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9 May 2011, 4:00 pm 12 Comments

Commentary: The Problem with “Trolls”

Submission by Kyle Jones-Northam. Kyle Jones-Northam lives in Washington, DC. He turned 50 this past winter. He shares a studio apartment with a cat named Manuel, and has too many books and too many hoodies, but not enough shoes or jeans. He actually craves tofu, and his only real addiction is to coffee.

Author’s Note: Many, many thanks to illustrator Rob Kirby for providing the graphic to accompany this post. Rob’s cartoon Curbside Boys was featured on TNG in the past. Robert Kirby is currently the editor of the queer comics anthology series THREE, and the author of Curbside Boys (Cleis Press, 2002), and co-editor (with David Kelly) of The Book of Boy Trouble and The Book of Boy Trouble 2: Born to Trouble, both from Green Candy Press. Website:Robkirbycomics.com


I’d like to bury the word “troll” as an epithet for older gay men. I’ve come to realize it simply cannot be reclaimed. The word “queer” connotes oddness, or outside the norm, and I don’t have a problem with that, given the sheep-like behavior of the norm in our culture. But the word “troll” connotes a being of otherness, implying that older gay men are not even of the same species as younger gay men – after all we don’t refer to younger gay men as “troll-lets”. Not only that, but it connotes something lurking, evil and predatory. Older gay men deserve better.

The Five Gay Ages, illustrated by Rob Kirby exclusively for The New Gay.

“But what about the older gay men who are predatory,” you ask. “We call them “trolls” because they leer at us, and look like they want to pounce on us. Some won’t even keep their gnarly old hands off of us. If older gay men are predatory, why shouldn’t we call them trolls?” Well, let’s look at that, shall we?

The Problem Is Objectification

No one likes receiving unwanted sexual attention, whether the receiver is male, female, or other. We don’t like it because it is unwanted. Usually (but not always) we don’t want the undesired sexual attention because we don’t find the person giving it to us sexually desirable. When the person giving the sexual attention is male, and the person receiving the unwanted sexual attention is female, this can be classified as sexual harassment. Due to the genders involved, and the status of the genders in our culture, this sexual attention involves a power imbalance that is particularly destructive. (I would argue that male sexual harassment of females is in a category unto itself due to the vast power differentials, differentials that do not exist within the gay male community. Unless, of course, we view physical attractiveness as power and “currency”, in which case the older gay men cannot be seen as having much power, and therefore do not have the potential for abuse that a straight male has over a female.)

This regard of one person for another in a sexual manner is an aspect of objectification. I would argue that all human beings reflexively objectify other human beings in many various ways, not all of them sexual. It is simply a cerebral short cut for dealing with people in an efficient, evolutionarily selected manner. We see other people in terms of their utility (so-and-so may help me in my career), obstructiveness (that s.o.b. cut me off in traffic!), or mere disinterest. Sometimes that utility is sexual, at which point hormonal responses may come into play. Not to see another person as an object requires an act of will, a conscious choice. We do this when we consciously decide to get to know another person, and to try to understand that person’s motivations, life histories, viewpoints, etc. We even choose, at times, to try to get to know a person who attracts us sexually. Sometimes we even form long term relationships with such persons.

People objectify us in a thousand different ways over the course of a day. Often it is annoying. When that objectification is sexual, it may even be particularly annoying. At the same time, it is incumbent upon all humans who want to elevate human relationships to be aware of how they objectify others, and especially when that objectification is sexual, how to behave with respect and discretion.

The Problem Isn’t Age

So what is my point in all this? The real problem gay men usually associate with “trolls” isn’t that the men are older; the problem is that the men are sexually objectifying younger men. And therefore, the problem is obvious sexual objectification. And since obvious sexual objectification happens regardless of the age of the objectifier, why do we – by labeling older gay men as “trolls” – pour special and specific opprobrium on older gay men when they objectify younger gay men? If their failure is in objectifying others, let’s call it that without specifically referencing, directly or by implication, the age of the person committing the failure. However, if you feel the failure is attributable to the person being old, then that is ageism on your part, and that is as bad as other forms of objectification.

“But I don’t like it when older men hit on me!” That’s fine. Do you like it when younger men to whom you are not attracted hit on you? No one finds everyone of a certain age group – young, old or in between – attractive. So if you don’t like being hit on by men you are not attracted to, regardless of their ages, why single out older gay men with the epithet “troll”? Why not just label the behavior – i.e., sexual objectification – rather than label the person? How do you handle it when an older gay man hits on you? Well, how would you handle it when a younger gay man to whom you are not attracted hits on you? Politely refuse? Leave? My point is, one shouldn’t adjust his behavior or level of discomfort based solely on the age of the other person involved. To do so is simple ageism.

It is even ageism when, in a discussion of older gay men, someone feels compelled to mention that while some older gay men are nice, others bring the unwanted sexual attention. Surely you are not implying that only older gay men bring the unwanted sexual attention. Are you saying that younger gay men never do it, or that you are willing to accept sexual attention from all younger gay men? I sincerely doubt it, but even so, that’s ageism. I ask you to understand what it means when you feel compelled to mention unwanted sexual attraction only in the context of talking about older gay men.

My point is that when we view the undesired behavior without regard to the age of the person committing the undesired behavior, we avoid the fault of ageism. The age of the person committing the undesired behavior should have no bearing; if the behavior is bad, let’s label it as such. Let’s not resort to labeling the persons involved. Older gay men do not have a monopoly on the fault of objectifying other men. Giving them the label “troll” as if they did have that monopoly is disingenuous. Let’s bury the word “troll.”

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  • Michael said:

    Thanks for this response to my earlier piece about the 5 gay ages:


    One of the things that I tried to do in that post wasn’t lay blanket labels on individuals based on their ages, but instead illustrate all-too-frequent behaviors that come with those ages. The Troll as describe in my post is a combination of age and behavior, and behavior that likely comes from years and years of exposure to too much GAY and not enough sunlight. I kinda believe that the word Troll exists for a very good reason. However, I would never state that all older gay men are trolls, just like not all gay men in their 20s are twinks. The gay ages described in the previous post are the products of both age and the resulting behavior that comes from the general (lack of) experience of each age.

    To get specific, it’s not THAT trolls dish out unwanted sexual advances, but how they do it: shamelessly. I personally find the troll behavior to be very specific to older gay men. However, my perception is that the “troll” behavior is a product of age and experience.

  • g_whiz said:

    I think there’s something to the notion that male objectification when it pertains to heterosexual men directing it at younger women is considered “business as usual”. Much about the idea of masculinity is rooted in power and typically in heterosexual relationships males gain power as they age while women lose it (as in a woman losing her “looks” and “youth”). How this relates to gay male interactions is somewhat less clear. Do we consider the “shameless” advances of gay older men more of an affront than one would if one was a young doe eyed waitress? Gender expectations has a role to play here, but I’m unsure of how it shakes down fully as yet.

    Loved this post. Much to think on.

  • Mike said:

    Yeah I don’t necessarily agree with the general ‘sexual harassment can’t happen with men’ idea… or specifically, that it can’t happen from older men towards younger men, simply because the young guys are always hotter and have more power in the gay hierarchy or whatever. The feeling I get sometimes does happen if there’s, for example, an influential/imposing older guy (say, with a lot of money..) where you have to at least think twice before you tell him to back off

  • Eric said:

    Yeah, I take issue with the sexual harrassment portion of this article as well. Sexual Harrassment is about a power dynamic of any sort that is inappropriate. Just because males both share “male privilege” does not mean that sexual harrassment cannot happen. People in a position of power in a job situation can certainly sexually harrass other people, and I happen to know of a situation where a gay man was fired for sexual harrassment in the workplace. It’s not about gender, it’s about power.

  • Griffin said:

    I definitely disagree with the statement that says that there are not the same power differentials in the gay community between males as there are between heterosexual men and women– in fact, in many ways, homosexuals as a minority are often times placing themselves in situations where they are particularly vulnerable and can be taken advantage of. Just think of random hook-ups, people who like random–potentially public–fun, people who spend half their lives drunk at gay bars, young gay people with little money, etc. I personally believe that there exists a major power differential not so much on the division of young v.s. old, but really masculine vs. feminine. A masculine guy is much more likely to have the essential resources that are deemed attractive and probably experiences privilege in his community– especially if he is a white male. A feminine male is twice as likely to consistently be labeled experimental, annoying, “too much,” a showboat, etc. and for these reasons often experiences discrimination in the workplace, in their dating life, by their families and others. Therefore, there would be a fairly sizeable power differential between these two people in terms of economics, social clout, and what both of these can easily culminate into– selective outcomes.

  • Kyle said:

    I appreciate everyone who’s read this, and the thoughtful commentary. I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to some of the comments, in order to further the discussion. I regret that I did not adequately qualify my assertion about the power dynamics within the gay male community. I agree that there are instances in which an older gay male would have more power than a younger gay male, such as when the older gay male is a workplace supervisor of the younger, or has much greater wealth than the younger. I would venture even to say that in some settings of much more limited gay communities—for example, in a small town—the older gay male may have power simply due to a gay version of cultural patriarchy; i.e., he rules the roost because he’s been at it longer.

    But I maintain that these are exceptional circumstances, and that in general, younger, better-looking gay males have more power than older, or less good looking gay males. They set the agenda, so to speak, for what gay male culture values, and therefore they can go so far as to make invisible the older gay males in the ‘community’. Theirs is the power.

    And I further suggest that one of the ways those who have power deflect their responsibility to deal with that power is by calling attention to the exceptions and highlighting them. Thus we encounter whites ranting about ‘reverse racism’, straight men seeing the modest gains women make in the workplace as the ‘demise of men’, etc. Young gay men may encounter in specific circumstances an older gay man who has power over them; but by and large in gay male culture, it is the young who have the power. And it is the responsibility of those with power to recognize that they have it, and deal with it wisely and compassionately.

    As for the issue of ‘masculine’ gay men having more power than ‘feminine’ gay men, I don’t know enough about this issue to say this isn’t true, but I suspect that if that power differential was greater in the past, it is less so now. I would maintain that a young ‘feminine’ gay man has a lot more power in the ‘community’ than an older ‘masculine’ guy. (And please note I used the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ reluctantly, because I really, really want us to greatly broaden our narrow definitions of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’, ideally to the point that the terms become almost meaningless.)

  • Mike said:

    (@ Kyle) Whether you think you’re “visible” or not, that doesn’t give you a free pass to harass someone. I don’t buy the idea that you even have to be in a position of power in order to do it. You can talk about “exceptions” all you want, but I can honestly say from my own experiences as one of these supposed sex objects, that the *unwanted* sexual/physical interactions I’ve encountered have almost always come from a guy older than my immediate age group.

    When I’m around people my age, I feel like you may be partly right in that we do act according to a different set of social rules. I would say that this happens in part because we’re much more likely to know (or know about) each other, which enables us to relate to each other more easily. So, if a younger guy decides to be a skeeze — pushing himself on people and making people feel uncomfortable all the time — he’ll face the consequences, because people will know about it… so he’ll at least think twice before doing it. If an older guy we’ve never met just goes for the grab-n-run, what difference does it make to him if we shower him with scorn? I’m sorry to say it, but the “nothing to lose” mentality does appear to enable more transgressive behavior.

    I can’t really tell whether you’re more interested in deflecting legitimate concerns about personal space and common decency, or whether you really want to further the discussion. Just the other day, you said that I was being disingenuous when I suggested that we try to focus more on creating positive, platonic inter-generational relationships among gay men. Well, I wasn’t just making that up. I think that that’s actually a good, constructive idea that can help us actually move forward from the current situation. It’s a genuine suggestion that would help make older guys a little more “visible” to us younger folk. That approach would help us to humanize each other first, and enable us to interact like halfway decent people in other settings too.

    Is that suggestion worth an endorsement or not?

    And if you want to talk about invisibility, then older guys need to pay attention to other older guys too! Check the older mens’ ads on craigslist — the overwhelming majority say they’re looking for a boyfriend who’s a “college dude” or some other wildly unlikely fantasy. I’m sorry but it’s just physically not possible for everyone to have the strapping prince on a white horse. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have your own private Adonis, and even making a respectful shot at meeting him — but don’t try to dress it up as ageism if you can’t score the porn star home run you think you need in order to feel fulfilled. Take a cue from the awesome, suave, mature older men out there who exude the kind of self-confidence that men of all ages can find sexy.

    PS: You don’t have to be rich to be self-confident. In my experience it’s often the opposite.

  • Kyle said:

    I want to be very clear: there is no excuse for sexual harassment, regardless of the ages of the harasser or the harassee. Please do not think I am excusing the sexual harassment. But I want us to condemn the behavior, not the person. When we use an age-specific epithet like “troll”, we aren’t condemning the behavior, we’re condemning the person. The “troll” may be guilty of harassing, but by making sure we point out his older age in that context, we’re really blaming him for having the audacity not to die young.

    I also think we should foster genuine intergenerational dialogue, but I’m not interested if the baseline of the discussion is that old gay men are harassers. Your point wasn’t intrinsically disingenuous—it was disingenuous in the context of your earlier assertions about old men harassing you. I’m not saying that the harassment didn’t happen; I’m saying that if anyone comes at me expressing, “Hey, old men harass me and are skeezy, but still I know a few good old guys,” I’m not interested in the conversation, because I’m not interested in assuming the burden of proving to you that I’m not one of those skeezy older guys. When you precede your admission that some older guys are pretty decent with a complaint about older guys harassing you, you’ve put the burden on all older listeners to prove they aren’t harassers (whether or not that was your intention). Why would I be interested in proving my innocence? Why would I want to expend that energy just to show some stranger I’m not evil?

    Intergenerational dialogue that starts from a place of suspicion and demands the other side prove themselves first aren’t going to go very far, in my opinion.

    Finally, I’m clearly NOT claiming that men cannot harass each other. I’m maintaining that given the power differentials between males and females in our culture, the harassment by men of women is in a class unto itself, and brings a power dynamic that men harassed by men do not, in general experience.

    I hope this clarifies some of my points, and I apologize for not being clearer in my posts.

  • Mike said:

    Well then you don’t have an accurate assessment of my context either. I explicitly said at the get-go that I was not trying to ascribe this quality to all older men. I actually wrote that, and anyone who wants to go see it can do so for themselves.

    Still… this doesn’t change the fact that, out of the harassing behavior that I, personally, in my own experience, have encountered, the vast majority has come from older men (versus men my age or younger).

    I can hold both of these positions at the same time because in all likelihood, we’re talking about a relatively small subset of older men who are in fact balls-out shameless.

    I have gone to lengths to clarify that I am not ascribing a characteristic to all older men, for example, by pointing out that platonic inter-generational relationships have also proven to be a positive experience in my life, and I hope, moreso in the lives of others.

    I personally don’t call people “trolls.” However, I think the term does describe a certain type of behavior that arises from people who think “hey I don’t have anything to lose, so I’ll just grab away and see what I can get.” What these people need to understand is that they are losing out on a lot that they could gain from pursuing meaningful encounters with other men.

    I think the term “skeez” describes guys who, in a somewhat similar way, push themselves on people.. but I think it comes more from an attitude of “I think I’m cool enough to get away with it, even if people might otherwise find it repulsive.” These guys tend to find reality catches up with them pretty fast. If they can’t find it in themselves to change their ways, they eventually turn into trolls.

  • VinceP1974 said:

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong , but sexual harassmnet is a legal term used to describe certain behaviors that occur in a context where people are coerced to interact with each other and peolpe have actual (not contrived political theory) power over each other, namely, on the job. (There’s also the other kind of sexual harassament in the workplace where peers can be guilty of it as well)

    I dont think the behavior of some of the old folk is that hard to explain. In general we all know of the stereotypical old man who will say exactly what’s on his mind, no matter how rude or crazy. The assertive, impatient old man who feels entitled to a certain level of service when engaging in commerce.. or even.. more related to the topic of this article.. the “dirty old man”… the shameless pervert.

    As people get older, and they have experienced all of life’s happenings, a person knows what he can get away with, and after doing certain obnoxious things gets more comfortable doing them again and again and eventually he’s the old man in the bathhouse who won’t stop trying to grab at you under your towel no matter how many times you give him the look that you’re about to vomit.

  • david said:

    I think you are mostly correct about younger guys having power in gay groups b ut I think thats more applying to the age based and social role based gay perspective folks as compared with the Egalitarian based guys.I know there are elements of each in most gay guys and I ran into Top/Bottom(social role based thinkers)retaliation for not agreeing that there are only two type of gays..tops and bottoms.They sabotaged my work life and social life and took years for it to settle out.Making use of bikers,street people,anyone for some fun in’messing’with someone.Someone like me,one of gay own.The primary problem was a manager who if I wouldn’t be with him,then no one would be with me.Years later we worked together again and I risked that I was all wrong with my knowing of what type person he was.Six weeks later I knew I was not wrong and away…But point is,Egalitarian,Social Role or Age based its all gay.You’re right with objectifying(my opinion).But harassment is harassment whether its coming from within or without the gay community.And it goes without mentioning but…sex offending is sex offending also.(I go with 3 basic gay types)

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