May/December lesbian love is having a cultural moment right now. In October, Ellen Page and Julianne Moore starred as partners in Freeheld the true story of the love and lawsuit of Stacie Andree and her much older partner, Laurel Hester. The celebrated Carol remains in theaters and explores the attraction between a young shop clerk and a sophisticated older woman. Carol‘s own Abby, out actress Sarah Paulson, is dating Holland Taylor who is three decades her senior. Their general awesomeness and adorable Twitter-PDA has quickly made them darlings of the internet. (Also worth nothing Sarah has previously dated another older actress, Cherry Jones.)
Image: © Aubrey Reuben/UPPA via ZUMA Press
Non-traditional age gaps between women in same-sex relationships are nothing new, but the mainstream celebration of these couples entered the zeitgeist in 2015 in an unprecedented manner. As someone who has had multiple relationships with women 10 or more years older than me, the emergence of this dynamic modeled in popular culture has provided cause for excitement, as well as an opportunity for self-reflection. Is there something intrinsic to queer culture that is conducive to age gaps between partners? And what is it about older women that’s so damn appealing to me?
The first steps on my journey to becoming an adult who shuns ageism had little to nothing to do with being queer. Rather, it began with a childhood of formative familial friendships with my brother and older cousins, mostly male. I was raised among bright, kind, older boys who more often treated me as an equal than a nuisance. The first vocal feminist I ever knew was male: my cousin Jeffrey, who was one of my closest friends, and 11 years older than me. It never occurred to me that it was uncommon to have decade-older best friends until I entered into middle school, which was around the same time I was also rudely awakened to the sexism already conditioned into many of my peers.
As a young person, I had a significant and persistent love for Dana Scully, which I later understood as an early queer curiosity, but I was also a very late bloomer who didn’t date a boy until I was 20, and didn’t date a woman until years after that. My first girlfriend, albeit an old soul, was younger than me. Since then, I’ve had a handful of relationships with women 10-15 years older than me, and two partners who were more than 20 years my senior. I’ve always found the term “May/December” to be somewhat rude, as “May/August” or “May/September” feels more apt.
Lest anyone tries to hurl accusations of fetishism, I should clarify that I’ve also dated my peers, but the noteworthy age gap has shown up enough in my more serious relationships to be worth exploring. When speaking on a topic as subjective as attraction, I’m hesitant to speak in universalities, but I can discuss the cause and consequences of these relationships in my own life.
There are a plethora of qualities I find attractive in a woman older than me or, shall I say, in the idea of this woman. She has more lived experiences, and conveys maturity, wisdom, and a shareable perspective. Her confidence is sexy; she knows what she wants, and is comfortable asking for it. She is a learned and respectful communicator. She is good in bed. She is more selective about who she dates and more serious about her relationships. She is established in her career and financially secure. She is grounded. She reads, and most likely has excellent taste in music and knowledge about world events. There’s a chance she doesn’t care about social media, aka she’s the coolest person on earth.
The thing is, I find the above qualities to be attractive in a human of any age. I’ve never set out to intentionally find an older woman to date, but I’ve felt drawn to women who are comfortable in their own skin and, more often than not, this is connected to how long they’ve lived.
On the other hand, dating someone much older can have its very real challenges. She is more set in her ways, or her life is established to a degree that lacks the flexibility needed to build something new with someone in a different stage of life. Your interests, or your friend group, may not resonate with her. She is juggling emotional or logistical fallout from a divorce. She may have children, which come with their own set of joys and challenges for a new partner. She is at a place in her life in which she knows whether she wants more children, or whether she wants to have any kids at all, regardless of if you’ve figured that out for yourself. If she has kids and you break up, you will also mourn the loss of her children from your life.
Same-sex dating with an age gap is an experience in extreme queerness, by which I mean your relationship is doubly invisible to society. If the mostly-straight public already struggles to recognize two women of the same age in public together as possibly dating, it’s even less likely that you’ll read as a couple if there is a perceptible age difference between you and your partner. The public erasure of same-sex couples can be bad enough, but it’s even worse when someone refers to your date as your sister or your mom.
How about we make a new rule: Just like you should never ask a woman about her pregnancy unless she tells you she’s pregnant, you should never assume two women are biologically related unless they introduce themselves as such. Given that queer people overcome normative expectations just to be themselves, it’s unsurprising that there would be open-mindedness within queer culture about challenging other taboos such as dating across generations.
Nonetheless, there are even people who engage in these couplings who still internalize an ageist bias. I once dated a woman who was 11 years older than me, who hated that I was younger. Prior to our relationship, she’d only dated women older than herself. She referred to my friends as “little kids” and was unabashedly vocal about her disappointment that I had an income typical of a 20-something, as well about as her impatience for me to at least turn 30. She desperately wanted to have a child and expressed doubt that I was ready for that.
In later years, by way of contrast, another girlfriend who was 20 years older than me seemed completely comfortable with our age difference, despite the fact that I was only seven years older than her daughter. Her only age-related concern was that she wanted me to one day have the experience of having children, but knew she was done raising kids herself. Both women projected an expectation of motherhood upon me, before I’d confirmed or denied my own desire or interest in having children.
Despite my expectations for the perks of relationships with older women, my longitudinal research has shown me that, ultimately, there’s no essential connection between age and maturity. Some of the most “adult” handling of conflict resolution I’ve experienced in my life has occurred with people my own age, whereas some of the most bafflingly unkind or emotionally irresponsible actions have been taken by those who “should know better.” Wisdom is earned by the hard work of introspection, not acquired by default of surviving. The late, great Aaliyah was right all along: age, quite literally, ain’t nothing but a number.
I’m now entering an era in which it is conceivable that I could become the older half of an age gap. It’s hard to imagine that I could feel attracted to someone in her early 20s but, whenever I deem something to be impossible for myself, life does have a habit of presenting me with that very challenge. There are two sides to any relationship, and though I can’t speak to what it’s like to be on the December side of this dichotomy, perhaps someone out there will write a companion piece about dating younger women.
I recommend not letting any (legal and consenting) age difference prevent you from pursuing a connection that feels organic and compelling. Just be careful with your hearts, and be wary of making assumptions about your partner based on age alone.
*This piece was originally published on AfterEllen.com*