Working class gay men: Redefining community, restoring identity

Keogh, Peter; Dodds, Catherine and Henderson, Laurie (2004). Working class gay men: Redefining community, restoring identity. Sigma Research, London.



This report presents the full results of one of a suite of three studies investigating how a range of pre-existing social and cultural factors mediate the development of gay male identity and shape the many forms of gay male social life in London today. These studies aim to problematise monolithic and (we believe) unhelpful social categories such as ‘gay community’ or ‘gay scene’ and show how the population of gay men in London is riven with cultural, political and social differences.

It is common to talk simplistically about ‘gay men’ or ‘the gay community’. Commentators have unsuccessfully attempted to undermine such simplistic concepts by asserting that these identities and communities are restricted to White, middle class men. However, we believe that this position on its own is unhelpful because it fails to articulate the broader impact of such sweeping terminology. It serves to obscure the myriad ways of being gay that are not currently being described or represented in health or social policy or interventions for gay men. It implicitly robs anyone who is not White and middle class of a gay identity and sociality. It therefore uses the rhetoric of exclusion to ensure that so-called excluded groups are never considered in mainstream health and social policy for gay men because they are somehow not ‘properly’ gay. In addition, it is reductionist in relation to White middle class gay men. It is always well to be suspicious of any notion of the ‘default’ group which is considered powerful, wealthy etc. Such groups are usually one of two things: an aspirational ‘brand’ created by marketeers to sell us certain lifestyles (a quick review of the commercial gay media supports this suspicion) or a conceptual construction which everyone else uses as a benchmark to establish their own ‘individuality’ or ‘difference’. In short, we are asserting that, in policy terms, the White middle class ‘mainstream’ gay community is a useful political fallacy. In short, our representations of gay men and gay sociality remain woefully impoverished and simplistic.

There is one additional over-arching effect of the White middle class fallacy. That is, by speaking the language of inclusion and exclusion, we are condemned to always consider weakness as opposed to strength. There is an implicit assumption in nearly all research and policy work on gay men that to be within the charmed circle of the White middle classes is to be without need. Thus, other experiences of being gay and other groups of gay men are described as automatically disadvantaged and weaker. These three reports will show that there is no paradigmatic gay experience or group. Rather, there are myriad ways of being gay, all of which are imbued with strengths and weaknesses.

To this end, we have conducted a suite of qualitative studies into gay men resident in London. One of the others examines the relationship between ethnic minority identity and gay identity and the other investigates the lives of gay migrants in London. This report examines the experiences of blue collar or working class gay men. We aim, with all these studies to change the way that health promoters and policy makers conceive of the gay male population. We want to challenge the construction of the gay male population as having a centre which is privileged – White and middle class – and a periphery of excluded ethnic minorities, migrants, bisexuals and working class men etc. Instead, we present a conception of the gay population of London as a composite of a range of different experiences. As fractured, antagonistic and constantly changing. Moreover, the factors which fracture that population, which create the flux and antagonisms are larger social and structural factors such as ethnicity, religion, education, class, income etc. To put it simply, no gay man is simply gay, he probably also has a class background, an ethnicity, a job, a family, and a religious affiliation or history among other things. It is these differences that animate the gay population of London.

Therefore, in all these reports we talk about things rarely considered in policy-oriented research on gay men. We talk of the importance of biological family and heterosexual forms of sociality for many gay men. We talk of the centrality of spirituality and organised religion. We talk about education and the passage from school to work. We talk about masculinity and health. We talk about nationalism. We talk very little about HIV and AIDS and sexual health. We have a transparent aim in doing so. We are hoping to take gay men’s health and social concerns out of the service and policy ‘ghetto’ that is HIV. We are reasserting a particularly sociological perspective that gay men’s health (sexual and otherwise) and the HIV epidemic are fundamentally influenced by broader social factors. In short, if we were to recommend one practice outcome as a result of these studies it would be to produce less community interventions telling gay men what to do (or how to be). Rather, we should be seeking to transform the education of all boys and to increase the capacity of all families to live with and enjoy their gay children; of all services to meet the needs of their gay users and of all communities to capitalise on the presence of their gay members. This is not as socially transformative an agenda as it sounds. We have much to learn from the experiences of working class gay men, gay men from ethnic minorities and gay migrants. Such interventions are, properly speaking, HIV health promotion.

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