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Celebrating the Stonewall Generation
🏳️🌈 Honoring LGBTQIA+ Elders
October 11 was National Coming Out Day, and I’d like to celebrate with a post about a community that doesn’t get a lot of light shone on it. In particular I want to focus on their sexual joy and pleasure. They, as much as anyone, deserve all the great sex they want to have.
Whom do I mean?
LGBTQIA+ elders. The folks Jane Fleishman, PhD, calls the “Stonewall Generation.” She’s a sex educator who lives here in the Pioneer Valley, near me. Her book, Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism, and Aging, aims to challenge stereotypes about who our elders are, to subvert the whitewashed notion of who began the uprising, and to introduce readers to a generation of people whose names have been forgotten. But my favorite thing about it, is that it allows space for the erotic experiences of people who grew from young people in the 1960s, to elders of the community.
The Stonewall Generation by Jane Fleishman
Stonewall itself was not the first uprising, nor was it the last. Cooper Do-nuts. Compton’s Cafeteria. The “Sip-Ins” at Julius’ Bar, when it was illegal for a bartender to serve a homosexual, just to name a few. But when police dragged out Stormé DeLarverie, over and over, and a first punch was thrown, it started an earthquake that shook a continent, and you didn’t have to be at the epicenter to be, as they say now, shook. Whether you were there that night or, as Kate Bornstein describes their own experience in the foreword to the book, didn’t learn about it until fifteen years later, that riot, that protest against police brutality sparked protests and conversations and moments of personal liberation all across the continent.
As Jane told me, above all, “Stonewall marked a fight for freedom, for rights, for love and, yes, for sex. It was a sexual liberation fight. Yet now, 52 years later, the modern LGBTQ movement has become a movement primarily for rights: for the ability for people to marry and have children and families with legal protections. I think we need to look at pride in a way that many young people are looking at it. Make it more of an intersectional fight, standing alongside the movement for black lives, the fight against climate change, against food insecurity.”
Jane said, “Now I feel like we’re on a precipice with what has been happening with young people going out in the streets fighting against police brutality. It’s the same issue that brought people into the streets in the 60s. I think it’s a turning point in our movement, we’re never going to go back to politics as usual. Pride is getting turned upside down, as it was once, to be more of a fighting liberation movement, rather than an assimilation movement.”
There have always been growing pains with pride, about what it’s about—is it a party or a fight for rights? assimilation and respectability or radical queer liberation?—and who belongs there and who doesn’t. This year there was a lot of press about whether or not kink belonged at pride, which read to me like respectability politics dressed up in “won’t someone think of the children!” drag.
I want to celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride month by celebrating the erotic lives of the people who were there, in the 60s, when Stonewall happened. I believe the erotic is respectable. I wanted to know if the Stonewall generation were having the great sex that is one of the many things they fought so hard for.
Yes, I’m going to be talking about boomers having sex.
Some people will need to take a deep, soothing breath before we dive in. “Okay, boomer,” and an eyeroll is not what we’re here for today. But raise your hand if you grew up in a culture that taught you that sex between old people is “gross.” Yeah, sex negativity is real. But again: I believe the erotic is respectable. Jane Fleishman agrees with me:
So here’s a reframe: Knowing that people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and older continue to experience sensual, sexual, luscious, pleasurable connection with themselves and their partners is delightful. It’s what I hope for everyone reading this. Anyone lucky enough to grow old and live with the—as the technical term puts it—“accumulated losses” of aging also gets to explore the abundant pleasure that can emerge when people shed all the restrictive, mythical norms and welcome their bodies and identities, just as they are.
In Stonewall Generation, Jane interviews people who talk about not just “gay sex”—already at the border of what most people consider “respectable”—but kinky sex, paying for sex, sex outside of a long term, monogamous relationship, sex that was better in their 60s than it ever was in their 20s or 30s.
In Jane’s world, it’s not, “Okay, boomer,” and an eyeroll, but, “Okay, boomer!” and a high five. In celebration of their ongoing erotic joy, for itself and for the hope it gives all of us that we, too, might one day retire and spend all day in bed, licking someone we love—because we’re free to love whomever we love, thanks to generations of protest and progress.
So I asked Jane about her research, a quantitative study on older adults in same sex relationships, examining the factors that predicted sexual satisfaction in folks 60 to 75 years old.
Results? So exciting! There’s so much cool stuff, which you can read about here, but I want to highlight two specific factors that I think everyone can learn from.
First, one of the most important factors associated with sexual satisfaction in LGBTQIA+ boomers was low internalized homophobia—that is, that voice in your head that repeats all the worst things your culture tried to tell you about who you are. These are folks who grew up more closeted than the generations that followed, with laws against loving who they love and medical diagnoses applied to their identities. How remarkable that they’ve shed those messages to embrace their sexuality as it is.
And second, these older adults in LGBTQIA+ bodies were not as subject to the mythology of what young men and women are “supposed” to look like. They felt good in their skins. They were not as polluted by that ideal as straight older adults, perhaps because they never matched it. “I never looked good in a dress,” one butch lesbian elder told Jane. Aging couldn’t take away her comfort in her body, because she had already accepted so much of herself.
Though sexual satisfaction was “moderate,” as they aged, these individuals were searching for ways to express themselves in their queer bodies (their language), now that they were more free than ever to attain sexual satisfaction.
Can we help them expand their access to great sex? I think we can. I think there’s a link between political activism and great sex. I don’t mean that being politically active gives you great sex—though I don’t have any evidence that it doesn’t! I mean that when people are actively fighting for a more just world, we are creating space for everyone to have more complete access to all the pleasure they bodies can give them.
But even moreso, I mean that when people simply insist that they have a right to the pleasure of their bodies and they have a right to connect and engage sexually with consenting peers, no matter what the rules of their culture dictate, that great sex is itself a political act.
I know not everyone reading this is a Boomer or LGBTQIA+, but I think everyone reading this can make their own sex lives better, by making them a little more like the sex lives of, say, a pair of octogenarian lesbians.
One more time—say it with me: the erotic is respectable.
One last thought: I learned something about Jane when we talked for this piece. I already knew she was, as she playfully called it, “gay married,” but she told me she had married the same woman three times—the third time because she won a bet! She got legally gay married when she could because she wanted a big wedding (even though she’s pretty much opposed to whole marriage thing conceptually).
The lesson for me? It’s not “If you love someone, set them free,” but rather, “If you love someone, keep right on marrying them, over and over. Wear a special outfit! Dance!” Whether you get straight married, gay married, poly married, temporary married, or any other variation, have a party to celebrate love! I’m approaching my own 10th wedding anniversary, and darned if it doesn’t make me want to marry my marital euphemism all over again.
Want to make the world a better place? Love the people you love, like there’s no tomorrow. Marry them every day, lick them every night. And fight for the freedom of everyone to do just the same.
Jane has generously compiled more resources, if you're interested:
Gallop, J. (2019). Sexuality Disability and Aging: Queer Temporalities of the Phallus. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (one of my favorite books I’ve read this year!)
Carter, M., Fleishman, J. M., Griffin-Gracy, M. M., Woody Macko, I. (2021). Black LGBTQ/SGL elders: A black transwoman, an African-American same-gender loving woman, and a black lesbian talking about sex with a cisgender white lesbian sex researcher. Journal of Black Sexuality and Research, 7(1), 1-20.
Fleishman, J. M., Crane, B., Koch, P. B. (2019). Correlates and predictors of sexual satisfaction for older adults in same-sex relationships. Journal of Homosexuality. 1-25.
Koch, P. B., Mansfield, P. K., Thurau, D., & Carey, M. (2005). “Feeling frumpy”: The relationships between body image and sexual response changes in midlife women. Journal of Sex Research, 42(3), 215-223.
Jen, S. (2019). Ambivalence in labels, freedom in lives: Older women’s discursive constructions of their bisexual identities. Journal of Bisexuality, 19(3), 386-413.
Syme, M. L., Cohn, T. J., Stoffregen, S., Kaempfe, H., & Schippers, D. (2019). “At my age…”: defining sexual wellness in mid-and later life. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(7), 832-842.
Fleishman, J. M. (2020). Horny and menopausal. The Edge Blog, Hot Octopuss.
Fleishman, J. M. (2020). Let’s get physical: From sexual dysfunction to sexual wellness. Age Right.
Fleishman, J. M. (2019). Tackling the sexual shame-fear-guilt complex. Age Right.
Fleishman, J. M. (2017). Yes, older lesbians have sexual satisfaction. To Bed or Not to Bed: Sex and the Older Lesbian. Brookline, MA: Boston OLOC and Last Gasp Press. (I took about half of my research findings and reported them here.)
Questions or comments? Please email my very tiny team at email@example.com
Stay safe and see you next time.