The failure of gay community building in college

Shahamat Uddin, Intersections Editor

gay men
Hanson Dai | Art Director

For many closeted gay high school kids, college was the beaming light at the end of the tunnel. Confined to  small suburban hometowns and stifled by the ignorance of our young peers, we knew that there was a version of ourselves just waiting for a moment to be on its own. We could finally flourish and thrive in the fruitful and all-encompassing gay life pop culture promised us. 

Yet, as I walked through my few first years at Tulane, I struggled to get into gay culture at all and, despite my active efforts, making gay friends felt impossible. I felt like I knew every gay man at Tulane after spending one week on Tinder. 

I had hoped to come to college and meet people organically, but when compounded with an overwhelmingly straight  party culture reinforced by Greek life, it felt like the only way to meet other gay people was through dating apps — and thereby hooking up.

By sophomore year, the web of who had hooked up with whom was too large to even follow, and the best way to avoid drama was to avoid the “community” entirely. Instead of embracing each other while out, I found that there was this unspoken resentment between all the gay men I knew, preventing anyone from ever saying a word to each other.

And while I don’t think that my experience is entirely unique, I understand that I speak from a singularly limited perspective, defined by my own identity as cis gay man. That said, I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself. It is critical to be cognizant that I do live in a place of privilege and that the LGBTQ experience for people in college is vastly different for everyone depending on who they are

I remember in 2017, during my freshmen year of college, several of the gay men I knew shared this piece, “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” on Facebook, and it was frankly one of the first times I saw gay men in my college doing something together. 

The research mentioned here is staggering. Gay men are twice as likely to have a major depressive episode and three-quarters of gay men studied suffered from anxiety and depression after moving to a new city. For many of us, our college town was the first major independent move we had ever made. 

With this came the opportunity for us to decide who we wanted to be and even how much we wanted our gay identities to influence that. There were choices to be made. If I can’t fit in with the overwhelming masculinity of my all-male floor, do I surrender to gay tropes and tag on as a GBF to the first fun female friend group I meet? Or, an even more intimidating view, do I join the queer groups on campus? 

The Tulane Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity deserves endless praise for its commitment to celebrating queer people on campus. Yet, it is easy to notice that these circles sometimes run among themselves and that a large portion of the queer people on campus will never interact with the office in their four years at Tulane. 

I don’t claim to be any exception. I think that gay men especially fear being associated with the culture of queer campus activism because they think it diminishes their masculinity and can thereby make them less attractive to other gay men. 

Rising senior and former Gender and Sexual Advisory Chair Kennon Stewart said that, “Working as the GSAC chair, I was the voice of all Tulane’s queer organizations while running one of my own. It was irritating walking into queer spaces and having white students initially recoil from my presence.”

“They continued to see Black students as a threat even though Black and Brown queer and trans folx carry out most of the LGBTQIA+ programming on campus. It took a lot of code switching, forced smiles and intellectualizing my experiences for me to pass initiatives for my organization.

“There’s nothing radical about cis gay masculinity when our popularity is contingent upon systems of racism, transphobia and sexism. People only like us because we’re a more palatable queerness.”

Although our university has created systems for us to coalesce as a gay community, seldom will many students ever interact with them. When I think of gay life in college, my mind jumps more quickly to the pervasive hookup culture and ‘palatable queerness’ than to the real activism being carried out by mainly Black and Brown trans and femme students. 

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There are several different factors that uphold the toxicity of gay male culture, particularly the one experienced in college, but I think that they can largely by synthesized in our experiences of intra-minority stress

Michael Hobbes, author of “The Epidemic of Gay Men Loneliness,” found that gay men actually point to the gay community as the significant source of stress in their lives. “The fundamental reason for this, he says, “is that ‘in-group discrimination’ does more harm to your psyche than getting rejected by members of the majority.”

“It’s easy to ignore, roll your eyes and put a middle finger up to straight people who don’t like you because, whatever, you don’t need their approval anyway. Rejection from other gay people, though, feels like losing your only way of making friends and finding love. Being pushed away from your own people hurts more because you need them more.”

Hobbes’ mention of losing your only way of finding love really sticks with me. There is undoubtedly an obsession with masculinity among gay men, and I don’t believe it is because gay men want to be more masculine themselves. I think it is because there is a notion that the more masculine you are, the more attractive you are to other gay men. 

I remember thinking that the gay men who distanced themselves from other gay people and denounced gay culture in and of itself had the easiest time finding other people to hook up with. They were paraded as some elite tier of gays that more feminine guys should consider themselves lucky to get with. It was all reflective of a deep internalized homophobia.

As we made ourselves more and more into the people we thought were attractive, we brought ourselves further and further away from simple friendships with each other. And when there is an entire straight world to make you feel excluded, sometimes gay friendship is really all we need. 

“Gay men in particular are just not very nice to each other,” says anonymous John, interviewed by Hobbes. “In pop culture, drag queens are known for their takedowns and it’s all ha ha ha. But that meanness is almost pathological. All of us were deeply confused or lying to ourselves for a good chunk of our adolescence. But it’s not comfortable for us to show that to other people. So we show other people what the world shows us, which is nastiness.”

Sometimes I think that gay men are afraid of being nice to each other because that can instantly mean that they are into each other. We put the gay men that we know into categories: either those with potential for hooking up or those we never want to speak to. We can follow each other on Instagram and like each others’ photos, but we are quick to say nasty things when that gay person doesn’t align with how we want them to be. 

I used to feel scared of walking through campus and running into another gay man that resented me for reasons I did not know. I would accidentally make eye contact with one of them and instantly feel anguish, stressed that I had done something wrong to break the unspoken rules between gay men at Tulane. It shouldn’t be normal to be terrified of the people who are the most like you. It especially hurts because those people are some of the only ones who understand the pains you’re going through. 

Friend groups at Tulane can look astonishingly similar, including the token gay male friend vestigially attached to the soror female squad. We share the isolating experiences of being the straight man substitute to date parties, standing awkwardly as our friends hook up with each other at frat events, and posing for Instagram pictures that grant our girlfriends social media clout points. We struggle through so many of the same things, but recoil at the chance to befriend one another.

The culture that surrounds us pushes us to believe that sex (or no sex) is the only thing at the end of the tunnel for two gay men getting to know each other. Friendship between us is doubted, by us, by the straights around us, by the dating apps we interact in; gay male friendship feels antithetical to everything that have been taught. In college, the question is whether to hook up or not to hook up and when your identity can be defined by your sexuality, it can feel like you have to define your friendships by that too.

There is a fundamental failure of gay male community building in college and it doesn’t really carry any blame on the institution itself. We go from being one of the only gay kids we know of in our high schools to now navigating a life where we run into people we’ve hooked up with every other hour. Still incredibly young and new to this life just discovered, we may not all have the comfort of sharing it with other people.

Yet, all I wish is that gay men were nicer to each other. Maybe that is the first step to building this community that supports and uplifts each other. And maybe as more and more queer people enter Tulane and also interrogate the world around them, there will be a shift in the way that we interact with each other too. 

More articles on gay men and the cultures created for us:

The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness by Michael Hobbes

Dear White Gay Men, Racism Is Not “Just a Preference” by Phillip Henry

Why Body Image Issues Pervade the Gay Community by Nick Levine

We need to talk about how Grindr is affecting gay men’s mental health by Jack Turban

Gay Men’s Obsession with Masculinity Is Hurting Their Mental Health by Gabriel Arana

The Top 10 Reasons the Gay Community Is So Competitive by Barrett Pall