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I, troll

(Reprinted from Etcetera, Atlanta. To pose your own question click on e-mail on the Trollbar below.)

I was surprised to see you speak candidly about being middle-aged and gay. I also thought your idea that the changes in the body initiate the wisdom of growing older really interesting. I wish you would write more about aging. - Rick

You aren't alone, Rick. My last column produced an avalanchette of mail from aging queers who made the same request. I didn't feel I had much more to say until I had a conversation with a friend about the recent murder of Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama.

My friend made the point that Billy Jack will never acquire Matthew Shepard's martyred status because of his age and appearance. "Let's face it," my friend said, "Billy Jack was a troll and Matthew was young and beautiful."

Could he have spoken more coldy - or more truthfully? But what interested me, besides the reminder that queer corpses compete in beauty pageants, was my friend's use of the word "troll." It occurred to me that, as far as I know, heterosexuals have no such word that conflates "old" and "unattractive" in a single word to describe a man.

Of course, queer speech has always been cruelly pointed and wonderfully ironic. We give names to things straight people don't. (Straight men who like large-breasted women aren't called "size queens" by their wives, for example.) And, while I think many straight men tend to make an immediate association between aging and unattractiveness, I feel sure it's not as powerful as ours. Nor, I suspect, is it as acceptable among hets to publicly dismiss the aging as physically ugly as it is in gay life.

The word "troll" invites a multitude of associations. The primary one, of course, is of the ugly dwarfish creature, living under the bridge, who licks his chops, intending to abduct young goats of the Billy Goat Gruff family as they cross over his domain. But he is perpetually outsmarted and, so, the troll is not only old, ugly and covetous of the young. He is also stupid.

Now the precise age at which one becomes a ugly, stupid, old troll is a little unclear. I figure that since I'm not sure, I've probably passed it and that it probably coincides generally with crossing into one's forties. Thus I am herewith officially coming out as a troll (replete with debut portrait in the popular shirtless fashion). I have also begun a website devoted to queer aging called TrollCam: . (Yes, really.)

Having long enjoyed self-anointed status as an expert on other matters, I have also assembled Five Facts of Life for Trolls. I will add new ones as I accumulate more fine lines. Please send me your own.

1. It's not your fault you've passed 40. On the other hand, you're lucky to be alive. Most men our age are haunted by the memory of the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. We watched countless young friends become disfigured and grow old and die in a matter of months. We really learned that beauty and youth are not necessarily associated with one another. Thus the present spectacle of boys with AIDS pumped up on steroids is utterly macabre to our eyes. We know the disfigurement and premature aging that likely await them and wonder, when we allow ourselves to think about it, what it means to approach death at any age with grace as a gay man. We wish that we could speak this aloud and not be ridiculed.

2. You are a probably a fashion disaster. Yes, I know gay men have reputations forTrollwear from IM their keen fashion sense, but this really is an art devoted to youth. In gay life, we seem to have utterly no sense of the way the body's changes require a different wardrobe. Believe me, if you are 45 and you think the fact that you go to the gym daily means you look good in the club clothes of a 24-year-old, you are wrong. The image of the aging queer in boytoy clothes is a painfully true stereotype deeply rooted in the imaginations of the decrepit designers of the International Male catalogue. (Burn it!)

3. Yes, trollop, you have wonderful memories of sexual liberation. Write them down, seriously. Queer life 20-plus years ago was a hell of a lot more interesting than it is now. As I told a young friend recently, in the Mythical '70s men put on macho drag and carried a tambourine to the disco. The GI slapping a tambourine on his hip was a hilarious image and it was certainly meant to burlesque all masculine stereotypes, not just the stereotype of the sissy, obviously.

Now, it's probably a good thing that young gay men are being mainstreamed, but it's foolish not to acknowledge and appreciate what a delightful sense of the outre we experienced before AIDS. I suspect that in reality much of outsider queer culture has just gone underground again. After a period of curling their lips contemptuously about the bathhouse and backroom culture of the '70s, young queer man have put their lips to better uses in their own sex clubs, for example. But we trolls will never take military haircuts and self-characterizations as "jocks" (because one goes to the gym or finds certain NFL players hot) seriously.

4. You need to go back to school or join a book club or salon (no, not a hair one). Your brain is going to turn to trollmush if you don't put it to some challenges. I count myself as really lucky to have connected pretty early in my queer life with some major brains - once I left post-marital life as a gay divorcee in Augusta's drag club. Gay men are the keepers of culture and this, I submit, is our function in the second half of life: to speak for the necessity of the aesthetic in the world. By the aesthetic, I don't mean just the decorative, I mean all of those artistic expressions that arrest our attention because they are so true, because of their capacity to reverse ordinary understanding. The movie "Gods and Monsters" illustrates this well, I think. Yes, troll, go see that movie. You future trolls should see it too.

5. You are not a doyenne or diva. Abandon tragedy and prissiness, ye who enter the space beneath the bridge. A single life matters very little in the end. The currents of our own lifetime are filled with dramas that sweep life into the trashcan without blinking: "ethnic cleansing," AIDS, starvation. Are you, troll, going to sit home and caress your 20-year-old spandex to your cheek, reviewing cosmetic surgery advertisements? Probaby. But if you wish to redeem your life, to leave behind a mark of genuine eros, do something for people who really suffer.

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