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Opinion A new study reveals how gay men see themselves and their communities

Boy Scout Casey Chambers carries a rainbow flag during the San Francisco Gay Pride Festival in California last year. (Noah Berger/Reuters)
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It seemed like a turning point for gay rights when, earlier this month, 74 percent of respondents in a national poll said that legal rights should trump private religious beliefs, and 63 percent said that Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, should have to fulfill the obligations of her job. But for all the changing sentiments reflected in its findings, the poll itself was part of a long tradition of asking the population at large how they feel about gay people and the rights and protections available to them.

In an illuminating and strikingly different survey, Logo — the Viacom Media network aimed at gay 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. And it provides a fascinating look at how a rising generation of gay men feels about gay history, the role of the Internet and some of the biggest internal challenges facing gay communities. (An early look at the survey results was provided to The Washington Post.)

No matter its findings, the Logo study is unusual simply in that it exists at all. Gay publications such as 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 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.”

And while marketers were eager to define and try to understand a burgeoning gay market, Gates cautions that “They also had incentives to define it in particular ways. So marketing research tends to still show the community to be more male, more wealthy, more educated than other research shows. And not coincidentally, wealthy educated men have the most money. … There’s a disproportionate attention to some degree on gay men, slightly less so on lesbians, and almost no attention paid to bisexuals, and that’s to a certain extent because marketers don’t know how to think about marketing to the bisexual community.”

The only comparable recent survey is the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of LGBT Americans, which included 1,197 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults and asked them about their coming-out experiences and manifestations of discrimination. While this first Logo study doesn’t capture the range of experiences of other members of the LGBT community, like lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, the researchers behind it were able to delve more broadly into the way gay men see themselves and their communities — with 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. 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). Seventy-five percent of respondents of all ages agreed with the statement “Being gay makes me feel different in a good way.” Three-quarters also said that their sexual orientation had a positive effect on their lives, and 67 percent said that their lives were more interesting because they were gay. And 83 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.”

While younger gay men have no desire to return to eras defined by persecution, police violence and indifference from public officials, and while they benefit from much greater access to one another through the Internet and through smartphones, the survey results did suggest a real longing for gay institutions. 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,” and 85 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.

While some of these specific forms of nostalgia may be specific to gay men, Cohen cautions that younger respondents share some of the same attitudes with heterosexual members of their age cohort.

“We’ve also seen this with millennials more broadly, that the generation as a whole does have a nostalgia for the past that is  very rose-colored and very sort of tinted in a positive way in that sense,” Cohen says. “What was less interesting to us was whether these memories were accurate, whether there really was a stronger community in the past, the fact of the matter was, for them and the their perception, that’s what they thought, and that’s what’s affecting their memories today.”

And Hillhouse points out that generation gaps, like the ones that are emerging between younger and older gay men who have had radically different experiences with coming out and community acceptance, are increasingly common given the way technology has accelerated the pace of cultural change.

“Millennials span 20 years and you’ve got X-ers spanning only 15. Millennials are huge, but that’s because we added years in there,” she notes. “In 10 years we might have such major cultural shifts that it prompts renaming a generation. The millennials, we look at older versus younger millennials and almost informally think of them as two separate generations. Mid to late 20s versus teenagers…We hear a lot of 20-somethings talk about kids these days being so different, and we’re like, they’re six years younger than you! Or four! … It’s hard to establish the firm boundaries of a generation until they’re come of age a bit.”

One of the ways these generational differences manifest is in the very process of figuring out how to be gay and what it means to be gay. 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 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.”

That process of identity formation is broadly disruptive, political scientist Kenneth Sherrill argues, because despite a profusion of cultural archetypes and the fact that more people are out of the closet, the assumption is still that most children will be heterosexual. When young people realize that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, it raises many other questions as well. Sherrill’s research, for example, has found that LGBT children of Republican parents switch party identification at exceptionally high rates.

“That shock to the system has political and social consequences,” Sherrill explains. “It puts your identity on the table for reconsideration the moment you consider you’re not the person you thought you were going to be growing up. And when that happens, our research leads us to believe that it puts all aspects of identity on the table for reconsideration. And over the coming-out years, over the five to 10 years of the process, for some people much longer, other aspects of identity are recalibrated to be consistent with the new one.”

One of the new ways gay men are defining themselves and their communities is by using the Internet to form groups based less on gender presentation or sexual taste and more on other shared affinities.

“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.”

But this self-sorting can have an ugly side. Eighty percent of respondents described the gay community as very judgmental, and 81 percent called it clique-y. 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, that judgment can manifest as racism against men of color, heavier or older men or men who don’t present themselves as hyper-masculine. (It’s worth noting that compared with the actual population in the United States, African American and Latino men are slightly underrepresented in the Logo sample, making up 8 and 9 percent of the respondents, respectively.)

“We definitely got the sense that they felt this was a major problem and a big issue, and something that they wanted, somehow, to be fixed in some way. But I don’t know that they necessarily felt that they had specific answers,” Cohen says of the respondents’ discussions of this kind of discrimination. “The gay men of color that we spoke to, it was definitely a much more pressing issue for them because they were on the receiving end of that kind of discrimination, particularly on the apps.” Even if some men experience more discrimination than others, 92 percent of respondents said that they hoped gay communities become more accepting.

And the rising prominence of gay culture also brought out some mixed feelings from survey respondents. Seventy-seven percent of them said that they enjoy serving as ambassadors bringing gay culture to their straight friends, though straight enthusiasm for gay culture can produce unexpected results.

“Where it got tricky for some people was when they felt like the gay community was no longer in control of it,” Cohen says. “There was one man we spoke to who was from Illinois and he talked about how the straight bars in his hometown have started to do drag shows on certain nights. And we would have thought he would have been excited about that because it showed that the area was becoming more accepting, but he was actually really outraged because he thought the straight bars were doing it just as a way to exploit the gay community for their money.”

Cohen and Hillhouse emphasized repeatedly that gay men and the LGBT community at large still face substantial material obstacles to equality. But their research suggests that the wave of attitudinal change that shows up in their survey is just beginning to crest.

“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.”