Making Our Own Communities

On Greater Boston’s LGBT Meetup sites, real-time, unplugged social networking is just a click away

The big city can be a lonely place for a newcomer. Even lifelong Bostonians can feel disconnected now and then. Maybe you’re newly single and looking to make new friends, or it seems like life’s got you in a rut. Or maybe everything’s going great and you want to share good times with new friends, expand your social circles, try something new, or get back into some favorite old activity you haven’t done for a while.

For the LGBTQA community, Meetup.com has grown into an essential, incredibly easy-to-use tool for engaging in real-time, face-to-face, social networking. It’s a place where anyone interested in virtually anything can quickly find groups of like-minded individuals and join right in. 

Meetup’s philosophy is simple: “When we get together and do the things that matter to us, we’re at our best. And that’s what Meetup does. It brings people together to do, explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive.”

The site has over 32 million members and more than 250,000 groups with over 500,000 events taking place in 182 countries. In the Greater Boston area alone, there are over 500 LGBT-related Meetup groups offering hundreds of events on any given week to thousands of local members. You can join book clubs and sports clubs. Find spiritual enlightenment and engage in political action. Make friends and just hang out. Catch a movie. Play Scrabble. Grab a beer. Or learn French. Go rock climbing or skinny-dipping. Learn something new or hone your expertise. There are even groups that travel together to the farthest reaches of the globe and another that simply strolls around Boston Public Garden. 

Some groups have thousands of members, others less than 100. Membership is free. (Group leaders pay a modest monthly service fee and sometimes ask for donations from members to help cover event costs.) Once signed up to a group, members can find, join and even initiate events, which tend to attract more intimate numbers. Recent events for the 347-member North Shore LGBT Social Network, for example, include a “Friday Night Bite” at Bit Bar in Salem, a “Game Night at the Castle,” a house party in Beverly, a breakfast club in Salem and the list goes on. The 532-member-strong QuICK Climbers (Queer Inclusive Climbing Klub) group had a “Weekly Climb at Brooklyn Boulders” in Somerville, another climb at MetroRock in Everett and an “Outdoor Camping & Climbing Trip” to New Hampshire among their recent activities.

To learn exactly how this phenomenon works, Boston Spirit caught up with a few founders, organizers and members of the largest and longest-running local Meetup groups.

Dan Batterman

The Boston Gay Professionals Meetup Group

Without a doubt, Boston is one of the gay-friendliest cities on the planet. But let’s face it; that reputation hasn’t always extended to being the friendliest gay social scene. Blame it on our cold New England winters, or on old Yankee traditions, or on our Pilgrim roots. Or better yet, call it a misconception that needs correcting—which is exactly what Dan Batterman, Boston attorney and organizer of The Boston Gay Professionals Meetup Group, has been busy doing since 2008.

“How people often perceive the gay scene in Boston has to do with our limited bar scene,” he says. “Over the years, as we’ve gained greater acceptance in society, we moved into other places. This group is designed to take advantage of that—to let people know there are other places we can go that don’t have to be strictly gay related.” 

Batterman recalls one guy who’d been a member of the group for about three years before he finally showed up to a typical networking event of some 40–70 guys. “Afterwards, he told me, ‘Oh my God, if I’d only known it was so much fun I would have come years ago.’ So that’s kind of what I’m fighting—this prevalent attitude in Boston that you can’t meet people in the bar scene.” 

Friendly and welcoming

The friendly, welcoming attitude of the some 3,500 members who belong to the Boston Gay Professionals Meetup Group is what long-term member Bill Anderson, a biologist who teaches at the university level, cites as one of his favorite things about the group. 

Bill joined around the time the group started in July 2006 with about 15 members, he recalls. He met Batterman, ironically, in the bar scene at Club Café. Anderson credits Batterman with rapidly expanding the group’s membership. From the time Batterman took over as the group’s organizer, he has been at almost every gathering, Bill says. Batterman greets new members, introduces them around, and makes sure everyone feels comfortable and is having a good time. (Now that the group is so big, Batterman shares that job with a team of event hosts and assistant organizers, who he says he can’t thank enough for their positive energy and dedication.)

Tom Gunning, a healthcare professional from Brighton who joined the group last April, agrees. “People are there to make friends and connect with people. Not that that doesn’t happen in bars, but they come to this group for the express purpose of enlarging their social circles and, since everybody is likeminded, it’s a very easy venue to do that there. I’m a life-long Boston resident, and it’s probably the least ‘Boston-like’ gathering in terms of people being very open and friendly and not cliquey.”

“And then there’s the breadth of representation of people in the community,” says Anderson. “We have people in the financial services, in academia, in medicine, and law; you name it. When you chat with these people, you really encounter a very interesting cross section of the city. There are all different backgrounds and professions represented there, which is great.”

“I’ve had people contact me,” Batterman recalls, “and say, ‘Oh, I upholster furniture, is this a group for me?’ or ‘I’m a student’ or ‘I don’t currently have a job,’ and I say, yes, absolutely this is a group for you.”

“Being professional doesn’t necessarily refer to an occupation—like an engineer, attorney or doctor,” Batterman says. “Being professional is an attitude as well. Basically, anyone who wants to socialize, make some contacts and make some friends, and wants to see what’s out there in the community should join the group.”

“I tend to be an introvert as a rule. Dan was very welcoming and people were easy to talk to. So I kept coming back,” says Vincent James, a university admissions director who is now an event host for the group. “What happens is, right away you start seeing familiar faces among the new faces, and that’s what makes the group work. I’d say about a third of the people that show up for any meetup are there for the first time, which says a lot about the community and word of mouth.”

How it works

The Boston Gay Professionals Meetup Group typically hosts two networking/social events per month plus a few special events in relaxed settings like the lobby of The Liberty Hotel or a new restaurant in town. Batterman keeps the venues fresh. Most meetups are weeknights, after work, but occasionally there’s a special weekend event. The 40–70 attendees who show up to each gathering represent “all ages and all walks of life, occupations and backgrounds.” 

Some members come from Rhode Island, others from New Hampshire—“all over New England,” Batterman says. The core group is from the Boston area, but “because Boston is an international city, visitors from Ireland, England, Jordan, even a member from Iraq—come to meet people and hopefully take some friendships back to their home countries.” 

The focus is on socializing and networking so, aside from a popular wine-tasting event, the meetups generally don’t involve activities that would pull focus away from it members. “We tried a theater night,” Batterman recalls. “It was fun but the members really prefer spending the time talking with each other. “ After all, there are plenty of other great activity-specific Meetup groups members can also belong to.

Guy Arias, an engineer for an orthopedic implant manufacturer who lives on the South Shore, has been a member for about five years. He says each meetup is about fifty-fifty networking-socializing. Arias says he’s picked up some great business ideas from chatting with other members. He also captains a small charter boat business. “So I was able to book a couple of small charters with people that I became friends with in the group. It was really nice to be able to get together on my boat and go for a ride.” 

Gunning describes the networking part as “secondary” for him. “I don’t think I’ve passed out one business card. For me, it’s really been about making great social contacts and that’s what keeps me coming back, at least in the six or seven months I’ve been involved.”

Anderson found both a mortgage broker and an attorney through the group. “I think it’s a wonderful Rolodex of professionals in the area,” he says. Members find it as rewarding to share as much as to gather professional advice. “A couple weeks back, there was a new member who graduated from college and just moved to the area. We all got to chatting with him to try and help him with employment opportunities based on his background,” Anderson says.

“Because I’m a litigator, my professional life has a lot to do with creating conflict,” says Batterman. “The nice thing about the Meetup group is that I can do the complete opposite and bring people together.” 

“Dan is the glue that makes the whole thing work for everyone,” says Vincent. “He has the focus. He has the attention to details. He’s happy when everyone is having a good time. And the group is fitting a really important niche. The people at the meetups—you won’t see at the bars. They don’t have time for that. They just want to come to a place, unwind, have a drink and then go about their business. It’s capturing a cohort of gay men that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. That’s the appeal.”

“I can’t give Dan enough credit,” Anderson says. “I would guess it’s a labor of love for him to bring people together and see them thrive. I would hope the atmosphere that’s currently in the group stays on in perpetuity.” 

The Boston Gay Professionals Meetup Group

Chris Solea Juliani [RIGHT] and Kristen Juliani

The Boston Gay Women’s Meetup Group

The Boston Gay Women’s Meetup Group has grown to more than 4,000 members since Chris Solea Juliani launched it in January 2007. 

Now the CEO and founder of Boston Chair Massage, Juliani didn’t always feel part of the community here. Back in 2007, she recalls, she had just moved to Jamaica Plain and felt isolated. “I’d heard great things about JP, but I found out pretty fast you needed to have your community already to have it be awesome,” she says.

Juliani wanted to make things awesome.

So she created what at that time was called The JP Women’s Group on Meetup. She recalls her first meeting: “I’m not great at talking in front of large groups, so I posted on the site, let’s gather together to get ideas of what we want. I’d say at least 70 women came out. We held it at Spontaneous Celebration in JP, and we all sat in a circle. We tossed around a ball and whoever caught the ball spoke. It was really good.” 

The first gatherings included bowling and dodgeball meetups—dodgeball is still one if the group’s most popular activities. Members gathered in Juliani’s living room to watch “The L Word” together. And a gratitude group formed that still meets regularly at the Arlington Center where members share stories of gratitude in their lives. 

The meetup grew quickly. 

“We started getting requests from people in Boston and Newton and all over, so we switched names to be all-inclusive of women all over the area,” Juliani says. 

A quick glance at upcoming events includes “Cribbage in Lowell,” a “Lesbian Pool Party,” an “Eat and Play Retro Video Games @ A4cade,” “Paintball in Tewksbury,” a dodge ball game, a spiritual talk, a dance party—and the list goes on.

Juliani’s goal was to create a community in her new life. In doing so, she found so much more. Just a month after she started the group, she met her wife-to-be, Kristen, at one of her meetup gatherings. In 2009, the two married and had two children, twin girls. And as Moms, the couple, she says, grew more interested in “Mom groups.” So Juliani, though still a member of the group she founded, passed the organizing responsibilities along to others. And now that her girls have turned six, she and Kristen have started to look beyond the Mom groups. “Maybe a book club,” she says, “something that socializes on a regular basis.”

“One of the funniest parts of the story,” she says, “is that I chose two women to lead the group who became a couple also having met through this group. That was six or seven years ago. And now they passed the torch on to two new women who met through the group. We’ll see if the trend continues with the new organizers,” she says with a great big smile. 

Most important to Juliani is that the group’s members feel like they belong to the community. “I had a rule back when I was running the group of putting yourself in the place of someone new to town,” she says. “Any member who posted an event had to agree to be at that event to welcome the other members.” That goes both ways, she adds. She advises new members to reach out to event organizers, get their phone number so they can text them if, for example, they arrive at the event site and can’t find the group. 

Over the years, she’s taken phone calls from women in crisis. “Maybe they’re out in Western Mass., feeling isolated, like they didn’t have a lot of community and looking for resources.” She would help them network around and find other meetups—and other resources—closer to their area. 

“I’ve made some great friends through The Boston Gay Women’s Meetup Group and found my life partner. It was a little bit of a risk at the beginning, putting myself out there, but here I am now!” Juliani says. “There I was, single in JP and I wanted a community, and now we’ve had over 1,500 meetups over the past 10 years with more on the schedule coming up. It was well worth it.”

The Boston Gay Women’s Meetup Group

MadFemmePride Organizers, including Madeleine Ashley [first row, far right].

MadFemmePride: Friendly, Diverse, Queer/Femme Community

“I went to a meetup for the first time right as I was coming out. The purpose of me going was to make queer friends,” says Madeleine Ashley, who came to Boston as a masters degree student in counseling psychology. 

“I actually volunteered at my first event—handing out nametags—which I’ve since learned is what Meetup organizers flag as ‘organizer potential.’ But I didn’t know that at the time. I just thought it would be easier to meet people if I had a job,” she says. 

Ever since that first gathering seven years ago, Ashley—now a teacher and the lead singer, manager and song co-writer in the Boston rock band Unstraight—has been part of a team of organizers for MadFemmePride, a group that began in February 2005 and, with well over 5,000 members, is currently the largest meetup in the Boston area. 

Along with hosting the group’s gathering, the organizers “scout locations, think of fun things to do, organize them, and are present at every event, handing out nametags, running mingling activities, and greeting people so that everyone feels welcome. The group is very accepting,” she adds. “Nobody’s going to be turned away if you’re not femme. You just have to be supportive of queer femmes. It tends to be more people who identify as queer femmes, obviously, but it’s not like it’s limited.”

“People really do make friends in this group,” she says. “We get a lot of people who find social situations hard. So they come to MadFemmePride and they can meet a friend or just meet people to talk to. It’s not necessarily like you have to push yourself in this group; at a lot of the gatherings, there’s activities to take part in, which makes it easier.”

MadFemmePride’s gatherings include a long-running book club, dance nights, “crafternoons,” “stuff swaps” and all kinds of other social activities. They always march in the Pride parade “and we have a presence at the Dyke March as well. We have a picnic, and everybody’s welcome to come march with us and sit with us. Sometimes at big events people feel like they’re alone, especially if they’re new. They don’t feel alone once they come join this group,” she says.

The meetup’s signature event, which Ashley organizes, is its Big Queer Show. Held every year one week before Boston Pride, the night opens with a mingling hour before the bands take the stage. Ashley’s own band, Unstraight, is among the line-up of groups with self-identified queer rockers that play at the show. “We also invite community orgs like Fenway Health and the Bisexual Resource Center to have tables so people can connect with community resources,” she says. 

Ashley describes MadFemmePride as “a queer, femme-centered community that is pro-trans, pro-woman and pro-femininity for all folks who support femme-positive queer space.” This meetup prides itself on being open and welcoming to anyone “on the queer, questioning, LGBTQIA spectrum who wants to meet new people, mingle and experience a little bit of the MadFemmePride friendly magic that makes our diversity-conscious, radically inclusive community so special,” she says. 

Like most meetups, the group is all volunteer. None of the organizers are paid for their time or work. “We do have a small budget but that’s so we can provide some of the craft supplies for the ‘crafternoons,’ pay fees to march in the parade, or put a deposit on a space,” she says. “We’re very grassroots. We’re not even registered as anything.”

The focus is on personal networking. “People have made great friendships. A lot of relationships have blossomed too, though we don’t necessarily advertise that,” she adds with a grin. “Mostly, people come and feel part of the community. They feel welcome, I hope, especially if they’re new or questioning or unsure or whatever. It’s a really valuable space.”

madfemmepride

Jonathan Rotenberg

OutBreath: LGBTQ Meditation Community

Executive coach, management consultant, author and founder of The Boston Computer Society, Jonathan Rotenberg co-founded OutBreath in July 2015 to bring together and support the region’s vibrant and growing community of LGBTQ people interested in meditation, mindfulness and Buddhism. 

The group’s story began in the 1990s when Buddha Buddies, an earlier meditation group in Boston popular in the mid-’90s dissolved. The sudden absence left Rotenberg and his friends “feeling bereft and lost. Our own gay identities had been our entry into Buddhism,” he says. Through Buddha Buddies, they’d discovered LGBT retreats, a community and experiences where they could talk about issues of gender and sexuality from a spiritual perspective. 

In 2009, Rotenberg and his friends started OutBreath, now well over a thousand members strong. A quick glance at the schedule shows 28 upcoming events, including “Insight Meditation: A Beginner’s Workshop” in Cambridge, “Sunday Morning LGBTQ Sit and Schmooze” on the South Shore, “Shambahla LGBT Meditation Group” in Brookline and “Greater Boston’s Men’s Sangha.” 

“Sangha means community in Pali, which is the language the Buddhist teachings are in,” Rotenberg says. “First and foremost, we want OutBreath to be a really friendly, fun and accessible place for anyone who has any interest in learning about meditation, mindfulness or Buddhism. For anyone who’s felt interest but didn’t know where to go, we really want to make them feel extra welcome.” The same goes, he says, “for people that have some experience with meditation and want to develop their practice into their lives. It’s beautiful to see people supporting each other through meditation.”

 “Meetup for us was like a dream come true,” he says. “We had been struggling to find a good technology platform to do what we wanted in terms of offering multiple programs each month. We were looking for a way we could have a lot of different organizers and be able to independently announce events, recruit volunteers and send out emails. Before Meetup that was a very difficult thing to do technologically.”

“I would like to be able to do more sophisticated email communications, like being able to use graphics, create newsletters and facilitate more of an online community,” he adds. “In one sense, it’s great that once you set up an LGBTQ Meetup group you’re part of a massive network of millions of users and they publicize your group to other Meetup groups too, so people just naturally hear about what you’re doing through Meetup. That’s great. The downside of it is that we are losing the direct communication that we had [for the original pre-Meetup Buddha Buddies group] in terms of having everyone’s email addresses, having more flexibility communicating with them.” Meetup stores that information and keeps it private—a good thing, except keeping it private from organizers too makes things a little tricky sometimes. “If we wanted, for any reason to move to a different platform, we wouldn’t have access to all the contact information,” he says, echoing a criticism that many group organizers share: Meetup is a fantastic platform, but at some point each organizer wants to take it further, to tailor their individual sites to better serve their members. Given the rapidly developing nature of technology in this Meetup-era we’re living in, however, it’s pretty likely that Meetup is hearing this criticism loud and clear. 

“Overall I think Meetup is a fantastic service,” he says. “I am a big fan. Its founder and the company really understand building communities. It’s a great thing for the LGBT community. I encourage everyone to join Meetup because there’s so many ways to connect with other LGBT people.”

OutBreath

Strength in numbers

In the Greater Boston area, more than 500 LGBTQ-related Meetup groups host hundreds of events on any given week to thousands of local members. Typically, only a few-to-a-few-dozen members show up at any given gathering—unless it’s a special occasion like a dance party or concert, where there might be upwards of about a hundred. But there’s definitely strength in numbers: the larger the group, the more likely every one of its events will be well attended with plenty of new and familiar faces. 

Here’s our list of 15 of the largest groups—each with over 1,000 members—within 25 miles of Beacon Hill, plus a few words about each from their organizers. You can find them by going to meetup.com, selecting your location and entering their group name.

And of course there are hundreds more awesome area meetups of close to this size and fewer members too; just check out meetup.com, enter your location and key in a search term like “LGBT” and get ready to meet some fantastic people.

Mad Femme Pride

5,118 members

“Femme-Friendly events for all who support and respect freedom of gender expression, especially femme visibility.”

The Boston Gay Women’s Meetup Group

4,195 members

“An inclusive group for women of all ages and backgrounds who identify as gay, queer or transgender women.”

The Non-Scene Gay Friends of Boston

4,113 members

“Activities for new and old friends separate from the gay bar ‘scene.’”

The Boston Gay Professionals Meetup Group

3,480 members

“An outgoing and friendly group of all ages and from all walks of life, occupations and backgrounds.”

Greater Boston Cycling/Outdoor Fitness Group

2,588 members

“Bring your sense of humor and desire for adventure because, yes, we even get lost sometimes as we explore new routes together.”

Boston Lesbian Happy Hour

2,520 members

“A group for friendly women to meet at venues that serve alcoholic and non-alcoholic libations and sometimes food.”

Boston Queer Adventurers

2,456 members

“A group for queer and queer friendly people to get together for fun adventures like bowling, camping, kayaking, paintball, laser tag, hiking, dining and more.”

Boston Pride Meetup 

2,275 members

“An LGBTQA social group that enjoys casual gatherings from happy hours to community picnics, sports, movies, museums and more.”

Boston LGBTQ & Friends

2,234 members

“A place for all LGBTQ people to socialize in a safe and welcoming environment.”

Queer Boston Board Gamers

2,159 members 

“Weekly game nights, including including board games, card games, strategy games, word games and more.”

The Boston Dyke March

1,558 members

“A group for organizing, activism, politicizing, socializing, and staying tuned in.”

OutBreath: LGBTQ Meditation Community

1,354 members

“A vibrant, growing community in Boston for all LGBTQ people interested in meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhism.”

LGBTQuincy Meetup

1,217 members

“A social group for LGBTQ residents of Quincy, Massachusetts and the South Shore meeting in Quincy’s great local pubs, restaurants and public places.”

LGBT Travelers of Boston

1,124 members

“A down-to-earth, friendly, and fun group of LGBT travelers from all over the United States. We like to see, taste, drink and explore the world.”

Bi Community Activities

1,092 members

“A safe and supportive space for bi-identified people, their partners, interested allies, and those who wish to socialize in an inclusive LGBT community.” [x]