Monday, August 31, 2009

Those Little Town Blues

I live in one of the best places in the world to be gay, and yet it seems like feelings of hopelessness are never far away. In today’s modern, Western world, relatively few people stay in one place forever, myself included. Economic circumstances can easily sweep us away to another town or even another country. The transitory nature of our lives in any one place makes it hard to settle and really commit to its culture. Sometimes, we leave to escape a setting and its cultural/economic/political dysfunctions to something better. By contrast, other times we find ourselves forced to leave somewhere better to return to where we came from (or a different place that is in some way worse). These concerns are often starkly real for LGBT persons, for whom a move to another town/city can be a cultural shock and can have a profound effect on quality of life. In my particular case, I left a (relatively) more intolerant setting and came to one in Montreal that was shockingly open. Having come out here and with my sexual identity now to enforce, I sometimes fear returning to an environment like that where I came from, a very real possibility that haunts me. For me, such a circumstance would represent a regression, perhaps not on professional grounds but surely from a cultural, social, and personal perspective.

When I speak of culture shock, I’m not really talking about the circumstances of gay life outside of the Western world but rather within it. It’s easy to conclude that the Occident has made advances in gay rights and has reached a commendable level of acceptance with regard to LGBT lifestyles and concerns. Yet we are hardly a homogeneous entity, and within the Western world are strong contrasts, including differences in local/regional attitudes toward LGBT issues. In my particular case, I lived most of my life in a small town (under 20,000 people) in a ‘tolerant’ region. I was always traveling, seeing new cities and experiencing the delights the broader world had to offer. But at the end of the day most of my social development occurred in the small town where I lived. As such, my own attitudes toward my homosexuality were defined by the outlook of those around me. With no other out gay men or women to be found, homosexuality was always an idea, a rare and invisible anomaly (or aberration?), and never a concrete reality. Men dated women, women dated men, that’s what was natural and expected. Anything else was “narcissism” or “confusion,” and we just didn’t talk about it. And when we did, it wasn’t uncommon for something like gay marriage to be openly opposed on traditional conservative arguments, including by my own immediate family before I came out.

Heterosexual single life in a small town can be hard enough. My particular hometown, which attracted people from many parts of the world, was quite aptly called “the place where single people go to die” (this sentiment is more likely to be true for the middle-aged-and-older, single women who live there). I didn’t move to this environment but rather grew up in it. As a young man, statistically speaking, the chances of coming into a positive gay development should have been easier. In particular, a certain (small) proportion of guys in my school should have been undergoing the same experiences I was. Apparently there was a gay-identifying boy (I learned about this in talking to my friends after my coming out many years later) who was openly out in my school, but no one ever acknowledged it, talked about it, or embraced it. I didn’t run in the same circles as he did, and no one ever discussed sexual orientation, either his or anyone else’s. Straight was just simply ‘understood.’ That’s not to say that the attitudes of my classmates were intolerant, as most of my friends from high school were and are very open and supportive of LGBT rights. I think there was simply a lack of awareness and comprehensive understanding of what it meant to be gay, as it was never staring us in the face. Furthermore, I think there was a very real tension over questioning norms in sexual orientation for fear of being considered sexually ‘deviant.’

For those of us who did not know that there were other queers in our school, it seemed simply like a lonely, isolating, self-destructive, hopeless endeavor to identify as gay. For me, this translated to failing to deal with my own homosexuality. I felt it in my attractions, and it confronted me without inhibition in my dreams (which I often tried to actively reverse and forget). I found a way of compartmentalizing it, and I came probably about as close as anyone could to just turning off my romantic orientation altogether. I went years without having any real crushes or any passionate feelings toward another person; it seemed like I found a way to push my longings and desires to the sidelines while I focused on other things. I was never one to worry much about the social conformity that is considered such a force for so many high school students, but there were some places I wasn’t even willing to go, and confronting my sexual identity was definitely one of them. I would have rather pretended to be something I wasn't than face what I was and be alone. I would have rather given up on romance and sex to have friendship rather than face a life without either.

It may be difficult to be a young gay person in this environment: to never have really seen other people being openly gay, to not know that it is really possible to live a fulfilling life as a gay man. ‘Gay is good’ is an even more difficult concept to grasp when heterosexuals often only see it, understand it, and talk about it as a lifestyle of hardship, pain, discrimination, promiscuity, and often disease. Given this atmosphere, the small town environment, even when it is tolerant (i.e. nominally-accepting) can be a lonely, hopeless setting for an LGBT person. Furthermore, in such a place, the general population is less likely to come into contact with open homosexuality, to be forced to think about it critically and understand it from a position of love. Given their lack of comprehension, intolerance and uninformed, conservative beliefs seem much more likely to be accepted (on a per-capita basis). Furthermore, an open intolerance toward homosexuality may be enforced or implied in the internal cultures of many religious establishments, which are often essential loci to small town social life.

Unfortunately, even though I was homosexual or bisexual, I was also an ignorant person toward LGBT persons when living in my town. My internal biases sometimes came to an ugly head, especially when I was confronted with open homosexuality for the first time in my life. When I was a teenager, I spent a day of vacation in a popular gay resort town. I was personally, secretly quite fascinated by what I saw: men embracing each other, holding hands, kissing each other, hanging out (sometimes nude) on the beach together. It was all so beautiful and exciting, and I couldn’t get enough of what I was seeing. Yet, of course, I would never have admitted that to myself or to others, and my failure to understand the gay lifestyle was more or less validated by my family when I talked to them about it. Upon returning to my hometown, I made a homophobic comment to some of my (female) friends in describing what I had seen. Had these been male friends, given the culture I was familiar with the sentiment might have well been reciprocated. However, shockingly, one of my friends asked me in a semi-sarcastic manner “CT, are you a bigot?.” I was stunned, and it was just what I needed to open my eyes : bigot, me? I’m a man of the world, multiracial, enthusiastic about cultural diversity, how could I be a bigot? How is not understanding and not particularly liking homosexuality bigoted? The friends that I was talking to, however, neither seemed surprised by my comment nor particularly abhorred by it. It was bigoted, but it just didn’t matter.

One good thing I can say, however, is that I did find the courage to come to terms with my sexual orientation while living in a small town. Like so many others who come into their own after finishing high school, I also went to university in my hometown and learned to accept my diversity there, although it did not come to me easily. So many find acceptance when they can make a clean break and confront their sexual identity away from their home environment, but such was not my experience (I lived, actually quite happily, at home). The meaning that my small town had for me transformed when I left high school; it had evolved to become the focal point of my intellectual broadening on many levels. Yet, at the same time, the same social structures were still there. I knew many people in the community, and many people knew me, and being gay would have been a big deal for all involved (it’s just so rare, so isolating, again, so potentially aberrant). I was rather shocked when I learned from a friend in college (after I had graduated) that my university was considered to be a very open institution with respect to LGBT rights, and that some people actually went there because of it. I certainly never got a feel of real openness when I was on campus or in the larger community. It was in part true, there was an LGBT group that I didn’t know anything about while I went to school there. It was pushed to the sidelines (after all, it wasn’t a strictly intellectually-motivated group), never mentioned or talked about, barely visible (and part of that was, quite frankly, their fault). The only time I noticed their presence on campus was my last semester there, when they wrote messages across campus about how most of the people in their group were frightened to go to their classes because of their sexual identity, which seemed sadly pathetic. With all the emphasis on social justice, diversity, and civic mindedness, only once did I hear the topic of homosexuality discussed publicly while I was in university. In my anthropology class, a debate on the gay marriage issue was started by the professor, who was hoping to inspire some critical thought. All he got were several students (from many different cultural/racial backgrounds) voicing their opinions about how unnatural homosexuality is, and how gay marriage should be avoided at all costs as a consequence. I was both angry and mortified by what I heard, but I dared not speak out. To be openly unbigoted is enough to out oneself in such a setting, and that was something I was not yet willing to face: a public outing, with social aftershocks through the community, my only home at that point.

My last semester in university, I finally found the courage to embrace my homosexuality for the first time and dare to dream of a future with romance in it. It was refreshing and exhilarating; suddenly, I felt like a new person undergoing a spiritual renaissance, full of potential to love. In terms of my sexual identity, I wasn’t any less alone than I had ever been living in that small town. I knew no gay people, and no gay people knew me. It was what it was. But for some reason, I just stopped caring about that; I shifted states from passing as heterosexual to more implicitly out. No one could really read me, which was just how I wanted it. After all, in a rural region the degrees of separation between people are small if not nonexistent. I had family members to protect (see “Pride and Prejudice”), and sometimes family 100s of kms away would occasionally run into people from my hometown who knew me from there. Eventually, from my small town, I finally made the leap to the city. I moved to Montreal for lifestyle reasons (with no particular knowledge or interest of its openness or extensive gay community); the last thing I thought it would do is revolutionize the way I feel about my sexual identity. I was dazed when I arrived and realized that I didn’t have to be alone (in this respect) anymore (see “A Coming of Age…”).

Living in the city, it’s easy to be unaware of the concerns of a small town LGBT person. With gays being a part of everyday life for many people, the city seems to make more accommodations than the small town to our diversity. It's an open place, and life can be reasonably good. As gay people living in the city, we don’t have to be alone or feel alone; there’s always new and very plausible opportunities for love and friendship in the gay community we’ve created for ourselves here. We can often be who we want to be with, be out with our partner and show our affection in public. Most importantly of all, we are more likely to be surrounded by people who are familiar with our experiences and who can potentially understand us better. There are risks in the city like there are risks everywhere, but small town-like social ostracism is less of a worry, as we can blend into and disappear into the broader city fabric as needed. But my experiences struggling to come out as a gay man in a small town have, in fact, made me appreciate my city life all the more. The loneliness, that sense of despair and utter isolation, still haunts me to this day.

So I’d like to appeal for a little consideration for the plight of the small town LGBT person trying to forge loving relationships in a difficult environment. I imagine the sense of loneliness becomes even more severe as an adult, as a good number of rural, young LGBT persons are likely to flee to the cities if they can (decreasing the already inherently scant and closeted sexual diversity of rural regions). I’ve learned recently that the internet has made a rural gay lifestyle more readily plausible and could potentially help lessen the gay-drain to the cities, but the internet can only go so far (people need to see and hear, feel, and be present with each other). Thus, rural LGBT persons will often find themselves going on vacations of a “sexual tourism” nature, during which making connections and socializing (rather than sightseeing) become a desperately serious affair that requires aggressive action. These vacations, because they are necessarily time-limited, will restrict both the pool of contacts who would take interest in them and the type of relationships they can form. Provided that meaningful contacts have been made, or loving relationships established, frequent long-distance trips are likely required to maintain them. Quite frankly, many people working in rural areas (who are often paid less than urbanites) may simply not be able to afford to keep up this kind of lifestyle. Yet at the same time, options in their region, in the form of out LGBT persons of an appropriate age and disposition, may be literally impossible to come by. It’s also important to consider that many of the ‘small town’ issues I discuss here may be very real experiences for people living in cities and small towns alike in less tolerant societies than the one in which I live. There’s no easy solution, and even though I plan to live in Montreal for quite a while, I still have that small town voice in my head telling me that this is an amazing opportunity: "I need to get my act together, get serious, be gay, it’s now or never!"

No comments:

Post a Comment