In My Tribe: Gay culture, traditionalists and ‘the new wave’


First of two parts.

On March 31, 2011, 43-year-old Bryan Stow attended a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Following the game, he was attacked by two men in the parking lot as he walked to his car. One man landed a vicious blow to his temple, and Stow fell to the ground, hitting his head on the concrete.

The man then kicked Stow in the head several times. The second man also kicked him, then stood defiantly over the prone body.

So what was this beating about, committed by two men who had never before met the victim? Another gay bashing by Neanderthal homophobes? No. The motive was the fact that the victim was wearing a San Francisco Giants shirt, and the attackers were fans of the hometown Dodgers.

As columnist John Steigerwald speculated: “They probably thought they were doing their duty as Dodgers fans. They were protecting Dodger turf.”

The attackers were violent goons, likely fueled by alcohol. But there is something much deeper at play here. A new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” by Pulitzer Prize winning biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson has the answer as to the ultimate underlying motivation: tribalism. To quote Wilson:

“Have you ever wondered why, in the ongoing presidential campaign, we so strongly hear the pipes calling us to arms? Why the religious among us bristle at any challenge to the creation story they believe? Or even why team sports evoke such intense loyalty, joy and despair?

“The answer is that everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to determine the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags. And so it has ever been.”

Wilson says that the urge to join is deeply ingrained in humans. It is in our nature and, as with being gay, we don’t have a choice in the matter. Joining tribes is an innate urge we all possess, going back, according to Wilson’s speculation, six million years, to a time before our ancestral line split into the chimpanzee and human lines.

Tribes can represent all levels of significance. LA Dodgers fans are a tribe, with the tribal connection providing identity, something to cheer (and fight) for, something to get excited about, a sense of solidarity against the “enemy,” and just that important sense of belonging to something beyond the individual. San Francisco Giants fans are a tribe.

As are evangelical Christians, liberals, conservatives, heavy metal fans, fraternities, gangs of all types, obsessive “Glee” fans, and a vast array of other groupings. A family is a tribe in a very real sense. And the gay community is a tribe.

The gay community has joined together into this tribe because we share something basic and important that non-gays don’t share. We understand each other, our joys, our fears, and our very natures.

In a world that has historically been unwelcoming, the gay tribe provides comfort, camaraderie, and the ability to relax and be ourselves. On a group level, it gives us the opportunity to band together to seek and demand respect and equal rights. For many of us, it has provided the key component of our very identity.

Gay kids have historically grown up feeling disconnected from their peers. Until recently, the realization of being gay was generally accompanied by an intense feeling of isolation.

Those of us born before 1980 or even later had no internet, no singing gay couples on network TV, no cable channels on which to see anything beyond expressions of white bread middle class values, no gay novels in the high school library, etc. There was no one to talk to. Everyone was straight, and we didn’t dare share our feelings with any of them.

But eventually young gay kids moved out into the world, going to college or living on their own. The desperate need to meet others like themselves led to exploring and reaching out, and finally they were able to hook up with other strangers in that strange land.

And they discovered that there was an entire community of men who liked men. They discovered the tribe.

The experience of Ulysses Dietz, an art museum curator from New Jersey, and well known to regular AfterElton readers, is typical of many gay men. He told me about his introduction to the gay community when he was a college student in 1975.

“Being a Kinsey 6, I knew my only chance for a social life was among my own,” he said. “From the moment I walked into my first meeting of the Gay Alliance at Yale, I knew that these were my people. The gay community of men became everything, all encompassing. I was still a college student, so it was easy to immerse myself, and I’d built no sort of social world other than that.”

Ulysses Dietz

Dietz had joined the tribe. And it changed his life forever. He finally could hang out and share his feelings with people just like him, people who understood him.

He moved into a house shared with several other gay men, he met his first lover, he began attending Pride parades, he took trips to Greenwich Village, where for the first time he could walk down the street hand in hand with another man.

And he became an activist. That reflects another common aspect of tribal membership as described by Wilson: the impulse “to organize rallies and raise flags”. But it’s not just for show or ego gratification.

For our tribe, as for the historical tribes of the past, there are very real dangers and challenges out there. By acting together we’ve been able to defend ourselves, protect and enhance our rights, and make the world a more hospitable place for our brothers and sisters.

For Dietz the desire to “raise the flag” and fight for the future of the tribe infused nearly everything he did. When he and his partner Gary moved to the suburbs it was a conscious decision to “be the gay pioneer boys in Leave it to Beaver land”, as he put it.

With the help of the ACLU they fought their town council and won the right to join the town’s swim club as a family of two. Even the quest for children (he now has two teenagers) had an edge of activism. It was “the ultimate gay activist thing,” he says, and it “was full of integrating moments, when we as a gay couple talked and shared our dreams with straight couples.”

For those of us who are gay, the reality of these tribal benefits – camaraderie, identity, a shared sense of purpose in fighting for the group – is not news. But the same tribal impulses that produce those positive benefits also produce situations and reactions that are not so positive.

Consider for a moment the sort of tribe for which the term was originally used, such as those in the Amazon jungle. In that type of society each person’s life and actions have a direct impact on the other tribe members. The society has rather strict rules for how the members should act. Conformity to those rules is an important part of tribal life and of the quest to maximize the welfare of the tribe. In a sense, each member has an ownership stake in the lives of the other members.

Unfortunately, many in today’s gay community seem to have a misplaced sense of ownership in the lives of other gays, or perceived fellow tribe members. There is an informal code of conduct for how a “good gay” lives his life.

Few actually acknowledge that they think of things quite that way, but their reactions to others betray their outlook. For example, if you’re a gay conservative don’t come knockin’ at our door.

Read part 2 here.

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