I Talked To 5 Queer Elders And Learned An Important Lesson About My History

“Young people who are gay and talk to old gay people, this is just occurring.”

I felt a little embarrassed when I first arrived at the Edie Windsor SAGE Center. I was running late for a lunch where I would be talking with an intergenerational crowd of lovely queers from across the city. I could have blamed it on the NYC subway, which was partially true. But I had also spent at least an hour trying on clothes and asking my roommate if a lemon-patterned pair of pants went with my sweater, if my jacket went with my pants, if I was dressed too casual, and if—god forbid—I didn’t look gay enough. When I finally arrived, I accidentally walked past my contact person at SAGE. My embarrassment doubled.

But then I saw a life-size cutout of Edie Windsor on the wall, her arms lifted high like a first-place marathon runner, and I knew I was in the right place.

A man at the desk cheerfully answered the phone and a few people passed in and out of the technology center. Two older men sat facing each other at a pair of comfy armchairs talking about the frigid weather expected on Veterans’ Day. A woman sat at a table checking people in, so I introduced myself, and we chatted a while, and I got a formal tour of the center.

The Edie Windsor SAGE Center is a cheerful space featuring a beautiful skyline view of Seventh Avenue from the dining room. There, a camera was just getting set up and a few older people—their ages ranging widely from fifty to eighty, I assume… it’s rude to ask and all that—milled about. Then groups of college students from the Fashion Institute of Technology came in and scattered, at which point the volume of conversation grew and grew until it sounded like any other café in the neighborhood.

Eventually, as groups of us got up and were served fruit and wraps from the line, I chatted with a man who had lived in New York his whole life but had moved to NYC when he was ready, and this seemed like a common story among men his age. Back in the ’70s, NYC was still a place to go if you were looking for a gay place to belong. I told him my story: that I had come to New York in the last few months to get my M.F.A. at Sarah Lawrence. Maybe our stories are more similar than they seem. I also spoke with a woman named Nina, who has family in Puerto Rico but had moved to New York from Florida after breaking up with her girlfriend. She wanted to a place to do her photography, and that just happened to be here. I chatted with another woman, Lujira, about poetry and writing. We shared some of our experiences and talked about what it’s like to write for LGBTQ organizations, how lovely it is that we can find our people and write for them and with them. And really, she’s right; it is a blessing.

Photo by SAGE Staff

Then I moved over to the table where Sterling Cruz-Herr, the organizer of SAGE Table—a program that builds intergenerational connections, which officially launched last year—was seated. Cruz-Herr was talking with two older gentlemen and two FIT students about loneliness: how loneliness for older people is directly related to the isolation of community, whereas for young people (people my age) loneliness often happens despite community. This, they explained, is at the heart of the program.

“In the first year,” they said, “we were overwhelmed by the hunger that people expressed for connection with their older and younger peers.”

As the lunch was winding down, and people began to leave, I managed to grab JJ Zeltmaan—a young person with short cropped hair and the most brilliant rainbow sweater I have ever seen—and Renee Imperato, the kind of tall and confident trans rights activist that makes my heart aflutter. It was Imperato who told me that what I was experiencing that day is infinitely translatable.

“Inspiration,” she said, “is a two-way street… You young people lit a fire under our ass. You’ve enlightened and educated us too.”

Struck by that, I asked what she meant, and she said: “Conversations like this are embryonic… It’s war out there,” she said. “Scorch the fucking earth.” (I think Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court had been on both our minds.)

It’s hard to know what to say after a powerful exchange like that.

Photo by SAGE Staff

JJ and I sat around, mingled a little more, and the whole time I was being pulled aside by a number of SAGE’s staff to discuss, among other things, a transgender social on November 17th—you can bet I will be there!—and museum trips to the Whitney, as well as writing and art classes that are in the works. (If you’re in New York and interested in getting involved, you can find all their events and information online here.)

The next day, I called Joe Negrelli, whom I’d met at the lunch and wanted to follow up with on the topic of intergenerational connections.

“Young people who are gay and talk to old gay people, this is just occurring,” Negrelli said, explaining that when he was young, in the ’60s and ’70s. “We didn’t have the ability to ask questions… People who are my age didn’t [know] what it’s like to have a future.”

And sometimes, especially in the early stages of coming out, there can be a sense that queerness doesn’t have a past, either—so intergenerational conversations like these are important to bridge that gap.

Recently, I was in Manhattan again with some time to spare. I wanted to find a place where I could sit and unpack all those SAGE conversations, all that we had talked about. I decided to go to the Guggenheim to see the Hilma af Klint exhibit. What I found there, I didn’t expect.

The paintings, filled with blue and yellow—which, in af Klint’s notes, she says represent female and male, respectively—feature bold swirls and lines of those binary colors. But in all of her work, the colors merge and combine and come out instead in a striking spectrum. af Klint was very interested in transitions of all kinds. Her ten largest paintings are direct reflections on aging, the state of the spirit at different times in our lives.

Photo by Guggenheim

And of course, af Klint was a lesbian. She requested that her work not be displayed until at least twenty years after her death because she knew that the patriarchal art world of the 1940’s would not take paintings by a woman artist seriously. The exhibition catalog tells us that she spent “almost her entire life living exclusively with women” and that “later in life, she slept on the couches of her female friends.” But her sexuality and her attention to attraction, to biology, to belonging, are all clear in her work.

While looking at the egg shapes in those paintings, I realized that conversations like the ones at SAGE Table are indeed embryonic, as Renee Imperato put it.

And it struck me that this is my favorite thing about being queer: finding my people, my ancestors, and my history in unexpected places, knowing that we have always had a future, and we have always had a past.

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