Saturday, August 4, 2007

What Is "Community"?

I just got out of an interesting gay chat room discussion, which is something of an event in itself. The availability of cheap Internet access that doesn’t tie up your phone line makes it possible for many gay men to log in to a chat site, then leave the program running in the background while they work on other things, hoping that Ryan Philippe or Hugh Jackman will send them a private message. In chat rooms where, a few years ago, something like actual conversation sometimes could be found, there is now mainly the drone of log-in announcements:
hotstudt6969 has entered.
hotstud6969 has exited.
stuffmewithUrbig1 has entered: masc/musc only, stay away creeps!
hotstud6969 has entered.
And so on. As a relative newcomer to these things, compared to men who used IRC and America Online in the 1980s, I can only describe changes I’ve observed since 1998 or so. But it does seem to me that there’s been a decline in main-room conversation, as opposed to “private” conversations primarily consisting of sex talk or arranging personal encounters. There has always been a certain amount of social pressure against main-room chat, which for various reasons won out over time. Which doesn’t mean that main-room conversation doesn’t still sometimes happen, and I’m pleased when I find it.

Tonight’s discussion, which was already in progress when I logged in to my local room, was about a popular topic: “community,” and specifically whether there is a gay “community” in our mid-sized college town. My first question was how the others were using the word “community.” Many people think of “community” as requiring a high degree of homogeneity and lockstep consensus, with little internal conflict – a definition that would rule out the existence of communities of any kind.

One of the chatters, a graduate student, insisted on “physical community,” ruling out “virtual” communities. He saw the Internet as having damaged, if not destroyed, “physical” gay communities, by which he apparently mainly meant bars. It is true that two local gay bars have closed in the past year, but we still have two remaining. Both the graduate student and another participant, both of them in their mid-30s, seemed to think that there had been gay communities before, but now that guys could interact online, they had no interest in meeting real people face to face.

This was funny to someone like me, who remembers the Gay Liberation movement's hostility to bar culture; gay bars have been under attack by various gay community members ever since, for various reasons, but bars remain important “community” institutions for better or worse. I welcomed chat rooms for the opportunity they sometimes gave, to have conversations that weren’t drowned out by loud dance music, without cigarette smoke that clung to clothing the next day, and no need to buy drinks (alcoholic or otherwise). For many men, I realize, those were positive factors: the loud music meant that they didn’t have to converse beyond “Do you come here often?” and “Do you have a place to go?” The alcohol made it easier to pretend that they weren’t in a room full of homosexuals, and that if they did go home with someone to commit deviant acts, it was the booze that did it, not them.

The graduate student insisted that if you didn’t have more than two people present, there was no “physical community.” (Would an orgy count, I wonder?) He was careful to make it clear that he didn’t blame the Internet (apparently because it’s not a person), but he didn’t like my suggestion that the Internet had supplied what many gay men had always wanted – the ability to find sexual partners without having to be in a physical space with other gay men. Such facilities have always been with us: adult bookstores, tearooms, highway rest stops, and the like. The Internet is probably preferable to such sites, being free from physical harassment – even verbal harassment by homophobes has been rare in the chat site I’ve used, though apparently it does happen.

One person claimed that the Internet made it possible for men to delay their self-identification as gay. I’m not so sure of that either, and I don’t know how anyone could tell, let alone whether a shorter delay is necessarily desirable. I suggested, in fact, that maybe public spaces like bars were better off if men who didn’t want community stayed away. The graduate student claimed that the Internet somehow distorted public gay space; as someone who’s spent a lot of time in such spaces, I have always felt that they were distorted by the closeted. The other thirtysomething declared that public gay spaces shouldn’t cater to the wishes of the closeted, but though I’m sympathetic to that idea, I don’t see how you’d make it work. Commercial sites like bars, reasonably enough by their standards, consider the money of a closet case to be as good as that of an openly gay person. Non-commercial sites like discussion groups or student associations have a commitment, also quite reasonable, to try to make people feel welcome. Most gay people (including those of us who later become openly gay) feel frightened on their first visit to a gay space, and so gay organizations try to make themselves as non-threatening as they can. Uncloseted gay people are a minority within a minority, needed to keep public gay sites in operation, but also seen by the closeted as dangerous – we might “out” them, simply by the fact that we exist. And admittedly, we are often impatient with the fears of the closeted, much as we try to draw them into our institutions. This ambivalence creates a tension that has always been with us, and which isn’t going to go away in the foreseeable future.

But back to “community.” Despite the graduate student’s dislike of “virtual” communities, all communities are virtual to some extent. In all but the smallest towns, members of communities don’t know everyone else, or want to. The “physical” nature of their communities lies in the accident of living in an extended physical space, not in face-to-face contact for extended periods of time, let alone in the absence of conflict over values and goals. Much of their “community” comes from reading a local newspaper, listening to a radio station; when they vote for local politicians, they are not all in the polling places at the same time, and most debate over issues does not happen face-to-face. This is even more true in larger cities, let alone at the state or national level.  (Since my interlocutor was a graduate student, I should have asked him if he'd read Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, a standard work on the topic of how communities construct themselves.)

The graduate student asked me accusingly if I thought face-to-face interaction was unimportant. Of course I think it is important, but not because you can’t have “community” without it. And in fact, much of tonight’s complaint about the Internet glossed over the fact that in practice it’s a stepping stone (or gateway, if you want a different metaphor) to face-to-face interaction, if only the sexual. The graduate student’s insistence on the presence of more than two people was meant to address this, but he never quite clarified it. In our city, there are plenty of gay friendship circles, cliques, and the like. Some of them use the local chat room to touch base with each other on weekend mornings, comparing notes on the bars or parties where they saw each other the night before. I’ve also seen invitations to parties and other gatherings issued in the main room.

So I’m not sure that the Internet’s effects, even in the “aggregate” (a word the graduate student used frequently) are at odds with face-to-face interaction and contact. The problem I see is that many if not most gay men don’t really want “community,” even virtual, with each other. And who knows? Maybe they’re right. Another contradiction we’ve never begun to resolve is that on one hand, we want to find others “like us”, so we can feel at home and safe, without being judged; on the other, we want to be accepted by straight people, and to fit into our families and larger communities as ourselves, not seen as fundamentally and essentially “different.” (Even though we notoriously knew we were “different” from a very early age.) Until we sort out questions like this, we aren’t going to be able to figure out what role gay communities should play, whether they are “virtual” or “physical.”