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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 25, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 39
A new study reveals how Gay men see themselves
Section One
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A new study reveals how Gay men see themselves

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

The LGBTQ community is rarely surveyed on a national level. And when we are, it is almost always about personal safety, bullying, or some other terrible thing. While that information is vital and needed, the truth is, when do we ever get to just talk to each other to find out how we think, why we think it, and acknowledge that while we are LGBTQ, it is okay to see something from a Gay perspective if you are a Gay man - and not be made to feel like you are a bigot because of it.

Recently, Logo (Viacom Media network aimed at LGBTQ audiences) polled 1,061 Gay men between ages 18 and 49, asking them how they saw themselves and their communities and following up with smaller groups in a number of cities. The survey is the first in a series of surveys of different LGBT communities that Logo plans to conduct.

The findings of the survey provide a fascinating look at how generations of Gay men feel about Gay history, the role of the Internet and some of the biggest internal challenges facing LGBTQ communities.

The reality is, the Logo study is unusual simply in that it exists at all.

As the Washington Post points out, 'Gay publications like Harry Hay's One Magazine surveyed their readers at early as 1961, asking them how often they had sex, whether they had arrest records and if they might enjoy corresponding with other Gay men. And the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey became one of the first major studies to ask respondents to state their sexual orientation. But while LGBT people have been asked about their sexual practices, particularly in the wake of the AIDS crisis, it's only recently that LGBT people have been asked about how they see themselves and the society they live in more generally.'

'There haven't been many surveys of LGBT people over time where we can kind of assess how some of the perceptions that exist now might have been different 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,' says Gary Gates, the research director and Williams Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. 'It's only very recently that people believe that you can do a representative sample of LGBT people anyway. For a long time, survey people and polling organizations actually didn't believe that was possible, because they didn't know what the characteristics of an LGBT population were to determine whether the sample they got was appropriate or not.'

The only comparable recent survey is the Pew Research Center's 2013 survey of LGBT Americans, which included 1,197 LGBT adults and asked them about their coming-out experiences and manifestations of discrimination. It is important to point out that the Logo study doesn't capture the range of experiences of other members of the LGBT community, like Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender people. However, the researchers behind it were able to explore more largely into the way Gay men see themselves. This yielded some surprising results.

Alison Hillhouse, vice president of insights innovation at MTV and one of the researchers who conducted the survey, compared the changing attitudes reflected in the results to a journey up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. That pyramid-shaped psychological model suggests that people can begin searching for esteem and self-actualization once they are safe and secure.

'It's more of a quest for meaning than for a common enemy like it used to be. It's what does our brotherhood mean, in a way,' she explains. 'You start with basic survival, and then you get to what's the meaning of life and relationships and establishing connections. There's a lot of people who are really struggling in the community, but we're moving up that pyramid, just a bit.'

The survey results reflect high and intense levels of pride among the respondents.

o Sixty-one percent of Gay men between ages 20 and 29 told researchers that being Gay was either extremely or very important to their identity (those numbers declined somewhat with age).

o Seventy-five percent of respondents of all ages agreed with the statement 'Being Gay makes me feel different in a good way.'

o Three-quarters also said that their sexual orientation had a positive effect on their lives.

o Sixty-seven percent said that their lives were more interesting because they were Gay.

o Eighty-three percent said that they found something distinct and important in their friendships with other Gay men.

'We went into the study with the prevailing notion that this is really a great time to be Gay in America, and that the Gay community has achieved unprecedented levels of acceptance and visibility and opportunity, more so than ever before,' says Matt Cohen, a senior manager for brand and marketing insights at MTV who worked with Hillhouse on the project. 'But at the same time we started to hear expressions of nostalgia from the younger end of the community that they felt that the Gay community of today didn't feel as united or close-knit as they imagined it once was.'

Survey results suggest a real longing for Gay institutions.

o Sixty-four percent of the respondents in their 20s and 30s told researchers that 'As Gay people become more integrated into the mainstream, we have fewer places we can call our own.'

o Eighty-five percent of the overall respondents agreed with the statement 'It's sad to see Gay neighborhoods and bars disappear,' and also with the idea that even as more Americans become open and accepting to Gay people, it's important to maintain Gay-only spaces.

Generational differences manifest in the process of figuring out how to be Gay and what it means to be Gay the report shows.

o Sixty-five percent of the survey respondents in their 20s and 30s agreed with the statement 'Today the big struggle is no longer coming out but figuring out what kind of Gay man do I want to be.'

'One of the interesting things about that is they felt like it was harder for them to take advice from older members of the community because they felt like the experiences they were having today, and the fact that they grew up in such a different environment sort of meant that the advice they had received from their older counterparts wasn't going to be directly relevant,' Cohen says of the 79 percent of all respondents who said that younger Gay men were creating new rules and ways of Gayness, often turning to pop culture such 'Will and Grace' or 'The Real World' for starter archetypes.

'We heard from some guys that they felt like they tried on a certain identity that they thought that's how a Gay man should be. And then later on they were able to come into their own more,' Hillhouse explains. 'A lot of times it was people who came from a smaller, rural environment, and that was all they knew. And they realized later that that wasn't all, and now I've found myself. But it took some time.'

Gay men are defining themselves and their communities by using the Internet to form groups based less on gender presentation or sexual taste and more on other shared affinities say researchers.

'Whereas back in the day when you had one local Gay bar, that was your community whether or not you had anything in common with those people, that was sort of what you were stuck with,' Cohen says. 'In that sense, it lets people self-segment in a positive way based on shared interests. But obviously we talked about the discrimination that a lot of these guys are encountering on the dating and hookup apps, so obviously that's a bad kind of segmentation, splitting up the community in another way. &On the one hand, a lot of the guys we talk to blame the decline of the Gay bar on Grindr and saying well, now people don't have to go out to meet people anymore because you can just kind of order them on your phone. But at the same time, they're also, as I mentioned, using the Internet in all these positive ways to seek out and create these micro-communities.'

Self-sorting can be negative researchers found.

o Eighty percent of respondents described the Gay community as very judgmental

o Eighty-one percent called it clique-y

o Sixty-five percent of respondents agreed with the statement 'Within the Gay community, I often feel the pressure to look or act a certain way.'

In particular, judgment can manifest as racism against men of color, heavier or older men or men who don't present themselves as hyper-masculine say researchers. Even still, 92 percent of respondents said that they hoped Gay communities become more accepting.

'One thing we do see with thirteen years old, we've started talking to them at MTV, is even more increasing acceptance of people with different sexualities, gender identities, not feeling like you have to label or box in your sexuality or gender in a way the older generation feels,' Hillhouse says. 'So I think the openness coming from the external community and within, it's exploding even more. Most high schoolers we see do have a Trans classmate who is open. So that's a different era.'

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