Comment: Where is the ‘Cucumber’ for gays over 50?

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Writing for PinkNews, David Pidd says he does not feel Channel 4’s Russell T Davies hit ‘Cucumber’ represents gay people over 50, and asks why businesses don’t do more to target the specific needs of the demographic.

‘Cucumber’, ‘Banana’ and ‘Tofu’. Three foods which I like. Three programmes which have left me queasy. I have yet to meet a gay guy (or gay woman for that matter) who hasn’t seen either all, or at least one, of them. Generally the opinion is favourable: however, in a completely un-scientific survey which I’m carrying out, I am coming across a minority who are voicing muted dissent.

Mainly it’s about the hedonistic gay lifestyle of all the main characters (Oh, God, here we go again: all gay guys think about is instant sex with just about anybody. Why don’t we just perpetuate the myth, please do.), but there is also growing disquiet about the characters. In a pre-release interview Russell T. Davis, the writer of all three programmes, said that while ‘Queer as Folk’, his ground-breaking series about gay life and relationships in Manchester was about young gay guys, Cucumber in particular would be about the older gay man. At last, I thought; a window onto older (i.e. over 50) gay men’s lifestyle. Er, no; 46 appears to be the age limit. Perhaps Davis, or the commissioning editor’s team, thought that once the dreaded ‘Five-Oh’ is reached we quietly stop being gay, our libido plunges to zilch, we all migrate to M&S fashions, holiday in Eastbourne and shuffle to the nearest Age Concern drop-in centre for a nice reviving cup of Horlicks or sip soup doled out by an eager-to-please volunteer whilst watching a gentle gay sitcom about two old queens bitching with each other. Yet again, it’s almost as if we don’t exist or don’t matter. Unfortunately this discrimination is also mirrored in the wider world.

Before I continue I will declare an interest: I am closer to the end of my sixth decade than the beginning. I am also still active, regularly doing long distance bike rides and hill walking as well as going to the gym on a weekly basis and my mind still wants to explore anything and everything; I have no desire to visit Eastbourne, particularly now its pier has gone up in smoke; still have an urge to see the world; I hate M&S with a passion and while I might feel a tad too old to frequent G-A-Y in Soho, I do still like to go to fashionable bars occasionally; I hate Horlicks although I do like good home-made soup. Oh yes, one more (slightly important) thing: my libido reminds me on a fairly regular basis that it’s still alive and kicking and that I’m still gay.

Stonewall estimates a figure between 5% and 7% identifying as gay or lesbian.  It says that various factors such as age will determine how readily a person will admit to being gay/lesbian. The older a person gets, possibly due to learnt behaviour of having being brought up in a more secretive era, the less likely they are to admit to being gay/lesbian – but they are still there. The Treasury, when calculating the cost of the Civil Partner Act, put the figure at 6% and that is the figure which I will use. The Office for National Statistics’ 2011 census states that there are approximately 31 million men in the UK. That means that there are nearly 1.9 million gay guys living in this country.

Age Concern figures show that there are more than 22 million people over the age of 50. Given that men make up approximately 50% of the population that means that (using the 6% constant) that there must be approximately 660 000 gay people in the UK over 50. In a previous existence I worked in sales and marketing and, as a consequence, I know that any Marketing Director worth his or her salt would go into meltdown at the prospect of well over a half a million people ready to market their products to. So why don’t they? Possibly because the said Marketing Director is in his or her 30s and hasn’t given a thought to anybody significantly older than them. Admittedly, due to the increasing longevity of people, a fair tranche of over 50s are well over 50, but that doesn’t stop them being gay, or being interested in gay concerns even if they’re not so interested in buying the latest gizmo. They still want holidays; they still want to look reasonably smart, but don’t want to be seen as randy old goat dressed up as lamb; they are interested in public issues, particularly those affecting older people and how that could impact on them as gay men; they might even be interested (Mr Davis and Channel 4 commissioning teams, please note) in seeing older men represented in gay films or TV series which look at the legacy of a lifetime of obfuscation and outright denial of their sexuality has brought. Yet how many features do you see which specifically relate these issues to older men? I bet you could count them on the fingers of…well one finger. Even the national Terence Higgins Trust ‘It Starts With Me’ poster and YouTube video campaign promoting safe sex only feature guys who appear to be 40 and under. Does this mean that older men (according to received wisdom) obviously don’t have sex – or more alarmingly aren’t bothered if they catch HIV possibly because, in the adman’s view, they’re so old they’re bound to die fairly soon? Thanks to drugs like Viagra however, GUM clinics are seeing an increase in STIs, including HIV, in men in the 65-70 year old bracket. It reminds me of the old joke of a younger man discussing his older partner’s sex drive: ‘He’s a bit like a London-Brighton veteran car; he rallies once a year and has to be started by hand.’ Not anymore; apparently we can all be fitted with self-starter motors and do some adventurous driving!

Quite apart from the capitalist aspect of ignoring the over 50s, Government legislation is woefully inadequate for older gay guys (and women, it should be added). In her thought provoking book ‘Straight Expectations. What does it mean to be gay today?’ the lesbian feminist Julie Bindel says that instead of campaigning for equal marriage the money could have been better spent on ‘ensuring that there are facilities for older [gay] people to have access to residential care…and legal recognition of close friendships and other ‘non-marriage-like relationships.’ It is a powerful argument; men of my generation started to identify as gay in an era when, if not actually illegal, being homosexual was still seen as deviant if you were lucky, or even as a disease or mental disorder. Many men, and I include myself in this group, stayed in the closet for too long, mainly because of learnt behaviour – if you don’t draw attention to yourself, nobody will get you – and therefore, even though they might have a long-term partner, still do not want to draw attention to themselves in the same way as younger gays feel more at ease of doing so. Yes, there are several older out and prominent public men: Sir Ian McKellen; Lord Browne; Chris Smith the ex-MP to name but three. However, I would argue that while they have done an excellent job of facing down any criticism when they made their public declarations, thereby making it easier for other gay guys to follow, they are known for their gay rights campaigning and not for their being an older gay guy. If these people had not been in the public eye, because they are over 50 would their campaigning have been so effective? I don’t believe so.

As an older person, first and foremost I am staggered by the fact that we are virtually invisible. A lot of us have, possibly for the first time, a sizeable chunk of disposable income and we are beginning to ease up on the frantic climb to the top of the career ladder. If we haven’t got there by now, what’s the point; is it worth the hassle; wouldn’t it be better to divert a lot of that energy into having a good time leisure-wise? We start looking round for things to do and companies which promote them. Yes, there’s a plethora of companies catering for older persons, but, in the main, they don’t cater for the older gay man. Yes, there’s another plethora of organisations which will help address older persons’ concerns, but there are precious few which will specifically help the older gay man. I have a feeling that if I went to Saga and asked for an older gay person’s holiday brochure I would probably draw a blank. In a similar vein, if I asked Age Concern to recommend an older gay man’s social group the result would be similar to the Saga query.

Before any younger person who might be reading this dismisses me as a bitter and twisted old man who has lost his youth, looks and hair (one of which I will agree to, the other two, NO!), just remember this: with any luck and a following wind, you too will be over 50 one day. That day will come sooner than you can possibly imagine and then you too will be looking back, if not in anger, then in amazement at how quickly the world has become out of step with your needs, wants and desires. From my perspective and I would suspect from 659,999 other older gay guy’s perspectives, I am just trying to right a wrong. In the same way that the campaigners for gay rights in the 60s, 70s and 80s didn’t expect the world to agree with them overnight, I don’t expect things to change immediately. However, it would be nice if some brave Commissioning Editor, Marketing Director or successful Script Writer recognised that there is a large and untapped ready-made market for their product and began to help start the change.

A version of this article originally appeared on SoSoGay. As with all opinion, this does not necessarily reflect the views of PinkNews.