This Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating a different kind of love: the love between friends. All week, we’ll be sharing personal essays that highlight the non-romantic relationships that make all our lives richer.
"As gay people, we get to choose our family."
RuPaul once said this viral affirmation during an emotional episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and it really does ring true. When I look at my own chosen family, the brightest star in that constellation is my friend Gil Neary, who at 64 years old is burning brighter and bolder than some people decades younger. Me? I'm 35.
When people think of intergenerational relationships in the gay community, they often automatically assume these relationships are sexualized — and maybe that’s because usually they are. It's common to see a gay man dating someone 20 years in the other direction. (Late Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim was married to a man 50 years younger than him when he died in November 2021.)
But seeing non-romantic relationships between gay people of different generations is rarer. LGBTQ newspaper the Washington Blade just published their own op-ed on this topic titled: “Why are gays so terrible at intergenerational friendships?” It's a shame because so much self-discovery can happen when you let someone from another generation into your life. LGBTQ people need this more than our straight counterparts, mostly because our parents and grandparents are more than likely not going to be from the community we become a part of.
LGBTQ people need (these friendships) because our parents and grandparents are more than likely not going to be from the community we become a part of.
This creates a gap of representation, blueprint and example that is so needed. My parents and grandparents were able to impart wisdom on many topics, but subjects involving drag queens, dark rooms and poppers weren't any of them. (Don't know what that means? That's my point.) Having Gil in my life has offered me a guiding light on all of these things and more, including, perhaps most importantly, a firsthand account of the AIDS epidemic and resulting devastation, which he lived through.
My friendship with Gil began almost right after I moved into New York City, the year I turned 30. I was invited by some new acquaintances to stay at his beach house in Fire Island Pines, a sandbar off the coast of Long Island that since the 1950s has been a storied enclave for the LGBTQ community of Gay Gotham.
I got to spend one week a month for six months in his presence. I didn’t know too much about him or New York in general when I first started staying there, and I was overwhelmed by the social constructs I was forced to navigate often alone. Despite the more than 8 million living here, New York City can be the loneliest place in the world.
But then there was Gil.
I quickly took to his warmth and endearing presence. Despite numerous pool parties and beach gatherings chock-full of greased-up, sweaty muscle hunks, the treasured social event on my weekly calendar was our Friday night stroll.
It was during these moonlit, quiet walks when I got to hear his stories. He would tell me — in vivid detail and fabulous retelling — about growing up outside of New York and then moving into Manhattan when he was young. How he built himself a successful real estate business. He loved talking about what it was like back in the day without ever dipping too much into nostalgia.
As a direct result of my relationship with Gil, I feel so much more comfortable with getting older than some of my peers who may not have a model like him in their lives. Why? Because I see firsthand with him that you can continue to be fierce and and fabulous no matter your birthday. Gil has also planted other seeds of wisdom along the way, mostly because the experiences I sometimes struggle with are moments he's already survived. His guidance is reassuring, not dismissive: “If I got through it, it’s possible for you, too.”
Our friendship works both ways, though. I asked Gil about this and he said there are numerous benefits to being friends with younger gays like me — for starters, we keep him on top of all the ways the world has changed when it comes to technology and social interaction.
"The world is a much different place than it was in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, so having a guide on how to cope in the world around us is invaluable," he said. "Socializing is done differently in many ways. Now I know phone calls are obtrusive but texts require an immediate response. Shopping is done around a table on our phones as opposed to walking in and out of shops or spending the afternoon at Macy’s. Instead of cruising the men’s room in those department stores and office buildings, we have Sniffies, Grindr and Scruff."
Gil added that his close friendships with younger gays give him a front-row seat to all the social change that's happened, too.
"Younger gays, for the most part, are more comfortable with themselves than we were," he said. "They are more self-confident and more open to multi-generational friendships than many of my friends were when they were flush with the beauty of youth."
And yet I think even more LGBTQ people could benefit from finding a friend from an older generation. So a message to my fellow gay men: The next time you’re at a bar and someone a few decades older than you occupies the stool next to you, don’t just turn a shoulder. Get off your phone and say, “Hey, queen. What’s your story?”
I’m not so sure I would have given someone like Gil that opportunity myself if we met in those same circumstances — and knowing how I can behave in bars (wild, frenetic and messy) — maybe Gil wouldn’t have given me the chance either. For now, we have chosen each another as friends, and for that — I'm so grateful.