In My Tribe: Gay Culture, Traditionalists and “The New Wave”

On March 31, 2011, 43-year-old Bryan Stow attended a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Following the game, he was attacked by two men in the parking lot as he walked to his car. One man landed a vicious blow to his temple, and Stow fell to the ground, hitting his head on the concrete. The man then kicked Stow in the head several times. The second man also kicked him, then stood defiantly over the prone body.

So what was this beating about, committed by two men who had never before met the victim? Another gay bashing by Neanderthal homophobes? No. The motive was the fact that the victim was wearing a San Francisco Giants shirt, and the attackers were fans of the hometown Dodgers. As columnist John Steigerwald speculated: “They probably thought they were doing their duty as Dodgers fans. They were protecting Dodger turf.”

The attackers were violent goons, likely fueled by alcohol. But there is something much deeper at play here. A new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, by Pulitzer Prize winning biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson has the answer as to the ultimate underlying motivation: tribalism. To quote Wilson:

“Have you ever wondered why, in the ongoing presidential campaign, we so strongly hear the pipes calling us to arms? Why the religious among us bristle at any challenge to the creation story they believe? Or even why team sports evoke such intense loyalty, joy and despair?

“The answer is that everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to determine the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags. And so it has ever been.”

Wilson says that the urge to join is deeply ingrained in humans. It is in our nature and, as with being gay, we don’t have a choice in the matter. Joining tribes is an innate urge we all possess, going back, according to Wilson’s speculation, six million years, to a time before our ancestral line split into the chimpanzee and human lines.

Tribes can represent all levels of significance. LA Dodgers fans are a tribe, with the tribal connection providing identity, something to cheer (and fight) for, something to get excited about, a sense of solidarity against the “enemy”, and just that important sense of belonging to something beyond the individual. San Francisco Giants fans are a tribe. As are evangelical Christians, liberals, conservatives, heavy metal fans, fraternities, gangs of all types, obsessive Glee fans, and a vast array of other groupings. A family is a tribe in a very real sense. And the gay community is a tribe.

The gay community has joined together into this tribe because we share something basic and important that non-gays don’t share. We understand each other, our joys, our fears, and our very natures. In a world that has historically been unwelcoming, the gay tribe provides comfort, camaraderie, and the ability to relax and be ourselves. On a group level, it gives us the opportunity to band together to seek and demand respect and equal rights. For many of us, it has provided the key component of our very identity.

Gay kids have historically grown up feeling disconnected from their peers. Until recently, the realization of being gay was generally accompanied by an intense feeling of isolation. Those of us born before 1980 or even later had no internet, no singing gay couples on network TV, no cable channels on which to see anything beyond expressions of white bread middle class values, no gay novels in the high school library, etc. There was no one to talk to. Everyone was straight, and we didn’t dare share our feelings with any of them.

But eventually young gay kids moved out into the world, going to college or living on their own. The desperate need to meet others like themselves led to exploring and reaching out, and finally they were able to hook up with other strangers in that strange land. And they discovered that there was an entire community of men who liked men. They discovered the tribe.

The experience of Ulysses Dietz, an art museum curator from New Jersey, and well known to regular AfterElton readers, is typical of many gay men. He told me about his introduction to the gay community when he was a college student in 1975. “Being a Kinsey 6, I knew my only chance for a social life was among my own,” he said. “From the moment I walked into my first meeting of the Gay Alliance at Yale, I knew that these were my people. The gay community of men became everything, all encompassing. I was still a college student, so it was easy to immerse myself, and I’d built no sort of social world other than that.”

Dietz had joined the tribe. And it changed his life forever. He finally could hang out and share his feelings with people just like him, people who understood him. He moved into a house shared with several other gay men, he met his first lover, he began attending Pride parades, he took trips to Greenwich Village, where for the first time he could walk down the street hand in hand with another man.

And he became an activist. That reflects another common aspect of tribal membership as described by Wilson: the impulse “to organize rallies and raise flags”. But it’s not just for show or ego gratification. For our tribe, as for the historical tribes of the past, there are very real dangers and challenges out there. By acting together we’ve been able to defend ourselves, protect and enhance our rights, and make the world a more hospitable place for our brothers and sisters.

For Dietz the desire to “raise the flag” and fight for the future of the tribe infused nearly everything he did. When he and his partner Gary moved to the suburbs it was a conscious decision to “be the gay pioneer boys in Leave it to Beaver land”, as he put it. With the help of the ACLU they fought their town council and won the right to join the town’s swim club as a family of two. Even the quest for children (he now has two teenagers) had an edge of activism. It was “the ultimate gay activist thing,” he says, and it “was full of integrating moments, when we as a gay couple talked and shared our dreams with straight couples.”

For those of us who are gay, the reality of these tribal benefits – camaraderie, identity, a shared sense of purpose in fighting for the group – is not news. But the same tribal impulses that produce those positive benefits also produce situations and reactions that are not so positive.

Consider for a moment the sort of tribe for which the term was originally used, such as those in the Amazon jungle. In that type of society each person’s life and actions have a direct impact on the other tribe members. The society has rather strict rules for how the members should act. Conformity to those rules is an important part of tribal life and of the quest to maximize the welfare of the tribe. In a sense, each member has an ownership stake in the lives of the other members.

Unfortunately, many in today’s gay community seem to have a misplaced sense of ownership in the lives of other gays, or perceived fellow tribe members. There is an informal code of conduct for how a “good gay” lives his life. Few actually acknowledge that they think of things quite that way, but their reactions to others betray their outlook. For example, if you’re a gay conservative don’t come knockin’ at our door.

 

Or take the case of Matt Bomer, star of White Collar. He apparently has lived an openly gay life with his partner and children for some time, taking them with him to awards banquets and other social events. However, he chose to not speak publicly about his private life. Recently he made headlines in publications around the world by simply acknowledging his partner as such in an acceptance speech. But he continued to avoid speaking to the media about his private life, and that wasn’t acceptable to many gays. An endless debate began over how out he was, or even if he really was out. His actions were examined from every angle. Did his speech really count since not everyone would know that the “Simon” mentioned in the speech was his partner? How did his reticence about his private life compare to how straight actors handled theirs? What exactly has he said in previous interviews, and how deficient or acceptable do we find it? And on and on.

On what theoretical basis are we micro-analyzing and judging his life and his decisions? The only answer to that is that we feel an ownership of his life on some level, an ownership based on our common membership in the tribe.

The gay liberation movement was born of a desire that other people should not tell us how we should live our lives. How ironic it is when we try to tell our fellow gays how they should live theirs. “Live and let live” should surely be one of the ten commandments of the modern world.

One of the biggest issues and sources of controversy in the gay community today is the very nature of our community moving forward. Society is changing as a new generation comes of age, and the gay tribe is beginning to change as well. Those changes have resulted in a good deal of tension between what I’ll call “traditionalists” and the “new wave.”

New wave people are far less focused on their sexual orientation as the primary attribute in their lives. They simply don’t share the traditionalist perception that being gay colors all aspects of life, and is the most important factor in life.

Let me introduce you to a new generation gay. “Sean” is an articulate and thoughtful high school student from a suburb of my home city of Minneapolis. (Sean authorized me to use his real name, but since he is a minor I chose to use a pseudonym.) He came out to his entire school early in his ninth grade year, with very little negative consequence. He talks and jokes openly with his friends about his orientation. As with Stiles and Danny on Teen Wolf, several straight guys have asked if they’re attractive to him. He’s just one of the guys, and remains a popular classmate.

His story and perceptions of himself as a young gay person are a fascinating counterpoint to the stories of most of us who grew up in prior generations. I’ll let him tell the story.

“I already knew in kindergarten that gay dudes were guys who ‘liked’ other guys the same way straight guys ‘liked’ girls. I got that from Friends, where the characters casually hung out with Carol and Susan and the baby they raised together. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but I definitely picked up on how nervous any of the straight male characters got when anyone thought they were gay.

“However, I learned from a variety of other TV shows and “Chicken Soup” stories that when gay men came out, they were promptly rejected by everyone in their lives, and went to a gay neighborhood with gay bars and gay sports teams and gay newspapers and gay parades and gay friends and lived there for the rest of their life, never seeing one of those awful, oppressive straight people ever again. I didn’t have much reaction to that idea as a kid, other than to think that those homophobes were total dicks and if I had a friend who was gay, I would be totally accepting of him.

“It wasn’t until 6th grade when I started to realize that I was getting boners for boys that I was suddenly forced to face the idea of never seeing a straight person again. I mean, I liked my friends! I liked my family! I liked my life! I didn’t want to lose all of that! I would stay up late at night imagining going to a gay group and telling them I thought I might be gay, and them telling me to never bother trying to talk to one of my old friends again. I couldn’t trust them, and I would be way happier in the Gay Community, where everyone was nice to each other all the time. But I couldn’t lose my friends! So I couldn’t be gay!”

But Sean was indeed gay, and with great trepidation based on the perceptions he got from the media, he courageously chose to come out at fourteen, steeling himself for rejection and negative reactions. What he got instead was a combination of curiosity and a “no big deal” reaction.

That is one boy’s story, of course, and as we know, large numbers of young gay boys and girls are not so lucky. Bullying is sickeningly common in many schools. But neither is Sean unique. I’ve heard and read the stories of many other young gays who have come out to predominant support. A co-worker told me about his daughter’s prom, where two separate gay couples went through the processional arch amid the wild cheering of their classmates.

The point is that kids like Sean are not rare, and their numbers will continue to grow as time goes on. The question then becomes: what does this emerging generation, coming of age with far more acceptance, far more role models, far more rights, far more political support, far more visibility, mean for the future of the gay tribe?

It will indeed inevitably change. The gay community that most of us grew up in was a direct response to the social pressures and fears and discrimination that we faced. How could it be otherwise? The gay community of the future will likewise be a response to the social situation of the day, and since that social situation will be far different than the one we grew up in the community will also be different.

I asked Sean about his feelings about the gay community. He recognizes its importance historically, while shuddering at the circumstances that produced it. He’s extremely curious about the past, wanting to know, as he put it, “how a teenage boy like me would’ve lived 30 years ago. Would he have been able to make dirty jokes about guys around his straight guy friends? How would he have discovered that he was gay in the first place? Would he have been beaten to death in a locker room?”

But although he’s fascinated by the gay experience of the past, he’s not sure the traditional gay community is something that will be important in his life. I’m going to quote him at length because the following comments are fascinating in many ways, and really show us how different the emerging world is for some now, and for more in the future.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that I’m gay, but I don’t see why I should hang out with certain people just because they have the same sexual orientation as me. I should hang out with the people I like hanging out with. Of course, I still feel the need for change to occur in this country, but I feel like the solution to that isn’t hanging out with other gay people, the people who are already totally accepting of gays. No, it’s to hang out with the few straight people who are still a little weird about it. I mean, for the few people at my school who have admitted to having a problem with me being gay, what’s gonna open their minds: me getting mad and ignoring them for the rest of the year, or me playing Mario Kart with them after school, and bringing up my ex-boyfriend when the situation calls for it? (“Hey, you think your dating life sucks? My ex-boyfriend texted me the “Let’s just be friends” speech to break up with me!”, which usually leads even the homophobes to chime in with a “that sucks, man,” before the conversation moves on.)”

Some people may be offended by Sean’s apparent dismissal of the community, and others will likely see him as naïve. But I think we make a huge mistake if we dismiss Sean and his viewpoints. They come from a genuinely new reality, and they do reflect the future. Yes, it’s obvious that many, many kids aren’t able to share his experience, but as the 21st century progresses, more and more of them will. In my opinion, if Sean is representative of the young gay people of the next couple of generations, our future is in great hands.

I think much of the resentment of the traditionalists toward the new generation comes from a fear that their community, their tribe, may some day become obsolete. And from resentment that a force that dominated and informed all aspects of their lives is not appreciated by people who don’t understand what the past was like for gay people. Larry Kramer has often lamented the loss of the gay community as he knows it among younger people, as have many others.

But none of this means that the gay community as it exists today won’t continue to flourish. The older generations aren’t going anywhere. And Sean and his generation are still part of the community, the tribe, even if it isn’t as dominant in their lives as it was for previous generations.

Even when we some day achieve full equality, there are traits and experiences that we share that will unite us. The innate tribal urge will always pull us together, but it will increasingly be a matter of choice rather than a matter of necessity.