Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Labels, Groups, and the Handling of Diversity in the Gay Community

I think it's safe to say that the gay community is a relatively diverse place. People from all walks of life, from all races and cultures, look to it with hope for their future as LGBTHQAetc.. persons. Playing down this vibrant mix of cultures, identities, and worldviews, there are stereotypes and images of gays that are propagated into mainstream (heterosexual) society, just as there are stereotypes of every minority. Most of these prove not to be true: as gays we don't all look the same way; we don't have a distinctive facial structure or way of speaking, and we don't all dress in the same ways (furthermore, not all of us are fashionable!). As homosexuality exists in people of all backgrounds and social upbringing, a cross-section of the gay community should look the same as any random sampling of the broader society. That is to say, it should be that way, ideally, if the community could be considered an all-inclusive body. Unfortunately, the ideal and the reality have yet to truly merge.

I often ask myself: How does the LGBT community address its own internal diversity? We have all been taught that diversity is a good thing, something to be encouraged and embraced. I wholeheartedly adhere to this perspective, as I consider myself to be a relatively diverse individual. I have diverse intellectual interests, I'm bi-racial (I'm ethnically entirely European, and more often than not I pass as European in a racial context as well), and, having lived in several countries, a reasonably diverse set of cultural attitudes. But I've found that all of this diversity, a purportedly positive attribute, seems to restrict my opportunities for social cohesion rather than broaden them. I never feel content in one group or the other, in one country or another; I'm always on the fringes, always 'different.' It speaks perhaps to the difficulty of whole societies, not just the gay community, in handling diversions from the mean. On the whole, I think the quirky climate in Montreal provides one of the most open environments I've found in terms of its ability to make space for many different forms of diversity. But how does the gay community fare in this regard? Does it really have the united front we perceive it has in pride parades and community events?

Actually, that's one of the things that I have heard other gay people (of many different backgrounds) complaining about. An acquaintance of mine who's been around for a while once discussed with me how fragmented he felt the gay community was becoming. He was worried about the divisions that occur within the community, usually centered around the labels people take on (top, bottom, twink, daddy, queen, butch, femme, hypermasculine, racial preferences, weight preferences, age preferences, etc.) and the rigidness that sometimes accompanies them. These sub-identities provide smaller cliques, or social groups based on common interests, which form sometimes in contrast to the perceived mainstream gay culture. Relative to the "small town network of city gays" I wrote about last week, groups and 'labels' form relative hamlets (accentuating even further those 'small town' effects I talked about in that previous post).

I actually think that the creation of groups is a rather practically-minded evolution in the gay community, but labels can be both unpractical and destructive. All of us are likely to have certain sexual preferences, and it stands to reason that, in a community based on sexual identity, we would naturally gravitate toward those groups that represent these individual interests and cater to our idiosyncrasies in this regard. Certain 'crowds' may gravitate to some gay establishments over others, thus facilitating internal social cohesion. Furthermore, other groups form for more purely social reasons; for example, with the goal of providing a safe space for LGBT university students or a particular ethnic, national, or religious group. These are also a good idea; they afford a comfortable entry point to the gay community as well as a social setting where people have similar experiences to bond over. Furthermore, there are groups (such as volunteer organizations) that cater to all kinds of sexual identities, gender expression, and social backgrounds, and these often form the unifying melting pots of the community.

Interest groups can exist without labels, but they don't always reject them. Labels are formed to contrast, or isolate, one group at the exclusion of others, and too often social groups will show preferences to particular labels (if not through their official policy then through their general climate). For example, when a university LGBT group takes on a label (for example, in preference of a certain age range from their particular university), it often seeks to maintain social cohesion by excluding interaction with other community organizations (such as other university groups or other volunteer groups). Given such a situation, in joint social outings with other groups, individuals are forced to divide into their separate entities rather than intermingling (I have heard of this happening first hand). Certain ethno-cultural groups can also fall under the spell of labels. For example, how well would a half-Arab, half-Chinese Buddhist (with a mostly East-Asian upbringing) fit in an Arab gay social group (with members from mostly an Islamic cultural background)? Would he/she even be encouraged into it? Or what about a white (or black or otherwise non-Arab) individual who was adopted by Arab parents?

It's not surprising that many groups form around labels, as it can be very difficult to assimilate into the gay culture (which we are not usually acculturated into by our parents). Many find it comforting to be in the presence of people who have a similar acculturation in other ways (cultural, etc.). These groups, as assimilators that make us comfortable with our sexual identity and help us accept and embrace a gay lifestyle within the broader community, are actually quite a positive adaptive development. However, the problem arises when the group actually acts to stop or even reverse assimilation (and further connection) to the broader gay community, when the group acculturates inward and not outward.

With the intermingling of groups and labels, sometimes people from different races or backgrounds have difficulty identifying a good fit in the gay community, often finding themselves exoticized or judged in the same way they are in the mainstream society. There are whole books written on multiple identity management and multicultural diversity in the gay community, and I'm not going to expand much on that subject here. I like to think that the LGBT world is theoretically more accepting of diversity (in breaking the racial and cultural barriers) compared to the mainstream society, given the rich understanding of adversity (in its many forms) that transcends the gay community. However, when sexual preferences, groups, and fractionalizing labels are thrown into the mix, the true level of openness to diversity is difficult to assess at the end of the day.

In order to reverse the fractionation of the gay community, various interests must be willing to come together for a united purpose. Often gay events (pride parades, cultural festivals, political action rallies, community centres, etc.) are the perfect place for these interactions to take place, as they are formed to highlight our commonalities and embrace our internal diversity. When groups can come together and, instead of remaining huddled in their separate corners, engage in an exchange of ideas, our similarities as human beings with comparable sexual identities and goals shine through. Not only are we intellectually enriched by such experiences, our minds potentially opened to new preferences and possibilities, but we also discover new personalities, grow our social networks, and become even more likely to find compatible love interests (based on grounds beyond the labels). It is thus in embracing diversity within and among groups that the gay community appears to be most beneficial to its members.


  1. i couldn't agree more!! but the problem with homosexuality IS the sexuality. it affects every choices we make & distance us from others that don't fit in our expectations.
    we can be sociable, but only with those we'd like to... you know. we've all got our comfort zone.

  2. Hi Ticklebear,

    Thanks for your comments (I definitely enjoy reading them: they certainly help add some perspective). Yeah, I agree. It gives us food for thought, leading us to that old familiar question: do we want what's comfortable and sure, or do we want to really shake things up and try something new? Different people will each have their own answer to that question.