Last Saturday night I went to the birthday party of a local lesbian activist. I've attended easily fifty meetings with her, many as small as five or ten people. At the door, she threw her arms around the friend I'd accompanied. "How are you? I'm so glad you could come!" She glanced at me, registering no recognition, and turned back to my friend. "And who is this?" I introduced myself, and we shook hands - for at least the twentieth time.
In moments like these, I know I will never truly adapt to living in New York City.
The interaction struck me precisely because I so admire this woman's big-hearted politics; she, if anyone, would have the best of intentions.
Yet so often it seems that people with whom we have so much in common, who in smaller towns would be treasured allies, in the big city are seen as nothing special. Surrounded by queers, we take each other for granted.
I grew up in a small upstate New York town - perhaps too small. In many ways I was not just known, but notorious, with people shouting "Dyke!" at me from car windows, barraging my phone with prank anti-gay calls. Gratefully I fled to the anonymity of the big city, without thinking of what I was giving up - really, without thinking I was giving up anything.
Unknowingly, I was part of a larger trend I call the Great Queer Migration. It's a common LGBT narrative: Queer has hard time in small town, moves to big city, lives great big fabulous gay life. Part of the thinking behind Dan Savage's It Gets Better project plays into this myth, encouraging people to give up on where they are, wait it out, and find their crew in the big city.
I had this fantasy that the LGBT community in New York would be like another small town, a place where everybody knows your name, a Cheers for queers. We would greet each other on the street, meet up at coffee shops, gossip incessantly, scheme and dream big, and always look fabulous, of course. I think a lot of us have this fantasy.
And in some ways, this dream has come true for me. I live in queer community - running into friends on the subway, exes at the food coop, planning a potluck seder, dancing to the local radical marching band. Sometimes our world is laughably tiny, the interconnected web of exes so incestual that if we were actually procreating, our babies would have three heads.
Yet my valued queer world took a long, long time to build, with plenty of lonely moments. Instances of disconnection like this remind me that the city can sometimes be as alienating as the places we leave. I wonder if we might actually find more queer allegiance and coalition building in smaller-town America, less self-segregation and subdivision, out of sheer necessity.
Sure, maybe I'm not there to understand the true dynamics of each town's intricate infighting. Maybe I am romanticizing again, this time in the other direction. Or maybe I am mythologizing how it was to be queer in the 90s, before our culture became mainstreamed, before the peace movement stole the rainbow flag.
I don't claim to have the answers, just the questions. Do we overmythologize places like New York as centers of queer culture and community? What is your life and community like, where you live?
One refreshing answer to these questions comes from my friend Milo Miller, who with partner Chris Wilde is co-founder of the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) in Milwaukee:
Chris and I both did very well in San Francisco/Berkeley in some ways socially and politically, but I certainly felt lost in others. I also know that we never would have gotten QZAP to the place that it's at if we had started it there. I feel like the signal would have gotten lost in the noise, as it were. The flip side of that is that SF could have been a great incubator for it, with the large queer (and radical queer) community, an active self-publishing and queerpunk scene, and all the folks who are amazing programmers and code geeks. It's one of the things that we struggle with to a large degree being in Milwaukee.
At the same time, Chris and I both opt out of a lot of the LGBT stuff that happens here. So much of it is centered around the bars, which isn't very interesting to either one of us. And it seems to me to be very split gender-wise. The boys don't hang with the girls, and the BTIQQ folks are mostly invisible.
That said, I feel very connected to my queer community most of the time regardless of geography. I'm connected to an amazing tribe of queerdos all over the world, and I think that they're connected to me as well. That counts for a whole lot, I think.
I think it counts for a lot, too, and conversations like these are one way we form and foster these connections.
So tell me: What do you think? Do we overmythologize places like New York as centers of queer culture and community? What is your life and community like, where you live? How can we build "true" queer community, and live it out locally, wherever we are?