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Aging in Queer Time

We’re all familiar with the timeline that life is “supposed” to follow. You get a degree, get a job, then start a family. It can feel as if you’re being pushed to perpetuate a system rather than pursue your own individual needs and desires. Should your life follow its own rhythm, you may be treated as bordering on failure in the now watchful gaze of your peers and family, all wondering the same thing: will you catch up or fall further behind?

While we have all been pushed to accept existence within this framework, it is in the theory of Queer Temporality that we can understand why adherence to this script often fails to provide joy and security for queer people.

In “In a Queer Time and Place,” J. Jack Halberstam explores the nontraditional relationship that queerness has with space and time. Her work calls into focus a timeline assumed by the culture at large, one meant to gauge the progress of an individual from adolescence to adulthood. Currently, society measures adulthood by progression through the life milestones of postsecondary education, career, marriage, and mortgage, before finally assuming “true” adulthood by having, and raising, children. Adherence to this schedule influences the current social and cultural norms. Regardless of their reason, those unable to follow this timeline can be shamed and othered for it. Labels like “lazy,” “entitled,” or “childish” are ruthlessly applied to individuals with their own needs and visions for life. It is here that the issues with the script become obvious. Any number of factors, such as race, class, identity, trauma, or disability can result in an altered relationship with life’s expected timeline.

Halberstam explores how queerness exists in opposition to this expected timeline, something she calls “chrononormativity.” Rather than living life following a preordained script, queer temporality transcends the normative relationships with the time and space that cis straight people often better identify with. This results in the formation of new checkpoints to measure and divide portions of one’s life. Time is spent in ways unique to the queer experience: discovering emergent identity outside of childhood, in transitory time as bodies undergo gender-affirming care and in the delay between consultations and approvals, on mourning a childhood spent closeted. Every individual queer person will have their own chronology beyond the normative, all equally valid in their existence.

Even beyond individual differences, there have been shared moments which result in new perspectives for an entire generation of queer people. A notable instance that Halberstam points to is the AIDS epidemic, during which the focus shifted from planning a life of longevity to a life of planned joy in the face of potential annihilation. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a new generation of queerness face a similarly widespread change in the relationship with time, as isolation during lockdown provided a shared stalling of presumed timelines and connection.

It is only natural that queerness would occupy its own time, and that aging would come to be marked by new milestones which can only exist by bucking old assertions of what “should be.” This is a wonderful thing. Through the embrace and rediscovery of identity, we find ourselves free to pursue a timeline and life of our own creation.

There is beauty and joy in the reclamation of time and identity. You can find it in community gatherings filled with diverse and storied people eager to share in the beauty of living life in genuine pursuit of their truth. The spaces we occupy and the people we commune with become the lens we use to view our new relationship with the world and the time we spend in it, and we will continue to choose to live life at our tempo, work when we can, dance as we please, and experience our queer joy unfettered by the bounds of chrononormativity.