50 years. 50 queers.

Frederick Schjang

Frederick Schjang

Jan 17, 2014

Name: Frederick Schjang
DOB: March 3, 1958
Occupation: Fitness Educator/Innovator
Favourite Book: Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’
Favourite Movie: ’20 Feet from Stardom’
Favourite Music: Jazz
Favourite Gay Person At/Over 50: Martina Navratilova
One Word About 50: Growing

Frederick Schjang is a New York-based fitness educator and innovator who guides his students to a healthier mind, body and soul by encompassing all three of those elements to help his students achieve physical health as well as a solid sense of well-being. Part of that comes from his years of dedicated training, and some comes from his own personal experience. Good health, after all, goes beyond the physical as we age. “As we get older, though our knees may not work as well, our minds are more sophisticated so we can look at that information that’s coming to us,” Schjang asserts. “We have better filters and wisdom from getting older so we can say, ‘Wait a minute, that information that’s coming from the general culture, that ‘s just not so.’ That’s something I think we get better at as we get older.”

At 55, Schjang is living an active, robust life of his own making. One of the reasons he is enjoying it so much comes from the fact that he has not only accepted aging, but has embraced it as an adventure to be experienced fully. However, it took him some time to get there. When he was younger, he fell into the same trap many young gay men did when they peered through the looking glass and tried to envision themselves several decades into the future. “I thought that when I hit 50 I was going to be old,” he says remembering his younger self. “I teach a method which enables us to be vital all the way through life. Some of my students are almost 90 and out working and complaining about their staff and the problem of putting on a new production a few months from now. I think it’s wonderful that they’re almost 90 and that’s a problem. It’s fabulous. That’s the work I do and I think it gives me a great perspective on how our lives can be interesting at any age,” he continues. “I expect it to be interesting at any age. I don’t want to rush to get there but I’m enjoying every stage of my life as I go forward and I’m excited about that.”

While Schjang is proud of his age and the fact that, like many gay men, he lived through some of the toughest and most perilous times in the community’s history (“as my 50th birthday approached, I realized that I didn’t have to get to 50. That’s an accomplishment because a lot of my friends got picked off either by drugs, disease or whatever.”), he still sees room for growth as we navigate middle age and beyond. “I think we still need to work on finding our own identities,” he says of watching his contemporaries deal with passing through the decades. “As a community getting older, I think we need to embrace some of the values that come with getting older, like wisdom. I also see the benefit that the younger generation has now is that there is a very well-documented history that we have,” he says of the ground this and older generations have laid. “I remember when I was coming up, some people didn’t know that there were other people who were gay, prior to Anita Bryant making a big stink back then. That’s very different now, everything’s out there in the culture so that we have a history of the past 25 years of the possibilities, embracing that and building on it.”

I look forward to the day when the full equality is there, when it’s not an issue.”

Schjang has an 18-year-old nephew who recently came out and the two have had a few discussions about gay life in the big city, particularly in this day and age. One of the things that he is surprised by is how his nephew’s perception of his sexuality is quite different than that of his uncle’s. “I talked to him about the history that’s important to me. It’s interesting for him, to him it’s almost like being left-handed. When he went to the Gay Pride march here in New York, I asked him if he was going as a member of the LGBTQ community or if he was going to stand on the sideline, he said, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll go as a member of the LGBTQ community’. Like it was no big deal,” he says with a laugh. “That’s amazing.”

Another interesting aspect of Schjang’s life is being a gay African American in a culture that is still grappling with issues in both of those segments of society. There is dealing with homophobia in the greater culture and the African American culture and dealing with racism in the greater culture and the LGBTQ culture. It can take nimble steps and strategy to balance both worlds simultaneously. “I saw a commercial for aspirin or something like that, and one of the couples in the commercial was a gay couple, and it really shocked me,” he says of his reaction. “It reminded me of when I was growing up here as an African American in the United States whenever there was a depiction of an African American on television that was a positive one, whether it was Diahann Carroll or Nat King Cole, the entire neighbourhood was notified. We were going to be on television looking like equals; or when Ellen came out, everyone in the gay community said, ‘Take a look! Here’s someone who is expressing themselves as an equal.’ That battle is still being fought. I can still look at something on television and say, ‘Wow! There’s a gay person taking aspirin!’” he says with a laugh. “I look forward to the day when the full equality is there, when it’s not an issue. Everybody takes aspirin if you have a headache!”

The white community is, and I’m speaking in broad generalizations here, generally more accepting,” Schjang posits about attitudes towards homosexuality, coming out and living openly as a gay man. “The black community, and maybe because there are fewer of us, there’s an institutionalized Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that has been around I think for generations. As long as you’re not trying to change the social fabric, you can be as gay as you want to be, as long as you’re not doing anything that disrupts the continuing functioning. For me personally,” he continues, “I’ve been going out with black friends going out to discos, heterosexual friends going to disco, I dance with women and people knew that I was gay but I wasn’t doing anything that was upending the social fabric of those circumstances.”

I think we’re a very young community…as such we’re very adolescent in the way we approach life in many ways.”

Even inside the gay community, Schjang has noticed the clash of cultures and identity politics that can take place. “I’ve been to meetings of groups of African American men who are homosexual who want their own identity and find the word ‘gay’ does not include them,” he explains. “They are men who sleep with other men, they don’t sleep with women and they are very open about that, but they find the word ‘gay’ has been ascribed to people who don’t look like them and they don’t feel comfortable in that environment. They have completely segregated themselves off, that’s what they do. I’ve also been in groups that are much more inclusive. What I find is either there is a segregation or sometimes the whole club is segregated. There are clubs that are all Asian or all Black or all Latino. I think it mirrors what happens in the larger community in that we’re just not fully integrated.”

He also notices, and is somewhat bemused by, the segregation of body types within the gay community. “I went to IML [International Mr. Leather] in Chicago a few years ago,” Schjang recalls of a friend’s experience while there as it pertained to his perception of himself within that community of men. “A friend of mine told me he was choosing to stay in a different hotel in a different part of town and basically do different events because he was a bear and I was not. It was about the amount of hair on his body. That dictated where he went and stayed. That’s wild. I think we’re a very young community,” he muses, “as such we’re very adolescent in the way we approach life in many ways like that.”

My nephew who recently came out who is in school said that if there were, let’s say, 200 people there who identified as a minority, there were 120 groups to represent them. If you were a lesbian militant who didn’t speak to straight people you were in one group. If you were a lesbian militant who is black and who did speak to straight people you were in another group. That kind of thing. I think it’s about finding identity, That’s kids in school. I think we’re better than that when we get older. When we get to be in our 50s, we’re more sophisticated than that, and that’s a good thing. Going back to the idea of wisdom, you realize that our differences are really interesting and there are more commonalities. I like to eat everything, I like to dance to all kinds of music, and that’s part of my richness.”

They survived in times when it was not guaranteed that you do that. You could have your life turned upside down…Thank you.”

Schjang sees these issues as ongoing challenges both inside the LGBTQ community and outside of it in the larger society. While they can be frustrating and times and even humourous, they are not insurmountable. Ultimately, it comes down to tearing down barriers that society constructs, as well as the ones we build for ourselves. “A friend of mine wrote a poem awhile back with called, ‘We’re the Melting Pot Without the Fire’. It was saying we have all the elements but people tend to stick with what they know. Maybe that’s not that bad a thing. You have people who you can relate to, but it’s also very important to branch out and talk to everybody. That’s what I do at this point and that’s my life.”

At 55, Schjang is at a comfortable stride in his life. He is in a great place in his career—and his heart. He can look back on his younger years and think of the lessons he has learned on his journey so far. He can also pass along some of that wisdom to his 18-year-old gay nephew, to whom he’d say, “Have fun, live your life, stay safe! I think that he’s in a different time now than I was at his age. When I was in college there was a march on Washington, it may have been the first national Gay Pride march,” he recalls of his early activist days. “I really feared that I might get shot. That wasn’t an irrational fear. Who knows what could have happened? It was really scary, I felt almost like a vampire going into the sun. It was magnificent once the numbers arrived, but before that I was terrified.”

It was that groundwork and that of the generations of LGBTQ people before him that can be clearly delineated as he looks back, looks at today and looks down the road to the future. There were very brave people who broke ground for this generation and that of his 18-year-old nephew. It’s ground that will continue to be forged and history that will continued to be written as the next generation comes into its own. However, Schjang feels it’s vital to acknowledge the incredible work of our elders. “Thank you,” he says when speaking of their accomplishments in a much more dangerous era. “They survived in times when it was not guaranteed that you do that. You could have your life turned upside down. They did what they had to do to survive and they’re still around. That’s a beautiful thing. Thank you.” 

Follow Frederick Schjang at frederickschjang.com and on Facebook.

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