50 years. 50 queers.

Joe Calleja

Joe Calleja

Oct 14, 2013

Name: Joe Calleja
DOB: April 3, 1966
Occupation: Graphic Designer, Artist, Photographer
Favourite Book(s): ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar and Erma Bombeck’s ‘A Marriage Made in Heaven or Too Tired for an Affair?’
Favourite Movie: Moonstruck
Favourite Music: Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s ‘Canto in Memory of Benjamin Britten’
Favourite Person(s) At/Over 50: My partner François…and my friends & family at or past 50.
One Word About 50: Anticipation

Several years ago, artist and photographer Joe Calleja got a great piece of advice from a dear friend decades his senior: ‘Do something now that you’ll be happy you did when you turn 50.’ Calleja took heed of that advice and he’s glad he did. Now, a few years shy of 50, Calleja is enjoying a career as a globe-trotting shutterbug who shows his work in galleries and lives a life filled with art and creativity. 

While turning 50 may hold a tiny bit of angst for him, Calleja has a very healthy outlook on aging, most likely attributable to the fact that he spent his youth among older gay men who were not only friends, but role models. “When I was 18 I was hanging out with guys in their 30s and early 40s,” he recalls of his predominant social circle in those days. “That has served me really well for the past twenty or thirty years. In my 30s I always hung out with people ten or twenty years older than myself and they’ve always been very good role models for me as a young gay man. Having other gay men in my life who were twenty years older I think really helped to ground me.”

We didn’t have any role models back then. We had Anita Bryant saying we were all pedophiles!”

Calleja remembers the exact date he began his journey as an out gay man. It was at a time when the gay community in North America was achieving more prominence in the culture than ever before—and more attacks from conservatives. “I came out fairly young for the day,” he recalls. “It was halfway through high school that I dealt with that. It was April 16th 1983 to be exact,” he continues, laughing as he remembers that seminal day. “I went to Runnymede Collegiate. I grew up in the junction area of Toronto, the child of Maltese immigrants.”

While it’s brave for any young person to come out, especially while still living at home and in school, the early 1980s was rife with risk for the newly hatched homosexual. “I was 17 when I came out. I remember from before that, the late 1970s and early 1980s I suppose I was dealing with it in my early- to mid-teens,” he says. “Coming from a homophobic family, looking back on it I don’t blame my father for being the way he was. He was ignorant like a lot of people. We didn’t have any role models back then. We had Anita Bryant saying we were all pedophiles!”

It was in those formative years that Calleja found himself drawn to older men. One of his first influences and one of the first people within his family to bolster his burgeoning sexuality was his grandfather who, it turned out, was also gay. “I was around 16 or 17,” he remembers of the time he had his first shot of gay pride. “My grandfather—who was my mother’s father—would have been about 55 or 60 at the time. There was a Christmas party. It was around the time in Toronto that a transvestite prostitute was murdered because the john found out ‘she’ was really a ‘he’. It was a big story in the Toronto Sun [newspaper] and there was all the Anita Bryant shit,” he continues. “My father, who is totally different now and I don’t blame him for being ignorant or homophobic at the time, he’s evolved. At the time he was going on about how he didn’t blame that guy for killing the transvestite. I was infuriated by this and told him what I thought, that I thought what he said was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard and my grandfather said to me, ‘Joe, that’s the first time I heard you talk like a man.’ It was probably one of the proudest moments in my life.”

I think one of the wonderful things we offer society is our different take on relationships and how they are acceptable.”

At the time of that table-turning Christmas dinner Calleja didn’t know his grandfather was gay—even though it was considered one of the family’s worst-kept secrets. “Everyone in the family kind of knew, but no one talked about it for various reasons,,” he remembers of those days. “He had been living with male ‘roommates’ for as long as I could remember. He had a sign up in his hallway that said, ‘If Your Horny, I’m Available’,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was a couple of years after that he invited me out to a bar which turned out to be Chaps [a popular Toronto gay bar in the 1980s] and that’s when I found out he was gay. He brought his partner at the time. He told me stories about being in the Second World War as a gay man. He was in the Navy, he was a steward on a British Navy ship and one of the things he told me was how he had more sex on that ship than he ever had in his whole life,” Calleja says laughing of his grandfather’s WWII memories. “Three times a day! Three different sailors!”

While not really being cognizant of it at the time, his grandfather was somewhat of a role model for the young Calleja, who found himself drawn to the company of older men and the significance of those relationships. “I think they were very important on many levels,” Calleja explains. “Being gay, being a man in a misogynist/patriarchal society where men can’t be emotional. We have these weird ideas of what being a man is. Twenty or thirty years ago it was much worse than it is these days. ‘Real men don’t eat quiche! Real men don’t cry!’ This model from the 1950s did not age well with society. There was that, and very early on there was this couple that I met and they are still friends of mine today,” he continues of the impact the men he befriended had on his perception of being a gay man. “Thirty years later, their relationship has been stronger than my parents’ relationship. My mom and dad divorced decades ago and my mom has remarried, but these two guys for most of that time period have been great examples of how people should relate to each other.”

One of the biggest influences on Calleja’s self-actualization and sense of queer history has been his friend John Alan Lee, a former sociology professor at the University of Toronto and author. Lee, who is in his early 80s, would regale his younger friend of life before queer culture was so widely accepted in Canada. “I met him [Lee] almost thirty years ago. He’s led a fascinating life. He told me stories about these clubs in Montreal where you have the younger dancers and the older gentlemen who would go in and befriend them and there’s a sexual component and perhaps there was money involved, I don’t know. There was also the attitude about taking them under their wings and seeing them through school,” Calleja says of the symbiotic relationship between older men and their younger companions. “It’s like that in Palm Springs, I hear,” he continues with a chuckle. “If people want to do that, I see nothing wrong with that scenario as long as no one is being taken advantage of. It’s a Pretty Woman kind of thing. Straight people were like, ‘Oh! You can have that type of relationship.’ But we gay guys knew that long ago. It’s the variety. It’s not just one kind of relationship. I think one of the wonderful things we offer society is our different take on relationships and how they are acceptable,” he continues. “It is acceptable to be a younger man and an older man together. For lots of people that dynamic works really well. It might be more prevalent now, maybe it’s more open.”

We do change…50 is not the end of the world.”

Joe Calleja: Mosta Dome Cathedral in Malta

With 50 on the horizon, Calleja is beginning to feel a sea change in his life as he approaches the half-century mark. He is transitioning form the younger acolyte to the more experienced gay man with a history and decades of life lessons. He is now becoming the mentor. While he is busy with his booming photography career, he also has an eye to the future and when he is a senior—and what that may look like. “I think we’re going to adopt new ways of growing old together,” he posits. “At least that’s my hope. There’s all this talk about retirement homes for gays and lesbians, but we have to forge the way. There are so many other challenges these days with growing older; lack of retirement savings, it’s going to be hard to say.”

I’ve always liked a village mentality. I’ve always liked being around other gay people because I feel more comfortable, more opportunity I suppose,” Colleja says with a laugh. “I like community and being with other people who experience similar things as we have. One of the challenges of growing older for a lot of gay people is that we don’t have children, we don’t have that sense of family to take care of us. We have to take care of each other, I think. We are going to be defining it for ourselves, basically, as we get to our 60s and 70s. It’s kind of interesting as well how we are being affected by the younger generation because Church Street [Toronto’s Gay Village] isn’t what it used to be,” he continues. “The gay boys and girls have spread out and become much more a part of the straight community. That’s going to happen to us too as we get older. But I like the idea of a gay retirement home.”

Another living arrangement that would suit Calleja in his golden years is modeled somewhat after the venerable TV show—and gay fave—the Golden Girls. “I would love to be in a situation with four or five really close friends and living together in a community and just growing old together and just being together,” he muses. It could be re-imagined as the Golden Gays or the Golden Bears.

In the present, however, Calleja is busy with his art, relationships and life in general. He’s finding inspiration in his community and around the world. At this point in his life, he’s in a good place and is achieving a balance of leveraging his past, anticipating his future and being at peace with who is in the present. “I’m comfortable now with who I am. Turning 40 was my start to turning 50. Being an artist and coming out as an artist is another part of being comfortable with yourself again. It’s adding to what I’ve already done, but accepting different aspects of my life and being okay with change. We do change,” he says with a laugh. “50 is not the end of the world.”

Explore Joe Calleja’s fine art photography at Calleja Photography.

2 comments

  1. Great article, Joe. That’s my favourite movie too!

  2. Robert /

    Joe, great article. I remember you telling me about your grandfather being in the navy. Twenty-six years ago! I haven’t heard of a more incredible gay connection across the generations.

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