Now you see me, now you don’t

Image: Guy James Whitworth.

As Sydney’s gay nightlife springs joyously back to life, Guy James Whitworth talks us through an issue as old as time itself: the invisibility conferred by ageing.

Gay gods and Dua Lipa remixes be praised! It looks like Sydney’s gay nightlife is righting itself, finally, after more than a year of lockdown-and-out misery.    

It’s been a month since the ‘dancing ban’ – a safety measure to help stop the spread of Covid-19 – was lifted in NSW, and Oxford Street has sprung back to life accordingly. Last Sunday, I saw a huge queue around the block to get into The Beresford. (Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t in the queue, I’m not that cool – I was popping to the Woolworths opposite to get vegan Magnums and a box of dishwasher tablets.) 

I do just need to offer a quick disclaimer: the following observations are solely based on gay men, although I’d certainly be interested in knowing if similar incidents occur in lesbian, trans, heterosexual or other scenes. 

Anyway, how wonderful it is to see, now that the dance ban has been lifted, that the gays are returning to dance floors across the city – like wild animals after the rains to watering holes on Outback plains. 

Yet, before Covid-19 appeared on anyone’s radar, I was becoming aware of something rather strange.

I started to notice I was developing a superpower.

Let me explain … Like the mild-mannered everyday schmucks casually going about their business in comics and films, this incredible superpower has been bestowed on me, without me seeking in it out. I suppose it was bequeathed on me gradually a few years ago – but because nightclubs haven’t really been a thing the 18 months or so, I didn’t really have a chance to totally familiarise myself with this power.    

Of which power do I speak? Well, it seems I have developed the fantastic power of invisibility. I am the invisible (gay) man!    

Or rather, I can slide nonchalantly between visibility and invisibility at certain points. Don’t believe me? Take a stroll with me down the newly re-opened and pumping Oxford Street on a Saturday night and I can prove it. Of course, I’m visible if I offer to buy someone a drink but after that, poof (pun intended) I’m utterly invisible once again. 

I am becoming completely transparent to most gay men between, let’s say, the ages of 18 and 36. It’s as if they just completely see straight through me. Like some unfortunate and unfuckable ghost, I can wander amongst them, completely unnoticed in my middle-aged splendour.   

“The old adage ‘dance like no one’s watching’ is quite easy for me, because let me tell you – absolutely no one is!”   

– Guy James Whitworth

There seem to be only two archetypes for gay men over the age of fifty in the gay world; doable daddy and ignorable nonentity. Of course, there’s another word for what I am experiencing: let’s say it loud and proud because it is a very real part of Sydney’s gay scene: ageism.

There’s a fun irony that since the return to dance floors there are lots of gay men who are out of practice when it comes to strutting their stuff – but the old adage of ‘dance like no one’s watching’ is quite easy for me, because let me tell you, absolutely no one is watching!

So, how does this all make me feel? Well, you know, it leaves me a little bit sad, I don’t mind telling you. I’m only 52, I still consider myself young and, in some lights and from certain angles, still rather sprightly. Ageism certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s been going on in the gay scene for as long as the gay scene has been going! Unfortunately, in the male gay world, age, experience and wisdom just aren’t often treasured, and my own bitterness at that aside, they bloody really should be.   

The Pet Shop Boys’ 2012 song ‘Invisible’ explored the phenomenon of the invisible gay man. Video: Pet Shop Boys/YouTube.

One good remedy for all of this does exist in the form of regular meet-ups offered by ACON’s ageing initiative, the LOVE Project (the Living Older Visibly and Engaged Project). The LOVE Project has been coordinated over the past seven years by the pretty darn awesome Russ Gluyas. 

“As well as experiencing social isolation, many older LGBTQ+ community members experience the wrath of ageism, in both our community and more broadly. I regularly hear that people feel invisible and disrespected, simply due to their age,” Gluyas says, when asked what inspires him to create events and activities for older queers, like the monthly LOVE Club Gathering.

“Ageism is one “ism’ that is insensitively overlooked and the impacts can be devastating on people’s mental and physical wellbeing,” he says.

“More community and social awareness around the experiences of ageism would help improve the inclusiveness of venues on Oxford Street and return them to being safe and welcoming spaces for all ages.”  

So, take heart fellow older queer folks, there is still life to be had after most Oxford Street regulars have looked straight through us. And there are also a few venues that cater to the slightly older and should-know-better crowd: Palms, yes, I’m looking at you in all your glitter-board ’90s glory and unpretentious atmosphere, Palms on Oxford (no shade being thrown here, I love a good night out at Palms). And, in hindsight it’s also probably a blessing if nobody watches me really going for it on that particular dance floor!

And realistically, as us sensational seniors know, for the recently reopened gay venues to become permanently open, each venue is going to have to make an age diverse crowd welcome and that’s a good thing. Now we all need to help create a new gay stereotype, that of the more appreciated, respected and cherished gay (or queer, or whatever your handle) elder that is far from invisible, no matter how super-powered they are.  

Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist and author. His book Signs of a Struggle – is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter