This weekend, I am going to the house where I grew up for the last time before our family sells it. I have been surprised at the depth of my feelings of loss. I wonder how much my experience of growing up queer there intensifies the transition.
The house is a brick colonial in Rust Belt suburbia, on a street canopied by maple trees. A great place to be a kid, wearing whirligig maple keys on the end of your nose. Not such a great place to be, shall we say, a righteous babe.
I used to be very angry about this. Back in 2003, I wrote:
Some friends and I started a gay student group at my upstate New York school in 1993 after the big gay march on Washington. We called it Visibility. Little did we realize how visible we'd be.
I was name-called, threatened and chased home; my locker was defaced and my home prank-called; and near the end of my senior year, a carload of boys tried to run me over, swerving to swipe at me in the shoulder of the road, shouting "Dyke!" as I hastily scaled a nearby tree.
I made the Great Queer Migration to New York City in 1995, or as soon as I possibly could, and have lived here ever since, ensconced in my big queer tribe.
It's a common queer narrative, from Molly Bolt to Michael Tolliver: Queer person flees small town, migrates to big city, finds tribe. I hope some smartypants out there is studying queer migrations, because I would love to see some sexy statistics. How ironic to think that in growing up small-town queer, so often in apparent isolation, we are actually participating in collective, community experience.
And yet I worry that we romanticize this story, elevate it to the status of myth. This is problematic for three reasons:
- The great queer migration myth is classist. Not everyone can afford to flee to the city.
- Not everyone chooses to flee. This myth discounts those who stay, disregarding their agency. Why must we trade nature for queer culture? Why must being queer mean hearing your neighbor sneeze?
- It's snobby. It assumes small-town prejudice, when often small towns allow for people to know each other beyond the subcategory-of-a-subcategory identities so enamored by urbanity. Big city people are just as provincial, just about their own urban provinces.
After my own migration, I held onto my anger for a long time. I used to wish my family would sell the house and start over in a new town. A decade ago this would have been a dream come true.
But I learned to appreciate and honor what I love about that tree-lined street, that river town, the people I grew up with. I took lots of long beautiful walks, had lots of great conversations. Maybe this sounds corny, but it wasn't; it was work, and it was worth it.
And that's what bugs me most about the queer migration narrative: I don't hear any healing in it, just fleeing. What about what we leave behind, back home?
Just as I learn to love my hometown, our family is leaving. I feel like I showed up just as the party let out. In a way, this compounds the loss of the house, the memories let loose.
So this weekend will be my last visit. Honestly, I can't imagine it: pulling the heavy green door shut, turning my small brass key in the lock. Walking down the driveway for the last time, standing under the bare trees, not seeing them into another season. Just walking away, finally, from all this.