Last week, Mark Joseph Stern over at Slate.com wrote a review of the book “Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma”, which explores how big gay men “form identities and community in the face of adversity”.
Although the book sounds super interesting and needed, it was Stern’s first sentence that really stuck out to me.
He wrote, “For a group of people bonded over a shared stigma, the gay community does an awful lot of stigmatizing itself.”
I totally agree with the second half of that sentence. However, the first half struck me as being off. In fact, it didn’t seem to ring true at all.
Bonded is a strong word. When I think of two (or multiple) people bonding, takes time, requires intention and results in trust, intimacy, and connection. This notion that gay men are bonded simply because we face adversity from society is an assumption that leads to a lot of hurt for gay men.
This idea of gay men being bonded because of our shared persecution gives all of us a false sense of togetherness that just isn’t there. Maybe it was at one time, but not today. Gay men have wildly different experiences, depending on where one grew up, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, faith upbringing, and the list goes on.
There is an underlying belief among many gay men that I’ve heard over and over: Because gay men face marginalization in society, they know how that feels (incredibly hurtful) and will not marginalize other gay men.
Because gay men have been excluded, marginalized, and stigmatized, they won’t do that to each other! I get that desire and I wish it was true. In a perfect world, we would treat one another with kindness, regardless of our differences. But this false belief sets us up to encounter vast amounts of pain when interacting with other gay men.
It’s clear that not every gay man sees or makes the connection between being marginalized and therefore not marginalizing others. It’s not an obvious connecting of the dots for a person who shies away from self-reflection or awareness.
The reality is that humans in general don’t naturally embrace difference. Gay men, like all strangers who come into contact with one another, have a wide variety of beliefs, experiences, perspectives, and values.
Sure, most gay men face prejudice at some point in our lives — whether from individuals or institutions. However, not all of us process those experiences in the same way. Some think, “Wow. That hurts. I would never make someone else feel that way, now that I’ve experienced exclusion, stigma, etc.” Others clearly don’t.
Not all gay men share the same values system. My values system is driven primarily by love, hospitality, togetherness, and inclusivity. I try to live by those day in and day out. I fail often, but do my best. Not every gay man lives with those values. It’s clear in how we see gay men treat one another.
Some value physical beauty, social status, money, or notoriety more than anything else and their behavior reflects those values. Can attractive gay man be kind, considerate, and empathetic? Of course. It’s not about the body. It’s about the values that reside in the heart and spirit.
It would benefit us to see and approach gay men as strangers. Not in the “don’t talk to strangers” warning we received as children, but seeing other gay men as a blank slate. It’s not about approaching each other with distrust and caution. It’s approaching every gay man with a posture of curiosity, wonder, an open heart, and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Yes, that’s risky. Yes, that will open you up to hurt. But it’s the only path to Community.
We must empty ourselves of assumptions about one another if we are to form bonds of any real significance.
It’s not easy. I struggle with this on a regular basis. Just the other day I went to see Robyn here in Chicago. Gay men were everywhere. All shapes, sizes, ethnicities, short shorts and shorter shorts. After a few minutes, I noticed all the judgments and observations flying through my mind. It took me a good while to calm my mind, set aside judgment, and appreciate every person I came into contact with. To fully enjoy the moment and the people around me.
We have a choice as individuals: Through our words and actions, do we help create bonds in this world and community or do we destroy the possibility for bonds? Bonds are formed through friendships and nurtured through love, kindness, vulnerability, and trust. We can challenge each other to raise the standard of being welcoming in our own community.
Think of your closest gay guy friends. They were once strangers. Once unknowns. Over time you crossed from strangers (or maybe even enemies) into friends. It’s a beautiful and sometimes rocky transition. But one I want to see happen more often among gay men. We can’t do it alone. It’s requires each of us taking a courageous step into Community.