by Drew Turley; photo by Averie Woodard
Colorado Springs is a gay desert. There are a few isolated mirages of gay community, but they blur the line between community and destructive drug and alcohol abuse. Gay community is a hard thing to grasp anywhere. It eludes simple definitions. Once you think you know what it means, a drag queen or bull dyke is lecturing you on how things should be or how they were in the past.
This is not to say that there aren’t gay people living in the Springs. We just have limited means to interact with each other. For example, there are only two gay bars in town, and if you Google “Colorado Springs gay,” the third business listed is a gay sauna. It should come as no surprise that in a town with few public meeting places, this sauna (a members-only private sex club) is still in existence. The lack of queer interaction has to do, in part, with the large military and evangelical communities that make up the demographics of the city. Historically, these communities have been disparaging, discriminatory and hateful. That certainly hasn’t made the Springs a magnet for queer people. Without a strong community to combat the hostilities toward LGBT people in the Springs, we are left with a destructive feedback loop: queers don’t live here because it’s hostile; the lack of queer community provides no defense against such hostility, and then queers are even less likely to move here. That leaves us with few openly queer businesses, few gay-friendly public spaces and very few people wishing to draw attention to themselves out in the open.
Of course, it’s not like this everywhere. There are a few gay Meccas in the United States: the Castro District in San Francisco and West Hollywood, CA; Chelsea, the West Village, and Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, Miami, San Diego and even Denver have neighborhoods or business districts known to have an LGBT focus. All these places face similar forces of normalization, assimilation and dilution. But the high concentration of LGBTQ people living and working in all of these areas still helps create an open atmosphere where one girl can smile at another while walking down the street and a handsome suitor starting a conversation with a cute guy in the coffee shop is welcomed. It’s an unspoken rule, with the rainbow flags and pink triangles in all the storefront windows, that those intolerant of gay people should probably find somewhere else to frequent.
There is something uniquely liberating about openly expressing one’s gender or sexual difference in a supportive public setting. Previous to when, where or how people come out, queer people have always been forced to endure instructions on what’s ‘normal’ for girls and boys. From the suggestion that you might be dating your best friend of the opposite sex to the gendered birthday gifts, queer people are reminded daily that they are anomalous. To express your identity freely and openly in a setting that is not just tolerant, but also welcoming of your non-heteronormative ways, is to interrupt an endless stream of fear and anxiety with a moment of blissful relaxation.
Outside of the gay Meccas, heteronormative culture weighs heavily on those who identify as LGBTQIA+. If a given community is liberal, openly romantic gestures might be seen as flattering, even if you’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s the best-case scenario for queer people living openly in our heteronormative culture. If you find yourself in a conservative town like Colorado Springs, you start recalling the survival instincts you developed in high school. Hiding or minimizing your sexual or gender difference becomes more important than establishing a connection with the cutie behind the coffee counter or wearing the new high heels you just scored on sale. People usually hide out of a healthy, well-developed survival instinct. After all, to violate a defined gender role is to risk slurs and insults at best, and bodily assault and death at worst. This is the reality of Colorado Springs. Sure, it’s not entirely unheard of to spot a gay or lesbian couple downtown, but there are rarely, if ever, any open displays of affection, hugging, handholding or—god forbid—kissing. If one does spot openly displayed homosexual affection, it’s an exception to the rule. And people unabashedly make their distaste known in mutterings of disapproval or outright confrontation.
A place like the Springs leaves many queer people feeling isolated, but that forced isolation does not just turn off LGBTQIA+ people’s need for a community. In fact, it magnifies its importance because community is most vital for those who feel most alone. Community is about being able to confide in others, experience empathy and not feel alone, sick, alienated or wrong for being different. And sympathy from straight, cis-gendered friends, while well-intentioned, does little to alleviate the isolation that comes from living in a gay desert. Sympathy alone cannot cure isolation—shared experience is required to reduce common feelings of hopelessness and bitterness.
A physical community helps LGBT people create their identities by exposing them directly to others who have had similar experiences. But, without this physical community, queer people have often had to accept an identity given to us by the very same forces of heteronormativity we’re resisting. Immersed in a heteronormative world, the dominant feature of queer people’s identities has become their abnormality. And seeing oneself as abnormal easily leads to feelings of sickness, resentment, fear and loneliness. How, then, does a little girl form a positive sense of what it means to be lesbian?
In the past couple decades, queer people have begun to replace shared experiences with TV, movies and the Internet. But even now it’s just a few chimeras in media and pop culture—images that children experiencing sexual or gender difference can latch onto to feel like they aren’t aberrations in a vacuum. Those images are lacking in both number and substance. While depictions of LGBT people are beginning to be included, they’re still represented poorly in all areas of discourse. From history and politics to pop entertainment and literature, gay media is still ridden with misrepresentation.
Even if queer identities were better represented in media, being able to identify one’s feelings with cultural icons cannot be a substitute for a supportive community. Lesbian talk show hosts might be comforting and entertaining, but don’t provide the kind of reciprocal relationships on which communities are founded.
Recognizing the inadequacy of queer role models, many otherwise isolated queer people have turned to online communities. My own experiences of searching for community began in AOL chat rooms. I needed to speak with people who might understand me, and I found some solace online. Today, there are entire online communities dedicated to LGBT issues like coming out, suicide prevention, locating local resources, dating and even networking for LGBT business school students. Those communities can be a vital resource for connecting queer people, but the point is to use them to find and create connections with people living offline, in the real world. The queer little boy living in the rural Midwest still dreams of the day he can move to the big city, where he can finally go to a gay bar, meet someone like him, and maybe even start dating. That is, online communities and groups can be a great starting point. But when we begin to rely on them as a substitute for real physical communities, they can leave us with the same loneliness and isolation we started with.
These effects are most clearly visible in the online dating world. Technology has replaced the nuanced game of meeting and flirting in person, and it’s dashed our hopes for community, as well. Gay men and women no longer need to interact in the public world because they can save themselves from rejection by hiding safely behind their screens. But lost in this world of technological dependency are opportunities for individual expression, replaced instead by photoshopped images of (usually white) attractiveness. Grindr images of the headless, perfectly-sculpted torsos fill screens in an attempt to purportedly give men an opportunity to meet other likeminded individuals. But all a meeting really amounts to is further objectification and no more intimacy than masturbation. Online reality is becoming the default in a world desperately starved for human connection.
But it is within our power to reclaim the kinds of connection only made possible by conversation. Once we overcome the anxiety of actually speaking with the person next to us, we begin a social dance of nuance and tone, one incapable of digital translation. This social navigation of uncomfortable feelings actually reinforces greater self-awareness, creating a positive feedback loop between ourselves and our relationships.
Feelings of awkwardness, anxiety and loneliness are all part of the natural emotional spectrum. And when we turn to our devices to avoid those feelings, we lose out on opportunities to know ourselves and others better—opportunities for physical interactions that engender empathy. Each time we turn to our phones, we sacrifice communal connection and reinforce a growing practice of approaching every social interaction with the expectation of nice, neat algorithmic results. Online interaction, by nature, cannot foster empathy, and without empathy we cannot form the communal LGBT relationships that could support us in times of need.
Technology is not only invading our shared spaces, but also our solitary ones. Activities that were once opportunities for sorting thoughts and literally checking-in with ourselves are overlooked in order to check Instagram and Snapchat. Waiting, walking, even going to the toilet—all these are now opportunities to ‘connect’ with our carefully cultivated ‘communities.’ Solitude is being traded for a hyper-connectedness and relationships with LED screens. We must not lose solitude because it helps illuminate our darkest, most frightening feelings: anger, resentment and sadness. And when we can’t recognize those feelings in solitude, we can’t share them with others.
By redistributing our social investments through technology, we have lost both our ability to be alone and our ability to be with others. We lash out online when faced with problems that technology is ill-equipped to handle. This lashing out looks radically different from how we might be forced to navigate sharing ourselves in conversation. We use our devices to ‘disconnect’ from the actual world around us, justified by the emotional pressure of our lives that motivate our desire to flee. But we forget that the process of dealing with those challenging emotional experiences is what enables us to create the connections on which communities are founded.
We are losing the social skills required to navigate real world relationships. When those empathetic skills are lost, the only ‘safe spaces’ become online platforms, platforms on which everyone must be precisely alike. The LGBT community, which was once inclusive of anyone who found themselves identifying outside the hegemonic systems of heteronormativity and gender binary, has become a number of smaller, exclusive groups. I hope you’ve noticed that I mix up the terms, gay, lesbian, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+ and queer. I do not do so to suggest these terms are always interchangeable, nor is it my wish to minimize the particular experiences of specific groups within the LGBTQIA+ community. But those labels are based on dividing, regulatory definitions of particular identities. My purpose is to militate against those compartmentalizing labels with my language in order to be as inclusive as possible and create space within which to forge a group identity. That said, I do write from the perspective of someone who generally identifies as a gay man, even though I dress in drag, experience gender queerness, and despair at strict gender and non-gender enforcement. With each rejection of those outside a particular group, we reinforce our own exclusive experience at the expense of potential community. They can’t possibly empathize with my experience because they don’t share all the identity labels that I have. Is this really true? Or is it more simply that we are all losing our ability to empathize with one another?
Perhaps I overly romanticize the past, when LGBT people were forced together to create a supportive community because they were ostracized by a defiantly apathetic dominant society. God forbid that the real tragedy may be that in order for us to come together, we have to relive something like the AIDS epidemic. Then, it was enough to share the common experience of being labeled as outside the heteronormative gender binary. Our existence as social outcasts served as the basis for mutual inclusion and community.
Today, we use every label in the playbook of social relations to isolate our particular experiences. But by doing this we end up creating the same kinds of pejorative labels that led to a negative conception of sexual and gendered difference in the first place. Each time we refuse the empathy of others by narrowing our communities, we label ourselves and a few select individuals as ‘us’ and everyone else as ‘them’. Allowing our community to continue to fracture in this way only reinforces the strength of the heteronormative gender binary. Queerness is founded on the blurring of distinctions and the destruction of binary oppositions. To lose sight of that is to give in to the oppressor.