For a while, TV has preferred to only depict gay guys who are young, like the high school crooners of Glee and the 30-something “Lost Boys” of Queer as Folk. But now it seems older gay men are finally getting their moment on the small screen.
For posterity’s sake, let’s have a look: There’s the silver-haired gay couple played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston in Netflix’s comedy series Grace and Frankie, Will and Jack in the revival of Will & Grace, openly gay 63-year-old actor Leslie Jordan in the upcoming FOX retirement home comedy The Cool Kids, a gay version of The Golden Girls called Silver Foxes currently in development and the comedic web series West 40s, about a group of gay friends navigating their 40s in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. Its first episode went online this past July.
To better understand why older gay men are appearing more and more on television, we spoke with West 40s’ creators, Brian Sloan and Mark Sam Rosenthal (who plays lusty character T.J. in the series) and with Silver Foxes creator Stan Zimmerman, a longtime TV and film writer and producer who worked on Golden Girls, Gilmore Girls, The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Film.
Right now there are at least 3 million LGBTQ seniors living in the Unite States. By 2034, that number is expected to double. Some gay senior citizens live with other older gay friends in a Golden Girls-style living arrangement — dating, having sex and living authentic, fulfilling lives.
Here’s a trailer for the web series West 40s:
Others, like the LGBTQ seniors depicted in the 2011 documentary Gen Silent, face poverty and loneliness in their old age. Lacking offspring or a gay community able to care for them, some older gay men move into assisted living facilities where they’re forced back into the closet rather than face homophobic mistreatment from caretakers and other residents.
“This is the first time that we’ve had an older generation,” Sloan says, and he’s right. The HIV epidemic’s worst years in the ’80s and ’90s wiped out an entire generation of queer men who’d now be in their 40s and 50s had they survived. Those who did survive are now entering their 50s, 60s and 70s, giving us our first generation of older, media-savvy queer men.
“For a lot of us, coming of age in the times of AIDS, there was one week where I went to three funerals, and a lot of us thought we would never live to see this age,” Zimmerman says. “Before, older gay men were raised to be in the closet. So they weren’t out and proud and telling their stories. Luckily now, as we all get older, we can be out there telling our stories and we can be role models.”
Older gay men now inhabit in a world drastically different from the one they grew up in — one where they can marry, choose from an ever-broadening array of sexual orientations and gender identities and stay sexually active with gay apps and erectile dysfunction medication.
And it’s here that West 40s and Silver Foxes find their comedy.
In West 40s, for example, a group of five gay friends navigate their 40s while living in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. In the show’s pilot episode, a father named Luis celebrates his 40th birthday with his similarly aged pals only to find his celebrations beset by lower back pain, young strippers and a loud strip club. But all poor Luis wants to do is go home and rest.
“We wanted to do a show that looked at gay life post-40 and the ‘midlife crisis’ but with more of a sense of humor and not the ‘gloom and doom’ in which that time is usually portrayed,” says Sloan.
Zimmerman’s Silver Foxes involves a gay retiree who accidentally burns down his West Hollywood condo. After moving into a retirement home, he feels forced to closet himself and act butch in order to gain acceptance. Saddened by the charade, two of his similarly aged friends encourage him to move in with them instead.
Though Silver Foxes will primarily center around older gay men, Zimmerman says the series will also include a younger twink character who represents the 20-something generation. There will also be a Hollywood lesbian power couple relentlessly seeking to buy the men’s house.
“I think younger gay men are in a period of looking back for a point of origin, where we came from, how we got to this point,” Rosenthal says.
As proof, he points to the 2017 TV series When We Rise, which chronicled the history of the American LGBTQ rights movement and Pose, Ryan Murphy’s dramatic TV series about queer ballroom culture in New York City during the 1980s.
Shows about older gay generations seem to bridge the gap between younger and older gays.
But it’s not just enough to have a token gay character in a TV show, Zimmerman says. To effectively portray those characters, he says, you need gay writers with greater knowledge of and sensitivity to the life experiences, cultural references and everyday hardships faced by queer people. Otherwise you end up with two-dimensional characters that ring hollow for gay viewers.
Shows like West 40s and Silver Foxes also raise the possibility of greater overall diversity on TV. The pilot of West 40s features a more racially diverse lead cast than Queer As Folk or Will & Grace ever have.
Sloan and Rosenthal say the diversity merely reflects their own lives and the diversity of New York City, adding that future episodes will eventually feature different types of queer diversity, including bisexuality, trans identity, people living with HIV and more. “You can’t live in New York City and not see that sort of diversity,” Rosenthal says. “Other New York ensemble shows have non-diverse casts, and at this point it just seems weird.”
So far, West 40s‘ creators have written five more episodes for the show’s first season and are currently seeking financing to shoot those episodes this fall. They joke there’s enough material to have the show span 10 years, at which point they’ll produce a spin-off called West 50s.
Zimmerman and his co-collaborators recently began development of Silver Foxes with the Turner Broadcasting-owned comedy production team Super Deluxe, but he says other TV producers and distributors refused to consider the show out of fear that younger consumers wouldn’t watch it, making it non-marketable to would-be advertisers — basically, a form of ageism.
“There is still ageism in Hollywood,” Zimmerman says, “and that’s still an issue. … I was shocked that still, in this day and age, I couldn’t get a major broadcast network to even read the script. Even going to my producer friends, even some who have deals at studios, they literally said they’ll never make the show.”
Frankly, TV producers (and media outlets in general) typically ignore gay men in their 40s and beyond because advertisers see them as less profitable than consumers in their 20s and 30s. Gay men in their 40s and 50s are also typically seen as being set in their ways, something Sloan and Rosenthal wanted to explore and challenge in their series.
Zimmerman, though, refutes that thinking. “People thinking that, for some reason, older people don’t buy products, or their demographics are not as attractive … I’ve never understood that because I buy a lot of shit. And the older we get, the more products we use.”
Despite the fact that The Golden Girls focused on the lives of four silver-haired women, ZImmerman says the show reached across age demographics and continues to make money through syndication and promotional marketing with fans of all ages continuing to buy T-shirts and even action figures depicting its main characters.
Gay fans have helped build a lot of online buzz for Silver Foxes, and Sloan and Rosenthal hope funders will see their show’s potential market appeal to queer viewers and potential advertisers, ultimately bringing it onto mainstream platforms.
“I think hopefully the more we tell these stories, the more we can see that we don’t have to be segregated into those age groups,” Zimmerman says.