I had reason recently to mull over what the idea of “community” meant to me. And it wasn’t an easy conversation with myself. Which is odd as I have spent most of the last 15 or so years thinking very heavily and theoretically about what community means to others. I’ve explored communities of geography, of interest, of practice. I’ve explored communities online as well as off. But in all that time I’ve had a rather taken for granted relationship with my own sense of community, never really questioned it too deeply other than to be aware that it did not feel as settled as I imagined it ought to feel.
‘Well you are from there but you are not really part of the community.’ I was told recently. That I live in one place and commute to work in another was part of the challenge. It rankled a bit (always a sign there’s a something there to explore!), but I couldn’t figure out why at first. Of course at some level it was true. I leave my town three days a week most weeks and head off to work elsewhere. Furthermore, not as often as I would like but more than most I leave the country altogether to be with my partner in Germany. It’s a complicated set up and living with secondary progressive MS means that on the other day of work, which I do at home, or on my precious three days off I am not exactly a vibrant and active community member in my town. So why did it rankle?
The roots of that go back quite some way, to the time when I realised that coming out as lesbian in small town Scotland in the mid-80s in effect forced me out of an easy relationship with place or even family as the source of community. Like most of my fellow queers at that time I had to leave for the city, go to where the gays were, find community there. And I did. Within a couple of years I had not only found community but I was right at the heart of it. Heavily involved in LGBT activism, writing for LGBT publications, running a gay cafe, working in gay nightclubs, I lived and breathed ‘the scene’. Suddenly the painful years of fear and discomfort were over. I no longer lived in dread of being outed. I no longer sat looking out my bedroom window at night aching to be elsewhere… somewhere… anywhere, that would accept me as I was and not as I was supposed to be. Until I had to go home to visit.
Suddenly all my new found liberation was shaken, I’d go back to the place I had lived in fear, had fought to escape in order to feel free enough to explore my identity fully, and be taken back to these fearful and closeted times. A horrible tension between desire to be with my family of birth and with my family of shared struggle developed. I began to feel disconnected and uncomfortable anywhere but the scene. It’s hard I think to understand what the early to mid 80s were like for people discovering their sexuality did not follow the script. Our first gay demo in Edinburgh against Clause 28 saw a tiny handful of us standing on Princes Street enduring the aggressive stares and verbal attacks of passers by. Our cafe entrance was regularly surrounded by a large and threatening gang of local youths who would harass our patrons and lob the odd brick through our windows. Walking through the city at night alone was not advisable when you were a tall dyke with shaved head and leather jacket. You learnt to assume that safety and ease were states only found when surrounded by your own. And your own were most certainly not to be found in your home town or even your family home, Wherever I went when travelling I immediately sought out the ‘gay ghetto’, felt ill at ease until a gay cafe or pub or centre had been located. My sense of community was entirely one of shared oppression.
Of course like any community we had our schisms. Bruising battles between the genders, or around the issue of the status of transgender or bisexual people revealed ‘the community’ to be just as fractious as any other. But in adversity there is sticking power. No matter how other I felt within the LGBT community my otherness was not enough then, or now, to disconnect me from the most powerful sense of community I have ever had. I don’t know what it is like for young LGBT folks now, certainly they have more ‘rights’ than we did, more positive role models in the media, but I can’t imagine that the sense of otherness in ‘straight’ society is so much diminished given the heated nature of the side taking every time equal marriage rights comes up in the media.
Yet as I am sure today’s young LGBT folk will find in their turn, life moves on. Work, relationships and eventually children and illness meant that I became more and more peripheral in my community, and it in my life. My ‘community membership’ sustained more by a willingness to be out and other in straight society than by immediate involvement in the LGBT community. Probably most profoundly of all, in the end the challenges of a disability forced many unwelcome choices around how hugely diminished physical and cognitive energies should be spent. Much as my physical reach in the spatial world has shrunk, so to has my social reach in my various communities of place and shared experience/practice/interest. My challenger was right, I am in but not really part of my geographical community. In fact the disengagement is even greater than that. I am in but not fully part of many communities I owe allegiance too or feel some sense of identity with – town, ancestry, sexuality, disability, professional, political.
I could rest with that thought but one of the best things studying ethnography taught me is not to rest with the first plausible train of thought that pulls in to the station. So scratching at the rankle eventually surfaces a deeper niggle – that maybe I’d always have had more of a ‘weak ties’ relationship to the various communities I am aligned to. I do know I have always struggled to feel safe in any community bar the LGBT one. Even as a child I can remember feeling a mixture of desire for and mistrust of the idea of ‘belonging’. After all I chose in the end a profession, ethnographer, that actually requires me to spend my time as a ‘professional stranger’ in others’ communities and lives. Maybe we all feel like that anyway, maybe community is just another word for shared experience of some kind at some time for some period? Maybe the sense of not quite in and not quite out is how most of us experience that thing we call “community”. Or maybe it’s just that community does not easily signify belonging or safety for me. I find that easily with people on a one-to-one basis but LGBT community aside have never felt it elsewhere. And I don’t really know why.
My challenger was right – I am from but not fully of many communities and I am not sure if that will ever change. But I am wondering today if it should, or could.