The Myth of the Gay Community

With marriage equality imminent, few social issues affect the entire group equally.

David Gray/Reuters

A couple months before graduating from college last spring, a friend and I went out for pizza. Our conversation touched on the usual senior year talk—spring break plans, theses, the like. Sprinkled throughout, though, was a banal discussion of what it was like to be gay men on campus.

My friend made a comment in passing that stuck with me—that he felt an immediate bond with other gay people because, as he put it, “We all went through a special hell in middle school.” It’s a sentiment I agree with, and yet, it was not until after graduating that I started to realize how diverse the identities and needs of the gay community were—so much so that I am not sure the word “community” is either fair or accurate.

History has a tendency to airbrush a culturally accepted arc. Gay identity is no different. In his book Gay New York, Yale professor George Chauncey dispelled the myth that gay culture sprang from nothing out of the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots. Yet this inferred “beginning” of gay culture—and therefore community—exists today as the springboard for LGBT America. Following this liberation came a new, more macabre form of rage as the AIDS epidemic spurred gay male activists to coalesce, leading to organizations such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). When the root causes and consequences of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were unknown in its early years, the disease was so tied to the homosexual identity it was referred to as gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID).

More than thirty years after the first cases of HIV/AIDS spurred an organized response by the budding gay community, the final frontier of gay rights has been reached: the ability to assimilate into the mainstream, the equity of legal standing, the right to marriage. But as gay men and women realize legal equality, some gay individuals still face uneven social challenges that diverge from the perceived interests and needs of the group. Nine years ago, Andrew Sullivan foreshadowed the dissolution of a communal gay identity in his article “The End of Gay Culture”, writing, “[W]hat encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that ‘gayness’ alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual.” Arguments that the gay community should redirect and broaden its approach beyond marriage equality, while well intentioned, rely on the existence of a monolithic gay community. Today, the use of the word “community” goes beyond the semantics, creating an outdated premise for viewing gay individuals whose dissimilarities often mean their only common thread is being a sexual minority. This is not a strong enough link to define a community whose different interests and needs will not always align, if at all.

The major issues facing gay individuals beyond marriage equality are defined by their intersectionality. This concept acknowledges overlapping forms of injustice that may affect an individual whose sexuality, gender, race, or economic status compound their day-to-day experiences with power and authority. For this reason, the central issues facing gay individuals are not felt equally among subsets of the gay identity, and do not register as a problem in our collective ethos. Consider youth homelessness, not an issue traditionally linked to the gay community. But while 5 percent of youth identify as LGBT, 40 percent of all homeless youth do. For gay children, different religious and cultural traditions between families can make coming out an experience of love and compassion or an instantaneous loss of support and family that seemed in harmony the previous day. It is a dichotomy I am lucky to be on the former side of, and one that is hard to imagine experiencing. Almost half of American children without a place to call home identify themselves as a sexual minority, yet the double-edged sword of this vulnerability leaves them without a voice in a national dialogue about a community that claims to consider them as members.

The issues specifically facing disadvantaged members of the gay community do not make headlines for several reasons. First, they lack the systematic narrative of marriage equality, which has a sea change in public opinion, court victories, and most importantly, a finite “end date,” that is, when all fifty states recognize same-sex marriage. Earlier this month the Supreme Court decided to take state bans of same-sex marriage up in spring proceedings, weeks after Florida became the 37th state to recognize such unions. Secondly, the progress made in gay rights on a national stage benefits a set of individuals who have the most in common with the dominant culture of privileged, college educated middle-to-upper class gay men. For heterosexual couples, marriage is an institution most commonly utilized by upper-income individuals, a trend that may cross over. Finally, the intersectional struggles that affect disadvantaged gay Americans do not create a common constituency. The threat of eviction for LGBT youth is due to homophobic households, while higher-than-average HIV rates in some subsections of the gay populace are tied directly to the socioeconomic and racial makeup of the individuals.

In contrast to youth homelessness or drug abuse, the HIV crisis remains strongly tied to the gay identity. But HIV disproportionately affects black gay men, highlighting the intersection of two vulnerable social groups: Rates of new HIV infections are eight times higher among black men than white men, and in urban gay communities, this can lead to the decimation of one group’s health. Thirty-five percent of black gay men in Chicago are HIV-positive, and many more could have the virus but do not know their status. In fact, black gay men of Chicago have higher rates of HIV than any nation on Earth.

The nature of HIV in contemporary America is not nearly as urgent as it was in the 1980s, a period of panic that I can read about but will never truly understand. Today various sects of the LGBT identity still cope with HIV while other gay individuals barricade themselves off from viewing HIV as their issue, just as marriage equality is not representative of the needs of millions of gay Americans. In the decade since Massachusetts recognized its first same-sex weddings, 37 states allow same-sex couples to wed, a number that is constantly in flux, but growing. Meanwhile, the CDC predicts that by the time my graduating college class of 2014 turns 50, half of the gay men who earned diplomas with me will be HIV positive. As the issues of homelessness, health, and marriage suggest, there is no one cause that draws on the heart and purse strings of all gay people. But these varied identities and unique problems demonstrate that the LGBT/gay community, beyond being a semantic shortcut, is an inaccurate moniker for such a diverse group of individuals.

That is not to say that I, or other gay people, am annoyed to be an involuntary member of this rag-tag group of sexual minorities. But the term “community” perpetuates a one-off identity which has never been further from reality. This point is paramount in determining how non-LGBT individuals view gay people, and how easily a well-intentioned friend may understand the interests and needs of their gay friends and project this upon the monolithic “community.” A problem develops where people, gay or straight, may think that their support of same-sex marriage or employment non-discrimination statutes is a rising tide for all gay people—for our "community." It may be self-evident that recently out CEO of Apple Tim Cook and other white professional men like him do not have much in common with the black gay men of Chicago. Yet the mindset and terminology of “community” builds a singular minority to the detriment of those less privileged among the LGBT identities. When marriage equality is the law of the land and many more affluent and educated gay individuals are fulfilled, the “community” will appear strong as individuals continue to suffer. We will be left to ask, “Who still cares?”

I can only speak for myself, and my experience coming out was relatively calm. With supportive friends and family and a college degree in hand, I am aware of my luck and privilege in benefiting from the progressing portrayal of gay people in the mainstream. I am the gay community that many people think of, that gets to have its voice heard, who considers the prospect of marriage. But it certainly doesn’t end with me.