There is much talk of the American gay and lesbian "community." But, just what is it? We have no real national leadership, and the national political organizations supposedly representing "us" are not accomplishing much. We are in mortal danger from the religious right, and little is being done by these organizations to counter this danger except empty rhetoric and posturing. We have neither a central institution nor a national journal to serve as rallying points.
What then is the American gay and lesbian "community"? An ephemeral figment of the imagination of both our enemies and the national groups who claim to represent us? Maybe there is no national gay and lesbian "community", but many "communities" across the country.
The question is in the process of being answered, and not by holding the usual and endless caucuses to arrive at some consensus definition. While I am no fan of creating more national gay groups, there is a new one that is actually on to something. And while it needs to raise its profile, the grassroots clamor for its services may soon prove advertisement enough. It is uninterested in a grandiose notion of political coalitions, which too often prove short-lived. Its plan is to give American lesbians and gay men roots in their own communities and rooms of their own.
The National Association of Lesbian and Gay Community Centers (NALGCC) was born late last year to "encourage development of new lesbian and gay community centers" in cities across the country. Its founders recognized a crucial truth. With gay communities already thriving in cities across the nation, we are more plural than singular, and our strength is more potent locally than nationally.
The new group already has a head start. There are now 65 gay and lesbian community centers throughout the country, employing over 300 people, with combined budgets exceeding $38 million. The two largest centers are in Los Angeles and New York, with Chicago, Minneapolis, San Diego, and Dallas close behind. There are smaller centers in such places as Fort Wayne, Indiana; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Boise, Idaho. Some of our major cities have no centers, including Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Their absence makes local political and social action fragmented and renders our efforts weaker.
In trying to increase these numbers by creating more centers, the NALGCC faces one reality and one key problem. The reality is that causes and movements such as ours need a launching pad, a safe place in which to plan and strategize. Without a center of some sort, groups aspiring to change the world too often end up forced to change their meeting place - repeatedly - until the inconvenience prove too much, and participation diminishes. The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60's and 70's had classrooms and churches. Today, the religious right has enormous resources. Gay and lesbian communities, too, need rooms of our own.
The major problem which community center organizers face is that gay men and lesbians are far from the unified entity hawked by those who speak of a national "community." Although we share a common experience and a common enemy, rarely do we integrate. Lesbians hang out with lesbians; gay men, with other gay men. There is a gulf between lesbians and gay men in America which is bridged only sporadically - in rallies and marches, political campaigns, religious services, or fund-raisers for various enterprises important to us. We can weep together for our dead - from AIDS, breast cancer, and hate violence - but we laugh together far too little.
The lack of common ground between lesbians and gay men is a problem which community centers are uniquely equipped to bridge. In the cities where they exist, enormous progress has already been made. A common space fuels interactions of all kinds, deeper and more enduring than those which flourish in rallies or campaigns. Meeting and interacting with each other - outside the closet-like environments of jobs and even religious congregations - means dispensing with the pantomime of distance. It also offers an option from the moribund bar scene.
From one old organizer to another new one, here's a cheer for the NALGCC. I will be watching closely for the signs of its success. It will be registered not merely in the numbers of new rooms for our local communities, some erected, some restored. It will most of all be manifested in the substance of our interaction with each other, both men and women. Out of the many communities may finally come the solidarity and strength of one valid lesbian and gay American community.
For more information on the NALGCC write or telephone Ben Stilt at 208 W. 13th Street, New York, NY 10011. (212) 620-7310.