Anybody who has followed my writing for very long knows I’m a mentor. I don’t mean that in just the general sense, though it’s true in a general sense. I write a lot of stories and essays with a focus on youth. I often have young people in mind when I write.
No, I mean I am a mentor in a very specific sense. As a gay man, I often hesitate to talk about that. Stupid of me. Or is it?
I didn’t know what to write about
One day, I’d been so busy editing and promoting other writers I’d barely given a thought to my own work. I’m committed to publishing every day, though, and I’m a driven person, so it was eating at me.
I let my ‘mentee’ know I was struggling. “What faux pearls of wisdom should I dig up and strew about willy nilly today, “ I asked Fred Shirley. “Give me a clue!”
To say Fred was struggling with exams is serious understatement. He was in a rigorous scientific training program, and even though he’s brilliant and hard working, the pressure was intense and sometimes too much for him.
He leaned on me for support
Like all good mentor/mentee relationships, ours is a two-way street. Give and take. Back and forth. But I never forget that I’m the mature adult, and that Fred is still figuring it all out.
We’ve learned a lot from each other over the past year or more since we’ve known each other closely. Fred has been able to draw from my experience and knowledge. He’s been able to find a certain amount of emotional stability and validation in me. I’ve learned also. I’ve been able to sharpen my mind by following some of his studies and by engaging with some of his passions.
Here’s the thing. Fred’s a teenager. I’m in my 50s.
He’s a 19-year-old student who was 18 when we got to know each other. He’s gay. He is also, to speak frankly, attractive and charming, so I worry about appearances.
If I were a woman or a straight man, I wouldn’t think twice about our relationship. As it is, I’m perfectly comfortable with it — for myself. I think of myself as old Aunty Jimothy as far as Fred is concerned, and I’ve helped him out with gay dating and relationship tips, always hoping he’s about to meet Mr. Right Now and settle down for a fabulous fling with a guy his age.
(For anyone who follows my Aunty Jimothy advice column, now you know where it started.)
Unconsciously, however, I find myself on the defensive. I find myself justifying my mentoring relationship with Fred to other people. Part of me recoils from discussing it, another part of me constructs unnecessary, elaborate arguments defending it.
I don’t need to defend a mentoring relationship. I shouldn’t have to. I should stop. I should reject entrenched societal stereotypes that position middle-aged gay men as sexual threats to younger males.
Naturally, I do reject them. Deliberately, consciously, and intellectually. That doesn’t mean I don’t still feel them. It doesn’t mean I haven’t internalized shame that shouldn’t belong to me.
We don’t live in a post-gay world
I’d love to think we do. I’d love to be at that place where sexual orientation is so insignificant that speaking of homophobia isn’t important or relevant. I’m sure we’ll get there one day, but we have a lot of work to do.
In the meantime, it’s up to me and all of us to examine our own prejudices, our own misconceptions, and fight for our own worth, value, and dignity.
It’s up to gay men to own our own manhood and our own masculinity — however we choose to define masculinity. It’s up to us to own our nurturing sides and not be ashamed of them.
It should be up to me to say, “I’m proud to be friends with a gay teenager who values my support and guidance.” But that’s not what I said, is it?
I equivocated throughout this entire piece by calling myself a mentor rather than a friend.