Dan Perry opened the discussion by simply asking, “What is community? What’s it mean?” Audience participation and responses were welcomed as Dan poled everyone in attendance. Truly, to all of us, what makes a community? Is it as simple as everyone under one umbrella? Is it a subset of something greater? How do you define a community? Reminding us of the roots of modern Leather, Dan suggested that the soldiers returning from World War 2 were the first community. Where did it go from there?
As the years went by, the Leather Community saw its ups and downs but as groups became larger the sense of togetherness seemed to fade. Dan posed another question, “As we get larger, our closeness goes away, and we are left wondering how do we retain our sense of community.” As one group becomes larger, because more like-minded people gather around it, sometimes subsets begin to form. While this is not necessarily a bad thing it does begin to perhaps dilute the whole. Or does it? Dan finished his question then added, “We form different groups because people want a “tighter” group. When this happens we sometimes become ‘cliquish’ and this is not good.”
Although community can mean different things to different people we still strive to uphold the whole. This can lead to good and bad things… “We are quick to start something new because a need is perceived. However, we are reluctant to end them when perhaps the need is no longer there”, he pointed out. Case-in-point: If a group was begun several years ago to address an issue but the issue no longer persists, does the group need to continue out of obligation?
Can our umbrella of acceptance get too large or can we always separate into smaller organizations? As the years rolled on our “umbrella” became larger. Dan said poignantly, “AIDS and other common enemies brought many folks together and our umbrella became larger.” Whereas before many organizations were private and very secretive, now they were larger and sought different areas large enough to house them. As this was occurring our sense of community was being tested in new ways. According to Hardy Haberman, “Today we have numbers, but do we really have strength in numbers?”
One of the largest reasons for forming a community was to protect ourselves from outside enemies. Although, one may argue that in today’s society BDSM, Homosexuality, or Kink in general is more accepted, for many years these things would get you arrested or worse. So now that we have come together and formed sub-cultures do we still have one defining characteristic? Dan offered, “We once had one thing that united us, but now it seems that everyone in their separate groups has their own thing.” Perhaps from the joining together we have lost something that united us across several boundaries.
When we were smaller and tighter, we could easily know each other and encourage or discourage activities. As any group or community begins to grow you lose a level of intimacy that exists so easily with just a few. This problem is expressed in many aspects of our culture; just look at the rise of mega-churches. We are all united but still we identify and belong to other banners. How do we regulate ourselves? When there are 20 people in a group it is easy to keep tabs, watch others, and protect ourselves. Dan continued, “There was a time when NLA Dallas was just a small group of people. Now we are at over 100 members.”
How do we as a community handle issues or problems when our umbrella is so large? In one example Dan told of a group of puppies that were randomly interacting with people and biting them. When questioned, the puppies merely replied that they were dogs…what did you expect? With the age of the Internet we are gaining new friends but also losing our sense of respecting our community. Our umbrella has become so large and our sub cultures so varied that we are having trouble keeping up.
So what is a community? From where we started and where we are now, how do we prepare for our future? Many questions were asked by Dan and the answers were often never the same. Discussions could have lasted for far longer but it was important that we become aware of our sense of community. Do we need all these sub-groups or has their original purpose been served? Is it time to collapse the umbrella of community to a more manageable size? Ultimately, you must decide how you view community and how to serve it.