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Why We Lie About Our Age

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"If people knew my real age, I'd never work again." I have heard this plaint more than once. The last time was the day before yesterday, when talking about age with a vivacious, successful Brazilian friend. She doesn't dare tell the truth about her age.

Why do most people lie about their age? Because they think they have to. Our culture at large -- and our gay male culture, specifically -- embody ageism. Young is good. Older is less good.

On Facebook few people put their year of birth. For online dating sites, not to mention hookup sites, there is such pressure to lie that those of us who tell the truth are odd men out. When I post my age as 60, men think I'm somewhere between 64 and 75. Again, why do we lie about our age?

Ageism, yes. Internalized ageism, as well. Internalized prejudice is when we operate out of a learned prejudice about something we are: I have been exploring my own internalized homophobia, anti-Semitism, and AIDS-phobia, however subtle or overt, for years. I lead workshops where we have looked at our internalized prejudice, such as racism, classism, and genderism.

How do we know when we are operating from internalized prejudice? When we try to "pass" without cause. When we are living in the belief that what we are is less than what other people are; when we have bought into other people's prejudices (which do exist) and perceive danger even when it doesn't exist.

There are situations where honesty about my sexual orientation, my HIV status, or my religious heritage could get me killed. I would lie or hide if my life were at stake. However, often I observe "passing" behavior when there is no danger. Most of us will not suffer harm if we are honest about our sexuality or our age. We do, however, suffer psychically, from constant denial of the truth about who or what we.

In the workshops there is one internalized prejudice that absolutely everyone relates to: internalized ageism. When asked, all perceived the statement "You look younger than your age" as a compliment. We are passing. At 90 my father would be insulted if someone didn't say he looked at least 15 years younger. Recently, I dated a man I met online. His profile said 38. I didn't doubt it. In conversation, it came up that he is actually 47. I asked him why he lied. "Because I look 38," he said. He didn't like it when I suggested that he is perpetuating distorted behaviors around age. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, "this is what 47 looks like."

We are complicit if we continue to play this game. I received a comment that an online photo of mine looked like it had been "royally airbrushed." This is not true. And it reflects a too-oft-accepted idea of what a 59-year-old man looks like. Age is how long we have been in this body -- it is not our vitality, and it is not our beauty.

My friend David heard I was writing about why people lie about their age; in his best Olympia-Dukakis-in-Moonstruck voice, he quipped, "Because they are afraid of death." My response is that we are afraid of perceived social death. We act as if we might die, but we don't.

Telling the truth about our age could be neutral. The more of us who do it, the more of a norm it will become.