Jessica Max Stein

Building Queer Community (or The Queer Migration Myth, Redux)

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | April 15, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: Jessica Max Stein, New York City, queer migration, urban

Last Saturday night I went to the birthday party of a local lesbian activist. I've attended easily fifty meetings with her, 3917120667_a135162154_z.jpg 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?

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Small correction - the PACE rainbow flag was used by the peace movement in Italy in the early 1960s, over a decade before it became a gay pride symbol.

I was one of the ones who came out, moved from the country to the city and delighted in everything it had to offer me. I had friends, a great job, a love life and access to things I was completely unprepared for.... So much of what you mention had me nodding, "Yep."

I now live in a small town because I understand myself better now. I know who I am here and it's great- but I only live here because of the time I spent in the city.

Maybe we'll see a reverse migration when people get comfortable with themselves and start feeling safer in rural America....

Well I was in small towns as a little kid and alternated between Houston and small towns in early teens. I turned 18 and spent the next three years in Dallas, then my mid 20s were divided between Tallahasse and Houston.
I felt more of an LGBTQ community in the cities. O just always felt like there were multiple communities and it wasn't like a small town where we knew everybody.
I think what we have to do in a large city is realize that we each build a personal community within an LGBTQ context and that we are also members of various other communities within it.
That being said I have to note that I am one of those outgoing folks who speaks to everyone.

The birthday celebrant who didn't recognize her might have prosopagnosia, the disorder which makes it hard to recognize faces, also known as face blindness. Unless I know someone pretty well, I'm not likely to know them by their face.

beachcomberT | April 16, 2011 10:46 AM

Towns & cities vary and they change over time, so it's impossible to generalize. The small upstate town I grew up in during the 50s never breathed the word "queer" back then (gay was an unknown term), but now it has a tiny but active gay subculture. Major upstate NY cities are all gayer than they were in the 60s and 70s. Massachusetts has many pockets of excellent gay life outside Boston, especially college towns like Northampton and Amherst. In Florida, gay subcultures are alive and well in the large cities, but really struggling in smaller towns like Daytona (where I now live), possibly because of the decline in gay bars and general out-migration of young gays to better job and social opportunities elsewhere. What I'm worried about is the bigger economic trend that's going to make transportation and relocation increasingly expensive. People will feel more trapped as oil prices skyrocket. It's harder to buy and sell houses with the ongoing real estate depression. People had better work harder on creating a safe and lively gay community wherever they are now because it may be much harder for them to visit or resettle in their dream city.

Brad Bailey | April 16, 2011 4:21 PM

Great post. I can appreciate and relate to your yearning for a truly inclusive LGBT community in the U.S. You have a good heart and a positive message. Thank you for sharing it with us.

What a sweet comment! Thanks for reading.

I agree with your friend. I don't think Bilerico would have grown as fast as it did if we hadn't started in Indianapolis. At the same time, Indy was all about the bar scene & I rarely drink, so moving to DC where there's more non-booze-circled activities has been f--king awesome.

i encourage the lgbt community to reach out to the rest of us. Though the homophobic are loud they are not the majority. Straights will defend their friends, do believe in equal rights, and do value you as neighbors. Breaking the ice and building bridges may be scarey, at first, but it will change the world.