Growing the gay identity in the new millennium

“Why do we need to grow?” the reader may well ask. “We’re out and proud. Plus, we’re gaining more legal protections each year and are more accepted by the average person and our families.”

The answer is that, despite these gains, life for the majority of gays — including young, proud and out gays — is still negatively impacted, psychologically and socially, by the past, by the history of gay oppression.

The sex in homosexual

The reason our lives are in many respects stuck in the past is that the gay lifestyle has not changed appreciably since the early days of gay liberation. Many of us appear to still be in the throes of that aspect of gay liberation that was about giving free reign to our libidos and flouting the prevailing sexual and moral culture.

In the 1990s, there was somewhat of a fight going on about the future nature of gay sexual culture. On the one side, people like Larry Kramer and Michael Signorelli said that the sexual culture we created had murdered us and that we must change that culture. On the other side were people like Michael Warner, a founder of Sex Panic!, who countered that promiscuous sex is the essence of gay liberation and that “it’s an absurd fantasy to expect gay men to live without a sexual culture when we have almost nothing else that brings us together.”

The culture didn’t budge. With HIV now a “manageable” disease, young gays and many older ones began once again having sex with wild abandon, and “barebacking” has reportedly become mainstream. This is dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control, from “2008-10, there was a 12-percent increase in the number of new HIV infections among [men who have sex with men]. Among the youngest MSM — those aged 13-24 — new infections increased 22 percent.”

HIV remains a dangerous virus, and we don’t know what the future will hold. 

But it’s more than a health issue. Promiscuous sex is psychologically and socially harmful.

I know the adage that men are pigs when it comes to sex, but why this obsession with promiscuous sex among gay men? Ironically, far from being an expression of liberation, promiscuous sex recalls the darkest days of our oppression, of furtive dalliances by men in parks and bath houses when most gay men had no other options.

But now there clearly are many options for gays, with marriage just being the latest. The world around us has, to a significant extent, changed. So why haven’t we grown more as individuals and as a community? Gay Pride in 2015 should take us further.

Kramer tried leading the way, but his was a voice in the wilderness. Growth will come about only if leaders across our community, including publications, start a discussion of what it means to be gay now and the role of sex.

We must talk about sex addiction in the gay community. We must talk about healthy gay sex — sex that promotes psychological and social health, not just medical.

This is not about desexualizing the movement. It’s just showing gay men what the role of healthy sex can be in their lives, and that a good life requires more than good sex. It has nothing to do with marriage.

 Is there more to a gay identity than sex?

Earlier I quoted a comment that there’s nothing that makes us gay or brings us together other than sex. I would disagree. 

While male-to-male attraction is the defining element, that means more than sex; it means relationships, bonding, love. We are human beings with human needs. 

Beyond the personal, there is an astounding commonality to the sensibility of being gay, regardless of our backgrounds. Our style, our flair, our sense of humor, our sense of still being viewed as apart — it is these things that connect us, in addition to our sexual preference. When we are gathered together, we are not white, black, young or old — we are just gay. 

The question that faces the gay community is similar to that facing many subgroups of our broader culture. How do you maintain an identity and cohesion while simultaneously assimilating more into the broader society?

In the old days, when discrimination was common and acceptance was minimal, gays clustered in a neighborhood and made it theirs. Now, between gays being more accepted and rising housing costs forcing many out of their old neighborhoods, gays are typically spread out over a larger area. The critical mass necessary to provide the feeling of neighborhood community just isn’t there in many cities, including Philadelphia. 

We are a disparate group, which makes a viable community difficult. But we are still drawn to bars, coffee shops, concerts and other venues where we can enjoy the presence and support of each other and not just to cruise.

Can one revive a true gay neighborhood by providing activities and venues other than bars and restaurants that will attract gays? In Philadelphia, the William Way LGBT Community Center provides a potential catalyst and venue. 

None of these issues will be easy to resolve. But I think they are important discussions that we as a community should have. We need to grow the gay identity.  

Ron Hirsch has had a varied career as a teacher, legal aid lawyer, survey researcher, nonprofit executive, composer, writer and volunteer. He is the author of books on politics and Buddhism and is an active blogger ( and He was active for many years in advocating for improved HIV/AIDS health-care and prevention efforts.