As part of our July theme “Talkin ’bout my generation”, Karen Pollock explores why so many of the big names of LGBTQ+ activism seem resistant to change and new ideas.
The saying “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain” has been attributed to widely divergent sources, from Lloyd George to Winston Churchill. It suggests that while hoping for a fairer, more equal society is all very well, once you get older, you leave such beliefs behind. Within it is carried a suggestion of practicalities, phrases like “the real world” and “grown up” are brought to mind.
In many spheres, not just politics, it is common for younger people to be dismissed, for their anger, their desire for change to be met with “Thats just not how things work.” Ironically, organisations then often go on to decry the lack of engagement with younger people, and wonder why they cannot get them to attend their events or meetings. The LGBTQ+ community is no better than any other at being unable to understand why younger members simply will not accept that there is only one way of doing things. This way is the established way, the way in which things have always been done, regardless of whether the younger generation think this is effective or not.
As I have watched these arguments play out, in a variety of spheres it occurs to me how much more personal they are than many people will admit. I am often reminded of various theories of human development, and most particularly of Erik Erikson, whose psychosocial stages present a dialectical approach to understanding why some might present such a resistance to change and new ideas.
In many spheres, not just politics, it is common for younger people to be dismissed, for their anger, their desire for change to be met with “Thats just not how things work.”
This is not an academic piece, and there is not space to fully explore how the ideas of Freud and Klein led to Erikson, and a more usable, relatable, model of how people move through their lives. In brief, though, he described how we are faced with choices at each stage of our development, not conscious ones, but more a branching of the road, towards self actualisation (our best self) or away from it. As with all models it is not to be taken as holy writ, but can be a starting point for better understanding.
His second to last stage, generativity versus stagnation, describes the position many with power within the LGBTQ+ community seem to have reached. Away from personal experience I look at some of those more famous names, who seem determined to prove that once you reach a certain age, dismissal of new ideas is a standard reaction. The model assumes that at this stage you feel a satisfaction at the regeneration of your ideas by the next generation, by actually producing that generation. Whilst Andrea Leadsom might approve, newer developments of the model understand that this pride in passing on the torch can take place in many ways not just the production of babies. Why then does the LGBTQ+ community seem so poor at feeling this pride, at looking at the next generation and saying, now is my moment to step back? (There are of course some very honourable exceptions who do exactly this, but they are rarer than they should be).
Some of the defensiveness will of course be personal, people each with their own unique history of regrets, mistakes and choices made. This is the stage of life where regret can be seen as a dominating factor. It might be said that to live a life without regret is to not have lived at all. What matters is how we view these regrets, are we able to let go, and say yes, that could have gone better, but, I am content with where I am now. When I hear people who in my youth sounded radical demanding trans people be silenced, or bemoaning black lives matter halting pride, I cannot help but wonder what choice has led to their defensiveness, why they feel so removed from those who might bring pride in the achievement they were part of.
Why then does the LGBTQ+ community seem so poor at feeling this pride, at looking at the next generation and saying, now is my moment to step back.
We cannot of course know every moment in the life history of someone which might cause them to be defensive rather than open. We can however look at ourselves, at our interactions with new ideas, with the anger, and enthusiasm of others. All too often the older generation of the LGBTQ+ community tends towards stagnation, to saying, this has been achieved, and this is enough, a refusal to engage with change. Perhaps we cannot do anything about those who are currently famous, clinging to their power, but we can each examine our own lives, and consider how we might remain always willing to look with fresh eyes, and pride, at the next generation. If we cannot do that, personally, in those spaces we inhabit, how can we expect better of those who would have to give up power and influence in stepping aside?