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Who Exactly is Our Tribe? The Evolution from Gay to LGBTQ

COMMENTARY: When I was coming out in the late ‘70s, I was part of a large community that included men of different ages, races, ethnicities and sexual proclivities, along with lesbians and others of varying sexual and gender identities. The unifying force was that we all considered ourselves societal outsiders.

In the face of AIDS, our community grew stronger and more clearly identifiable. As the epidemic began to subside, other developments (including acceptance in the military, job protection, and marriage equality) led to us becoming a more accepted part of society. With that success, our community grew to include, or be defined by, a far larger and more intricate matrix of sexual and gender identities, which have actually always been part of who we are. Hence, the accepted nomenclature evolved gradually from GAY to LGBTQ (or LGBTQIAA+ in some quarters).

Interestingly, while the scope of our community continues to grow and become more inclusive, I hear from many, both young and old, that they feel the concept of community is waning. Ironically, this is happening at precisely the moment when, for a variety of different reasons, a rising desire exists among LGBTQers of all ages to form stronger bonds and connections.

When we were a smaller group, identified mainly as urban gay men and women, it was far easier to point to friends and say “That’s my tribe.” Today, by contrast, as a gay man, I’m constantly learning about the many others who are part of our community—those with bisexual, transgender a,nd other sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as those from other socio/economic backgrounds. Indeed, as the expression goes, we are everywhere.

But, as the LGBTQ community grows, the diversity of our stories, issues, and challenges has become so broad that I sometimes wonder what we have in common beyond our shared struggle as outsiders dealing with adversity. Do our battles against the status quo make us strange bedfellows or can we somehow fortify our connectivity in times of peace and harmony?

There has been much talk—both positive and negative—about the mainstreaming of the LGBTQ community, referring to the total integration of LGBTQ people into society and the resulting loss of a separate identity. Frankly, total assimilation sounds like total eradication. A far better goal in my mind would be to maintain and nurture our distinctive community while being recognized as a vital part of society. Frankly, I like being different.

Our unique community is defined by much more than simply who we sleep with or what gender we identify with. Most LGBTQers who have been “out” for a while have a clear sense of who they are and how they fit or don’t fit into society. And, our distinct voices have existed outside the norm for so long that I wonder if they could ever truly be completely mainstreamed.

Our unique perspectives as outsiders have fostered talents and prompted actions frequently startling and upsetting to the established order, which have greatly influenced the arts, literature and our culture at large. You might even say that the LGBTQ community and other allied outcasts have traditionally functioned as a grain of sand in an oyster whose irritation results in the formation of a beautiful pearl. It would be a shame for society if this were to be lost because of assimilation.

The world of the late 20th century will never exist again. I feel privileged to have witnessed it and value the relationships I’ve developed because of it. The sexual revolution, gay liberation, and the AIDS crisis were all strong motivators, driving me and my generation to form a tight and wonderful community of misfits, freaks, and trailblazers.

These are different times, which are no less precarious for our kind. As we navigate the challenges ahead, we must remember that community makes us stronger and keeps us visible within society at large. And it is the connections we find in our community that unify us as LGBTQ people and add meaning to each of our lives.

With BAMMER, we hope to inspire people to build greater community. By sharing our experiences with one another and identifying common threads, we believe we can connect in more meaningful ways.

As we build out BAMMER, both online and off-line, with its meet-ups, workshops, and other social gatherings, I’m curious. How important is community to you? And how do you define and create it?


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