His name was Barry, but since Donald had told me his name was Brett, I wasn’t sure it was him. In a gruff voice, he murmured, “Nice to meet you” as I shook his firm, calloused hand. So this was the Barry (or Brett?) that Donald had constantly talked about. I could now fully picture the stories that Donald had told me about their fights, vacations, and trips to the bathhouse. Until then, I had imagined billows of steam shrouding Barry’s face whenever Donald recounted his hedonistic adventures over lunch.
I finally understood why he lied to me about his name; Barry was old and Donald didn’t want me to judge him. He was definitely older than 35, which is what Donald had told me he was. He had a square face, short white hair, and big round glasses, similar to the ones that my father wears. The two of them together were an unlikely couple. Donald was short, 22, Vietnamese-American, and wore bright clothes from Hollister. Barry was a tall, burly white man in his late 60s who looked like he had a few grandchildren, or, at least, he dressed like he did.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded college liberal, but until I actually had a conversation with Donald and Barry I was quick to judge their relationship. The fact that Barry’s own children were 10 years older than Donald bothered me. It seemed incredibly creepy and inappropriate, almost bordering on incest. Barry even had a grandson. Surely Donald was having sex with him just for the paid dinners and free rent. And Barry was just a typical Caucasian sugar daddy (or more accurately, grandpa) with a fetish for Asian twinks. The relationship needed to end.
I texted Donald lunch to convince him to dump Barry. In the hour beforehand, I had tried to think of a nicer way of phrasing “You should date someone that doesn’t need to be on Life Alert.” But when I saw Donald sitting at a table, I also saw Barry sitting next to him. He was talking to a business client, and hearing him negotiate a real estate deal only further emphasized how old he was. From an outsider’s point of view, it looked like Donald and I were students and Barry was our economics professor.
The conversation started out awkward. I couldn’t concentrate on asking him questions because all I could think about was that these two people were having sex with each other. Barry carried the conversation by asking general questions about where I was from, how many brothers and sisters I had, and what I planned to do after graduating UCLA. What ultimately put me at ease was his complete openness and honesty. He started telling me fascinating details of his life narrative: his childhood in conservative Indiana, his marriage and divorce when he tried to live a heteronormative life, his children’s reactions to him coming out. I wanted to be judgmental but I ended up being engrossed in the dynamics of their relationship.
“I see Barry as a form of stability,” Donald noted. “He’s much more emotionally and sexually mature than the guys that I’ve dated. Young guys my age just want to have sex, but with Barry I feel like I can have more.”
“Younger guys have a great energy,” Barry had told me. “Yes, I’m attracted to them because of their beauty, but what’s more important is that they have this excitement for life that men within my age group don’t have. I like being able to guide Donald in his life and see him go through this process of maturation, physically, emotionally, and sexually”
As unconventional as their relationship was, I got the impression that Donald and Barry genuinely cared about each other. Neither one was taking advantage of the other, as I had previously suspected. So what was my problem with their relationship? Yes, I would never date anyone that old, but did that matter? At the end of the day, Donald and Barry were the ones that came home to each other. Donald was in a committed relationship with a man who really loved him. I was in a relationship with masturbation and Haagen-Daasz. (I still am).
From that conversation, I gained a profound insight about myself. I was just as prejudiced and judgmental as the homophobes and misogynists that I deplore. The Victorian attitudes toward sexuality brought on by my Catholic upbringing still remained deep within my psyche. As I continue to discover what it means to be queer, I need to remind myself that I am subject to bias just as much as the next person and that for some people, age is just a number.