When I get older: Imagining your bisexual future

This originally appeared in BCN issue 107.

Everyone grows older, unless they die first. But although rationally we might know this, somehow most people find it difficult to imagine that they will ever really grow old themselves. Ideas about old age and older people are often very negative and stereotyping and being old is often equated with being out-of-date, boring or unattractive. So perhaps it’s not surprising if people don’t want to imagine themselves ever being old. People who identify as bisexual or other forms of queer identities often find it particularly hard to imagine being older because we don’t see many older queer people on our television screens, in fiction or in the news.

Researchers who are interested in later life and ageing have looked at what people do imagine when you ask them to think about their own future and ageing. They mostly asked schoolchildren and students and found that almost everyone imagines very conventional future lives of meeting the love of their life early on, marrying them, being monogamous and having children and then grandchildren. They imagined that in old age their lives would be centred around their homes, grandchildren and home-based activities such as gardening and knitting.

As far as I know, there’s only been one previous piece of research asking how queer people imagine their future and their own ageing (Goltz, 2008). Goltz ran a semester long group for undergraduates using creative methods such as writing, drawing, making up songs and dancing to try to imagine queer futures for themselves. The seven queer-identified students who took part described themselves with a variety of identity labels, including ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘queer and attracted to women’. (Annoyingly, Goltz simplifies these identities into ‘the lesbian women’ and ‘the gay men’ but that’s a common fault in research about queer people). He found big differences between the futures envisaged by the men and the women (none of them seem to have identified as trans). The men imagined overwhelmingly negative later lives of isolation, loneliness, bitterness and early death. They did not imagine long term relationships or having children. The women imagined much happier futures, focused on long-term coupledom and having children but mainly limited what they imagined to domesticity rather than public activities. Goltz argues that the extent to which the participants were able to imagine happy later lives depended on the extent to which they were able to imagine conventional life courses. If they didn’t imagine conventional kinds of lives, they couldn’t imagine that their later lives would be happy.

I thought that was really interesting, rather depressing, and wondered how it might work for bisexual people. So I decided to run workshops at BiCon 2010 asking people to imagine their own future and later life, also using creative methods. The workshops had a three-part structure. First of all we thought about negative visions of old age, using the phrase ‘‘when I fear growing older, I imagine’ as a stimulus for discussion. Then we moved on to more positive visions of old age, including an adaptation of a reading from the book Growing Old Disgracefully (The Hen Co-op, 1993). Then people drew pictures of how they imagined their own old age or later life, using felt-tips, tissue paper, stickers, glitter pens and so on. They were told that it didn’t matter whether they create a positive, negative, realistic or mixed picture of their later life. Thirty-three people took part.

So did they all draw happy conventional lives or unhappy unconventional ones?  No they did not!  While some people did imagine fairly conventional-looking futures, many people drew untraditional looking futures, such as being poly, remaining involved with the bi scene and not having children, and most of those futures were happy ones.

For example, the person who chose to be called Anthony Thrift, certainly imagined a future centred on domesticity, family and childrearing but he imagined a poly parenting set up:
‘Purple Person’ drew an LGBT nursing home with a supply of strippers and condoms rather than bingo:

And ‘V.V.’ imagined herself aged 80 at Queer Pagan Camp having hot sex with her future girlfriend:

So how come participants in my research were able to imagine positive futures without imagining heterosexuality, monogamy, marriage and conventional child rearing?

I don’t think it’s because we used creative methods, even though people do often find those fun which might put them in a cheerful mood, because Goltz also used creative methods. I also don’t think it’s because just before the drawing activity we had talked about positive visions of later life, because Goltz also spent a lot of time with his group imagining positive untraditional lives, but they still couldn’t imagine that for themselves.

One theory I have is that it’s because participants in this study were much older than in the other studies. They ranged in age from 20-66 and the average age was 37.5, a bit older than typical BiCon attenders (33.7 in 2008), and a lot older than the school children and undergraduates that other people have talked to. Perhaps when you are a child or a young adult it is even harder to imagine your future, so you are more likely to draw on these conventional patterns. I looked at my data to see if younger people did imagine more conventional futures than older people, but the sort of future people imagined seemed to have very little relationship to their age. However, 33 people isn’t very many so that might just be because the numbers are too small for any patterns to show.

I think the main reason people were able to imagine positive and non-conventional futures was because we were at BiCon where non-traditional life course features, like being bi and being poly, are so common. If I had conducted the research in a different setting, I suspect not so many people would have come up with such positive and unconventional visions of later life. That doesn’t mean that this research is invalid – people often say and imagine different things in different contexts. These visions aren’t meant to be predictions of what will actually happen in people’s later lives.

However, several people have said to me since that taking part in the workshop made them feel more positively about their own ageing and later life. That’s definitely a good result as far as I’m concerned. Ursula le Guin says it much better than me:

“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them […] If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people” (le Guin, 2004, p. 208)

If you want to find out more about this research, there’s an article about it in the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Bisexuality:

Jones, R. L. (2011). Imagining bisexual futures: Positive, non-normative later life Journal of Bisexuality, 11(2)
Or contact me directly: [email protected]

A big thank you to all the participants in the workshops, including the pilot-workshop people.

Rebecca Jones
Faculty of Health and Social Care,
The Open University.

Goltz, D. (2008). Investigating queer future meanings: Destructive perceptions of ‘the harder path’. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(3), 561-586.

le Guin, U. (2004). The wave in the mind: Talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination Boston, MA: Shambhala.

The Hen Co-op. (1993). Growing Old Disgracefully: new ideas for getting the most out of life. London: Piatkus.