According to their social media PDA, at least, actors Holland Taylor (age 72) and Sarah Paulson (age 40), are ridiculously, deeply in love. My colleague Sarah Karlan recently rounded up the sweetest tweets exchanged between the newly public couple. The post, which went viral, has garnered a largely mixed response, but with a definitive tilt toward Aw-They’re-So-Cute-I’m-Glad-They’re-Happy. I’ve seen nothing but positively gleeful reactions from the lesbian faction, who are thrilled that Peggy Peabody from the L Word is gaying it up IRL. But there are also plenty of people who are uncomfortable with Taylor and Paulson’s 32-year age difference. One of the most-liked Facebook comments on the article reads: “This is really gross. Not because they are gay, but because Sarah Paulson is dating the crypt keeper.”
Depictions of significant lesbian age differences were mostly the stuff of subculture before this year, when a number of films pushed the phenomenon into the mainstream spotlight. Three films released in 2015 that centered on lesbian characters — Paul Weitz’s Grandma, Peter Sollett’s Freeheld, and most recently, Todd Haynes’ Carol — all involved intergenerational romantic relationships. None were in wide release, but both Freeheld and Carol had big distribution backing, and Carol, which just got nominated for five Golden Globes, is well en route to mass critical acclaim. This year, a whole lot of people have watched lesbians of varying age differences fall in love — and some witnesses have been nothing short of scandalized. That these age differences are oftentimes considered gross or salacious is pretty galling, since we’re all quite comfortable seeing older men date much younger women: Take all the James Bond films. Take Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, and Jennifer Lawrence’s entire careers. Everybody’s cool with women dating up, so long as the older person they’re dating is a man.
Increased visibility for intergenerational lesbian relationships doesn’t only shed light on the public discomfort they inspire — these depictions also reflect the real-life lesbians who’ve been dating like this since the dawn of always. According to 2014 data compiled by the Williams Institute, 31% of married same-sex female couples have a 5- to 10-year age difference, compared to 21% of married different-sex couples; for 10-plus years, those numbers are 16% and 8%, respectively. Basically: This isn’t a new, or rare, phenomenon.
While naysayers insist that relationships like Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson’s don't make them uncomfortable for an explicitly gay reason, significant age differences between lesbians aren’t actually divorced from their queerness at all — these differences are a nontraditional aspect of coupledom borne from queerness itself. Women who date significantly up or significantly down radically subvert heteronormative standards for what’s appropriate when it comes to sex and love.
Misunderstandings with warped oedipal undertones often plague queer women in intergenerational relationships. Once, the author and poet Eileen Myles was checking out at a store with a younger woman she was dating at the time, when the cashier asked her, “How are you doing today, Mom?”
Myles, who recounted the incident during a recent phone call, groans. “You want to put a stake through the guy’s heart.”
Myles, 66, has been romantically involved with a number of women a few decades her junior. The epigram which opens Grandma, Paul Weitz’s 2015 film about a gay woman in her sixties and her teenage granddaughter, is a quote from Myles: “Time passes. That’s for sure.” Myles is clearly a model upon which Weitz crafted his titular character, played with some serious panache by Lily Tomlin: She’s a lapsed academic; she’s a poet; and she’s dating a younger woman, played by 40-year-old Judy Greer. In the newly released season two of Transparent, there's another distinctly Myles-like older dyke poet character (Myles and Transparent's creator, Jill Soloway, are currently dating), who, when hanging around with a younger woman, deals with an awkward Is-that-your-girlfriend-or-your-daughter mixup.
M, a 30-year-old living in Los Angeles with her partner, T, who’s 19 years older, says they also receive some scrutiny when they’re out in public. (Both women requested not to be named for this story, to protect the sensitive nature of T’s professional life.) Strangers are always trying to figure out how they’re related. T has a 5-year-old son; when the whole family is out together, M is sometimes assumed to be the nanny. Race, too, is a contributing factor. “As a mixed black woman,” M says, “that plays into [other people’s] assumptions whenever [T] walks into the room.”
M finds that when she does get prying age-related questions, they tend to be from straight men, who will openly question her and T’s compatibility. “I’ve been shocked at the audacity of that,” says M. “I don’t go around asking people about their relationships. Straight men think that’s OK to ask.”
Greta Martela, 46, and Nina Chaubal, 24, also say their relationship gets misinterpreted. The two started hanging out as just friends a few years ago, beginning with a trip to get their nails done. It was Chaubal’s first time at a salon, when both women were in the early stages of their gender transitions; a lot of traditionally feminine activities still had the sparkling sheen of newness.
“If we’d been the same age, we would have hooked up that first weekend,” says Martela. “I didn’t want her to feel taken advantage of later on. I just wanted to hang back and let her be a young woman in the city.” Both women were living in the Bay Area at the time, working as software engineers. They joked about their jobs and Dungeons & Dragons. “I hadn’t had that close a friendship in years, honestly,” Martela adds. “We just kind of got each other, a right away thing. Being older, I realize how rare it is to really mesh with somebody like that.” Their friendship inevitably evolved. This past March, they got married, and in April they moved to Chicago to build a life together.
But they’re rarely read as the wives that they are. “We’re an interracial couple, a queer couple — when we’re out, people don’t normally make the connection,” says Chaubal.
“It’s that awkward thing socially,” adds Martela. “Like, ‘Oh, is that your daughter?’ Ahhhhh. Stop.”
“Power exchanges between women are always pathologized,” Myles says. In an intergenerational lesbian relationship, according to public perception, “[the older woman] becomes the mom — predatory, pathologized — and the younger person becomes someone who was abused, someone with with family issues. On and on.” Myles thinks that public discomfort with significant age differences between queer women boils down to discrediting these women’s agency. “Female power is at the heart of this.”
That an older lesbian is often assumed the Mother, either literally or figuratively, aligns with the ways we archetypically assign identities to women of a certain age. Mothers, and grandmothers even more so, are not usually afforded the status of sexiness. When internet commenters decried Sarah Paulson and Taylor Holland’s relationship, there were a lot of people who assumed that Paulson “could do better” — which certainly has nothing to do with Holland’s talent and intellect (which are automatically called into question anyway) and everything to do with her 72-year-old body.
“Women become invisible in the aging process,” says Myles. “We’re afraid of aging because of what will happen to us — we’ll be erased, become stupid and slow. The great female disaster is aging.”
With different-sex couples, it’s far more common to see a guy as the older figure in an intergenerational relationship, since an older man is a sugar daddy at worst; a suave, handsome, savvy gentleman at best. A woman, however, should she enter into a relationship with a much younger person, is desperate, sloppy, a cougar, an anomaly — quite possibly a fetish.
Queer people, as they are wont to do, often upset these cultural scripts. While same-sex female couples with significant age differences are more common than different-sex ones, same-sex male relationships are actually the most common of all: 25% of unmarried queer male couples have an age gap of 10 or more years between them. Though gay men dating intergenerationally can cause stirs (when 58-year-old Stephen Fry, the English actor, married stand-up comic Elliott Spencer this year, who’s 30 years his junior, there were certainly some titters), it is older women, in particular, who are scorned for dating younger — regardless of their sexuality. As Amy Schumer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus will tell you, every woman will face her last fuckable day all too soon.
But queer women, at least, benefit from a certain level of liberation from traditional beauty ideals, which privilege the young and nubile. Many lesbians are capable of looking at other women in ways straight men have not been taught to look. “A female face or body gets more interesting in age: cooler, deeper,” says Myles. “[Their] style, affectations, attitudes. … Every single one of them has an eros.”
Whereas film and television have hammered home that straight women’s sex appeal has an expiration date, the dearth of mainstream queer representation before the past decade can almost seem like a backward kind of blessing. “We don’t have so many years of media telling us what our relationships should look like,” says Chaubal.
Of course, queer people, who are freed from certain heteronormative restrictions, are not similarly liberated from the beauty and behavior standards established by white-privileging capitalism. “When you look at the queer women's community in the big cities, [it’s all] young white girls,” says M. In those circles, there are most definitely standards: “Everyone has to look a certain way, a certain kind of queer, with their Tegan and Sara haircuts.”
The 19-year age difference between her and her partner, T, serves as its own kind of deliverance. “We don’t have to look a certain way, because we already don’t fit a certain box.” That’s because — even though significant age differences are more common among queers than they are among straight people — they’re still outside of the norm. Myles names the phenomenon: Dating much younger women has led to the experience of “being treated as doubly queer.”
But even in gender-role-defying, expectation-smashing relationships like these, there are unavoidable obstacles.
“There’s a very big age difference between us, which I’m sure shocks a lot of people, and it startles me,” said Holland Taylor on WYNC’s Death, Sex & Money, referencing her relationship with Paulson. “But as they say, ‘If she dies, she dies.’”
This is something T and M think about too.
“I remind [M] all the time,” T says. “I’m probably gonna die before her.”
“And I’m like, ‘Let’s just not talk about that right now,’” says M.
For Martela and Chaubal, their worries about the future led them to seriously consider leaving the country. Martela can’t imagine herself ever being in a financial situation that would allow her to retire in the U.S. They were already moving out of San Francisco, since it had become too expensive. They became enchanted with the idea of relocating to Sweden, where Martela planned to work for five years and then retire. “When you get older, they take care of you — which doesn’t happen in our country,” says Chaubal.
They ended up deciding on Chicago instead, where they together started Trans Lifeline, a hotline for transgender people in need. But they haven’t stopped worrying about the decades to come. “Because of the age difference, I’ll be an old lady when she’s still relatively young,” says Martela.
“We don’t talk about it much because it’s kind of depressing,” says M. “But that’s the plan, to stay together. I’m often reminded that we might not be here during the same time.”
T points out that no matter what happens, she’ll live on with in her son, who’s now 5. “He’ll be around, so [M] and I can keep cruising together.” The couple are also thinking about how to integrate a new baby into their busy schedules.
In the end, despite uncertainties, some relationships are worth fighting for. “Nina’s gonna be my best friend for the rest of my life,” says Martela. “I expect our roles will shift depending on when we are in our lives. And I think that’s beautiful.”
One of the particularly beautiful things about those roles, says Martela, is that they aren’t automatically demarcated by gender (the Older Male Breadwinner/the Younger Female Homemaker). Martela was primarily in straight relationships before transitioning in her forties. “To be free of the heteronormative garbage that goes along with that is the most freeing thing in my life.”
Right after Martela and Chaubal moved in together, Martela lost her job. It was the first time in her career she’d faced significant unemployment, while trying to stay afloat in a male-dominated field. She was out of work for a year. “That would have been really difficult in a hetero relationship, but in a queer one it wasn’t a problem,” Martela says. “Nina took care of me.”
While significant age differences between queer women remain a statistical norm, Myles has seen the landscape shift since she first arrived in New York City in the '70s. Then, she saw a good deal of intergenerational dating; now, there’s an “intensifying of difference” as lesbians keep to their own insular peer groups, since they don’t necessarily need or want to surround themselves exclusively with other queers — we’re more welcome in mainstream society than ever before. In today’s dating age, lesbians are finding one another on apps, unconsciously swiping according to a limited set of preferences, rather than picking each other up at queer bars and bookshops (where people’s ages are not as immediately apparent as they would be, say, in online profiles).
Increasing queer acceptance is far from a bad thing, and apps also have plenty to offer (full disclosure: I met my girlfriend on Tinder). Social media, particularly for queer teens, has been nothing short of a godsend. “We have a higher level of seeing now,” Myles says of the internet. But, for better or worse, these changing trends in interaction do mark a distinct cultural shift in the way queers — particularly of different generations — are interacting with one another, up close and in person, in the post-marriage-equality age.
Dating isn’t the only way to build bridges between two queer eras, but it’s one of the simplest and most poignant. Especially in a time when the amorphous idea of Queer Community — provided that’s even a thing, or ever has been — seems to be losing relevance and power, relationships between women of different ages are small and intimate microcosms of intergenerational queer connection.
“I’m thrilled about what I learn from women and queers younger than me,” says Myles.
Chaubal, for her part, also says she’s learned plenty from Martela. “We’ve been traveling a lot recently, so we decided to build ourselves a little camper trailer,” she says. “Some time many years ago, Greta used to be a metalworker. So there’s stuff we’re doing right now that’s possible because of experiences she’s had in her life. And that is really cool.”
Martela clarifies that the learning goes both ways, even though she’s the older person in their relationship. “There are areas in which [Chaubal] is an expert. If she says something’s a bad idea, I’m not gonna do it. We are both experts at different things.”
The idea of honoring women’s expertise is, ridiculously, rather a radical one, especially when you take the stereotypes of womanhood at either end of a lifetime into account. Young women are supposed to be silly and naive and vain; older women are supposed to be slow and boring and clueless. When one dates the other, she’s actively choosing to thwart such reductive expectations.
“I know how to fight for what I want, to say no, when to wait,” says Myles. “I’ve been in time for 65 years. I have a lot to share. That supposedly should only be in my teaching life — that’s not the case. It’s amazing on both sides to be able to share the world from different angles. It’s lively. It’s hot.”