Wednesday, December 12, 2007

City Life

Hoping To Bridge The Gay Generation Gap
By Chris Evans

Sitting in the darkest corner of Starbucks, Andrew Fleming, 58, takes a sip of his Venti Caramel Macchiato, flicks his newspaper and begins reading the New York Times Style section. This is where he comes every Sunday morning, while everyone else in his apartment building is at church.

“Everyone in my building is Catholic, and there’s a church right next door. I don’t like being in the building alone, and I can’t stand the gospel music making my walls shake. So, I come here for the peace and quiet. And for the company.” He talks about how young people don’t read these days, especially the newspaper.

“I’m no Einstein, but I try my best to read the New York Times at least once a week. It’s scary that in this day and age you have people turning 18 and know absolutely nothing about the world they live in. There was someone on the TV a few days ago—the girl honestly thought that Europe was a damn country.” The girl he’s referring to is country singer Kellie Pickler, who embarrassed herself on the game show Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader when asked a simple geography question.

Scruffy and plain, Fleming sat at the tiny table—his deep voice booming, his blue eyes piercing. You’d never think he was gay had he not told you, and you probably would’ve guessed he was about twenty years younger than he actually is. “I guess you can chock that up to genes,” he says with a laugh.

Fleming has lived in the same rent-controlled building for 20 years, on the East side of Harlem, and has seen it all. “Being gay these days isn’t that big of a deal, especially here in New York City. I mean you’ve got gay channels, magazines, even a gay movie (Brokeback Mountain) that was a huge hit at the box office—in the red states! When I was young people barely even dared to speak the word gay.”

Growing up in Brooklyn with his single mother and two brothers, Fleming says it was difficult for him to come out, especially because of emotional issues with his father. “My father left when I was about 10. We were all devastated—mostly my younger brother. I’m sure my mother was too, but she really held it together—for us. When my father was around—it wasn’t really a happy time. He was really demanding and abusive, and was obsessed with masculinity. I guess it stemmed from issues surrounding his childhood, but from the earliest time I can remember he was extremely insistent upon us being ‘real men.’ Whatever the hell that meant. So I knew it wasn’t going to be easy coming out to my brothers.”

Fleming said he had to find a way to express himself, since he couldn’t completely disclose himself to his family, so he began painting and writing poems. “I had so much bottled up inside me. I think if I didn’t have those creative outlets I would’ve killed myself a long time ago.”

Fleming had a lot to say about his childhood, especially the influence of his grandmother who was the first one to spark his interest in music. She gave him jazz records by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Barbra Streisand, and when his brothers weren’t home, he’d lock his bedroom door (the three of them shared a room) and blast the records as loud as he could, singing into a spoon.

“My grandmother and I had a really special relationship. I miss her a lot, but I appreciate what I learned from her. I wish more people today valued their elders. There’s so much they have to say and there’s so much to learn.” Fleming said he would sit all day listening to his grandmother’s stories, and how he loved an idea he’d seen Desperate Housewives star Marcia Cross talking about on The View recently—a Hallmark gift called a legacy keeper, designed to keep a record of the older memories of your family and their stories.

Fleming moved past his difficult childhood to become a successful copywriter and poet. He’s never published any of his work, but says he considers his work successful anyway. “For me, the success of poetry is not measured by how many books it’s in or how many people read it. It’s just how it makes me feel when I put it on the page, and when I open up my notebook months later and read it again.”

Fleming has been lucky to be able to earn enough money to stop working and be financially stable for the rest of his life. However, what makes him happiest is being able to take care of his mother. “I love feeling like I’m paying her back for all the mess she had to go through for the three of us. It really is a great feeling. And we were a handful.”

His partner of 25 years, Chet, died three years ago due to complications from a heart surgery he had years ago. “When you’re with someone for as long as I was with Chet—it’s hard to imagine that they could be gone forever—even though at my age I suppose you should start expecting it. You just get so used to the status quo. I didn’t take his death as hard as maybe most people do, but I do miss him terribly. I think about him everyday. I talk to him everyday. I know he can hear me.”

Fleming says he tried dating again, but in the gay community, it’s difficult when you’re an AARP member. “It’s sad, but the gay community at large is just really, really superficial. You go into these clubs and bars and most of the guys look the same. It’s like an Abercrombie and Fitch convention. I mean I’m in good shape, but I’m nearly 60. No one in those places is gonna look at me twice.”

Though he does say he was briefly seeing someone much, much younger, it didn’t work out. “We really had nothing in common. I felt like a dinosaur. I mean even among gays the generation gap is so wide—even with just pop culture. I’m talking about Cher and Barbra Streisand and he’s talking about Britney and Christina. We had nothing to say to each other.”

And, this seems to be a problem many gay men have as they move further and further into old age, which might be reason for the gay community to examine itself and its principles. Many gay men say the worst thing you can call a gay man is “fat” or “old.” Who cares if you’re stupid, right?

“I’m not an elitist by any stretch of the imagination. At least I don’t think I am. I realize everyone hopefully has something to offer to the world. But I just don’t think young people these days have a sense of anything outside of themselves—and I don’t just mean geographically. They’re not thinking about philosophy, why things are the way they are, the way things work and how—it’s just me, me, me.”

Fleming has more goals for himself. “I’m not one of those people who’s scared out of my mind about death. Death of others terrifies me, my own death—not so much. But before I do kick the bucket, I hope I can travel some. Maybe with my mother. After all these years, I haven’t been able to really see the world.” Fleming hopes that he can take his mother with him, but he says it would be even better if he were able to do it when Chet was still alive.

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