I’ve written some thoughts that seeing the documentary, Vito, prompted about the importance of being visible as LGBT people and the importance of learning from our history. A final theme I want to discuss is the importance of community. I think this one in particular resonates with me because I’ve heard many queer people lately express the idea that we no longer need “gay community” and that we should just be part of the larger community. In some ways, I’ve already addressed this in discussing the need to be visible and to preserve our culture but I think community has a special importance.
In the documentary, Vito, they talk about many of the social events put on by the early Gay Activists Alliance. These events included dances, movie nights and more. One of the people interviewed for the film marvelled at the movie nights in particular and how everyone laughed at the same spots in the film. A community has a shared history and culture. This shared history and culture allows its members to communicate on a deeper level based on a shared experience and unspoken understanding.
Queer people have often built communities based on their shared experience. In the past, these communities were the only way for LGBT people to meet one another and network. As we’ve made tremendous strides towards gay equality, our communities have become more open and sadly, a little less tight knit. However, those of us that live in the urban centers in the US often take our ability to congregate openly for granted. Queer people outside of the urban centers still struggle against prejudice and open persecution. (For an idea of how bad it is for some, watch the moving documentary Small Town Gay Bar which talks about the gay communities in small rural communities).
Unfortunately, the gay community seems to be losing much of its cohesiveness. More and more, it revolves around the local bars and there is much more disunity. When I came out in college, most of my gay friends where older men. These men built a strong community that consisted of dinner clubs, books clubs, movie nights and other activities that didn’t revolve around going to bars. While I will readily admit, that any group of gay men has a certain amount of sexual tension and flirting, the emphasis in the group wasn’t on “hooking up”. People took time to (gasp!) actually get to know people that they weren’t interested in sleeping with. I think we need to rediscover how to do this in our communities. We’ve dvidid ourselves up based on age, race, body size and other superficial standards designed to sort men into categories not unlike meat in a supermarket. In doing so, we’ve robbed ourselves of the richness present in our greater community. We no longer take the time to talk with or get to know someone that doesn’t fit a “type”. The community no longer provides support and nurturing to one another.
I’m not naive. I know that some divisions have always existed within the gay community. Even in Vito, they talked about divisions between feminists, gay men and drag queens. Many of these divisions have to do with differences in the shared experience. Some of them have to do with agendas. They can be overcome and they should be. At the same time though, I do not want to diminish the importance of male sacred space or woman’s sacred space. I know some people think we should be one big queer community and not divide ourselves based on gender. While I think in some cases this is admirable and a goal worth working towards, I also think we need to allow space within the larger queer community for male space and woman space. The experience, history and spiritual mysteries of the two groups differs so much that this is necessary. (On the same note though, I personally do not support excluding trans women from woman space or trans men from male space.)
There is hope though. I think there have been some excellent efforts put forth in recent years, primarily by spiritually minded queer people to rebuild some of these communities in which people love, respect and care for one another. Different groups and events have been created with the idea of putting aside many of these superficial divisions and creating deeper connections with one another. In Vito Russo’s time, the depth of the gay community was crucial in helping one another deal with the specter of AIDS. I often worry that if a similar crisis were to strike our community today that we would not handle it with the courage, grace and dignity that our elders showed. This is why we should work to support the groups and events that are creating an environment to rebuild and strenghten our community connections. Our survival may some day depend on it.
This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. – Dwight D. Eisenhower