It started as an innocent question on Facebook: ‘is there a gay community in London?’ My wall, which like many I’ve come to regard as a type of community in itself, was soon inundated with responses. The comments varied, a discussion grew, definitions were bandied about and alternative words used. The forgotten art of communication lamented and a general sense of nostalgia for something that we had lost, or depending on the viewpoint, something we had perhaps half had or only wished we had had, filled that small part of cyberspace I call my own.
Definitions of a community are varied and complex. Andy Medhurst, a senior lecturer in media, film and cultural studies at The University of Sussex says, “at its broadest, community is a group of people connected in some way that gives meaning and significance to their lives. A community can be forged by geography, ethnicity, class, culture, shared beliefs or interests.
“As such it can have real importance, as a way of sustaining and strengthening identity and forming a rallying point against prejudice or discrimination.” But, warns Medhurst, “it is such a loose, baggy word it can lose impact and grow very fuzzy. At its worst, it becomes just another word used to denote individuals with similar interests.”
To me, community had always come with the assumption of feeling a sense of belonging and friendship – what I craved when I came out as a bullied 18-year-old. I’m old enough to remember using an internet café to access Gaydar, over a decade before the advent of Grindr revolutionized the way gay men interact. Changes in the law and mainstream acceptance have also played a pivotal role. Would Medhurst agree that there was more of a community when gay people had fewer rights – indeed has winning equal rights perhaps diminished a community mentality?
“To some extent, yes. When there were equal rights struggles to fight for, the sense of common purpose and shared aims was more tangible and focused. That’s not to say equality is universal or secure, of course, and vigilance is always required.”
Medhurst’s warning echoes the words of human rights activist, Peter Tatchell – ‘the price of queer freedom is eternal vigilance.' This makes me wonder how effectively, given our current fragmentation, we would be at responding to any systematic; government led anti-gay tyranny – the sort that we’ve seen in Russia, for example.
Simon Watney is now 64. He was one of the gay activists who set up the UK gay rights group Outrage. During the 1980s he worked extensively in the U.S. with Act-Up. “I think community was always an ideal to be established somewhere in the future,” he reflects. “Perhaps it was easier in the 70s and 80s to talk more casually about it, but that was for reasons very specific to the period – everyone shared discrimination of a very acute kind, no matter how much they differed concerning the social disparities between men and women, class and race.”
1st Annual Fresno Lesbian-Gay Pride '91 By niiicedave [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like Medhurst, Watney is conscious that ideas of gay community are very different today. “Kids coming out today haven’t grown up with the same levels of discrimination. I wouldn’t want to downplay the prejudice that still exists in families and elsewhere in the country, but it is not on the same scale as back then.” He reiterates Medhurst’s point about the sexual desire perhaps being the only thing we now have in common – “a fragile ground.” Watney refers to the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s: “I think community gets re-forged and reinvented at times like that,” he admits.
“But now we see the atomization of gay men, especially younger gay men now – the fact that they take things for granted that my generation couldn’t. But who can blame them? I would be mad to think that someone coming on to the scene at 17 today could understand what it was like 20 years ago. Why the hell should they? There is no easy access to finding these things out.”
Simon Harrison is the lead tenor of The Pink Singers, Europe’s longest running ‘LGBT community choir.' The group was formed at the same time as Simon Watney and Outrage were homophobic legislation and began singing at protests and Pride marches.
“I belong to a community now, and I didn’t come out until I was 29,” Harrison tells me. “Back then things like Pride events were important to me, as was going to gay pubs, but it wasn’t that I then linked in with lots of people – the choir is all about relationships in a way that I hadn’t experienced regarding a gay community before.” Like many people Harrison uses the words ‘gay community’ almost instinctively, but does he believe one exists and, if so, what does it mean to him?
“You know I don’t think there is a gay community,” he sighs, “but that we’re united by some shared experiences – oppression and shame. So you go to an event like Pride, and there’s a tremendous sense of relief that we can be in a place where we don’t feel we stand out. It’s almost about invisibility – being able to blend in.” What impressions has he got about how the younger people in the choir participate in community types of behavior?
“There seems to be less pressure on them – they are less hidden now in society, so there’s less need for them to create the kind of niche type communities we had more of in the past – like bears and twinks and those kinds of stereotypes. They seem to find it easier to move between different communities – and the straight community…whatever that is.” How does he think this affects their need for exclusively gay spaces? “You still hear people in their 20s saying they feel like an alien at work. One gay man of 22 stood up at a rehearsal and thanked the choir for giving him a reason to come out to his parents. We’re an invaluable support to these young people, and I find it very moving to be a part of that.”
Harrison has touched upon something here – how we pass knowledge from one gay generation to another. For him the process of singing aids this connection.
“There’s something very particular about getting together to sing – to make a sound together – to see what singing in harmony does to a group – how you have to listen to each other in a way that not all groups do and make space for every member of the choir. It’s quite extraordinary.”
I bring our conversation back to the idea of shared ‘shame.’ It seems to me that while the arguably more cohesive gay community of the past may now have fragmented as we’ve won further legal rights and mainstream acceptance, the one thing that remains are the deep-seated feelings of worthlessness from the past that many shares.
“I think it’s still there and may have gone underground a bit,” says Harrison. “There’s a veneer of acceptance today, and it’s not all a veneer – some of it is very real, but it’s happened very quickly – we’ve won more rights faster than any other civil rights movement – and I think the trauma of stigma is still reverberating. I guess that’s one of the reasons that there’s so much self-destructive behavior among gay people – unsafe sex or use of drugs and drink.”
Winning political rights is vital, we can perhaps conclude, but it can also distract us from these past traumas – open wounds which arguably we can see in the self-destructive behavior of chemsex and other gay men’s health issues. These are possibly the greatest challenges we must confront as we endeavor to build healthy personal lives and, crucially, positive ways of interacting with one another.
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