Pictured: Mel England (left) with Tom Saporito in a scene from 'Best Day Ever'
Last December, I got the part of a lifetime playing a gay man going through his worst nightmare: a midlife crisis. Best Day Ever is Jeff London's very personal and somewhat autobiographical journey of a gay man hitting 50—and learning how to get out of his own way and just be happy. When he realizes he’s in a bad relationship and consumed with career and financial insecurity, he meets a younger man who forces him to stop and look at what’s really important in life — not status, looks, money or fame, but just plain old simple love.
What was most provocative and interesting to me was that this was a film that actually had never been made before. We are the first generation of gay men to live in a time where we can not only be out and open, but also be equal. We can pursue the American Dream, just like straight people do.
For me, it had a very real relevance. For us, a whole generation of gay men decimated by HIV and AIDS, that time was a genesis of sorts, born of a crisis, that necessitated and even forced us to hope that better days must lie ahead. Whether we liked it or not, we had to get clear about who we were, and what we wanted. Out of that heartache, relationships and politics were born that propelled gay men and women up and out of closets, into the mainstream, to fight not just for the right to live, but also the right to just be equal and happy. I wouldn’t be the first to say that the eventual struggle for marriage equality was born out of the struggle of AIDS activism, and Stonewall before that. Now, in 2014, marriage equality is the rule of the land on the federal level, and with a domino effect, rolling through the heartland into the homes and lives of LGBT people across the country.
But for those of us who were on the cusp of this change, we are experiencing a kind of whiplash; a sort of PTSD that perhaps we don’t even quite see, because we are inside of it. It’s a whole new kind of struggle — just to be normal and grow old — like everyone else. Getting older has always been difficult and unsettling for gay men. We’re saddled with the pressures of having to make our mark and make a lot of money, and also our need to remain desirable, youthful, and sexy (not as much of a priority for straight men).
But the current shift in culture takes it a step deeper. While we were all so busy fighting the battles for equality, surviving the plague, and just recovering from our not-so-accepting traumatic childhoods, suddenly — overnight it seems — we get to be equal!
But wait, now we’re supposed to have functional relationships? We’re the generation that grew up at a time when most gay men were still living in closets, and the ones that weren’t were seen by society as the “freaks.” Today, it’s suddenly the opposite. But the old programming in our heads remains the same. We never really learned how to develop relationships. It wasn’t safe to be gay. It wasn’t legal to be gay. It was, according to some, actually sinful and shameful. Then, add on the explosive fear and hysteria around HIV/AIDS. To be happy was based more on what you could do in the moment, because everything else was so torturous. Plan to grow old and invest in Roth IRAs? Not so much. Some did, of course: those rare, functional couples were somewhere in the crowd. But to have a healthy, loving relationship? Very much the exception to the rule.
Now, with the battle simmering down, we’re suddenly expected go to Bed, Bath and Beyond, put our spouses on our health insurance, have 2.3 kids — and the 20-year-olds talk about being president someday! But for us, the post-Stonewall, post-AIDS, but pre-Marriage Gays — we’re still trying to shake it all off. How DO you have a relationship? How DO you date? We didn’t get to go to proms with the date of our choice. Many of us still were in closets into our twenties and thirties.
Those of us in our forties and fifties are just now learning how to navigate this new world. And we are the “pioneers” because we don’t really have any role models on this part Since the generation before us decimated by AIDS, and before that, they were just barely coming out and fighting Stonewall, we are the first to truly be equal, to be able to get married, and grow old together, and be happy. We are the first generation to be able to fully pursue happiness: the American Dream.