As many of you know, Aesop was a Greek slave who told stories about his native Athens using animals to make his points so his government, one that didn't appreciate being challenged, would not understand what he was saying to the people. Of course, today we know those stories as the Collection of Aesop's Fables, and one of the fables in that collection is about the lion and bulls.
You see, the lion was the hungry predator in the story, always waiting patiently for his opportunity to strike the bulls and have a large feast. The bulls, for their part, did everything they could to stay safe and secure from the lion, and they were successful as long as they were roaming together in the herd. However, the moment the herd separated and the bulls were each on their own, the lion was able to devour them one by one because they no longer had the strength of the group to protect them. The moral of the story, of course, is 'United we stand; divided we fall.'
Now, obviously, that moral, when properly applied, has far-reaching implications. Does our strength lie in our numbers? Is being 'many' the same thing as being 'protected?' Or, perhaps, could Aesop have been somewhat misguided in this particular story?
The idea that there is safety in numbers is not new, neither to the animals of the field, nor to humankind itself. It was the very need for safety that drove man, in his earliest stages, to form groups of people who would live together in a close area so they could protect one another from the animals of the time that eagerly prey on them. French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau said society is a natural outgrowth of a need to feel safe, that we only choose to live together in groups so we may derive strength from the numbers and thus be more apt to feel secure in our situation.
It has been said -- though not per se proven -- that we all surround ourselves with our friends and loved ones during our most trying times because some part of us feels if we aren't alone we have a greater chance of surmounting whatever obstacle lay in front of us. Whether safety does indeed come in numbers is not nearly as important as if we feel it does. An unknown philosopher once posed the question 'Do we really need what we really need, or do we really need what we think we really need?' Though the question certainly seems ambiguous, and certainly holds double-meaning, it has led to a clashing debate between the ideas of exigence and salience.
Exigence is defined merely as an urgent need, whereas salience is defined as a perceived need. Which of those needs is more important? In order to answer that question, we can look at the example of safety. Do we need to be safe, or do we need to feel safe? Psychologists would argue the feelings of safety are what is more important. After all, reality, as they say, is ninety percent perception. If we think we are safe, then we will act as if we are safe; whereas if we truly are safe, but don't feel safe, our actions will not indicate the presence of safety.
So, at least in this situation, what is salient is more important. We may have an urgent need to be safe, but we have a perceived need to feel safe, and only when that perception is met can we move forward. So, let us accept for the moment that what is indeed of greater importance is what we think is true, not necessarily what may be true. In that case, going back to the original question, it is not really important whether there is really safety in numbers as long as we feel there is, because we will act according to what we think and feel and not to what we are told is true.
But then, if we feel there is strength in numbers and we feel our greatest chance of success comes not when we are alone, but when we stand together with our friends and our family, then why do we, as gay youth in America, not stand together so we have a greater chance of feeling safe and secure in the world in which we live?
It would appear that, if our greatest chance of success is by standing united, we would do so wholeheartedly, and yet we cast each other out, we discriminate, and we hurl insults just as much at each other as the rest of society does at us. One of the beliefs that drives us as a group is the idea that we have a right to be different from the main without having to be isolated from it. We often try to make people understand that simply because there are things about us that are different from other people does not mean we have less to offer or should be treated any differently, and yet, within our own group, we classify, we isolate, we insult, and we ignore.
In order for you to understand the point being made, here are some examples (The names of the individuals listed are fictional, but the situations are not.) Let's take Mike.
Mike is seventeen years-old, and though he has known for four years he was gay, he's finally beginning to accept it. He needs support, and he turns to the Internet to find it. But, Mike isn't treated like the others in the group he finds. Why not? Mike is an Eagle Scout. You see, knowing he was gay, and knowing how the Boy Scouts of America discriminates against gays, Mike still supported the program and even achieved its highest honor. Mike felt, as do many others, that this was a wonderful achievement and he should be proud, but several in his Internet 'support group' disagreed.
They told Mike he was a traitor for supporting the BSA and that, if he were 'really gay,' he'd rip that Eagle Scout patch off his uniform and send it back to the Boy Scouts' National Headquarters with a letter telling them he didn't need them or their patch or their program. But Mike had worked for several years to get to the position he was in, and he didn't feel like he should have to give that up. Of course, there were those in his support group that agreed with him, but there were also those that didn't, and, sadly, Mike felt he needed to find some other group in hopes they would be more accepting of him.
Odd, that a group designed to give support to gay youth who can't seem to find acceptance isn't accepting. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Take Steven, a member of the Methodist religion who has hidden his religious affiliation from his gay friends in the same way he hides his homosexuality from his pastor, and for the same reason.
Steven knows his friends in the gay community wouldn't accept his religion because they feel religion is what keeps the gay population down. They've often told Steven, not knowing his of contacts with the church, that gays really can't be religious because of the direct contradiction in beliefs. But Steven really does believe in God and he really believes his God loves him, and he believes his God loves everyone. Unfortunately, Steven feels the need to remain silent about these ideas because he's afraid he will be rejected by his friends, the only friends he has who really 'accept' him.
Odd, that Steven has to hide himself from the one group of people who should understand all too well the dangers and the problems that can be caused by not allowing people to be open. And, then, of course, there are the more 'free' of the gay population, the particularly effeminate men who call themselves 'drag queens'. Much of the rest of the gay community shuns these individuals because they are 'too different' or 'too weird'. Odd, that we would isolate people from a group who prides itself on being who we are when those people we isolate are only trying to be who they are.
When Olympic Champion Greg Louganis first came out to the rest of the world, the reaction from some members of the gay community was one of anger rather than one of support and friendship. Apparently, some people felt Louganis should have 'outed' himself before he competed so he could show the world what a gay man could do instead of showing the world what a gay man had done.
When journalist Randy Shilts, author of the best-selling book And the Band Played On, first began to write articles for the San Francisco Chronicle about the virus we would later know as AIDS, and suggested closing down the bath houses where gay men were having unprotected sex, he was treated as if he were a spy who had sold-out his gay background in favor of his 'heterosexual masters'.
So, keeping all of this in mind, why would we choose to alienate people, to separate people from the group, to shelter ourselves from them, if we, in fact, feel our strength lies in our numbers? Why, like the foolish bulls, do we choose not to run in the herd but instead to be divided and conquered so easily?
Perhaps it is because we are struggling too hard to be identified with too specific a group. For example, the gay young men that insulted Mike because he was an Eagle Scout may have done so only because they felt they needed to do it just to fit into the group they thought they had to belong to. Maybe these young men were trying so hard to attach themselves to one specific group of people that they forgot why they needed attachment -- because they, too, were being insulted and isolated.
It seems we try so hard to eliminate our own feelings of neglect that we often forget others are having to go through the same things we have gone through, and, just as we did, they need support. Some of us have learned first-hand that growing up gay in today's world is not something that should be done alone because the pressures are too great, and no one should have to face those pressures by themselves. But many of us may feel that we were able to succeed with virtually no assistance, that we were shut out by the world and still survived, so others should be able to do the same thing, but in exercising this opinion, we fail to take in to account the fact that while the individuals may indeed triumph, the group will not because united we stand, but divided we fall.
And so, having established that, we are face with the six million dollar question: 'Do we want the group to survive?' Is it important for us to be able to be identified as gay youth in America? Must we be so identified if we are ever to gain the rights and equality we are seeking? Or, perhaps, should we allow the herd to separate hoping some will survive but knowing the lion will inevitable devour others?
None of these questions have a concrete answer that can be given, because they each must be answered by every single person. No one can decide for you if you want the community to flourish or if you want to take your chances alone, but perhaps that decision can me made easier. We each have felt, and perhaps some of us are still feeling, what it is like to be alone in this world.
We all know what it's like to wake up in the morning and feel as though we have to face the day by ourselves. We all know how difficult it is to feel accepted in this world when there are so few who truly understand what we are going through, and, it would seem few of us would want to face that situation again. We take comfort in the people we can talk to about how we feel and what we think.
We enjoy knowing there truly are people out there like us who understand. But, the bottom line is this: If we continue to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, if we continue to isolate ourselves and others, if we continue send people who away who are merely seeking the same thing we all are, then the group will fall, but if we stand together, united, then we can succeed. No single person can do it alone, but every single person is important to the group as a whole.
As Naomi Judd said in the song she wrote for her daughter and herself 'Love Can Build a Bridge', 'When we stand together, it's our finest hour. We can do anything...' and, of course, she was correct. But, when we stand alone, not only are we securing the possibility of our own failure, but we are also helping to ensure the failure of the group. So, instead, let us stand as one, let us bring in all the people who we have shut out and let us move forward as one group, so we all can achieve what it is we want.
It would appear Aesop was correct. Perhaps there is indeed safety in numbers. Perhaps our greatest chance of victory comes not from within ourselves, but from ourselves within the community. And perhaps, just perhaps, if the bulls continue to run together in the herd, the ravaging lion will begin to see the futility of his efforts to destroy them, and perhaps he will go off in search of some other prey. So, maybe, united we will stand and divided we will never again be.