Community is a funny thing. On one hand, we all need a sense of community to feel like we are safe, to fulfill a sense of belonging, share stories or experiences, and fight for equality, visibility, and civil rights. On the other hand, communities are complicated by disparate experiences based upon location, ethnicity, class, nation, and language, among countless other issues. The purpose of this collection of writing on community is to provide an intellectual basis and background information on the benefits of community as well as the drawbacks. These conversations explore and challenge the concept of “community” in various ways. The links on this page are provided to expand on the reader’s information and resources on the concept of community, and highlight historical and contemporary anthropological and other conversations on community and it’s discontents.
Let’s start with the good news. It starts with an assumption that no matter whom you are or where you live, you have the potential to find a community that suits your needs. Although anthropologists traditionally do research in locations other than their own home in order to research cultural behavior and cultural change, some anthropological inquiry into the formation of LGBTQI communities in the United States sheds light on this assumption. Beginning with Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, first published in 1972, anthropological fieldwork began to examine the formation and essence of so-called “queer” communities, and the formation of gender and sexual identity located within specific social, geographical, economic and political contexts. In Mother Camp Newton does not stray away from the complicated aspects of community like competition between individuals and economic class, but nevertheless, her work proves that community can, and is, created around sexuality and gender identity.
The performance of gender is a topic grappled with elsewhere on this site, but performance and how it links to a specific community within a safe space is worth examining here. For some queer folks, self-representation can seem to be contradictory and complicated. But participating in a community of like-minded and similarly identified folks can help to create and define boundaries and create expectations of appropriate looks, behavior, and performance. The “A Place for Change” project on this site is a project designed to explore self-representation and how it connects to this specific salon community. This piece is meant to demonstrate the complicated nature of the topic, but it also highlights the benefits that community can bring to queer folks. Furthermore, sexual performance and expression within the queer community presents yet another aspect of analysis on community and queer identity. One aspect of sexual performativity and queerness that is often overlooked but gaining popular appeal is queer BDSM communities.
A more contemporary example of anthropological work in the queer community is Mary Gray’s Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. In Out in the Country (2009), Gray challenges the stereotype that it is nearly impossible to express one’s queer identity in rural America. This stereotype usually asserts that the city is the location that queer young folk should flee to in order to live out their queer lives. While Gray not only examines how this stereotype does not hold up for many youth living in rural America, she also discusses how rural queer youth use media to “produce or take part in social moments of gay visibility” (Gray, 165). Gray also argues that the rural youth feel they are a part of “the LGBT community” and used it as an “organizing principle” in order to win political rights (Gray, 27). According to Gray, community can simply represent an “aspiration or ideal”, but in regards to activism, the concept of community is at its most astute. The rural youth she was working with though themselves a part of the LGBT community because they regularly followed and participated in gay community websites and were familiar with the language of LGBT activism. So, despite their physical distance, the folks out in the country still maintain a sense of community with the wider political LGBT community.
Now, here is where it all gets messy. Even within the solidarity of activist circles, the concept of community is not always very clear. Groups are constantly changing to incorporate or exclude others based upon strategic politics. As demonstrated in this conversation, the concept of solidarity and community becomes challenging when new groups emerge to fight for civil rights. As gender identities outside of heteronormativity continue to grow and begin to fight for visibility, existing groups negotiate their terms of engagement.
This push and pull can destroy a community or simply help to create more defined groups. This website is an example of a combination of queer groups who work within a university setting and share little with each other except their queer identity. The group, called “Queer at Berkeley” is a combination of student organizations that cater to different ethnic, political, social and career interests for folks with a shared queer identity. This example demonstrates not only the various kinds of intersections that multiple identities can form, but also speaks to the complicated nature of identity itself and how community forms around those multiple trajectories.
Through outlets like social networking online, social clubs, work, school, church or any other organization, folks of every walk of life struggle to find community. Whether community is based upon location, sexuality, activism, or more trivial connections, community can be found in many places. For queer folks, this search is sometimes for others who share their sexual or gender identity. Unfortunately, conflicts are sure to arise when humans begin to interact with each other and meet new landscapes and struggles. Within the queer community, it is essential that the individuals themselves deal with conflicts. A process of learning about community and becoming aware of the drawbacks of community are essential to keeping that community healthy. When conflicts arise, like same-sex sexual harassment, addressing vulnerability and creating boundaries becomes tantamount. The link, “Social Context for Morality” is a conversation about such a conflict around sexual harassment that presents the problem and offers some solutions. Likewise, there are whole websites dedicated to giving accurate and intelligent information and resources on issues like sexual objectification or different sexual pleasures like kink.
While the concept of community does not go unchallenged everyday by interpersonal and group conflicts, it is important to celebrate the human capacity and longing for community. In an extraordinary memoir on Intersex identity and struggles, Thea Hilman gracefully expresses the contradictions and benefits found within community. Hilman explains that based upon personal experiences, the community she connects to is made up of “a group of people whose misunderstanding of each other is only topped by people’s misunderstanding of us. And in the end that’s probably what brings us together: our otherness, our queerness. And maybe what pulls us apart is the unquestioned assumptions about similarities that don’t exist. That we should be able to relate to each other because the world lumps us together” (Hilman, 133). This contradictory and complicated definition of community is essential to working through struggles and toppling new landscapes of visibility and self-knowledge. Although community isn’t always straightforward or easy, we continue to yearn for it. And that yearning not only helps to solidify political and social rights when people come together under a common cause, but can also create spaces of creativity and useful conversations.