You Need Help: I’m Too ‘Old’ for This New Generation of Queers

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Q:

I’m a Millennial (born in the early 90s), and lately I feel like I was “raised” in old queer culture and as a result don’t fit in with young/newly out queers. I realized I was queer in high school, in the mid-2000s, when my family and friends still dropped slurs and criticized gender non-conforming clothing. I came to understand my sexuality by reading queer history and theory, and through sites like AfterEllen (before…everything) — all in secret. I was the classic “watched The L Word in secret and dreaded discussions about crushes” teenage gay just trying to survive the homophobia of high school and (for me at least) college.

Now it’s 2024, gay marriage is long legal, and suddenly everyone around me seems to be so comfortable with queerness, but in a way I find alienating. Several old friends who I have long forgiven for their ignorant, homophobic high school comments are coming out as queer while married to their cis straight husbands. I don’t want them to feel invalidated, so I bury the strange grief and anger that these coming outs trigger. It’s illogical, but I feel betrayed that they got to have a “normal” childhood and now wear a pride flag; I wouldn’t feel this way about just anyone, but these are the people who told me at a young age that my “not talking about boys” made them uncomfortable, and their comments shaped how I now navigate the world with caution. My younger coworkers come out as queer all the time, but we have nothing to talk about despite being only four to five years apart in age. All of their cultural references are 20-year-old pop singers, and they hate media that used to be a touchstone in queer spaces. I was chastised for calling Angelina Jolie a queer icon, for example. I know this isn’t everyone, but I feel like so many younger queer people don’t care about queer culture older than five years and are so unforgiving about the nuances of coming out. On top of that, I am a black woman, and I feel like with queer culture becoming more mainstream I am expected to only have white women and nbs as references, and when I don’t, my sexuality is called into question. I feel invalidated when I have known about my queerness for almost two decades, but because my references aren’t from trends on TikTok, I am suddenly performing my sexuality incorrectly.

I want to be very clear that I don’t judge other people’s expressions of their sexuality, but I am judging myself for being “old.” I was raised on Alison Bechdel and watching Queer as Folk on Putlocker. Now I don’t know how to interact with newly out queer people who have King Princess and their choice of queer content on Netflix. I was made for a world that disappeared, and my peers don’t see me as a “real” gay. I have hurt and shame deep inside because I was taught to be cautious for 15 years and then suddenly (or at least how it feels to me) all the old queer experience touchstones were gone and I was outdated. How do I stop grieving when I know what we lost is probably for the better? I feel horrible because I want to support all this new queer joy, but I feel like an outsider in my own community.

A:

First off, I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s hard to feel like the parade has passed you by and you’re left there alone holding on to that last piece of confetti. When that’s how you feel, it’s easy to think you’re the only one, but I can assure you that you are not alone in your feelings. I also think there are a lot of different factors at play when it comes to your feeling of displacement.

I’m a few years older than you, and we’re approaching a very important life milestone: the beginning of middle age. No one wants to hear or think this, but presuming you live to be in your 80s, your 40s are in fact, middle-aged. I think for Millennials more than any other generation, the thought of turning 40 is really unsettling. Because of the collective trauma our generation has experienced at the points in our lives that we did, we are living in a huge arrested development. On paper, we’re grownups, but because of things like the housing crisis and the economy and the pandemic, etc etc etc, we still feel like a bunch of kids playing house. Because of this, we cling that much harder to the cultural touchstones that were the most relevant to us. Millennials are in the unique position where when our nostalgia is held up to the magnifying glass and examined, many of us don’t know how to react, because as much as we know that, yes, it was problematic or not representative, it’s still ours. Reconciling our levels of understanding with our levels of comfort and safety from the things we loved is definitely challenging!

I will admit I’m coming to this advice from the position of someone who has one foot in each side of your dilemma. I too figured out my queerness at a young age in the late 90s, and things were SO different back then. There were so few references to queerness for women, and many of the mainstream ones were white. My earliest examples of lesbians were Carol and Susan on Friends and Ellen. As a Black girl, I didn’t have any references for queer women that looked like me. If I’m being honest, that is still a challenge for me personally. Maybe you’ve found someone out there who makes you feel seen and represented. We came into our queerness at a time where many queer actresses were firmly NOT OUT. It was dangerous for them to be. I don’t know how much you remember the Ellen backlash, but it was brutal and scary. Angelina Jolie is absolutely a queer icon for Millennials; Gia was the movie that made me realize I was attracted to women. I know a lot of other women who will say the same.

I also put myself back in the closet for many years, and when I finally was fully ready to be out, it was 2017. I was coming out into a world that was ready to have me but was so different from what I remembered. There were so many shows with openly queer characters! Hayley Kiyoko and King Princess were pop music icons, and they were out. It’s such a jarring thing to experience when you’re used to the world where you heard your peers casually say “that’s gay” if they didn’t like someone’s sweatshirt or something. And I can understand how it’s stirring up resentment in you. You’re still trying to adjust to a world that feels like it changed really quickly.

Younger queers and folks who are at the beginning of their coming out journey are a tough group to be around sometimes for the exact reasons you’ve mentioned. There’s ample research that shows Gen Z is a more queer generation than any previous generations. Many of them came of age in an era where you could find a queer woman on any variety of TV shows. There was significantly less searching for representation and being satisfied with lackluster representation. That’s not to say they don’t have their own struggles, but when you have a coming out experience steeped in shame, it’s hard not to resent that!

One of the best things I can suggest is finding ways to expand your queer community. Being around people who are closer to your age or experience level will help to combat those feelings of otherness you’re experiencing around your current queer circle. Sometimes there are meetups or events for queer women of a certain age. I don’t know where you live, but I live in LA and there’s a group here that puts together events for queers over 30 and over 40 to be around people their own age. My partner and I have gone to a few of these nights, and it’s really refreshing to be around people who are our age and will understand our cultural references. Plus, they play old Millennial music, and it’s way more fun to dance to the music of my youth than current music.

I wanted to address what you said about your high school friends coming out later in life separately, because my goodness do I understand your feelings. It’s not illogical to have big strong feelings, especially when you know that those people made you feel bad about being queer. This happened to me with my former best friend, and it’s a big part of why our friendship ended. Seeing them have the safety of coming out, especially because hetero-presenting relationships are still the default and queer women who are in those relationships get to move through the world differently, triggers the unsafe feelings you felt. I’m glad you’ve been able to forgive them for their ignorance when they were younger, but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t sting a little.

Do you have someone you can trust to talk through these feelings? Whether it’s a therapist or just a close friend who isn’t directly involved, I really think you need to give these feelings space so that you can feel a sense of peace about it. You may never be fully over it, but you may be able to pinpoint that discomfort and work through it a little more.

Being “old” isn’t a bad thing, and there is absolutely space for you in our community. I’m so sorry the people you’re around have made you feel unwelcome because you don’t follow their narrow definition of what being a queer woman looks like. You can listen to whatever music you want, worship at the altar of whatever queer icons make YOU feel good. No one can take away the things you’ve had to overcome to get to the queer life you’re currently living. I hope you have people who respect your journey and make you feel loved and supported for the moments when these other people make you feel less than. And if you need another, you know where to find me.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 103 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. ” I think for Millennials more than any other generation, the thought of turning 40 is really unsettling. Because of the collective trauma our generation has experienced at the points in our lives that we did, we are living in a huge arrested development. On paper, we’re grownups, but because of things like the housing crisis and the economy and the pandemic, etc etc etc, we still feel like a bunch of kids playing house. ”

    OH THANK GOD IT’S NOT JUST ME! I’m 36, 37 in March, and I have a *lot* of feelings (many of them negative) about my approaching 40th birthday–in large part because I never really felt like I had the ability to fully enjoy my youth (I didn’t come out until I was in my mid-to-late-20s, and spent most of my early 20s a repressed ball of angst), but also haven’t been able to reap the benefits of being a Fully Mature Adult (my wife and I still live in a crappy 1 bedroom apartment, still paying off student loans, haven’t had a vacation in years, etc)

    • I’m 45 and my partner is 30. At present, the age gap is rarely an issue. She loves older women which is great for me haha. Don’t rule a younger person out if they are otherwise right for you.

  2. Hi, Letter Writer. I really feel you and wish I could be your friend. I was born in 1996 and came out in the years that Glee was airing — I feel like this puts me in an awkward middle between queer generations, where older LGBT+ people make assumptions about how easy things were for me and don’t relate and younger LGBT+ people (from blue states, at least) don’t relate to coming out with any stigma, bias or struggle. It’s a weird place to be in. But ultimately, I think the biggest issue is straight/mainstream’s society refusal to come to terms with how badly they treated us throughout the most formative years of our lives. They want to act like they’ve always been accepting and it’s incredibly disorienting.

    I’m reminded of something I read in Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (published 1991). Faderman discussed one woman who refused to be interviewed, because she grew up in the Lavender Scare era, where being outed as a homosexual could put your entire livelihood in jeopardy. This woman was so traumatized from the Lavender Scare that she mentally never left the era. She could not trust that she could be safe talking about being a lesbian. How can one move on when there is no public reckoning?

    I’m angry for you that your younger peers don’t respect your experiences and invalidate your identity. The younger people that you’re talking about in your letter are ignorant — and that’s not exclusive to LGBTQ+ young people or zoomers as a generation. There’s always young people who write off the experiences and interests of older people and vice versa. I wonder if young lesbians in the 90s ever rolled their eyes at women who came of age in the 70s who didn’t know Tegan and Sara? That being said, not all younger people are like that and plenty of them have had their own experiences with homophobia and transphobia. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is in the top 30 Feminist Theory books on Amazon. There are younger women are interested in learning in lesbian and bisexual women outside of King Princess, I promise you!

    I notice that the women you talk about in your letter are either coworkers or high school friends, people who you know by happenstance. I hope there are lesbian/bisexual/queer women spaces you can hang in. These spaces tend to be more politically aware about the existence of homophobia and you may find them less alienating. If there’s not queer women spaces near you, you may have to create them yourself. Most cities have Facebook pages for different identity groups, such as LGBT people or Black women. You can make a post on one of these pages just asking if a group of same-aged queer women want to meet at a bar or cafe somewhere. If you don’t live in a city, you can post on the Facebook group for people who live in your town/your county.

    I hope you can find peers that love and respect you, whether or not they share your same experiences. You deserve community.

    • “I wonder if young lesbians in the 90s ever rolled their eyes at women who came of age in the 70s who didn’t know Tegan and Sara?”

      Yes, we did. LOL. I came out (to my friends/peers) in 1998, which is the year I graduated high school. I remember going to GSA movie nights in college, and feeling totally disconnected from the weird/bad movies from the 1970s and 80s that they’d choose to screen for us. There were finally some more mainstream queer films (and well-made indies too) and the terrible movies from even just a few years ago (I’m looking at you, Go Fish, yes I said it) were laughable to me.

      Most young people are just insufferably smug when it comes to their own pop culture/music/movies/etc. They think they are somehow “evolved” and better than what came before. I have two daughters who are 14 and 10 and if I had a dollar for every time they tell me something I like is “cringe” I’d be rich. 😂

      • Yeah, for sure, and it kind of reminds me of how the various waves of feminism have rolled their eyes at each other as well. As the daughter of a 2nd Wave Boomer, I have experienced that kind of generational gap in ideas as well. And I do feel bad for making fun of my predecessors, back as a 90s teen. But my mother did teach me things about feminism, and my stepmother did loan me her copy of Rubyfruit Jungle, so I still learned a lot from them and ultimately had respect.

  3. I’m a brown lesbian millennial who teaches Gen Z (mostly) LGBTQ+ students about social justice, queer and feminist issues (prioritizing perspectives from people of color). I find that my students love finding out history, media, experiences of my generation and older. It’s just that the internet/our society is not set up for curiosity. Like you, letter writer, I remember being young online and carving out my own queer spaces, searching for and finding obscure LGBTQ+ history websites that started in the 90s, connecting with people over Chavela Vargas and other queer icons, writing my own queer stories with friends, etc.

    But young people today can’t do that as easily for several reasons: algorithmic censorship; the internet is completely different and commercialized so finding obscure links like that is hard; there’s a saturation of LGBTQ+ media in the mainstream that doesn’t lead to curiosity to find out more; rapid spread if misinformation*; and tbh education is crap nowadays because of rightwing politics.

    People who are rude to you are just rude people but a lot of the upcoming generations would love to know more information too. It’s so cool showing them old media (and we’re talking more obscure queer media from ancient times to 1920s film to zines in the 90s) and seeing them actively learn that the queer past wasn’t just trauma and misery. And I’ve seen their opinions shift and expand, for example, I’ve had students semester after semester realize the nuance to using a term like ‘gay panic’ to mean ‘silly awkwardness from feeling gay’ and why older generations might knee jerk against it.

    Also, let’s not forget the generations before us felt this way about those of us who were born/came of age after the AIDS crisis. Part of this is just aging, I think.

    *This happened in the Tumblr era and well all eras of queer internet. I was thinking of James Somerton and the lies he spread in his YouTube videos here specifically.

    • “there’s a saturation of LGBTQ+ media in the mainstream that doesn’t lead to curiosity to find out more”

      yes, i think about this so much! i’m surprised when people younger than me don’t share my desire to dig for the best representation, learn queer history, support queer artists, watch queer movies, like they’ve read Untamed by Glennon Doyle and know who fletcher is and they have a girlfriend so they’re all good!

  4. thank you for all of this, I often feel similar to the letter writer, and am also dealing with grief about aging. I didn’t come out until I was 21, having grown up in the same homophobic environment that LW did, and then the pandemic hit and took the second half of my 20s from me, socially. I didn’t get to have the queer youth that a lot of especially gen z do. It’s a weird kind of loneliness and grief and feeling out of place and time

  5. I whole heartedly endorse the community advice. I’m Gen X (born 1978) and I didn’t come out until I was 37. I wasn’t at all immersed in a queer community as my now ex-wife wasn’t. When our marriage ended in horrific circumstances three years ago, one of the earliest decisions I made was to find my queer community as a way to aid my healing. I achieved through dating apps and joining queer women’s groups. I have been the most fabulous queer people and have a tight bunch of friends around my age – the community I set out to find. I also have a personal and professional interest in queer history, which I find very anchoring. Due to my country New Zealand’s overall excellent handling of the pandemic, this did not disrupt my queer journey. I am very grateful for this. Finding your community isn’t always an easy task but it’s well worth the effort so you have that all-important feeling of belonging and acceptance. As a side note. I love being in my 40s. I am waaaaay more confident that I was in my 20s. For me it’s not about feeling a fully mature adult (I often don’t haha) but being at peace with myself, which I think has come with aging among other things.

  6. I really hope the number of comments agreeing make you feel better, OP – because same same same! The thing I keep reminding myself is that everyone is trying to find themselves and not everyone is for me. What’s around you is not the only thing that is available. Where someone is on their journey is going to be different than mine – I don’t let myself bury myself in discouragement that the next gen doesn’t get what it is to be me, but surround myself with my people. Who reflects you and the community you want to see? Just because that next gen isn’t that doesn’t mean it isn’t here! Can you reorient to curiosity and hope in finding those people and places?. Also, for some of those younger gen with whom you don’t have crossover, you can be the person that shares with them! Embrace the Queer Elder designation! I told a young sapphic cashier about The Craft and it blew her little mind. Loved it.

    But I want to specifically address the “people who hurt me coming out as queer in straight presenting relationships, how to do I not invalidate or resent them but also feel my very valid hurt” business. Look, I get it. The last thing I want to do is support the bi-erasure and judgement of bisexual and pan women I watched happened all around me. And I get from your ask that vibe. Which is, to my mind, exactly what you AREN’T seeing these women do. You are doing the work to not invalidate or hurt them or people adjacent to them, and they aren’t doing the same. I wanna offer this perspective: Being part of the queer community is not a one-way ticket to not having to do work as an ally anymore. And that’s exactly what I think these women do, and why they upset us. There’s plenty of queer women in straight-facing relationships who are still doing the work of an ally. And then there’s the people you’re talking about.

    Lemme tell you, friend – I don’t think this has ever been or ever will be about whether someone is gay. It’s all about intention. And they will weaponize whatever they can – including their own very real identity! – in order to stay privileged. In short, this fear that you’re invalidating bi/pan/queer sapphics is so so valid but even if those gals came out as Lesbians, they still would not be fixing the harm they’ve caused. It was never about their identity, but their inherent selfishness, lack of empathy, and short-sightedness. I think, if I can speak for me, I used to feel shame when that happened because it felt like my bully had bought a ticket into my club. But honey!!! There are shitty people of every identity!!! We don’t have to have them in our living room! Sure, my bullies might all come out as raging sapphics and i may see their dumbasses at pride but gosh golly I don’t have to have them at my potluck!!! I think the sting you are afraid of might be the idea that you now have to break bread with people who broke you a little and like… you literally do not have to and maybe when you have better people who see and love you who are kind that will go away. If I’m projecting then ignore that but I hope I’m not! I’m wishing you 8 million good pals who make the sting of that old shame easier to bear <3

  7. LW

    Dear LW,

    I logged in to say I co-sign to everything you’ve said in your letter.
    I feel old, but still young, at times. And then, I realize I am in fact getting older and yikes.
    In terms of musical terms, Tegan & Sara, Melissa Etheridge, Rufus Wainwright, J. D. Lang were the first queer artists that I listened to in high school. I’m Latina, I didn’t
    know of any queer Latin artists.
    I’d watch the L word secretly.

    I’m glad kids these days seem to have it easier than I did, in terms of representation.

    Everyone seems so open, but I’m still hesitant.
    So, thank you for LW for writing.
    💜

  8. I remember when queer was first used as a term and it was very different as it was used by lesbians and gays. Now, though, lots of straight people call themselves queer’, so it can be really confusing. We should bring back the terms lesbian and gay and take pride in it. There’s such a rich history of lesbian culture and resistance to societal norms that forced women to adopt restrictive roles. That’s why the right wing hated the women’s, lesbian and gay movements as they were truly radical.

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