Three years ago, I relocated to Tucson, Arizona after 30 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a young person I had moved considerably. I grew up in NY and by the time I moved to Oakland I had lived in 5 cities in 4 states. In each place I found my way to the LGBTQ community through local bars, gay papers, word of mouth, and sometimes, pure luck. Moving to Tucson, it was difficult to find the kind of community I had built in other places. Times had changed. There were few bars, no newspapers, and the web proved elusive when it came to meeting people. In short, things I had relied on in the past no longer existed. I joined a Meetup founded by two women, Allie and Loree, who were also new in town. I was interested in their experiences using Meetup, which led to this interview. I hope readers will add their thoughts in the comments section. Yours in community and solidarity, elissa mondschein
elissa: One of the reasons that I was interested in this discussion of …starting the meet up and using it as a way to meet people is that when I was younger, one of the things I did is I went into bars or picked up the local(gay/women’s) newspapers to find out what was going on. Now, there are no newspapers and there are not many LGBTQ bars. I was just wondering what your own experience had been with bars and newspapers, and the feeling of transitioning to a different way of meeting people? Did you use bars and newspapers when you moved around?
Allie: I think we both tried bars when we were younger and before we had become a couple. But the problem with bars is that the assumption is that you are there to pick someone up, not make lifelong friends. So, if you’re part of a couple, just looking for friends, you don’t really fit in.
Loree: Also, I found bars to be cliquey. People came with a group of friends and really just interacted with those people; so, if you came alone, it was sort of awkward to figure out howto meet people. I never really used newspapers to meet people. I more used them to get a general sense of what was going on. And then once we had the Meetup, I used newspapers etc. to get ideas for events or places where the group could go. I think it’s really hard, especially if you don’t know anybody, to venture out and do things if you don’t know anyone.
elissa: You had started a Meetup in Minnesota, also?
elissa: For the same reason? A way to meet people?
Loree: Yes. Allie was in Germany, and we were new to the Minneapolis area, so I was looking for a way to meet people,other than in bars, and that’s when I first discovered Meetup. I joined a lesbian group, but the person that had the group was kind of mentally unstable.She was doing really bizarre things, but the premise sounded good. So, I branched off and started my own lesbian group and then later I saw another group that was LGBT and decided to join it. I really enjoyed the LGBT group. We had a great time, males, females, everybody. We’d do brunches, barbecues, game nights, all sorts of things.
elissa: In Minnesota?
Loree: Yes. So that was my idea for here – to create a group where everyone in the LGBTQ community could interact and feel welcome. But it seems like in Tucson, the men do what they want; the women do what they want. There just isn’t that much interaction between the different elements of the community. So, although our meetup is open to everyone, we really don’t have too many guys show up for events.
Allie: Early on, we did have a few men who came to a couple of events, but at that point the only other people in attendance were Loree and I.
Loree: Two of the guys that came early on ran an all-gay group. So, to get more interest, we tried cross posting some events. We would list some of our events on their group page and they would post some of their events on our group page. But it just didn’t get any traction and they eventually stopped posting on the site and dropped out. Then we decided on introducing a Brew Crew as a monthly event, and that’s when we finally started having more than just one or two people show up for events.
elissa: Can you explain what the Brew Crew is?
Loree: Yes, each month we pick a different local brewery to meet and chat. It’s sort of like a coffee house thing, except with beer. The focus is on conversation and friendship, not partying.
elissa: So, to date that is what’s brought in the most people?
Loree: Definitely, it is not unusual for us to have as many as 25 people at the Brew Crew.
Allie: But even the Brew Crew did not take off immediately. For the first two,it was just Loree and I. But, by the third one, we had 6 to 8 people show up.We were excited, because we had started to think that the meet-up group was not going to catch on. We figured that we would give it six months — the initial amount of time that Loree had paid to have the meet-up.
Loree: I don’t think a lot of people realize that I have to pay a fee to have that Meetup site. And I think it’s like, $80, $90 every six months.
Allie: In the beginning, we posted about everything under the sun, just trying to see what people might be interested in doing. We were also careful to pick things that interested us as well. That way if no one showed up, we would still go and have a good time together.
elissa: You had mentioned to me that you never posted anything that you yourselves didn’t want to do.
Loree: Exactly. That way it was no loss, if no one came. So, if there was a museum, we wanted to see, we would post it and hope others would be interested.But if not, that was okay.
Allie: Same thing for the book club. I picked books that I planned to read anyway, so again if no one showed up, it was okay. The first two book clubs no one signed up; it was not until the third one that people started signing up and showing up. But the Book Club is still a much smaller group than the Brew Crew. I think, the largest group that we have had for the Book Club was eight,when we read Becoming Nicole.
elissa: And Charity & Sylvia …
Allie: Right, had eight as well. But we seem to have a core group of about four people and then others come and go, depending on the book. And then also some of the regulars are snowbirds, so their attendance is seasonal. It’s funny, because when Loree first started the group, she posted a survey asking people what they wanted to do and the top thing was a book club.
elissa: That’s not drawing the most people, though?
Allie and Loree: No.
Allie: I don’t know if we put a Brew Crew in the survey.
Loree: No, I don’t think so … We did [get] quite a few people for dinners.
Allie: Once the Brew Crew took off, then the people that were doing the Brew Crews sort of started showing up at other events …Last year we did a Thanksgiving dinner.
Loree: Well, that wasn’t on Meetup, though. But this year, we did put the Thanksgiving dinner on Meetup.
elissa: But the first year, it was people that you had met through Meetup?
Loree and Allie: Yeah.
Loree: This year’s Thanksgiving dinner we’re hosting at our house. The idea is,if you want to come hang-out all day we’ll do brunch-y stuff in the morning,and the Thanksgiving in the afternoon …because nobody should be alone for Thanksgiving.
Allie: We wanted to make sure that people have a place to go. Feel a part of something.
Loree: Next weekend, we are also doing a camping trip through Meetup.
Allie: This first trip is like camping with training wheels. We are just going to Catalina State Park, so that those who feel unsure about the whole camping thing, can try it and if they don’t like it, they can go home and sleep in their own bed.
Loree: Yeah, and if you don’t even want to try camping, you can opt just to come to the potluck cook-out at the campground and then head home. Then for April, we have posted a cruise with Holland America. This way you have a built-in community on the ship to go to dinner with or out dancing, and it’s a lot cheaper than doing an Olivia cruise. You can pick the level of cabin you want, and you can also use the Meetup site to see if anyone wants to share a cabin to defer costs. I think it has the potential to be fun.
elissa: What would you say provided the biggest stresses of starting this meet up and hosting it?
Allie: I think the biggest stress for us has been some side dramas.
Loree: Well, that’s one stressor for sure.
Allie: We have no problem if people meet and decide to date, but if you later get in a fight and break up, don’t demand that we kick [out] the other person …
Loree: We’re all adults, sit at the other end of the table, you know? It’s supposed to be a safe space where everybody can come, so, there was one kind of instigator, so they’re not coming anymore. For me, a stressor is when people sign up, and then decide not to show up, but don’t update their RSVP. So, Allie and I are there and trying to decide: well, do we wait another 10 minutes, or do we go ahead?
elissa: I do notice there is a sense of being anonymous (on the internet) and so people don’t seem to feel like they have to follow through and do what they said that they would.
Allie: Some events, you’re standing there waiting, because you don’t want to leave anyone behind. Maybe they got stuck in traffic, maybe they had trouble finding it. We don’t want them to get there and feel like nobody cared enough to wait.
elissa: All in all, would you say that starting this Meetup group has been a success?
Loree: In the long run we’ve actually met more people and made more friends through Meet-up than we did in Minnesota. Not as many male friendships, but female friends.
Allie: We would love for the group to become more diverse. But I’m just not sure if Tucson is that way, …but the group is diverse in so far as bi,transgender, and cross-dressing. We just don’t have gay men.
Allie: A while back, we did consider switching the group to women only, but we have some transgender people who come, some cross dressers. We didn’t want to exclude them, and we really didn’t want to give up trying to attract a more diverse group.
Loree: We’ve been going almost 2 years now, but still not much luck in attracting gay men or younger members of the community.
elissa: I’m not sure how younger people are meeting,or if they are. I met one young woman at another Meetup in which all of the women were around my age or a little bit older, and she was in her early 30s, and she was really struggling to find community. She said, “You know, I didn’t go to college, I didn’t come out when I was in my 20s, I only came out a year or two ago.” There was no place that she felt she could meet people that were like her.
Loree: I’m sure.
elissa: But we know there are plenty, right? When people tell me, “it’s all on the internet,” whatever, that means, I say, “Well, the internet’s leaving out a lot of people, because she knows how to use the internet, too.” And she was pretty distraught.
Allie: What we’ve tried to say to people that come that don’t quite fit the current demographic of the group, is that, if you keep coming, then slowly,others will come also. You may feel like the odd man out now, because you are younger, or you are male, etc., but if you keep coming, then someone else may show and then it will grow. Because basically that’s how we developed the current age group. It wasn’t an overnight success, by any means. It was very slow …
elissa: I wanted to thank you both for the interview, it’s been really great.