When Researching Individual Engagement With the “Gay Community,” Numbers Only Tell Half the Story

How do we define “gay community”?

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

“Gay community” is a phrase one hears tossed about all the time, from politicians and health officials to activists and everyday gays themselves. But what does it really mean? In some cases, “community” distinctly refers to a physical space, such as a neighborhood or collection of public venues and community gathering places; while in others, the term invokes a constellation of interconnected individuals with shared beliefs, concerns, or cultural reference points. What’s more, depending on whom you ask, the “gay community” can be anything from an open-minded affirming environment where gay people find acceptance and outlets for self-expression, to a judgmental or even hostile one that offers few opportunities for connection and many for frivolous, even self-destructive, excess.

Recently, research in public health and psychology has attempted to study how gay individuals interact with the “gay community” systematically, directly examining how a person’s engagement with the community affects mental health and overall well-being. Drawing on survey data, these studies look at correlations between scores on questionnaires that evaluate either a sense of connection or reported participation in the community with those that evaluate psychological problems or unhealthy behaviors.

Similar research about the mental health of gay men was spotlighted earlier this year in a widely circulated article claiming an epidemic of “gay loneliness,” wherein gay men were beset with mental health issues and poisoned by a toxic social culture. However, as I wrote at the time, the perspective offered there was troublingly limited. While these studies offer a valuable scientific perspective, they are only part of the picture: It’s important to understand them in light of the limitations of quantitative research, including failure to account for both the different ways people define and engage the community and the complex experience of gay minorities.

The good news is that, in contrast to this bleak vision of gay loneliness, much of this research actually provides evidence of the positive effects of engagement with the community. For example, one study recruited gay and lesbian participants online and asked them questions about attachment to the LGB community; participation in community activities; and symptoms of social anxiety, depression, and overall psychological distress. Respondents who indicated greater connection with the community also indicated better overall mental health. Another showed positive effects on health-related behaviors; those who reported that being part of the community was important to their sense of identity also reported less risky sex and fewer days of drug use. Other research looks more closely at how and why connection with the gay community can have positive effects. A study conducted in Australia found that a sense of belonging to a local gay community or to a group of gay friends was associated with more generalized feelings of belonging, which in turn were associated with fewer symptoms of depression.

While these studies paint an appealing picture, it’s still important to consider the limitations of evaluating something as dynamic and varied as connection with the gay community in terms of a single numeric value. This method inadequately accounts for the variety of experiences of people in different types of communities. Further, limitations of this methodology are underscored by the findings of qualitative research. Based on live interviews rather than surveys, qualitative findings draw on analysis of respondents’ words rather than numeric scores. On the one hand, these studies collect data from a narrower pool of respondents, and findings cannot be systematically generalized; on the other, they capture certain phenomena with much greater nuance and complexity.

One such complexity is the variety of different “gay communities” and the way people participate in them. One qualitative study revealed that some respondents thought of the community as their own circle of gay friends and acquaintances while others thought of a broader regional, national, or even global LGBTQ community. Similarly, some respondents discussed participating in the community in terms of informal social events such as getting together with friends or attending nightlife venues, while others focused on more organized activities such as political activism, community organizations, or recreational activities such as sports teams. Such distinctions cannot be overlooked, since their potential impact on how community connection affects people is profound. For example, many of the alleged negative effects of involvement with “the community” have to do with social rejection or risky, destructive behavior; however, these conditions may be specific to types of community activities centered around sex or nightlife.

Another limitation of much of the quantitative research on the gay community is the failure to account for the differing experiences of racial and ethnic minorities who are gay. This shortcoming is particularly glaring given that qualitative research has frequently documented how minorities experience exclusion and discrimination within the community and identified some specific forms that racism in the community takes. One common expression of racism discussed in the research as well as in recent popular discourse is sexual discrimination among gay men, a phenomenon wherein Black and Asian gay men, in particular, face either systematic sexual rejection or sexual stereotyping (i.e. fetishization). Another is the absence of representation of gay people of color in media and advertising. Both contribute to negatively impacting how minorities experience engagement with the community and may also influence how these experiences ultimately impact their health.

In light of the varied viewpoints on the gay community and its effect on those who engage with it, systematic, data-driven findings provide a useful reference point to approaching a topic steeped in anecdotal evidence and opinionated perspectives. Many of us are familiar with narratives of young gay people finally finding acceptance and connection among others like them or, conversely, of those who sought that only to be confronted with isolation, failed relationships, or worse—a spiral into dangerous patterns of substance use, risk-taking, and other unhealthy behaviors. Research studies, especially those that take a quantitative approach, overcome some of the limitations of these more personal accounts by surveying a wider and ideally, more representative audience. Large-scale studies that point to benefits of involvement with the community for example, may help us contextualize some of these horror stories in terms of individual circumstances rather than interpret them as blanket statements about the community.

However, this approach to the topic is relatively new; hopefully, forthcoming work will make use of questionnaires that add nuance to the quantitative data by focusing on specific types of community or participation therein, or by comparing the experience of white versus minority gays that all make up the many overlapping communities we call home.