Differentiating the Self: How Midlife Gay Men in Manchester Respond to Ageing and Ageism

  • Paul Simpson

Student thesis: Phd


The study seeks to answer how midlife gay men in Manchester manage growing older. It analyses accounts generated through in-depth interviews with 27 middle-aged gay men living in Greater Manchester (aged 39 - 61) and 20 participant observation sessions conducted in Manchester's 'gay village.' It deploys an interpretivist methodology and a 'pick and mix' analytical framework developed by Thomson (2009) that uses of Foucault's 'technologies of the self' (1987) (that concern capacities for agency) but located within 'fields of existence' (with their own norms) adopted from Bourdieu (1984). Through analysis of participants' accounts of bodily practices (dress, grooming, diet, exercise) and their relationships in various fields, the study examines the constraints on and choices around expression of midlife identity and ways of relating. The study's structuring theme concerns the mechanisms through which midlife gay men in Manchester differentiate themselves from others. Differentiation is achieved largely through moral and epistemic claims-making around an 'authentic' gay male midlife self that is central to the notion of a legitimate, (age-appropriate) form of socio-sexual citizenship. As extant scholarship has identified, there are normative restrictions on expression of a midlife self and the possibilities for interaction (especially with younger gay men) but men can use self-worth and political knowledges gained from life experience ('ageing capital' and age-related technologies of the self) to do other than comply with such restrictions. But, this study also illuminates men's ambivalent responses to age, ageing, gay ageism and homophobia that involve negotiation with discourses that inform understandings of ageing and sexuality. The study also maps a cultural "politics of the minor" (Rose 1999) operating at the micro-level, which is concerned to affect the context of interaction. The power relations of gay male ageism that are crucial to this expression of politics are multidirectional. Midlife gay men are not just the targets of ageism from younger gay men. They distinguish themselves in ways that can express ageism towards younger, (some) peer aged and old gay men. The study also complicates assumptions about midlife gay men and their lives: 1) Dressing for 'comfort' (part of an 'authentic' midlife self) contradicts the idea that midlife gay men obsess about the body, prolonging youth and maintaining sexual marketability. 2) Manchester's gay village is not overwhelmingly a site of exclusion for midlife gay men. They negotiate with the rules of the game and use emotional and cultural political knowledges gained through life experience to resist ageism and carve out a conviviality that involves friendship, affection and care for others in sexualised space. 3) Gay men continue to experience unequal access to public space but gains in self-worth with age and the recent tolerance dividend indicate that this is now more often experienced as safer. Gayness is now being claimed as integral to broader sexual citizenship. 4) Midlife gay men do not live outside of kinship. Subjects creatively reconfigured their kinship circles/friendship families over time. This form of kinship has special political significance for this present generation of middle-aged gay men in Manchester. Paul Simpson, Manchester University, PhD. Sociology. 11 September 2011.
Date of Award1 Aug 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorBrian Heaphy (Supervisor) & Wendy Bottero (Supervisor)


  • Ageing/ageism, ageing capital, differentiation, everyday politics, middle-aged gay men, technologies of the self

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