Revising my bucket list after realizing that not all queer people die young
My bucket list is pretty normal for a wanderlust 20-something. Learn Italian, see Machu Picchu, road trip with friends, kiss a pretty girl, live to 30. It’s called “Get It Done,” and I made it while sitting through a very long lecture in college. I tried to fit in any goal that I thought I could accomplish in the next ten years if I tried hard enough (and never saved any money). As of last fall, I finished most of it (and have no savings), so I added some new items to the list.
“Live to 30” is a specific goal still on my bucket list, as I have not turned 30 yet. It’s not any more specific than “eat haggis in Scotland” and “see a Broadway play,” but it tends to give people pause when I talk about it. I put it on there, near the top, as sort of a larger, more ambitious goal than all the others. I put it on there because I didn’t actually think I’d make it, but I wanted to try anyway. Then I made it to my 28th birthday, and realized I might hit my 40th, 50th, even 80th birthdays. So I revised my list—I needed more goals.
So why did I assume I wouldn’t make it to my 30s?
I knew I was bisexual at age 12 and that I was transgender in my 20s. Most of the people like me on TV, in movies, and in books didn’t make it that far. There is even a name for this TV trope: “Bury your gays,” or the habit of killing off a show’s queer characters.
I think back to my freshman year health class. We were a progressive school for 2004, so our curriculum actually mentioned the LGBTQ population. By that, I mean we watched Philadelphia—the Tom Hanks film about a homosexual lawyer living with HIV/AIDS. I learned about the virus and I filled out a worksheet about condoms.
I managed to see Brokeback Mountain in 2005 when it was released in theaters, a movie about gay romance that also ends in a young tragedy. For years, I watched Law and Order and other crime shows, where the only transgender characters are dead bodies seen in an episode’s first few minutes. Artistic, high-budget documentaries about the AIDS crisis taught me, again, that people like me were young and precious for a while—then they died shortly before turning 30.
Even LGBTQ media—made ostensibly for my people and not for straight audiences—can have this problem.
In a memorable episode of Queer as Folk, Brian Kinney, the so-emotionally-distant-it’s-hot bad boy with a heart of gold, turns 30 and panics over it. He starts engaging in risky behavior and contemplating suicide because “everything is over now.” With the help of his friend group, he eventually copes with his anxiety, but it’s a scene that stuck with me.
Sometimes, just learning about the history of the LGBTQ community can imbue one with the impression that we never grow old.
In one of my favorite recent books, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, she writes about great artists of the ‘80s and their relationship with art and mortality, including the famous artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, who died from AIDS at 37. The book is actually an investigation into the lonely lives of creative people, but I was struck by how young Wojnarowicz was at the time of his death.
I look back and think about how my school band teachers were all enthusiastic, nerdy lesbians of a certain age. One of my first bosses moved to my hometown with his husband after having lived in the West Village for decades. Two of my current coworkers are queer women over 35. I wasn’t lacking for personal older role models in the LGBTQ community, but media’s incessant messaging has a way of convincing you that what is represented is reality. Stories are infectious.
There is a “forever young” story still told in the LGBTQ community. Some of that is a result of the 1980s AIDs crisis, since many in our community did die young, forever stopped in their 20s. Demographically, I live in a state populated by many older people, but you wouldn’t know that if you attended our largest Pride festival. It was shining and resplendent with youths dressed in beautiful rainbow tutus, but I did not find many older queer people. We do have services for older members of my community, but they are not very visible. This all causes me to admittedly buy into the “forever young” undertone of my community at times.
But this Peter Pan-type of thinking isn’t helpful when I start thinking of life as something more than a series of experiences to have before perishing early.
I went from empathizing with Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical—“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory”—to daydreaming about the decade of my life in which I will take up quilting. I’ve started wondering if maybe I’ll even have a family of my own.
I have a trendy publishing job that lets me bounce around the globe, scratching off bucket list items that others would kill for. Now, I can look to the career in medicine I had set aside when I realized how many years it would take me to achieve it. I can see farther than tomorrow’s horizon. So instead of focusing on a full life, I can now plan for a long, fulfilling one, too. Some more items for the list.