Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Small Town Network of City Gays

When forced to self-acculturate into an unfamiliar environment (ex., the gay community), I've noticed that various epiphanies inevitably come to light. For example, I often used to think that gay bars and other establishments were places designed for people (formerly strangers) to meet each other for dating purposes. I imagined a gay bar setting very similar to 'straight bars' and those stereotyped scenes of heterosexuals courting, propagated on virtually every sitcom: a woman walks into a bar, a man starts talking to her, perhaps orders her a drink. If the stars are aligned, sparks fly, phone numbers get exchanged, dating begins, and romance follows. It wasn't hard for me to imagine a similar thing happening in a gay bar or other outlet of the gay community. After all, the whole reason for going to these establishments is to meet people who have a similar sexual identity. The prospect of sharing this peculiarity with someone is charged enough as it is, and to be inserted into a social network designed specifically to facilitate such interactions is even more intense.

Perhaps these encounters do happen in gay institutions, in addition to liaisons of a more plainly sexual nature. But upon closer observation, what surprised me most about these places is the large number of couples that frequent them. In fact, I would even go so far to say that in many cases these establishments are mostly occupied with people already in a loving relationship.

When I first realized this, I thought it was a little odd. I always assumed that people went to gay bars and other institutions to meet potential mates. Once that was accomplished, I assumed that the happy couple would retreat into their own little world (like heterosexuals retreat into their various worlds, the world of restaurants, etc.). I further assumed that henceforth they were only interested in maintaining an activist role in the gay community (volunteer work, political activism, AIDS relief, financial support for gay-friendly places and activities, etc.). Some do retreat, but this is certainly not the case with a good number of gays; they continue to go to gay institutions and events with their partners.

In the discussion presented in my third article, upon going to the Divers/Cite festival I realized the utility of having a safe place to go as a couple. Gay institutions provide public environments that LGBT persons can enter and be completely comfortable in their own skin. But gays are relatively bold in this fairly open-minded city, and in the interactions between couples I noticed no more or less restraint at Divers/Cite compared to gays I see showing public affection in the city everyday. Compounded by this fact, there are more establishments catering to gay clientele in this city than in most (if not all) cities of its size. And so in this context, the whole concept of gay establishments frequented mostly by gay couples, people in a romantic relationship that had not retreated into their own worlds, was still somewhat perplexing.

The answer to my question was, however, sitting right in front of me. The gay community is just that, a community. Furthermore, the term "village" to describe the gay world in any given city appears to be a particularly apt one, as the gay community is, in reality, a small town anywhere one goes. We are a tiny minority, and for a gay person with one sexual preference (i.e., not bisexual), even in the most ideal circumstances only about 4% of the general population (for men) is likely to share the same orientation. Even in an open city like Montreal (or country like Canada), a good number of those are not 'out' or otherwise connected to the gay community. Furthermore, that percentage is further reduced by station in life (age-related concerns) and individual/social preferences, such that we are working with a very small population that might even potentially reciprocate our romantic desires. The size of this community may be only a few hundred or a few thousand in any given megalopolis. As a consequence, the whole city is not at our feet; we are, in fact, confronted with a small town of people, where reputation and continuous, friendly interactions are vital.

I certainly understand small town living, having spent most of my life in various small towns. Unlike in the broader city, where it's easy to ignore people or blow them off altogether without any backlash, in small towns one has to maintain something of a friendly, put-together demeanor at all times. If not, people will take note and start talking; reputations will begin to be corrupted, and social opportunities may be further limited. In a small town, we can never rule out the prospect of running into someone, even those we might not want to associate with, over and over again. And we have to care somewhat about what they think about us, because we may need them or people they know at some point. The same rules apply in close-knit city neighborhoods as well, but to a much lesser extent, as it is easier to emerge from and disappear into the cityscape.

The gay community has many of these rural characteristics; its city limits are often defined explicitly by the pride flags that fly outside LGBT establishments. The community provides more ample opportunities for forming friendships; like in small towns, you are more readily forced to get acquainted with the people around you. And as with any small town, social networks substantially overlap. For example, I was often surprised, and perhaps a little scared, how gay people I met rather randomly would talk about people I knew myself from my volunteer work (it being an anonymous organization, I never brought up these people's names nor acknowledged knowing them). I think it's also rather funny how LGBT persons, once inserted into the gay community (such as in a bar or at an event such as Divers/Cite), will also continuously scan the people nearby, looking to encounter someone they know, and they often find them. Looking around the interior of a restaurant or any other place for people you recognize is another classic small town behaviour. In a small town,it's not uncommon to see people staring into each other's car or reading license plates.

There are several advantages to this everyone-knows-everyone attitude, including those that would be appealing for a gay couple. In the addition to the added comfort of being around like-minded people, they are also likely to find themselves surrounded by friends and ample opportunities to grow their social network without the awkwardness of being alone. The couple can enter a gay establishment, one that they are familiar with, and it is likely that one of the members of the couple will see someone they know. If they spend time with that person, they may be introduced to other gay individuals in their social network. Then from those people, each of which is likely to know other gays, there is even more opportunity to expand the social network and to find new niches or new, closer friends to do things with. Eventually the likeable extrovert will have built up an extensive social network, a web of friendships, acquainceships, and allegiances, within the gay community, and these social connections require work to be maintained. Thus, it only makes sense to remain involved in the gay community, even while engaged in a monogamous romantic relationship. In addition, like it or hate it, when a relationship fails these networks often provide vital emotional support as well as a ready-made pool of potential future mates. After all, it is in the familiarity and comfort of operating within one's own social network (friends and friends of friends) that provides the most likely setting for finding romance, much more readily realizable than meeting and falling in love with a stranger in a bar.

I often use the words 'bar' and 'establishment' to define the locus of such interactions, but gay groups and similar activities without any defined setting can be used the same way. In addition, the modern gay individual with a repertoire in 'the community' can use social networking sites, like facebook, to essentially stalk their friend's pages for mutual acquaintances or new interests. Through these types of interactions, they can become familiar with other gay men and build on their own social web. I don't know how many times I saw this going on at my volunteer job in the gay community: when nothing was going on, while I was perusing Le Monde I would often glance over to see the other (male) volunteers (of all ages) frantically scanning their friends' facebook pages, usually dominated by a photo of yet another well-proportioned, naked torso.

Like I mentioned previously, there are both advantages and disadvantages to living in a small town. In a community of few, we have to continuously fall back on the same people to meet our many needs, which can be limiting. In addition, gossip and blows to the reputation can be much more damaging than in the broader 'real world.' In the city, heterosexuals can choose to enter virtually any forum and leave it behind with few lasting consequences, potentially with a mate on their arm (as the opportunities to meet people and potential mates are as seemingly boundless as the world itself). For LGBT persons, engaging with 'the community' is a more necessarily serious affair, as it is strongly limited both by geography and by its members, neither of which are boundless.

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