Thursday, September 28, 2006

On European Gay Life

Since I’m an American who has lived in Europe for the last 25 years or so, it might be of some interest for me to outline some of the differences I have observed and experienced between American and European gay life. I should say at the outset, however, that the quality of specifically gay life in Europe, which is in some ways better than that in the US, and in some ways more problematical, was not a major factor in my deciding to make my life here. I came to Europe and stayed because of work, because I fell in love with and established a relationship with a European man, and because I found and continue to find the quality of life in general here in Europe to be superior to what I had or could have in the US.

The most obvious difference between gay life in Europe and in the US is that
with the exception of retrograde Poland, the countries of the European Union offer gay people grater legal equality than does much of the US. Gay couples can marry in several European Union countries, and civil unions carrying rights approaching those enjoyed by married heterosexual couples are possible in others; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legally considered a breach of human rights. Despite these advantages, however, this more secure legal status in no way indicates that everyday life in Europe is more “gay friendly” than it is in the US.

The more secure legal status we enjoy in Europe is a result of a general social situation having, in fact, only tangentially to do with attitudes towards homosexuality. Briefly stated, although the US was the first country to declare officially the separation of Church and state, this separation is now on much firmer ground in Europe. Historically, many European peoples have had to struggle to throw off Church domination, and the Church has failed too often in modern times to provide moral leadership; most Europeans, even those who are regular church members, support the idea that the Church should stay out of politics. Even in Italy, where the Church still has some political clout, the electorate has, in recent times, strongly asserted the separation of Church and state. Throughout western and central Europe, without a politically active and potent Church to turn homophobia into doctrine and then into law, the way is open for reason to prevail and for gay people to be able to claim their rights.

So, gay people have a stronger legal situation in Europe not necessarily because there is more popular tolerance of homosexuality, but rather because the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish), which has been the major force in blocking such progress in the US, is politically much weaker here. On the other hand, the social situation, the general environment effecting gay people in their daily lives, may, in fact, be more positive in the US than it is in Europe. But again, the difference may depend not so much upon attitudes toward homosexuality as it does upon the general structures of the two societies.

In Europe, the relationship between the individual and his immediate and extended family, the social circle into which he was born and raised, his home- town, and his work situation is much less fluid and flexible than it is in the US. American cities provide refuge to millions of gay people who have fled limiting or overtly homophobic family, social and work environments in small towns or smaller cities. Much the same happens in Europe, but it is much more difficult for the individual gay man to pull off, and frequently the flight is partial and incomplete.

Both my American and my European friends seem to have pretty much the same proportions of family who has accepted, rejected, or accepted only conditionally their homosexuality. The Americans, however, seem to be much freer in being able to tell hostile, homophobic family where to get off. Of course, not all American gay men with “difficult” families are capable of physical and emotional separation, but the system itself doesn’t make it much more difficult than it is on a personal level.

The European family, however, is much tighter, and the social opprobrium against breaking ties with family is even stronger than the opprobrium against homosexuality. Even if a European gay man manages to move away to a different city, he is still expected to, and almost always does maintain very close contact with his family, even if they are inveterate homophobes. This situation is most extreme in Italy, where a man’s ties to his mother are legendary, but it is even true in the northern countries. It is, therefore, very difficult for a European gay man to separate emotionally from a family that refuses to accept his sexual orientation.

Contributing to this problem is the general physical immobility of European society. Most Europeans grow up, are educated, work, and die in or very near the city where they were born. Also, unlike more recent American society, changing jobs too often is seen, in Europe as a sign of unreliability, disloyalty, and general instability.

Most important, gay Europeans are gay, buy they are still Europeans. They may suffer under homophobic family, social, and work environments, but they still subscribe to those very same values that make it very difficult for them to break away. A gay Italian or Austrian guy with homophobic parents, friends, or boss hesitates to move to a different, bigger city or new job not only because the move is practically difficult; he, like his straight friends, would really prefer to stay with his family, childhood friends, and old colleagues in his home town.

When an American gay guy decides to flee Peoria for the flesh pots of Chicago or New York, he also can arrange for a soft landing. Perhaps because of the mobile nature of American society, there is the institution of support groups he can turn to in the big city. Moreover, Americans, again perhaps because of this physical mobility, tend to be able to make friends, or at least form close acquaintanceships, at every stage of their lives. Europeans, on the other hand, after their formative years ending, perhaps, with the end of formal education, find making new friends exceedingly difficult. It happens, but it requires a great deal of initiative and determination. For a European gay man coming to the city from the provinces, it is perhaps easier for him to find a lover than to develop a circle of friends. It isn’t just that others reject him; he himself is reluctant to extend himself toward new people. His culture has taught him that his circle of friends essentially closes after university graduation (and for many after high school or even elementary school, even if they have gone on to university).

Those gay support groups that do have some success in Europe tend to center around specific sexual tastes. Continental Europeans--- the English are an exception here--- traditionally have a hard time joining clubs or interest groups, especially if the clubs involve a high degree of personal interaction. The cover of a sexual interest, however, seems to help them overcome their reticence in this regard. One of the most successful gay support groups in Europe seems to be the “bears.” I know several men who seem to have developed tastes in this direction not particularly because they are more turned on by hairy, hefty guys than they are by smooth, slim ones, but rather because the bear groups tend to be accepting, friendly, and supportive.

These sexual interest groups such as the “bears” seem to have a more important role in European gay life than they do in the US. Because discussion of personal problems or feelings with anyone outside of family or the most intimate, life long circle of friends is impossible for much of European society in general, gay men from non gay friendly social environments frequently have nowhere to go in this regard. The “bears” or other such groups become an ersatz family where, under what is sometimes at least in part a pretext of having similar sexual tastes, and isolated gay man can find a pal to talk to.

Obviously, such groups perform similar functions in the US, but there the individual gay man has many more options open to him. Specifically sexual opportunities seem to be about the same in Europe in the US; bars, baths, and bushes don’t seem to differ from place to place, and specifically sexually oriented internet contact sites and chat rooms have changed the nature of gay cruising as much in Europe as they have in the US. But because of European reluctance to open up to anyone but a childhood bosom buddy, making new friends or even engaging in a personal blog is very difficult. If personal blog sites do exist among gay Europeans (I, frankly, don’t know of any at all), I would assume that they would be used primarily by very young people.

The gay community in Europe is not nearly as well organized and politicized as it is in the US. In fact, when politically oriented European gays compare their organizations with what their brothers and sisters in the US have accomplished in this regard, there is generally much rending of garments, beating of breasts, and moaning about how unserious and uncommitted we in Europe are. The problem, however, has very little to do with commitment.

Political life and social activism in Europe operates almost entirely within the scope of the existing political parties. We in Europe do, of course, have important and resourceful gay activists, but they tend to relate to the existing political parties instead of building independent gay political and social action organizations. There are, of course, gay political and social action periodicals, but nothing on the scale or scope of the LA or New York gay newspapers.

All these factors considered, therefore, I would say that it is probably easier to be gay in the US, especially in a city, than it is in Europe. Despite much firmer legal status and protection, and despite more or less the same degree of acceptance by the straight community, European gay men have a somewhat more difficult time integrating their sexual identity into their everyday lives than their American brothers do.


Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, I enjoyed reading your post. I thought I would point out that in my case, I've much enjoyed leaving behind the city of 5 million--which is also quite a gay mecca--for this little, unpretentious, yet cultured town of 10 thousand or so. Everyday I'm amazed at the genuine people I find here, the gay people i find here, and the openess and candor that is all around. There aren't concealed or hidden things going on (for the most part), nor drug-addled steroided gym bunnies, as one finds in big numbers in Atlanta.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

I was glad to find you put up a new post. I like your thoughts. I will read and reflect on it this weekend.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Your experience in a cultured town of 10,000 or so is, unfortunately, uniquely American and probably owes much to Thomas Jefferson's ideas about education. I assume you live in a university or college town; European universities are sometimes in small cities, but they're almost never in places that could be called rural.

I was going to write that the existence of such possibilities are one of the more pleasant aspects of American life, but to call it just pleasant is to trivialize it. It involves the assumption that the "ivory tower" serves a certain function within a society. I'm not sure I ascribe to that position, but it is, undoubtedly, worth consideration.

I've lived in two, small midwestern college towns, and I can well believe what you say. But my experience was that harmonious, accepting world you describe ends quite abruptly with the town line of the college town in question. The next town down the road was quite a different matter.

I'm a city boy myself, and my partner, an Italian, is even more extremely urban than I am (Note that Italian painting doesn't even have a landscape tradition.) We love plants, but they are better in gardens and on terraces than in fields. It's also because there is, in fact, very little place for gay people in rural European society. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklass could move to rural France because the were rich. It wouldn't be so easy, even now, if they had only an average income.

12:24 PM  
Blogger farmboyz said...

Good God, you've got at least five really good posts here all compressed into one. I just couldn't finish it in one sitting before saying that yes, it's different where you are. I spent four years in Rome and never went to a gay bar (a thing hybridized proudly by silly America). The interaction itself is different. I've to give some thought to your very correct observation concerning "immobility" in European cities. And, this rude American culture is taking its time growing up, but I think I will see the day when sex will be a more relaxed issue on these shores. The hysterical Republicanisms that fly about herein are self-devouring and will die off like a teenager's worries about blemishes. (Sorry, this comment didn't do your post justice, but I gotta sleep.)

10:23 PM  
Blogger RIC said...

Dear Bruce
I took the liberty of taking some notes on your article (sure you don't call it a post...)
I may even use those notes to post about the matter myself.
No gay blogs in Europe? No, mine is not an example, but it's not closeted either. Younger Portuguese gays have blogs openly and daily dealing with all kind of issues.
As for Northern Europe, have you considered the Dutch lifestyle? It has very little to do with the British, or the Belgian, or the German, or the French... I've ben there, I've studied there for a while, I speak Dutch, and Holland would be the only country in Europe where I might live (besides Portugal...) And you're so right about our immobility: I've always lived in Lisbon, except for the periods I've been abroad...
I'd better stop now or else I won't sleep tonight...
Thank you for sharing your thorough analysis, points of view, and most valid arguments!


6:43 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks for your very helpful comments.

Sorry, I hadn't come across your very interesting blog (note that I've added it to my preferred list) until after I had posted this one. But I still have the impression that blogging is a communications vehicle used much more widely by gay North Americans than by gay Europeans. Also, I have the impression that most of the gay European bloggers are quite young and therefore perhaps freer from the traditions that inhibit open personal expression among older Europeans.

Admittedly, Holland, or at least Amsterdam (rural Holland is really quite conservative), is an exception. The good burghers of that city have been defenders of personal freedoms back to the XVI century (Vermeer painting whorehouses and Rembrandt painting Jews, where else could that have happened?). No surprise that it's easier to be gay in Amsterdam than perhaps in any other European city.

But I hope it doesn't change. The immigration issue has produced a conservative backlash in Holland, and they did vote against the European Constitution.

3:13 AM  
Blogger RIC said...

... Which is/was quite a cooked dish arranged in Brussels. (Yuck!)I believe I would also vote against it, to be honest. I've never liked Giscard. And what he did in that so-called Convention was more than I was willing to bear.
Not only Amsterdam. Not anymore. Small University towns are quite interesting as far as gay lifestyle is concerned. Where else would you have a van Gogh making a movie of that kind? (Yes, he got killed for it, but that's another European issue, not exclusive Dutch...)
I do entirely agree with your first paragraph! And I thank you once again for your stimulating ideas! I really do, Bruce! (Check my blogroll, I guess we did the same thing at the same time...) :-)

9:26 AM  
Blogger Minge said...

Very interesting thoughts. Quite provocative. I'll never sleep now. My mind is buzzing!

4:47 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

This thoughtful essay reflects substantial experience, recollected in eloquent tranquility. I look forward to supplementary contributions. Two that I would like to see are 1) a comparison of gay life in Italy with that in other European countries; and 2) some diachronic analysis. As an example of the latter I would note some negative developments in the Netherlands. These began before the current Muslim unrest, with the persecution of Senator Brongersma.

On a personal note, having settled, or so I thought, in England in the early 'sixties I decided to come back at the end. One factor was that the US was "where the action was" in terms of gay liberation (as we used to call it in those remote days). In other ways, I think that the US is still where the action is, given that we are (alas, perhaps) the only superpower now.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Hello from a gay European/British/Irish blogger.

This is a great post. It's interesting to read an observers view of our familial relationships.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Ahh the joys of being Canadian! We are directly in the middle between the U.S. and Europe. My Husband ( yes we are legally married) and I have all the same rights and priviliges of a heterosexual marriage and have not had any problems with our families nor our co-workers. We still live in the city proper in a small house on a quite side street with amazing neighbours. Canada has the best of both worlds, access to the U.S. economy but with the european social values.

4:20 PM  

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