A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Whether you consider yourself young or old, ageing is something that affects us all. Some of us are less inclined to consider issues around ageing until we begin to approach what would be considered ‘middle age’ but what if illness, disability, socioeconomic, ethnic, or other mitigating factors come into play and your ‘life expectancy’ is drastically reduced? What qualifies as ‘old age’ then? Han Tiernan talks about an essential roundtable discussion which happened as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival
Photographer: Ellen Blair
As we sit on the cusp of celebrating 50 years of modern LGBTQ+ activism in the Republic of Ireland, we see ourselves coming face-to-face for the first time with having a multigenerational queer community – on the one hand, a community of LGBTQ+ elders who have fought for our visibility and paved the way for our rights and freedoms, and on the other, a younger generation of queers who are able to live empowered open lives.
But has this empowerment and openness come at a cost and how will it impact our community? Do conventional models of age and ageing fit the queer community’s needs and expectations?
As part of a three-tier project to uncover attitudes around age and ageing within the LGBTQ+ community, GCN teamed up with Outburst Queer Arts Festival in Belfast and in this specific element, the festival’s Elders in Residence -Split Britches - to unpack some of these questions.
Hailing from New York, Split Britches was formed in 1980; the brainchild of three performance artists and theatre practitioners Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and Deb Margolin. Since then, it has gone on to see Lois and Peggy recognised as two of the world’s leading exponents of queer performance art and lesbian feminist identity.
Whilst their work is grounded in many areas of performance including theatre, live art, solo performance and digital media, they also adopt workshops and models of public conversation to create a more democratic engagement and understanding of their work and the issues they explore.
For the GCN/Outburst collaboration, the pair decided to host a Long Table event; an “alternative format for public discussion” which Lois devised in 2003. Inspired by the film Antonia’s Line by Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris and frustration born out of what she felt to be the exclusionary nature of panel discussions and other such public forums. She described it as feeling like “all of the expertise was on one side of the table and all the rest of us were on the other side”. Wanting to honour all of the knowledge, experience and expertise of both attendees and panellists, she began to question “What would happen if we brought that table that’s down front and put it into the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs and gave everybody an opportunity to come and speak?”
After welcoming everyone and introducing the concept of the Long Table, Lois informed the audience that she would be playing host for the event and as she ran through the rules of etiquette she also provided some assurances:
“There can be silence. We are absolutely terrified of silence, especially in public; we have that desperate need to fill that silence with something… So don’t be afraid if we sit in silence for a bit.
“There might be awkwardness; that’s also something I think we’re afraid of and I quite like awkwardness – in fact, one of the things that will happen is I’ll sit down at the table at the beginning… and I might sit there quite awkwardly until somebody joins me and we start up a conversation – that’s okay, we won’t die – we will live through that moment of awkwardness.”
Whether or not you would have called it an awkward silence, no more than ten seconds after Lois sat down, two people came and joined her.
The first guest began the conversation by recounting a story about speaking to her grandmother’s friend roughly 15 years after her grandmother’s passing. In the story, she got to ask the friend a question that she wished she could have asked her grandmother. After fondly regaling the wisdom that the friend had bestowed upon her, she posed the same question to Lois: “What advice would you give to yourself or to me – I’m in my mid-40’s now – that would help lead me into my next phase of eldering?” And so, in a beautifully eloquent way began the first course of the dinner party.
From there, various pearls of wisdom and quandaries were dished out amongst the three about over-inflating worries, coming out late in life and what it means to have regrets about being a ‘late bloomer’.
Eventually, the conversation fell to silence before being abruptly punctured by a defiant, “My knee hurts”. The statement came from a guest who had quietly crept onto the other end of the table during the conversation. Whilst slightly startling the three at the table, the statement prompted laughter among the audience before the speaker continued earnestly, “and as I get older, I think that every pain that I have that persists is not going to go away”.
A discussion ensued about how our minds perceive our age and how our bodies physically respond to ageing. Most of the guests at the table agreed that their minds had frozen them somewhere in their twenties while their corporeal being had forced them to face the reality of time.
The consensus from the table was that this was a common experience until a woman in her twenties disclosed that she had recently had a hip replacement. She told the group how she had suffered chronic pain all her life and how the operation had transformed that for her but she knew that eventually the pain would return.
Peggy added that she believed that people had the propensity to forget pain and that this aligned with ageing; as one pain ends, we forget we’re getting older but when it begins again we are reminded. She finished with sage advice, “I’ve also stopped making noises when I get up… I hold it in and nobody goes ‘oh look at that old person’ and that helps me psychologically”.
This fed into a dialogue on personal perceptions of age and ways to stave off the effects of dragging time, prompting Ruth McCarthy, Artistic Director of Outburst, to raise the notion of “queer time”. As she reminded us, “we seem to forget that we’ve always done things differently as queer people, like how we’ve always done relationships differently.”
We seem to forget that we’ve always done things differently as queer people, like how we’ve always done relationships differently...
She went on to riff about how the different forms of queer kinship that the community has created in the past, such as extended families or polyamorous relationships or non-romantic relationships have been a means of supporting the older queer community, which, she pointed out, is “very different to a heteronormative model”. She also noted that many of these structures have been lost in the fight for same-sex marriage. She summed up by positing, “we’re now having these conversations about ‘how do we do this – we’ve always done it – how do we get it back?”
After a lengthy debate on the inadequacies of faith-based models of care for the elder and ill and more general heteronormative institutionalised structures, the conversation moved towards exploring the need to create an intergenerational discourse around queering these structures.
Lois introduced the term ‘generational continuity’ in place of ‘intergenerational’ to suggest a “building” on what’s being shared. This sparked the contentious issue of “intergenerational resentment” which one guest suggests, may often come “from older generations toward younger for not understanding what they’ve had to go through in order to make the world the way it is”.
One of the most moving moments of the conversation was when Holly Hamill, who manages the marketing and media for Outburst, came to the table to share a comment from an online viewer. The comment suggested that disability and anti-ableist politics could offer insight into how we frame thinking around interdependent needs. This prompted Holly to disclose, rather matter-of-factly, “I have cystic fibrosis, so I have a disability.”
She went on to explain how she had been raised to believe that she would not live past her twenties, and now having reached her mid-twenties, treatments were discovering new medication and extending her life expectancy, and how that terrifies her.
“I have no plans. I haven’t set myself up for this life that you’re supposed to have had. I never expected that and having more time is just as terrifying as having no time. Because what do you do with it, when you haven’t planned for it?”
When her colleague thanked her for sharing her experience so openly, she was quick to qualify that it has also been freeing not to have to consider the future and that there is a new joy in being healthy again and having the opportunity to rediscover life.
Lois reminded the room that essentially what Holly had brought to the table was the idea of death and how ultimately anxieties around death inform much of our thinking around age and ageing but we tend not to talk about that.
Ruth chimed in to say that in listening to Holly, she was mindful of those who had contracted HIV and AIDS in the early days of the AIDS crisis and how they had been forced to face a premature shortening of their lives. But she was also reminded of how, similar to Holly, the survivors of that time – those who had believed that they would die but survived – and how they are now living a life where it feels “like it was kind of borrowed or like getting an extra life in a video game all of a sudden.” She further suggested that this time also had a profound effect on the LGBTQ+ community and as a direct result, we have lost many of those whom we would now consider elders.
Following a brief tribute to education; the failings of current systems and the need to embed an understanding of the lifecycle from a young age, Lois drew the conversation to a close, reminding us that “there is an end but no conclusion”.
Whilst the Long Table offered much in the way of insight, it also generated many more questions that lend to further inquiry, so it seems fitting to draw this summary to a close with a phrase that Lois used to begin her introduction; “some of us are elders, but in fact, we are all eldering”.