Community is a word I’m guilty of throwing around way too often and without a lot of thought. And the problem is that my beliefs about community might be totally different than someone else’s.
Are we as gay men looking for community with a small ‘c’ or community with a big ‘C’? To me, there’s a big difference.
When we’re talking about community, that’s a pretty sterile definition. For instance, I live in a community in Edgewater, within Chicago. When I moved into this neighborhood, I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations. Will I be welcomed and embraced by my neighbors? Will I find a tight-knit group of people who live in the same area as I do? Will I fit in to the Edgewater culture? None of those thoughts crossed my mind.
Community with a little ‘c’ has more to do with definitions: geographic boundaries or shared characteristics that group people together. For instance, the left-handed community or the community of blonde-haired people. This can also be applied to the gay male community. At the very core, the reason society groups us together is because we share a sexual orientation. We are largely identified by who we sleep with.
On the flip side, Community carries with it a much more interpersonal meaning for me. When we discuss Community with a big ‘C’, visions of togetherness, connection, love, and loyalty come to mind. This type of community is embedded into our DNA and soul. The desire to belong, to be known, and to be loved for who we are.
Meaningful, rich Community is something we do and create more than who we are. Community is active, whereas community is often passive. Small ‘c’ community describes, whereas Community is an intentional act of creation.
Community is not something that happens naturally. It takes work. It takes being intentional, vulnerable, and taking risks. It takes time for form Community with other people. Think about the closest people in your own life. I doubt you met them yesterday. You’ve probably shared years of moments, adventures, and really lived life together. Through that, a strong bond of trust was formed. It wasn’t an overnight thing.
So many gay men get hurt, expecting automatic Community and all the joy that comes with it. In reality, gay men are a community until friendships form. Togetherness, trust, and connection is formed when we take an intentional step toward Community. Community is not automatic simply because we’re gay.
Media always talks about the “LGBT community” or the “gay community”. Looking at that closer, this is simply a way to identify a group of people. That’s it. However, because of my own intense desire for Community, which is inherent in all human beings, I always took the “gay community” to mean something more. That because we’re gay, we should automatically feel a sense of togetherness and connection, simply because we as gay men share a sexual orientation.
And that expectation makes it easy to get hurt. Is our romantic view of Community setting us up for a world of pain?
The reality is that until I get to know another gay man, the only thing I know about him is that he is attracted to other men. That tells me nothing about his character, values, or the way he lives his life. It tells me nothing about how he treats his family, strangers, co-workers, or how he shows up in the world. When you walk into a gay bar, there’s small ‘c’ community. We may feel safe in a gay bar because there are other people there like yourself. But that doesn’t mean Community will be formed. I hope this doesn’t sound cynical, but a gay bar is merely a gathering place for a group of strangers with shared characteristics.
What I try to do is approach every gay man (and every person) with a blank slate. I consciously rid myself of expectations of what they should be like and instead try to experience and get to know who this being in front of me is. I try, imperfectly, to reserve judgment. I often fall short of that. This approach feels like a more natural way to allow and create a space for Community to be born.
I won’t deny feeling a certain kinship toward other gay men. And that’s fine.
When we approach strangers with boatloads of expectations – who this person should be, how this person should treat me, what I want out of this interaction or friendship – we’re creating expectations that could very likely not be met.
So much of the pain I hear among gay men is that their interactions with other gay men did not meet their expectations. Even further, their interactions were far worse than they ever imagined. That gay man at the bar, club, or beach didn’t throw an insult at you because of his sexual orientation. He threw it because his values are shitty. Our values, whether chosen consciously or unconsciously, determine how we treat ourselves and other people.
What if we let go of or re-think the expectations we have of other gay men? What if we made an effort to leave our past negative interactions with other gay men where they belong — in the past. What if we wiped the slate clean and started from a place of curiosity instead of fear? Giving other gay men the space to be who they are. In that space, we’ll encounter gloriously generous, loving, and kind-hearted gay men, as well as unsavory, shallow, I’d-never-want-to-meet-them-again gay men. That’s part of the human experience.
When we meet the unsavory ones – the ones who don’t value difference or kindness – we have every right to speak up and call it out. Asking, “How did you get this way?” or “Who taught you to treat people that way?” is a perfect way to respond. A question to hopefully get them to stop and reflect on their own life and how they treat those around them.
It’s true we won’t jive with every single person we come into contact with. But there are gay men everywhere who desire the big ‘C’ Community. If you’re reading this, you are probably one of those men.