At least we are not like the others! Dynamics of distancing and community trouble among gay men

by Hans Goerdten _

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXSKCE4-BEI&ab_channel=WOWPresents (screenshot min: 9:13)

“Trixie and Katja talking gay trash.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXSKCE4-BEI&ab_channel=WOWPresents (screenshot min: 9.13)

Episode 132 of dragqueens Trixie Mattel’s and Katya Zamolodchikova’s YouTube Series UNHhhh is dedicated to straight people. Most of the episode consists of trash talk about heterosexuality (I warmly recommend it). Two thirds into the video however the conversation takes a remarkable turn: While Trixie is making a point about the tastelessness of straight people’s living rooms, she interrupts herself to state: “I will say this though – we’re talking about straights like gays are so much better. We know plenty of gay trash.” Katya agrees before Trixie can finish her sentence: “No, gay people are rotten!”

Social research sometimes consists of questioning the things we are the most familiar with and do most routinely. So, let’s be naïve for a moment and ask ourselves what is happening here: Why the need to deprecate your own group of people like that?

I became interested in this question through the work on my master thesis,1 which was concerned with conflicts and ambivalences within, among, and between queer people. Inspired by authors like Leo Bersani, who emphasizes the complicated, even “anti- social” aspects of queer life,2 I had high hopes of learning something about a paradoxical or inherently troubled nature of queerness. Instead, however, I stumbled across something much narrower in scope, about my own group of people – gay men.

I interviewed a handful of young queer people about their sentiments and opinions about each other and the queer communities they engage in. The interviews that I conducted with gay men provided a small collection of deprecating gestures towards other gay men, similar to the example by Trixie and Katya. My interpretation suggests that they fulfill a certain function in social interaction: In short, we like to associate and socialize by distancing ourselves from other gay men. The verbal gestures are (paradoxically) a tool that is routinely used to establish common ground, camaraderie, and sympathy. Let me go into more detail on these gestures and why I believe they fulfill a function.

 

Routines of deprecation

The gay men I interviewed shared a variety of anecdotes and aspects about how their relationship to other gay men and different aspects of queer community was complicated. To make a quick example, one participant talked about his time at a gay youth group, which he remembers as a frustrating disenchantment. Benedict 3 recalls the first encounter with a mix of honest bitterness and ironic self-criticism towards his youthful ignorance: “Instead of people with dark shadows under their blue eyes that dreamily gaze into the expanses of poetry I encountered a vulgar, pimply, overweight, desperate crowd.” Examples like this and the introductory excerpt from UNHhhh are a fascinating contrast to widespread narratives about the joyous and healing qualities of queer community.

Furthermore, this appears to be a widespread phenomenon among gay men. In my experience it takes many and inconsistent forms. Some are trivial: everybody else is too conservative, too radical, too horny, too frigid, flat out boring, flat out annoying, too difficult, suffering too much internalized homophobia and so on. Other reasons are more serious: racism, transphobia, biphobia, fat-shaming are a well-documented part of the gay scene (See eg. Han 2008). Furthermore, some of my participants talked about episodes of sexual violence they experienced. In the conversations with gay men the trivial and the serious reasons often intermingle. They are dropped into conversation and lamented in similar ways, even by people not directly affected by them.

 

Associating by keeping a distance

Talking about his gay friends Benedict (above) gave a crucial clue that suggests an interpretation of this phenomenon: “What is actually more uniting than the belonging to the LGBTIQ* Community is a discomfort towards this community” he told me. „I feel very well taken care of in my circle of gay friends but none of us really feels a strong sense of belonging towards this community.” This idea, that a joined discomfort towards other gay people is facilitating association among gay men, helped to clarify parts and aspects of the interviews.

One immediate observation was that the interviews I conducted with gay men are significantly longer in comparison to the others. Suppose, gay men talking negatively about one another serves some constructive purpose in conversation. It would explain why when confronted with the question whether there is anything to dislike about other queer people, it was taken as a welcome opportunity for a lengthy discussion. Similarly, I found that talking about these issues and signaling mutual understanding changed my rapport to the interviewees: On several occasions reacting sympathetically instantly led to a more trustful and open conversation, as if something inhibiting the relationship between us had been removed.

Similar phenomena have been described more generally under labels like lateral violence (eg. Clark, Augoustinos, Malin, 2016) or narcissism of small differences (Freud 2013, 100). However, it seems to be a particularly virulent issue among gay men. A widely shared Huffington Post article on “the pandemic of gay loneliness” 4 for example, and some scattered research address the issue of deprecation and discrimination within the gay community (Eribon 2004, 132; Rowe et al. 2008; Russell & Bohan 2006). I want to suggest interpreting this as a practice that fulfills a certain implicit purpose. Instead of being solely destructive it may paradoxically be a mode of social cohesion. I believe this is a new way to think about it.

 

Making sense intuitively

I want to argue for this interpretation by recurring to theories of interaction. They provide helpful explanations for the routines of deprecation and the mutual understanding that emerged in the interview situation.

The concept of conjunctive rooms of experience by Karl Mannheim is a microsociological theorem that lies at the heart of many approaches to qualitative analysis of social interaction. In short, it states that if you share a certain experience and the membership to a certain social group (whether it is a family, a profession, a culture, a peer group etc.) this entails sharing implicit knowledge. “Implicit” is used in the sense that the knowledge in question it is not consciously reflected but habitual in nature: not a factual knowing that but a practical knowing how. Mannheim compares it to knowing how to tie a shoelace: We do it every day, but we do not reflect upon it and would have a hard time explaining in words what we do when we tie our shoes. In interaction, this kind of unconscious knowledge allows people of the same group to correctly interpret each other. A sign of being member of such a conjunctive room of experience is that you intuitively understand cues and nuances of verbal or non-verbal behavior that remain incomprehensible to the outsider. Slang, dress codes, inside jokes, abbreviations, routine exchanges may all be part of this phenomenon – if you get it you get it and if you don’t then you are probably not part of the gang. The closer you look at any social interaction, the more of these cues you find. This is the keyhole that qualitative research as it is taught in the social sciences tries to enter: If you manage to explicate the implicit knowledge of a conjunctive room of experience you learn a great deal about it. It can help to understand the social ties that keep it together, what distinguishes it from others social settings and even what specific challenges and conflicts members might be facing. One way to achieve this is by carefully examining and analyzing transcripts of social interaction (Bohnsack 2012).

To give some context to my project: I interviewed seven people, students and employees between 20 and 30 years of age, three of which were gay men. That does not seem to be a large number, but nevertheless, the interviews contained very distinctive repeating patterns. I arranged a part of the interviews by contacting LGBTQI* networks in the Rhein-Main area and others by reaching out into friendship networks. I quickly realized that using interviews to research the social relations between queer people in this case yields the opportunity to study the interaction between a queer interviewer and queer interviewees.

This brings me back to the issue of the distancing gestures of gay men: What struck me about the interaction in my interviews was how quickly and intuitively the interviewees and myself correctly interpreted each other in our ambivalent opinions and sentiments towards other gay men and how this was a propellant of sympathetic interaction.

 

What does community mean to you?

I would like to elaborate using an example:

Gabriel, a twenty-seven-year-old gay trans man I interviewed, has a very ambivalent relationship to queer community. He talks about the male gay scene as a place that did not make him feel particularity comfortable, about experiences of rejection and transphobia. His most important connection to other queer people however is the north-Bavarian trans community: He is involved as an organizer and instructor of a local self-help group. In contrast to the gay scene, he describes the encounters within this self-help group as extremely rewarding.

Late into the interview, I ask the following question:

Hans: What does community mean to you, how do you think about- what is it to you? What do you mean when you say community?

Gabriel: oi (laughs)

Hans: (laughs)

Gabriel: to me, that’s simply people where I can speak freely and where I know that I will be accepted

What is most interesting to me is not Gabriel’s answer but our joined reaction to my question: we laugh. We both know and realize that the question “What does LGBTIQ* community mean to you?” is not as harmless as it seems. In fact, we talk about it explicitly directly after:

Hans: That’s interesting, so – if I may be a little provocative – would that be all LGBTIQ* people?

Gabriel: no not at all (laughs)

By asking this, I implicitly mobilize a very normative notion of community – as if community would amount to the sum of all LGBTIQ* people and there was an imperative to feel and act in solidarity towards them at all times. I mark this as a provocation in the same move.

I can only assume, that for Gabriel this question cannot be an easy one. His experiences entail both the caring and inclusive trans community he has built as a self-help instructor as well as the rejection and transphobia he has faced in the gay scene. His first and intuitive reaction to this provocation however is to turn the issue into an opportunity to share a joke at the expense of other gay men. Most of this remains unspoken and anyone, who is not part of the gay male conjunctive room of experience would likely not understand why we are laughing.

In the interview Gabriel goes on to formulate a series of contradicting statements alternately confirming his wish to identify in solidarity with the community and the impossibility of doing so without exceptions – all wrapped up in an engaged and extensive answer. In general, the notion of queer community seems to be murky and contested, despite being used abundantly in everyday discourse and academic literature. In her book LGBT Spaces and Community – Contrasting Identities, Belongings and Wellbeing, Eleanor Formby writes: “The (singular) term LGBT community can risk minimising or misunderstanding diverse needs of LGBT people (…). The idea of a plurality of LGBT communities is therefore more valuable, as it explicitly suggests that not all LGBT people (wish to) belong to one large homogenous, and ostensibly harmonious, group.” (Formby 2017, 14). My question to Gabriel also mirrors that this was one of the issues I originally planned to explore in my thesis. I got sidetracked however by the realization that a certain kind of community trouble is very specific to gay male discourse.

Of course, Gabriel’s transness and his experiences of transphobia are not shared by all gay men; but they are, I would like to insist, of importance in this case. Also, they are not really a laughing matter. Yet, we navigated this topic successfully, and it furthermore provided an opportunity to progress through the interview with humor and warmth. My point is that in this instance the experience of transphobia becomes a part of a discursive entanglement that is very characteristic of how gay men talk about each other regardless of them being trans or cis gendered. With the cis gay interviewees for example experiences of sexual transgression were among the things linked to the complicatedness of their relationship towards other gay men – in a similarly entangled way as Gabriel’s experiences of transphobia.

 

Moving beyond the distancing gestures?

My research of course has its limits. It collects some evidence for the existence of a certain social routine, that seems to have installed itself in the in-group behavior of gay men. It is however hard to say where this comes from exactly. Does it have roots in growing up under conditions of heteronormativity? In experiences of discrimination that are mirrored and repeated within the community? A queer version of fragile masculinity? My research does not provide the means to answer this. However, I believe it may be part of a good explanation why this routine sticks around.

Indeed, trying to leave these deprecating gestures behind is irritatingly hard – and I say this as a gay man and as the interviewer, therefore as a participant in the conversations that I studied. Writing about the issue is full of trap doors: Even by pointing it out I risk deprecating gayness at large for its tendency to self-deprecate. Recognizing this as routine and social convention – I hope at least – might provide the opportunity to experiment with alternative ways to experience connection and warmth.

 

Literature:

Bersani, Leo (1996): Homos. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bohnsack, Ralf (2012): Documentary Method. In: Flick, U. (Hg.): SAGE Handbook of Analyzing Qualitative Data. Thousand Oakes/London/New Delhi: Sage.

Butler, Judith (1993): Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London: Routledge.

Clark, Yvonne; Augoustinos, Martha; Malin, Merridy (2016): Lateral violence within the Aboriginal community in Adelaide: “It affects our identity and wellbeing”. In: Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing 1 (1), 43–52.

Eribon, Didier (2004): Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. Durham: Duke University Press (Series Q).

Formby, Eleanor (2017): Exploring LGBT Spaces and Communities: Contrasting Identities, Belongings and Wellbeing. Abingdon: Routledge. (Routledge Advances in Critical Diversities; 5).

Freud, Sigmund (2013). Civilization and its Discontents. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Han, Chong‐suk (2008): No fats, femmes, or Asians: The utility of critical race theory in examining the role of gay stock stories in the marginalization of gay Asian men. In: Contemporary Justice Review 11 (1), 11–22. DOI: 10.1080/10282580701850355.

Rowe, M. S., & Dowsett, G. W. (2008). Sex, love, friendship, belonging and place: Is there a role for ‘gay community’ in HIV prevention today?. In: Culture, Health & Sexuality 10(4), 329–344. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691050701843098.

Russell, G. M., & Bohan, J. S. (2006). The case of internalized homophobia: Theory and/as practice. In: Theory & Psychology 16(3), 343–366. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354306064283

 

1„Sekt mit Himbeeren“ oder „harte Schule“ – Narrative junger sexuell und geschlechtlich diverser Menschen zu Begegnungen mit einander – 2021, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

2 He suggests that there are socially “disruptive” aspects to queerness: If sociality as we know it is heteronormative then “homo-ness (…) is a redefinition of sociality so radical that it may appear to require a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself” (Bersani 1996). Judith Butler similarly states that if queerness entails the continual subversion, reinvention, and reorganization of subjectivities this leaves „a difficult future terrain of community, one in which the hope of ever fully recognizing oneself in the terms by which one signifies is sure to be disappointed” (Butler 1993).

3 All names are changed.

4 Among other things it suggests that this is a form of repetition of earlier experiences of homophobia: “You grow up with this loneliness, accumulating all this baggage, and then you arrive in the Castro or Chelsea or Boystown thinking you’ll finally be accepted for who you are. And then you realize that everyone else here has baggage, too. All of a sudden, it’s not your gayness that gets you rejected. It’s your weight, or your income, or your race.” https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/gay-loneliness/

 

About the author:

Hans Goerdten (he/him) has obtained his MA in sociology from Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. He is interested in interpretative methods and their use to study how queer people make sense of themselves in their everyday lives and throughout their biographies.
 

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