50 years. 50 queers.

RM Vaughan

RM Vaughan

Sep 18, 2013


Name: RM Vaughan
DOB: March, 1965
Occupation: Writer
Favourite Book: The Scarlet Letter
Favourite Movie: The Maltese Falcon
Favourite Music: Saint Etienne
Favourite Person At/Over 50: Haven’t met him/her yet
One Word About 50: Sucks

RM Vaughan’s new book, “Compared To Hitler: Selected Essays”, will be released this November by Tightrope Books.

Ask just about anyone in our part of the world what they think about turning 50 and you’ll probably get a barrage of empowerment statements and pronouncements that ’50 is the new 40!’ Our culture is in a love/hate relationship with aging. On the one hand it is trying with all its might to run away from it through cosmetic surgery, Botox and other substances to hide the visible vestiges of the passing years. On the other hand it is fumbling to embrace mid-life with the same form of cosmetic vernacular that embraces age while denying it (see again ’50 is the new 40′). It’s one of many little soliloquies we recite to placate the fact that we are just plain getting up there. We are struggling with middle-aged duality.

Writer, playwright, poet and queer culture provocateur RM Vaughan is facing 50 with the same duality. “Everything with me is sort of point–counterpoint. It always has been,” he explains of his thoughts on hitting the half-century mark. “The happy side of the brain is saying, ‘Oh my god! I’m going to plan a massive party!’ I think about that and I think about all kinds of things I could do around that. The counterpoint is, ‘Oh, I’ll be 50, which means the things I’m feeling now will be even more accentuated and have a more specific and universally accepted number to them, which I will now have to apply, and I rather hate that. It’s a split.”

Vaughan is not about to Pollyanna his way out of turing 50 with platitudes about it being anything other than what it is. “I acknowledge that I’m a white person born in the Western world and that living to 50 is a blessing on global terms,” he says. “I get that. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. Saint Teresa of Avila said there are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers. It’s the prayer of longevity, of the wealthy West, but now I’m not so sure I’m happy about it.”

I’m way past the due date. I have no queer value at all in this town and I realize that now.”

One of the pitfalls of those answered prayers about longevity is what Vaughan calls “queer invisibility”. It was this feeling of invisibility that was one of the motivators for him to spend a year living in Europe. It was while there that he got to witness a very different perspective and experience on being an older gay man. “When I went to this other place to live for a year I realized it’s contextual. It’s not always tied to an age,” he recalls. “It was really healthy for me to go out and do queer spaces and see 70-year-olds getting their rocks off; to be in spaces where 22-year-olds and 70-year-olds were getting their rocks off together. And it wasn’t a gerontophile party. To have this idea flowing through a culture that said, ‘You are entitled to pleasure right up until you drop’ was really, really heartening and necessary for me to see and to experience because my experience here is—and I do think it’s particular to Toronto to some degree because Toronto is a city obsessed with status and class and money—I’m way past the due date. I have no queer value at all in this town and I realize that now.”

Part of my living here now is, ‘Ok, what’s the benefit to that?’ The benefit to that is that I’m no longer expected to show up for every dog and pony show,” he continues. “I don’t have to go to those marches anymore. I don’t have to have the right this or that. I don’t have to impoverish myself buying a condo because I’m off the radar and I’m fine with that. I wish we lived in a culture that said, ‘Oh my god, you’re almost 50 and look at all the things you’ve done. Wow!’ We don’t live in that culture. We live in the, ‘Oh yea, hi, you’re still around. Have you seen so-and-so over there? He just did this. He’s 22. Let’s give him everything.’ That’s the world we live in. Fresh, fresh, fresh. New, new, new.”

One of the ways gay men are either embracing or dealing with aging is the burgeoning Daddy culture. While certainly not new—it dates back decades—it has been growing and coming more to the forefront in the past few years. See Daddy-focused hookup and dating sites, parties and even DILF porn and the eroticizing and fetishizing of older gay men is in full swing. Vaughan has thoughts on from where this growing culture may be springing forth. “If there wasn’t so much shame attached to having sex with people who are past a certain age, we wouldn’t need any of this language,” he posits. “But because our culture has attached so much shame to people past mid-life having any kind of sexuality, and certainly anybody participating in it with them, it’s just easier to create these codes and these quick-fix fetishizing languages and then everyone has a way in, as opposed to being up front about it and saying, ‘I like me a 60-year-old man.’ But that’s just shorthand because the culture is so uncomfortable with anybody over 35 being sexual.”

Maybe you have to invent a new drag, maybe it’s age drag.”

I went to this party in London, England. It was some Boys and Dads or something like that, and I went and it was fantastic,” Vaughan recalls of a rather memorable night out. “My friend James took me and he said, ‘You’ve got to see this party!’ There were 75-year-old guys walking around dressed in little schoolboy outfits, which was kind of creepy at first, until I realized how much fucking fun they were having. They were just having a ball. They all had nicknames, it was all kind of tied in with that British schoolboy thing. The part of me that was creeped out was won over by the part that saw that everyone was just having good, jolly fun. No one was taking anything too seriously. I thought that maybe this was the way to look at age, to burlesque it to some extreme and then go from there. Maybe you have to invent a new drag, maybe it’s age drag.”

Queer people are always kind of ahead of the curve on these things,” he continues. “Here’s a bunch of old guys in London who are saying, ‘Ok, you’re telling me I’m an old, worthless git. I’m going to dress up like a schoolboy and I’m going to fuck with all your codes.’ Whether they actually thought it through that much or it just kind of happened subconsciously, I don’t know. It’s fascinating. That’s a way in. I’m not saying it’s the way, but a way in is through burlesquing your age status.”

Burlesquing our sexuality and our culture is certainly nothing new to the queer world. Of course, Vaughan sees it in two different frames: one, a healthy way to cope, the other, a facade to wear, another show to give. “I think what often happens in cultures is when there are anxieties one of the first things that’s done is to make a burlesque or show of that anxiety and then something develops from that,” he explains. “It’s a totally human response to make play out of something that’s troubling you. You make a game out of it. There’s a reason children play war. They look at the world around them and they go, ‘Ahhhhhh!’ It’s really scary. In terms of my own needs, I don’t know. I’m saying all these things and I’m approving them and I’m glad that people have found a way on but the other half, the split brain, the other half of my brain says, ‘Uhhhh. Really? Another show? I have to get up on stage again? I have to do another show? Can’t I just be as I am? Isn’t there space for that? Do I have to re-jig everything? Do I have to light the lights again?’ When does it stop? When does the performative aspect of being queer stop? Maybe never. That might be a thing that I would register as ‘Now I know I’m older. I’m really fed up with doing this show. I’m fed up with performing my queerness.’”

Another issue that Vaughan sees with the older generation of queers—and one that very few people discuss or acknowledge—is the emotional aftermath of the first wave of the AIDS epidemic coupled with the residual effects of decades of fighting for equal rights and protection in our society. One that is still in its infancy in many parts of the world. It has left a lot of scars on the psyches of LGBTQ people over the age of 40. It has left many queer people in perpetual battle mode.

I’m looking forward to the party. I’m not looking forward to the day after the party.”

We’re the first mature queer generation to have, by world standards, freedom,” Vaughan observes. “There are costs and there are responsibilities and there are burdens. We are talking about Russia and Uganda or whatever, we’re already trying to fix other places. We don’t know how to handle just being left alone to do what we want. We’re not used to that. We have this thing where we must feel imperiled all the time. What happens when that is taken away? What happens when the Cossacks stop raiding the village? What do you do with the village, then? If your whole village is built around, ‘Oh my god, the Cossacks are coming!’ then they’ve stopped coming, what do we do?”

No studies have been done of the psychological after effect that I’m aware of, in our community, of a good decade long, very unpleasant, very public debate about our very existence, whether we’re entitled to exist or not and be equal,” he continues, referring to the equal marriage fight in Canada. “I know that studies have been done on communities who have not had similar but parallel experiences. For instance there are lots of studies on visible minorities and transition stages and the post-civil rights malaise, nothing’s been done on our generation. I used to wake up every day dreading the media during that,” he remembers. “At the time I was writing a weekly column for the National Post. The very paper I wrote for published cover stories written by priests saying that if we let gay men get married, next the child pornographers will take over. I haven’t processed that. I don’t know what the after effects of that are.”

Are we supposed to be satisfied now? What if you aren’t?” Vaughan asks. “I’m not sure all the benefits of that battle have really trickled down and also the other half of me thinks, I don’t want to become complacent. This whole business of aging shouldn’t be this difficult,” he says with a laugh. “Biologically it happens naturally, but we don’t have models because of the AIDS wave. I don’t have a lot of friends who are older than me. Maybe six who are markedly older than me. Most of my friends are my age or younger. I have no one to model this.”

RM Vaughan is clearly much less Pollyanna and more Bette Davis when it comes to facing fifty—and beyond. After all, it was Davis who famously said, “Growing old ain’t for sissies.” Certainly not. It takes guts and brio to face a culture that wants to punch your ticket halfway through the performance. True to character, Vaughan is facing the prospect of fifty with that duality of thought, “I’m looking forward to the party. I’m not looking forward to the day after the party.” 

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