role model doesn’t necessarily always involve friendship. The very fact that someone else in their classroom has two moms can send a strong message to a young girl who is struggling with her sexuality.
An Instagram posting of you kissing your partner can give hope to a young queer kid on the other side of the world.
Never underestimate the powerful effect you can have on someone else simply by being yourself. You never know who might be watching and taking note.
Main image: Jacob Tobia and Bamby Salcedo photographed as part of a series of intergenerational portraits by Levi Jackson Foster.