by Janani Balasubramanian
My birthday rolled through last month (I’m a Leo since every QTPOC I meet seems to ask), I’ve been thinking about ‘youth’. For those of you who are curious, I’m newly 22. This means 2 things: a) it’s the perfect time to have a quarter-life crisis, and b) I qualify for most government and NGO services set aside for ‘youth’ or ‘young people’. Youth is an unwieldy category. Many youth spaces will have people in their early teens all the way to their mid-to-late twenties. Some of us live with parents or other caretakers well into those later years; others of us moved out or were kicked out very early. Some of us have college degrees, or are working on it; many more don’t or won’t.
These considerations are important because those acquisitions that enfranchise us in terms of class (education, money, space) are also what distance us from what, in the imagination of many people offering ‘youth services’, materially constitutes youth. That is, young people are presumed to have some degree of financial dependence. This assumption has the double effect of homogenizing a category that does contain materially self-sufficient people, and stigmatizes older folks, who, for whatever reason (poverty, disability, tragedy, etc) do not have access to income or work. In a way, youth becomes a ‘sexy’ category to which folks can attribute a degree of innocence and material dependence that may or may not be there. This is not to say services for young people should not offer emotional or financial support; these are often deeply necessary. Instead, I ask us to consider how we can consistently broaden the rubric, and ask why particular services available ‘for young people’ are not made available to a wider base–whether this is due to an uncritical infantilization of young people, attribution of independence to adulthood, financial constraints, foundation or NPIC politics, whatever the case may be. Restriction of certain services to young people also makes fairly heteronormative and ableist assumptions about care and need. As in, young folks are supposed to need parents or guardians to provide for them (and the state or NGOs may serve as proxies for those guardians), whereas older folks are not. That supposition belies the myriad ways in which people of all ages seek and experience support–financial, emotional, or otherwise.
I also want to offer that age frequently operates differently for queer people. For example, I haven’t spent a long time living as my current gender, compared to most cisgender people. I’m still figuring out many of the ways I articulate and build the experience of being in my body. Of course, this articulation looks very different for me, versus if I had been a gender-variant toddler, in that I have access to the language of the adult world and the income to curate my presentation. There are trans* folks who self-determine their genders at much later stages of life, and ones who do so almost at infancy, but the common factor is that we’re flipping the script on our lives in one way that cis people do not. This makes the way I think about time, and memories, fundamentally different. There’s also this romantic notion that there are optimal times of a [young] person’s life to explore and figure out your sexuality (‘college’ is a usual suspect). This leaves out folks who explore and shift sexualities earlier or later; those folks are often stigmatized as a result (e.g. ‘you’re too young to know what you want’ or ‘you’re too old to be changing your mind now’). Age is frequently thrown around as a barrier to gender or sexual self-determination.
There’s a way that all sorts of other intersection oppressions also inflect the ways in which we experience age. Regarding race in particular, I can still trace back to a barrier in my timeline where I stopped wanting to become White (physically and culturally). I remember the kind of potential this tapped, the ways it freed my mind and body.
So while I turn 22, I am reminded of how arbitrary this age is, and yet how it is informed by and also creates power. I am reminded of the dangers of linearity: who is excluded if we think of time and progress moving only one way, and how poorly most of our stories map onto the steady march of numbers.
I end with some words from the poet Mark Gonzales:
The measure of success of any youth leadership development model is not how it affects a singular person or a generation, but the collective health as a community. If the end result is individual success, but the continuation of generation chasms, then we are merely remixing the fragmentation of the social unit we call family & tribe…The purpose of youth being engaged & empowered is not to abandon the elders, but heal them.
All work published on BGD is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not republish anything from this site without express written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.
Janani is a South Asian electron spinning around making art and scholarship. They like thinking about apocalypse, decolonizing the food system, and making space for quantum queers everywhere. They’re Youth Editor at BGD and one-half of the spoken word duo DarkMatter (bit.ly/queerdarkmatter). You can read more of their work atqueerdarkenergy.sqsp.com.