The Aging Queer Body

Abstract: Due to discriminatory patriarchal belief systems, American society prizes youthfulness and celebrates an idealistic, yet virtually unattainable image of the human body. Such beliefs profoundly inform conceptualizations of aging in American society. In addition to a double standard of aging pertaining to sexist ideology that exposes elderly women to particular social sanctions, I seek to explore how individuals of non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities experience a distinct kind of vulnerability stemming from the relationship between their aging bodies and heteronormative power structures. More precisely, this article looks at Stu Maddux’s documentary Gen Silent (2011) to argue for the necessity of a discourse on aging bodies that includes people of non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities and thus demands a queering of normative assumptions about aging in general.

In 1969, gerontologist Robert Neil Butler elaborated on the discriminatory treatment of people of old age in American society, concluding that “[w]e don’t all grow white or black, but we all grow old” (246). The inevitability and universality of the act of aging in the realm of multicellular organisms, including Homo sapiens, might evoke the assumption that aging is a purely physiological phenomenon. However, the concept of age is not only a biological fact. Hegemonic ideologies rooted in white heteronormative patriarchy inform representations of the enactment of aging in popular culture, thus contributing to what is deemed age-appropriate and age-inappropriate behavior in American society. Moreover, the social and cultural construction of the process of aging puts at risk those who are physically and mentally unable to live up to the prevalent conceptualization of aging. This dominant narrative is intertwined with heteronormative assumptions about visions of a future dependent upon heterosexual reproduction.

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