There is an order of gay male elders called The Parliament of Snowy Owls. It has come to be as the response of the Universe to the epidemic of loneliness and self-destructiveness among many aging gay men.
Stories are told of depression, and fear, made numb by alcohol, drugs, and risky sexual behavior. Some of it is anger about pain-filled, failing bodies, but it’s also fear of having no purpose, no identity, and of dying alone. It is scary and sad to witness, and it’s not nature’s intention.
The name “Snowy Owl Elder” came into being to distinguish those older gay men who are worthy role models, as well as sources of wise counsel for peers seeking comfort and direction. Every gay male over age 65 is an elder, but, regrettably, not everyone can be called an Elder in this circle. There are defining characteristics of Snowy Owl Elders. Chief among them are the love and celebration of one’s gender, one’s sexual orientation, and one’s age.
A gathering of owls is called a “parliament” because owls are traditionally thought to be wise. Ideally, a parliament is therefore made up of wise entities.
So, gay Elders are considered to be wise, prudently thinking, and acting in ways that manifest the awareness they garnered from a long life of experiences, and good choices.
What is looked for in a Snowy Owl Elder is not just a joy in being gay, but also an awareness of, and appreciation for, our history of struggle for equality, an understanding of the importance of coming out, a comfort with the differences of others, and a deep respect and admiration for the courage of people who are openly lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer. If I was to refer a younger person to a Snowy Owl Elder in another part of the country, I would do so confident that the Elder’s maturity and moral compass would protect the younger man from any misconduct.
I seek the company of Snowy Owl Elders in my life because they inspire me with their hunger for personal growth. These men age with grace and gratitude. They are thoughtful, kind, and generous. They are respectful of others, live in moderation, and are committed to the cause of gay liberation.
Many gay men I know are Elders-in-training. They live the ideals of the Snowy Owl Elder, but they’re not yet old enough to be considered an elder. They are “old souls,” but they haven’t yet fully faced the challenges of being in a body that, because of its age, isn’t working as well as it once did, nor have they realized the many great advantages of being older.
It’s a bit like climbing the steps of a fire tower. It’s only when you get to the top platform that you get a full perspective of where you’ve been, where you are, and where others find themselves.
You hear the word “elder” more and more these days because there are more people 65 and older than ever before. Ten thousand people turn 65 every day in the U.S. The attention of our LGBT community leaders is now focussed on age because of the unanticipated crisis in multiple areas of living, from the debilitating loss of loved ones, to sensitive nursing home care, and safe senior housing. Besides suicide and increased rates of HIV among older gay men, therapists, clergy, and bartenders report pervasive loneliness and depression, and the subsequent dysfunctional behaviors.
The current effort to identify Snowy Owl Elders is driven by our consciousness of the very difficult time many gay men are having with aging. The Universe seeks to both honor those older men whose lives are worthy of emulation, but more importantly secure their help in mentoring those in need. The designation of Elder carries with it the responsibility of helping others to alter their negative attitudes about growing old as gay men, and to help manage the many challenges of aging as they occur.
There are no structures, no fees, no annual gatherings in the Parliament. Snowy Owl Elders emerge as role models on their own. They are those who other men admire for their character, not their wealth or status; older gay men who can be trusted with the role of mentor. It’s therefore a title that is community ordained.
Yet, those who live in more isolated circumstances, and who know they fit the description, are also able to name themselves Snowy Owl Elders.
In doing so, though, they accept their call to respond to this very challenging, often isolating and alienating, time of final maturation. Snowy Owl Elders are being summoned by the Universe to make themselves, and their services known.
Growing old may not be for sissies, but aging gay men will get by with a little help from a Snowy Owl Elder sissy friend.
-Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBT issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.”