Embracing Intergenerational Love
j bilhan’s photographs celebrate mixed-age queer relationships.
Intergenerational queer erotics have come out of the closet at the same time that the #MeToo hashtag has sparked fraught discussions about sexual power dynamics. Over the last few years, many stimulating visual-art projects exploring intergenerational queer erotics have been generated by articulate young art makers in all media. These artists’ relationships with older persons were central to their sexual and romantic development, and helped define their queer identities.
Intergenerational sexual love is complicated and often haunted by shame—which is the great killer of our people. Telling Mom you’re gay might lead to a few tears, but introducing parents to a lover five years older than they are can cause family meltdowns. But such attractions appear as hard-wired into some people’s erotic makeup as homosexuality itself. Popular dating apps for this romantic predisposition include Silver Daddies, Mister, and, most famously, Daddyhunt (founded by writer Armistead Maupin and his younger lover to deal with the feelings of erasure they had experienced). In heterosexual love, the grotesque visuals of gorgeous young women paired with lecherous old men (like the current occupants of the White House) smack of glorified prostitution. But that is rarely the assumption made about same-sex mixed-age couples, in which a sugar daddy/sugar baby dynamic is more likely an erotic game than a financial reality.
Houston photographer j bilhan (whose lower-cased name adds to his mysterious demeanor) opened Variable Embrace, an exhibition curated by Houston painter Terry Suprean, at Sabine Street Studios as part of this year’s citywide FotoFest biennial. Even in its online-only form, j bilhan’s art cut through the fog of those first pandemic crisis weeks in March.
For his first exhibition, the artist made large prints of his erotic images as a way of “billboarding” his support for mixed-age lovers. The hothouse intimacy was palpable in his images of eroticized older men’s bodies and causally removed clothes discarded on the floor. For the Instagram generation that rarely sees photography presented as fine art, the live exhibition would have had quite an impact.
j bilhan is a self-taught artist who was raised in Houston, but only started exploring the wild side of gay life after a move to Los Angeles in 2016. There he met his first older lover, a German named Jürgen, outside of Bar Mattachine downtown. After following Jürgen to Berlin, j bilhan started using his photography to analyze and celebrate himself as a lover of older guys. He allowed himself to love men in their 70s who were often married—sometimes to “understanding wives.” He found a whole army of these men who were sexually available but who often had to be photographed with faces hidden. A man shown in bondage is married, and another couple carries on a secret relationship between Texas and Kuwait. The most memorably romantic Fotofest image shows the artist nude in a quiet embrace with Jürgen, a shirtless, classic cowboy-hatted “daddy.”
“Through all of this, my abstract principles of beauty guided me as I attempted to excavate an ideal. I was working to make my attraction feel normal. To this day, my photographs are a response to beauty; they are a direct, tender celebration of this unpopular sexuality between young and old men,” the artist explains.
Lacking the financial means to continue living in Germany’s gay paradise, j bilhan had to end his relationship with Jürgen and return to Houston. He is currently in a relationship with Domenic, who was living in Frankfurt when they met. Domenic was photographed nude in another striking Fotofest image, swiveling his manly torso toward us, with a friendly bearded face that clearly reveals the artist’s affection for him. Taken early in their romance, the image serves as a reminder of the pandemic’s worldwide impact. Despite enjoying daily video calls, j bilhan must remain in Houston while Domenic moves to China for work. Neither one knows when they will be able to touch again (or even be in the same country), which makes the easy intimacy seen in their pre-COVID portrait especially poignant.
In the ’70s, veteran curator John Coplans started photographing his aging body, twisting it into abstract shapes and showing in precise detail the parts of the older male body that sag, wrinkle or sprout hair in ways that our society would rather not see. Studying those pictures while still in college, I learned that ageism was real, older men were supposed to volunteer to become invisible, and I was one day destined to inhabit a body that was universally seen as undesirable.
As gay men, we receive the message that sex into our sixties, seventies, eighties, and beyond should only occur in darkness or with paid companions. That is a totally unacceptable way to spend the last several decades of an otherwise happy gay life. It is great to see those attitudes begin to disappear, and we should be grateful that brilliant image-makers like
j bilhan in Houston (along with his associates in New York, San Francisco, London, and Berlin) are leading the way.
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