I came out when I was 14, and at the time, there weren’t a whole lot of options for me to meet like-minded teens and young adults. The internet was in its early stages, which meant I didn’t know much about chat rooms and the like (thank the gods, in a way, for that). What I did find, however, was a Houston based group for LGBT teens and the local gay coffee shop, Crossroads (r.i.p.). So, at an early age, I found a way to make it to these places, just to surround myself with people like me for an hour. Simply being there helped shape my identity and even as I entered adulthood, gave me a place to simply “be” without the pressures of a bar, or the commitments of the social groups.
I learned a lot in my time hanging out there. I learned how to make new friends. I learned about AIDS and HIV, from the Caesar Project coming to talk to us at the teen group, and from older gay men who talked about what it was like to be an adult during the height of the AIDS crisis. I was told about our local gay history from people who had actively participated in it. To be fair, not all of this was good and there were people that it probably would have been nicer to not ever have met. In my case, those people would also be waiting, once I and my peers were old enough to join the bar scene.
The creepers still exist, and the random hook ups, and the thrill of dating, either through Grindr or at a bar. What’s missing, though, is that sense of history and identity that carried me through college. I don’t see people gathering at local gay spots anymore, unless it’s a bar. I am now in New York, and got a brief interaction with Big Cup before it closed. In Houston, there are no more gay coffee shops. Most of the other LGBT people I’ve met have been at bars, or in social organizations. While there isn’t a problem with this, it does create a very narrow view of the gay community. Most of the bars I’ve been to cater to one subset of the gay community. The same thing exists with the social groups, despite efforts to attract to a wider audience. Of course, this doesn’t take into account online dating and hooking up, which allows one to browse OkCupid profiles from the comfort of your own home, or hook up with someone while visiting the wilds of Staten Island, without ever having to go to a gay bar in Chelsea.
This isn’t to say that online dating and the internet aren’t useful. The kids who have come of age after me have had so many opportunities to reach out and, I hope, to not feel so lonely or isolate, especially as their peers and parents are more accepting of them at younger and younger ages. You don’t need to travel 20-45 minutes to go to Montrose, or Chelsea, or West Hollywood to get a date (or a friend). You can use an app, or online dating, or even just by going to school or work. From a community standpoint, though, you can’t learn what happened before you. A few seasons ago, on Drag Race, Jiggly Caliente admitted that she didn’t know what the Stonewall Riots were. This is an event where the landmarks still exist and many of the people involved are still living. Sure, some of us can and will look this stuff up, but does it have the same impact as hearing it directly from someone who was locked up numerous times for civil disobedience.
There’s nothing wrong with hanging out at a bar, or joining a group of like-minded gays who all just happen to really like making pottery. Unfortunately, as we lose our community spaces, we also lose our sense of community. We become less and less tied to what it took to get us to a place of acceptance and relative safety. As a community, we seem to be so interested in subdividing ourselves and others that we forget to just exist. While this is this isn’t solely the gay community’s issue, we can still work to be the change we wish to see in others.