By Sean Little
Some LGBT rights activists have proposed adding more letters to the acronym, “LGBT”, to become more inclusive. Suggested additions include the following letters: “A” for Asexual, ”Q” for Queer, “A” for Allies, “Q” for Questioning, “I” for Intersex, and some others. At the same time, the importance of culture has increased in the fields of policy analysis, program planning, implementation, and evaluation. People in these fields should examine how these proposed additional letters effect cultural competence. This examination could refine LGBT cultural competence. It may also involve disentangling social communities from their associated political coalitions. This examination may be more important than the decision about adding initials.
Few discussions about LGBT politics can avoid the term “community”, but many people do manage to avoid defining that term. Some people use “community” to mean a political coalition. Others use it to describe a social entity (or entities). Still others use it to describe a population.
Populations, Political Coalitions, and Communities
The concept of a population serves the interests of the outsiders who have defined it. Those people in a population may lack any subjective identification with others in that population or even with that label. MSM (men who have sex with men) exemplifies an externally defined population. Epidemiologists developed that acronym to include non-gay/bi identified men who had sex with men. Few men identify as a man who has sex with men.
A political coalition functions instrumentally. It has goals, no matter how vaguely stated. By definition, it has a certain amount of political unity, but consists of discreet elements. People participating in a political coalition may not have much in common other than their goals and their need to work together.
A community exists for itself. The members of a community subjectively identify with that community. If it has a purpose, it would be to adapt to the larger physical and social environment. A community may have interests but its members can disagree about those interests. It transmits its language/dialect/slang, values, beliefs, norms, customs, and roles from one generation to the next. Its shared culture unifies a community.
Culture belongs among the terms associated with community: socialization, norms, values, customs, beliefs, and patterns of interaction. Culture determines the language or dialect of service delivery and the acceptability of slang. The values of a culture distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. When a cultural mismatch occurs between a program and its target, two types of failure can result. The intervention can fail to reach the target population. People may be so desperate for some services that they access those services, no matter how mismatched. They then may perceive those services as a part of a nexus of oppression.
Community and social networks
It’s possible to think of a community as a set of interlocking and overlapping social networks. These networks socialize new members. All individuals belong to multiple social networks and exist at the intersection of multiple social networks.
A culture exists on many levels from the nano (smaller than micro) to the macro. Every group of friends forms a nano-culture. Larger, public social networks, such as the regulars at a leather bar, will have their own values, norms, and customs, forming a micro-culture. Each MCC church, a gay gym, or a lesbian softball team will have its own micro-culture. While the micro-culture of one leather bar will differ from other leather bars, all leather bars will share many cultural elements. If a leather bar failed to exhibit many cultural elements of mezzo-leather culture, people would be unable to identify it as a leather bar.
At the next level, the interlocking and overlapping set of social networks of all leather bars forms a community and a leather bar mezzo culture. The set of all MCC churches, gay gyms, and lesbian softball teams will each have their own mezzo culture. Lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people each have mezzo cultures with large overlaps. LGBT culture forms a macro-culture.
At each higher level, the culture becomes more abstract. At the macro level, culture has reached such an ethereal degree of abstraction that cultural competence may lack utility. For cultural competence, the mezzo-culture may be a more appropriate level than the macro level.
As culture becomes more important to effective policies and programs, the distinction between political coalitions and social communities also increases in importance. Some people have proposed the letter “A” for allies among the additional acronymic letters. Allies, by definition, differ from those with which they are allied. Allies belong with the language of political coalitions, not with the language of culture. Of course, some allies participate in LGBT mezzo cultures and networks. For example, the straight son of two lesbian parents has become a marriage equality activist. He lives in at least two LGBT mezzo cultures: the LGBT marriage equality mezzo culture, and the LGBT parenting mezzo culture. “Fag hags”, like the fictional Grace Adler and Karen Walker (Will and Grace), are allies and participate in the gay male mezzo-culture. Communities differ from populations in that communities may include people outside of the narrow and arbitrary definitions of populations.
Asexuals share many political goals with the LGBT communities, but their relationship to social policies and programs may differ. A program directed towards asexuals would require a very different type of cultural competence than one directed towards gay men. For example, most programs directed at gay men involve, with good reason, HIV and STD awareness, but asexuals have very low risk for HIV or STDs.
People, identifying as “Questioning”, probably do not develop coherent and long lasting cultures and communities of their own. The state of “Questioning” implies leaving that state when those issues being questioned are resolved. This state may be part of identify formation progress. Some people currently identifying as “questioning” may resolve their identify as heterosexual and cisgender.
Political coalition with an agenda or social community with a culture
The acronym has much greater utility as a political coalition with an agenda, than as a social community with a culture. This argument does not claim or imply that political coalitions have no value. They obviously do. Distinguishing between these two constructs has great importance, however, for those of us concerned with how culture affects policy, program design, implementation, and evaluation,
Like living organisms, all communities and cultures have boundaries and exclude what lies outside those boundaries. Cultures can clash. Those cultures that clash will have problems mixing, for example, scientists and fundamentalists. This exclusion allows policy and program planners to design policies and programs for particular groups and not others. Political coalitions, however, should include as many discreet elements as possible to further the agenda.
Evaluation exists in the world of public policy, program planning, and delivery. In this world, culture plays a critical role. Despite its importance, the field of evaluation has not yet developed an adequate understanding of LGBT cultures. The proposed addition of more initials to the acronym can be an opportunity to further our individual and collective understanding of culture. We need to be clear whether we are talking about political coalitions with agendas or communities with cultures. Otherwise, we will never develop a coherent understanding of culture.
Next post, that other acronym MSM