Jessica Max Stein

The Great Queer Migration Myth

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | March 10, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Jessica Max Stein, LGBT teens, Michael Tolliver, Molly Bolt, queer migration, rust belt, upstate New York, visibility

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. Thumbnail image for viadelmar.jpg

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:

  1. The great queer migration myth is classist. Not everyone can afford to flee to the city.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


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Thanks for writing about non-urban people. You are welcome to come upstate to visit my girlfriend and me - she grew up on her parents' farm, and we moved here to be happy-- gay and all. I know people at this site don't like "It Gets Better", but my video is one that talks about dykes _not_ leaving for the city.
This topic is especially interesting now, when there is more talk/thought about mobilizing working class people. A lot of us don't live in cities.

http://www.itgetsbetter.org/video/entry/jvvfa4et5zq/

Thanks for writing this!

Yes, lets' start complicating this trite narrative of everyone needing to leave for the big city - and I say that as someone who left Indiana for Chicago (interesting that I think of it as leaving an entire state for just one city...) But the way to foster queer communnity is to think of how it can and does flourish everywhere.

(although I'll admit that wild horses will not drag me back to Indiana)

I completely understand that, Yasmin. I left the state of Indiana for a city too. LOL It really is like fleeing the state and not a city.

That said, I spent many, many years in Indiana - including some really small towns. It's even more important to kindle queer communities in those areas because the feeling of isolation can be overwhelming.

I know, I agree - it's such a terrible position to be in: to feel that one is at once abandoning a place (and I say that without condescension) and to simultaneously feel a sense of relief. :-(

I don't understand. The migration of LGBTQ people from where they were raised to larger metropolitan areas is real. Just look at the statistics of same-sex population by county...unless you think that distribution of sexual orientation is not roughly genetically distributed or you think that there are HUGE numbers of closeted people in the more rural areas (which if you do, you are just contributing to the "narrative" you lament).

I would agree it romanticized, but that doesn't make it a myth. The reason why it happens or the effects of it may be untrue...a myth, but its existence isn't.

Migration from rural to metro areas is nearly universal in the United States (with the exception of older Americans). Now migration to the CENTER of metro areas, or downtowns, that is a much more "gay" thing.

Personally I take issue with much of the rhetoric around the It Get's Better project. So many of the adults in the videos tell our youth that it will get better one day when they go to college or move to California or move to the big city. That message is most certainly CLASSIST. I would way rather tell youth that they have the right to be themselves right where they are...in their hometowns...then committing ourselves to ensure their safety and wellbeing in those towns.

Telling youth that they can come find their community in San Fransisco is so 1970's Harvey Milk. Can't we do better in 2011?

I love this. And I totally agree that the assumption of moving out is tons of things - not to mention it feeds this idea that our queerness is somehow separate from neighborhood. Meaning, neighborhood organizing doesn't include queer organizing unless maybe it's urban and only then, a particular flavor of urban. Not connecting queer organizing to neighborhood organizing makes us kind of like an accessory, I always think.

beachcomberT | March 11, 2011 9:19 AM

Moving from a small town or suburb to a big city has been liberating American youth -- gay or straight -- for the past century. Getting educated and/or finding a job was the big impetus. Maybe the Internet will help reverse that process. But small towns in general still don't offer the economic opportunities and personal freedoms of big cities. Of course, some exurbs are exceptions -- especially college towns. But I would still advise a young gay person to get the hell out of Dodge and expand their horizons -- possibly even move outside the U.S. for a while.

"But small towns in general still don't offer the economic opportunities and personal freedoms of big cities."

In these weeks when we are re-evaluating United States capitalism, and what its done to vulnerable communities, I strongly disagree with your advice to young people.

According to that advice, to "liberate myself" I would move away from the NYC water supply and wait for the same water to be pumped to me through miles of pipes. Then I would leave my agricultural area, to have to go to a store to buy vegetables that get trucked in. Then, if I was lucky to find a job then work my butt off, I could take a few days each year to breathe the fresh air I have here.

I hope the events in Wisconsin and Michigan are an energizing wake-up call. We got hypnotised by consumption and confidence in our system, but as we see the system being exposed for what it is, I hope its an opportunity for people to take a fresh look at what "prosperity" means, and what it costs us. Its time for a new thinking about distributing resources, its time for new thinking about the relationship between urban and rural areas. and I think queers would be fabulous people to help lead that discusion.

That's nonsense, hedonistic life and nihilistic philosophy is the natural state of humanity. Anything else is just self-delusion.