I think I've finally stumbled upon one of the more interesting and worthwhile epiphanies that this blog has afforded--the best source of love in the gay community. Even as a scientist, this is perhaps the most interesting and important observation I’ve made about life, and it relates both to making friends and finding partners. Success in human relationships has nothing to do with beauty or good grammar. It's something quite simple and beautiful. The best friend or lover is a small town boy or girl!
Why would I say such a thing, especially when gay culture has become highly concentrated in the cities and is, to say the least, very urbano-centric? Furthermore, why pursue small town boys when they are often looked down upon as backward and uncultured? I think I prove the latter generalization incorrect, as I am a proud small town boy myself and am neither. I am very well-travelled and highly educated in many disciplines, suave in good manners and style, but I'm still a small town boy.
I'm not trying to paint an idyllic picture of small town living. It's often boring, and the same people are in front of you every day. People get older but, other than that, change comes very slowly. You can go away for years and come back to the same conversations as if no time has gone by. There often isn't much to do, and when there is something happening, it's generally rather "quaint" when compared to similar activities in the cities. Also, small town living often means lower wages and comes with its own financial demands, especially considering that you need a car to get around and will at some point have to invest in a house.
Furthermore, as a gay person, there aren't too many options living in a small town--even today a lot of young LGBT persons flee to the cities to stake their independence and immerse themselves in an environment of their peers. The gay drain means that those remaining in small towns are lonelier than ever and have few if any romantic opportunities. I've talked about how hard it is to be gay in a small town in "Those Little Town Blues," a post from August 2009. I've lived it, and it's not easy. It means we too look to the cities for hope and to satisfy our basic needs.
However, while small towns provide virtually no romantic opportunities, I've come to the conclusion that the small-town environment instils an honourable set of values and ethics, regardless of the culture, which make rural-minded guys and gals more viable long-term romantic partners. Let me explain.
In small towns, we have all been raised to treat each other with a certain level of respect and conviviality. We have to be civil with each other, young with old, rich with poor, educated with uneducated, because we are all in the same boat, so to speak. The same people are always with you day in and day out, and that may very well remain the case for the rest of their and your lives. Even if you don't know someone personally, it's likely they are friends with one of your friends or family members, so you can't be abrasive with them and expect that there will be no ramifications.
Because people are so connected to each other in a village, the social circles are few and constantly-intersecting. You have to play polite and remain an upstanding individual, and your good reputation must be maintained, or else you'll never survive. In addition, because we are all very closely related, there is often a more concerted and personal effort to support those in need. In that respect, the small town environment also fosters a strong sense of civic mindedness. People come to each others' aid in times of need (for example, shoveling the driveway for older people), give their free time to help out a friend who's business is struggling, and buy gifts for their friends when they go on vacation or to say thank you for a kind deed. At the very least, even on bad days, we greet each other with a smile. In sum, there is often a sincerity and a genuineness in interactions with those around you when you live in a small town. No one is disposable: for better or for worse, neighbours are neighbours, and we are all in it together. It’s best if we share the fruits that we grow in our garden or yard, to make those around us happier, and us happier in the long run.
In my last article "Horny Cool Kids," I ranted in frustration against the seemingly gay attitude that everyone is disposable. The "get over it and move on!" mentality with respect to human relationships, whether that be friends or lovers. I've always been fundamentally against this mindset: I will never look at those who've entered my lives as disposable. But then I realized, the fact that many gays tend to behave this way may have relatively little to do with their sexual orientation. It’s probably more related to the urbanized nature of gay culture. The very fact that gays are concentrated in the cities makes the LGBT community put emphasis on impersonal, superficial relationships over personal, committed, and permanent ones.
Furthermore, my personal objection to the “move on, try someone new” mentality is a reflection of my small town attitude with respect to human relationships. When someone shows a distinct interest in you in a small town, it means something deeper than it does in the city. It means a shared history and (because there are a limited number of people anyway in a small town) an almost permanent connection with that person unless they move away. The smallest personal gesture beyond the call of duty can initiate a lifelong friendship.
But in cities, the environment is rather different. At any given moment, there are a million people surrounding you. If one set of contacts drops off, a new one always seems to be waiting in the wings, and one person going out of their way for you hardly stands out or merits significant investment. Furthermore, because social networks are more abundant and less interconnected, you can be unpleasant to someone you encounter without worrying about it having any real consequences on how most others from your daily life treat you.
In general, as a city-dweller, life changes quickly and friends flux in and out on a regular basis. As a consequence, you may make friends, sometimes good ones, but rarely permanent ones. You use them to satisfy your own social needs now, but as times change and you change, it's hardly a big deal if you drop them for a new, seemingly more congruent set that comes along later. The same is true for lovers: you find lovers, sometimes good lovers, but rarely a permanent partner. There's no reason to take one particular person seriously and commit to him/her and him/her alone when a wealth of opportunity abounds around you. All of this "opportunity" makes you picker and less willing to compromise, because a better option seems available if you wipe the slate clean and start over with someone more “compatible.” In a small town, however, you tend to be very grateful for what you have and try to find ways to work around that.
The sad thing about the urban mentality is that new relationships are often rather superficial and impersonal , which means that a city resident often forms an armour around his heart that can become difficult if not impossible to pierce. That’s not to say that a city slicker doesn’t have a heart, but real romance is lacking, and many have lived their entire lives without experiencing genuine love, the kind which I idealize in this blog. The conviviality, sincerity, and care (and meaningful actions that reflect this caring) can sometimes be altogether foreign concepts in an impersonal environment such as a city. So foreign that a city dweller doesn't even know how to react when confronted with small-town good-heartedness and charm.
I've recently reflected on my experience living here in Montréal for nearly five years and all the friends that I've made (as well as the dates that I've had). I've made several friends in my environment and lost many of them too. I've probably chatted with dozens if not hundreds of people online in the gay community who have been instantly charmed by my small-town good manners and "humanness," as they often call it. No matter where I meet people, I always treat them like I was raised to interact with them--always responding, always convivial, always with respect, always acting toward them like they are (or could be) a permanent part of my life experience. People will say "hi" to me, and I say hi back. I make the effort to have a real conversation, I always respond, and for many living in the city, the genuineness and lack of superficiality that I proffer is refreshing. For such people, meeting me is an exotic experience in and of itself.
Because it is often so exotic in an urban area, small-town friendliness is frequently mistaken for something that it's not. A small town boy will be nice and helpful to those around him, but people from the city are quite unacquainted with meeting someone with such a facade. So, city slickers often think that it means the small town boy is very interested (romantically or sexually) or might even be in love and try to use that fact to their advantage. It doesn't, it's just how he was raised to treat people--like the people in his environment are a permanent part of his life.
Just because the small town guy is genuine with the people around him (despite the fact he's not instantly in love with them), the fact of the matter is, a small town guy with an open heart is more likely to have genuine intent, a sense of commitment, and lack superficiality in his relationships. For example, in my personal case, I've approached my new environment here in Montréal as a treasure trove. I've met many people who I've felt very fondly toward. I’ve felt strongly attached to these friends and even loved some. It's because, when I intersect them, I see them in the small-town mindset as a now permanent part of my life. They show an interest in me, we click. Then I start contacting them more; I integrate them immediately into my routine and my life; I care for them; I give them gifts; I volunteer to help out when times are tough, and as the years pass I continue to maintain contact.
However, a city dweller understands such overtures differently. For them, showing an interest in the people around them means very little; it's just what they've grown up doing, connecting with new people constantly. As such, city slickers demonstrate a concerted (but ephemeral) interest in someone when that person is with them here and now. The small town boy internalizes this interest as a permanent social connection, but the city slicker has little permanent attachment, investment, or commitment in his or her perception of the relationship.
With time, I've often wondered why my attempts at genuine friendship and romance have failed in Montréal, despite the abundant attempts and even more prodigious opportunities. With careful reflection, one thing was in common to all of the friendships and relationships that had either failed or were not adequately reciprocated: the object of my affection was someone who has grown up in or lived most of his/her life in an urban environment. Furthermore, looking back on my successful friendships that are still reciprocated and have withstood the test of time reveals another stunning feature: regardless of culture (whether they be German, Australian, Korean, or American), my successful friendships have all been with people who have grown up and/or mostly lived in a rural environment. Even among those friends (such as from college) who were only in my life physically for a few months, the ones that have stuck with me to this day (six years or more later) were from a small-town background. When you make an impression on them, and make a genuine effort, small town people are unlikely to forget you.
Upon concluding that my only consistent friends were those who grew up in rural areas, I polled almost everyone that I know. As it turns out, the small-town friend phenomenon is not just true for me but for virtually everyone else as well. Just one example, my mother has lived in both small towns and cities during her lifetime, and yet she never made a single permanent friend while living in cities. All of the friends who have stuck with her and that she has made as a mature adult were people who had grown up and mostly lived in small town environments. Pietro’s (from previous entries) only true friend is an ex of his who, not surprisingly, lives in on a farm and comes into the city to visit him. The same with my mom’s best friend—she lives in an urban area of 11 million people, yet despite all of this opportunity, her only friend is my mom (a small-town girl). And there are many other examples of city folk whose best or only permanent friends are primarily from or live in small towns.
Then, going beyond friendship, I started looking at the successful, long-term gay relationships that I am familiar with, the ones that last well more than 10 years. As it turns out, in each of these relationship (there are 8 I have in mind), either one or both of the partners are from small towns. While it’s not impossible for two city people to make a relationship work, I think the chances are probably much better when one member of the partnership provides an environment of permanent appreciation that are more characteristic of small town culture, values, and upbringing.
As for those friends and acquaintances of mine who have grown up in cities and played the gay game, every last one of them is alone. Farid is alone. Pietro is alone. I could list many other names but won’t bother. None of them has succeeded, but part of that is their own fault. They often only truly reciprocate for their friendships that they’ve had since childhood or young adulthood, and everyone else is relegated with a more superficial reciprocation. The very fact that they’ve lived in a city seems to be responsible—they’ve spent their entire lives constructing a massive citadel around their hearts, so that when a genuine opportunity comes along, they don’t even see it through the wall.
I used to think that my poor luck in making permanent friends in the city was due to a fatal attraction to extroverts. Extroverts tend to surrounding themselves with lots of people (often without investing very heavily in one particular friendship), whereas introverts make fewer friendships and value more highly those that are with them. That may be in part true, but in trying to befriend both introverts and extroverts from the city, I notice that both types behave very similarly. When someone is physically with them in the here and now, that person is important to them. When I am with Farid (an urban introvert) or with other female friends (often urban extroverts) of mine, their reaction to me is very much the same. I feel like I'm the centre of their world when I am with them, and they quickly become the centre of mine. But as soon as my physical presence disappears, so too does the good will, the caring contact, the thoughts about me, and the sincerity. They may remain a priority in my mind, but for them I'm just an option or an afterthought. Not what I would consider a real friend.
That’s not to say that city dwellers don’t have real friends, but their serious relationships tend to be strongly concentrated to social networks that have been established since their youth, usually family members and friends retained since childhood or young adulthood. Other people moving in on that territory are often welcome visitors but expected to leave at the appropriate moment and close the door behind them.
Furthermore, city folk tend to think that the small town person’s genuine caring in the city environment is naïve, juvenile and unwarranted. I’ve personally been told several times by different city slickers that I need to stop being nice. However, being nice is not naïve, it’s just reflective of a different social outlook. In a small town, having an open, trusting heart and treating those around you with conviviality, manners, and genuine intent often works very well in your favour. Being pleasant is necessary for survival, and failing to do so in even one instance can lead to rapid social ostracism and failure.
For example, had Farid taken a musical candlelit bath while having me over as a guest, but living in the small town where I mostly grew up, it wouldn’t take a week before most people in town would have had a laugh at his expense. Some might have even stopped using him for the service that he offers. Thus, the rural environment ensures that people maintain a certain level of civility with those around them and not be too offensive, or risk being ridiculed or not taken seriously in their social environment.
The take home message: small town people, I’d say, are the backbone of social relationships. Main Street, not Wall Street, holds society together and keeps it afloat. Without our small town friends and lovers, we’d be living a sad and sorrowful existence, in a world where our only friends prefer to take musical candlelit baths and naps in our presence rather than spend time talking to us.
What about me? Am I still really that small-town in mentality? I have mentioned that I have lived in a city for nearly five years. My mom says that my attitudes and even my facial expressions have changed in that time. Nothing all that traumatic has happened to me here, but apparently I’ve developed a distrusting uni-brow expression on my face that I use with strangers (rather than my previously pleasant smile). Otherwise, I like to think that I’ve still retained my small town friendliness and civility, but sometimes I’m not so sure. I’ve talked in this blog about deleting people from MSN and facebook without a care for the repercussions or what those social contacts meant to me or could have meant to me had I stayed in touch. That’s exactly the “move on to something new” city attitude that I know will lead to loneliness and an unsatisfied life. As far as living within the gay community, it’s interesting that the only guys who have remained in contact with me throughout and following my online social networking experience have lived most of their lives in a small town and are (or were) in very long-term, loving relationships.
And then there is one guy that I met online, we’ll call him Luc. He lives in a small town in central Québec, and many months later we are still in touch. I started making the small town realization that is the focus of this blog article through talking to him. Unlike almost everyone else, he genuinely appreciates it when I get in contact with him, each and every time. That makes such a huge contrast to the way I felt with Farid (even as just his friend) or others city folk I’ve met, whose interest eventually wanes to coldness. Luc seemed almost at once so real, genuine, and caring, like an old friend I knew from my past. And then I realized—he, from rural Gaspésie and still living in a small town, is my past. He gets it, he knows how to care in the way I care and how to reciprocate in the way I reciprocate. He doesn’t blow off my gestures toward him or lose interest with time. Instead he accepts and appreciates every one of my friendly gestures. Best of all, he does not take me for granted. As time drains away, he’s still there, and so am I. He is like me, or like I should continue to be. He is the stuff that a real friend or a real lover is made of.
It makes logical, almost scientific, sense as well. Through most of human evolution, we have traditionally lived in tiny, socially-contained tribes and foraging groups. Within these small groups, our ancestors obtaining strong, sustained, and lifelong social support. Now, a world of 7 billion people demands that we group together in large cities to concentrate resources, but the result is hardly satisfactory when we naturally evolved in much smaller elements. The resulting disharmony reflects a deeper social ill—it’s a vexation of many who come before us. For example, they were expressed so beautifully in the visual arts by the Die Brüke group in early 19th Century Dresden, whose works bemoan the loss of our ability to nourish our most basic social needs and identity in an urbanized society.
In conclusion, if you’re a gay city slicker and want to find someone to love, someone who will take you seriously and will be more likely to stay with you, look for a guy raised in a small town maintaining his small town values. Most of the time, that means a guy from a rural area or an isolated town of less than 50,000 people (although everything is relative, as a town of 10000-20000 often seems impersonal to people from villages of a few hundred). In any case, he is more likely to take you seriously, keep in touch frequently, make sincere gestures, and not find you disposable. When you meet him, though, you have to change and abandon your jaded city ways to some extent. You should treat him with respect and treasure him always. He will be more likely than most others you encounter to return the favour and be the best friend or partner you've ever had. But, you have to be willing to deconstruct the city walls and be permanently genuine, romantic, and caring with him. Otherwise, you are just being selfish and letting him down.
My advice for small town boys out there is different: continue to treat city dwellers with the same politeness and genuineness as you would people from back home, as it's part of your charm and why people like you. Remember, you are the backbone on which healthy social relations are built. Just don't invest too much effort or hope in permanent relationships with city folk, because at the end of the day their priorities are elsewhere and their armour is probably too difficult to pierce. They are unlikely to be able to reciprocate/commit at the same level as you or keep the same interest and openness in the long run. It’s not their fault, they just never learned how to do it. Many lifelong city dwellers have never developed a sense of long-term patience and commitment in their relationships. With new people always fluxing around them, they never had to. As such, don’t invest too much hope in city friendships and relationships. They are fun people to know, but it’s best to keep them as generic friends and only truly open your heart to other rural guys who understand their social environment the way you do. While city slickers abound in the world, it is still a rare city guy who is willing to love you enough to permanently deconstruct his self-centred city attitude and lifestyle just for you.
Grasshoppers (small town guys and gals) and locusts (their city counterparts) are technically the same species, but vastly different animals. A grasshopper in a field of locusts may become a locust if not careful. My advice to the grasshoppers out there—never let yourself become a locust. Stay a grasshopper and find another one to keep you company—they are simply more charming creatures. If you really must, go to the locust field, pluck out the one that most appeals to your personality, and bring him back to the rural setting to make him a grasshopper :)