The role gyms can play with out even realizing it.
A personal commentary by Robert
Every once in a while, I find myself in a gym sauna with a small group of people who happen to be gay. I know about them from living in this small city for many years. I know about them, they know about me, but they don't know about each other; being gay at least.
Everyone in the space, except for me, thinks they are among straight people. There is often an unnecessary quiet between us. I'm careful not to bring up certain topics as a lot of gays don't want to be "outed." Everyone remains unaware that they are among fellow gay people. It is sort of like being hidden behind the curtain of "main stream family culture."
At other times, people do know about one another. For some reason, there can be more "community" among people who randomly cross paths at gyms than anywhere else in town. For gay people, these places can work as unofficial "centers of community."
Lots of people look to establishments, such as gay bars, for that sense of belonging. They do this because they prefer to be in more exclusively gay environments than where the general public goes. It is nice not to have to hide one's true identity for fear of offending others. Gay bars have served this function over the years, but not with out their drawbacks.
One problem is, lots of gay bars are not really that "gay" anymore. Things keep changing in society. Many of the popular dance bars, that started out catering to a gay clientele, have now shifted to a mixed crowd. They must be offering something that the general public really likes; a good time. Who can beat dancing in a non judgmental environment where there is good music and energy?
This means many of the so called "gay" bars are not anymore gay than other public places around town; Places such as health clubs.
See more below photo
Can health be fun? Crazy lights in the lobby of a recreation center. I stepped into the lobby of a fitness center, in Minneapolis, to take this photo, during my 1991 bicycle tour across USA.
When it comes to building community, bars have their drawbacks. Whether they are straight bars, or "supposedly" gay bars, there tends to be problems associated with alcohol, cigarette smoke and lack of intelligent conversation. A popular dance bar can be great for exercise and mingling, but this is usually in a smoky environment.
I have often thought that aerobic exercise, done to the music at gyms, can be viewed as a form of dancing with out the cigarette smoke.
Besides bars, where else can one look for a sense of community?
The internet offers a lot of good interaction, but this is confined to the nether nether land of cyberspace.
How about gay organizations?
Unlike big cities, small towns lack the gay hiking groups, social clubs or political organizations. Attempts to put these together rise and fall through the years. Apathy runs high.
People often go out to restaurants as a remedy for "cabin fever," but eating establishments have their drawbacks as well. When everyone sits at separate tables, there isn't much more community than when everyone sits in their separate homes. Restaurants offer little interaction between the tables. A few tables may have isolated couples. Others have one person sitting alone. There will be tables for groups, but little interaction between tables. Bars and restaurants are often thought of as being cliquish. Table arraignments contribute to this.
Some restaurants try to bring their communities together with a common lunch counter, but conversation is often distracted by something loud. Ever try talking over a the ball game on a big screen TV?
One time I was having a deep talk with a friend when the juke box came on. My friend, who suddenly couldn't hear what I was trying to say, turned to me and yelled, "they think they are doing us a favor."
Public saunas and hot tubs, like at a lot of gyms, YMCAs or hot springs, work better for bringing people together. They can be good environments for enlarging one's circle of friends. Bringing people together from many walks of life; rich and poor, gay and non gay, older and younger, from different cultures and races. People that might not associate with one another in most circumstances.
What is so magic about these kinds of places?
Nudity may have something to do with it, but simple arraignment of furniture is also a factor. Unlike restaurants, with their separate tables, most spas gather people into one small group. Just the physical layout of the furniture causes folks to face one another.
Facing one's neighbor is a rare arrangement in a public setting.
Places like movie theaters have one facing the back of other people's heads. Folks aren't facing one another in the supermarket line either. How about on the freeway? Everyone is nestled inside their separate automobiles. Some public environments are even more conducive to creating "road rage" than friendliness.
Facing one another is a great setting for small group interaction. Often there is some sort of conversation going. I find myself listening to the thread of conversation and it is usually easy to join in. This is especially true if some topic is of interest to me.
Sometimes the discussion is boring, or non existent, but other times it can be great. Folks are often laughing and having a rousing conversation. It is nice to be in a room, with a random mix of people, having a good laugh about something.
There are times when these settings are totally quiet. It does take patience, but I often find interesting threads of conversation to plug into. New friendships can be easily made when common interests are discovered.
Taking the time to talk to people, especially new people, is rare in our society.
In search of an erotic middle ground between "total isolation" and "the meat market"
Like it or not, where ever people go, eroticism follows. It is part of our being.
At places like hot springs and recreation centers, there can be a certain degree of voyeuristic pleasure derived from appreciating the sensual beauty of an athletic body. This subtle form of eroticism can be seen as a version of "safe sex."
One doesn't get venereal diseases from enjoying nice scenery.
Most public places will discourage overt sexual contact, but they can't control what people are thinking. One can always take their fantasies home with them and do something like masturbation in private. There is a song from the 60s that says something like "let's do it in the road," but public thoroughfares are usually problematical.
One friend of mine says he finds gyms frustrating and doesn't go anymore. Wanting physical contact, or a relationship, he says, "going to the gym is like being a kid in the candy store where all the apothecary jars are padlocked."
Aids prevention is an important aspect of promoting a healthier society. Do gyms and hot springs, inadvertently, play an important role here?
I believe they do. It's a role that needs to be played for both homosexual and heterosexual people.
Often, we perceive a world with only two choices for social needs. Especially if there is any hint of eroticism being considered?
The two choices are:
Choice one, isolation.
Choice two, jumping into gay bars and baths where overt sexual behavior is often implied. Behavior that can lead to higher risk of venereal disease.
These two stark choices are an issue for single people. Single folks of either homosexual or heterosexual orientation.
Overt sex can be the main source of human contact for a segment of the population. If one must make this stark choice between isolation and "the meat market" no wander there is a lot of venereal disease.
American, people tend to think in extremes. Either we pretend there is no such thing as erotic feelings or it is unsafe sexual intercourse.
People often use phrases like "inappropriate" when any erotic thought is considered in an environment. On the other hand, the places where eroticism is allowed; singles bars, gay baths and so forth can over do it.
There needs to be a sensible "middle ground;" a place where looking, mingling and interaction can occur in a healthy environment.
Often the choices, especially in small towns, are limited.
I have passed through towns, on my bicycle tours, where a bar is the only public space there is. The bar is everything from "grocery store" to "post office" to "recreation center." One must enter its smoky environment to access any of these things not to mention any social interaction.
Gay society can be like a small town. Even in the midst of larger cities, bars have traditionally been the social outlet.
Of course, these days the internet provides many more avenues of social interaction. It can be a "God send" to small town and rural America.
No wonder poor health is a big issue in society; especially among gay men where smoking seems a lot more common than in the main stream of society. It must have something to do with alienation and having the bar as the social alternative.
There is a big need for organizations that promote healthy lifestyles. Unfortunately, most organizations that cater to healthy living all but ignore gay people in their outreach. A lot more could be done to promote healthier lifestyles among gay people as well as in the general public. The issue is still sort of a "hot potato" that people don't wish to deal with. Many fear a loss of funding and so forth.
In large cities, such as Seattle, there are places that reach out to gay people for health promotion. One organization, called Gay City, is stepping up to the plate. This is a fairly new and exciting field. Gay City has coordinated many programs such as "Queer Core" (a youth group) and "The Gay American Smoke Out;" a modified version of the "Great American Smoke Out."In smaller towns we don't have organizations like Gay City. We are having to make do, for our health and community needs, in places where the general public gathers. In small towns much of any gay community resides behind the curtain of traditional family culture.