A City’s Scale And Its Promises

Editor’s note: We at Rust Wire love cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit. But how welcoming are these places to everyone? This piece was contributed by New Yorker Frank Dix, a native of my hometown of Erie, PA. What do you think after reading his essay? Can someone who is gay ever feel truly at home in a place like Erie? This piece seems especially relevant in light of several recent high-profile suicides by gay teens.-KG

4

People who have made a life in New York usually remember their hurry to get here. The draw of the city may have developed early, but plain ambition does not quite sum it up. Whether you grew up in Erie, PA as I did, some other Rust Belt town, or in another region altogether, what you get here –and in Los Angeles and Chicago, I hear – is the chance to dissolve into a new crowd, and perhaps later, with confidence, to piece together what feels like your own tribe. If you happen to be gay then you realize, over time, that your hometown might not promise either one convincingly.

Certainly, many small towns and cities, including Erie, are rich with at least a few examples of visible gay men and women who are genuinely part of the community, reliable as local fixtures. But even the richness of these few can feel strained in contrast to the options and space afforded to straight friends. At the same time, for young gay men and women, it requires extra work to imagine how their adult selves and future partnerships might compare to the daily lives of their parents, relatives, and family friends.

The next best thing – or at least what is available – is to turn toward the community and observe it a little more closely, for clues. Gradually, a certain cast comes into view, sometimes plainly, sometimes opaquely through hints and jokes: the hairdresser, the dance instructor, the choir director, the figure painter…that eclectic interracial couple seen riding around town in a Rolls Royce or peddling their tandem bike. Job prospects notwithstanding, you could probably get along just fine in this company, if bigger cities did not seem at once vast and better suited.

After settling in, it does not take long for New York to start delivering on its promises. Instead of the easy insult, on the whole you find tolerance, either sincere or grudging; there are consequences here. Instead of the rare, relatable professional you find entire, remarkably specific guilds of gay actors, bankers, journalists, and lawyers, each having a membership in the hundreds. A fresh, blank page replaces the well-worn scripts left at home.

That page does not stay blank forever. You rush to fill it in as though just given permission. Peers are discovered, friendships maintained, romances begun and tested, probably not for the first time but perhaps for the time in-earnest. Broadly speaking, these impressions of Erie and New York are probably not so different from what others might tell, gay or straight. The promise of excitement – and a compelling love life –takes hold of all sorts of people, year after year. Finding a personal rhythm within this scale is a victory, always. But there are tradeoffs.

In the very place you left, where, if intact, the bonds were tighter, chances were better that you would meet your partner earlier, maybe through a childhood friend or at one of a handful of parties or lounges. In a city the size of Erie, even running a simple errand means seeing a friend or an acquaintance along the way. That closeness is a reliable comfort for many; it once was for me.

Still, navigating the coming out process, and imaging maturity, has a way of guiding other thoughts. Within the broad sweep of identity, being gay can settle somewhere between a singular focus and an afterthought. New York, with its large and vibrant gay community, offers a rough parallel to the relative freedom straight people take for granted. While not cozy, the city is attractive, in part, because it extends an honest chance to discover and express your-self as a gay adult. Here, the common grievance is not a lack of examples or choices, but trouble building the kind of strong bonds that people enjoy in smaller cities. The act of balancing intimacy and opportunity, I’ve noticed, can play out a little differently for gay men…

Traveling back home on the Acela from DC on a Sunday last October, I could not have been the only New Yorker savoring memories of the weekend. Activists and everyday citizens in the tens of thousands had just gathered for the National Equality Weekend, to bring critical attention to the concerns of the gay community. In marching and rallying, it had never been easier for me to consider personally what it means to be a part of a community. An hour or so from New York, I decided to get a drink. Among the passengers in the snack car there were two fit young men, iPhones raised, Grindr apps glowing, perhaps deciding to find each other.

-Frank Dix

14 Comments

Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Editorial, Featured

14 responses to “A City’s Scale And Its Promises

  1. tonyg

    “that eclectic interracial couple seen riding around town in a Rolls Royce or peddling their tandem bike”;
    there’re still here….They wouldn’t make a splash in NYC, but here we smile at each other in the bike shop, and do a thumbs up when we pass each other on the bike…

  2. schmange

    Frank, thank you so much for writing this! I can’t believe we haven’t had something on this topic before. This is beautifully written.

    In a weird way, I can relate. It’s harder for everyone who’s different, being in a smaller city, I think. I love the way you explained the loss that comes from leaving your hometown. I think that’s what everyone from the Rust Belt struggles with.

    I’m happy that it sounds like you’ve found a place where you fit. It’s just too bad it couldn’t have been Erie. But I understand where you’re coming from.

    I wonder if more gay people stayed in their hometowns, if we would have come further on this issue as a society. I think the fact that so many gay people live in places like New York and San Francisco, although your post clearly explains the attraction, kind of advances an “otherness” idea of gays that we need to overcome. It is a difficult problem. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Colin

    While I did enjoy reading this article, it’s disappointing to know that people like Frank have written off “rust belt towns” forever. Firstly, having lived in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh for more than two years in each city, I must say that “gay life” in each of these cities suit me fine — and can you really compare Erie to even Pittsburgh or Cleveland? No, they’re each at least about 400,000 more in population. What I was most concerned about (I feel as though I am writing a letter to the editor!) was that Pgh, Cleveland, Erie, etc were compared to New York. Really?! Sure, gay life must be better in NY, but so is the food, opera, symphony, architecture, museums, etc. It’s difficult to compare our nation’s largest city to “rust belt towns”, and it’s sad to know some people are writing these towns off and not trying to change them.

    • schmange

      I feel like I need to defend Frank, even though I’m not sure he should need defending. I’m a Rust Belt belt booster as much as anyone, but people have the right to choose where they want to live. Secondly, he is fighting for gay rights. Not everyone is going to make Erie their cause. Clearly there are many considerations people must wrestle with when choosing a place to live. That’s what this post is about. First and foremost, he has to make himself happy.

      Colin, I see your point too. But right after these suicides, I don’t think we should encourage people to stay in a situation where they don’t feel that they are respected fully as a person. More than anything, we should blame the people of Erie. Of course not everyone, but the ones who aren’t accepting. Erie could learn a few things from New York, and probably Cleveland and Pittsburgh too.

  4. Christine

    Frank, Thank you for sharing. Die hard New Yorkers take for granted what we have and often fail to appreciate what is outside of New York.
    I look forward to reading more from you. Great piece.

  5. There is no doubt that life for any young (young in both their age and the time in which they have been “out”) queer person is going to be a lot easier in a city like New York or San Francisco than it will be in a small town in the rust belt. In the recent film Milk, Harvey Milk gives the advice for one queer man to leave his small town and get to a city as fast as he can. It’s great advice. Lot’s of us do it. I did it, my friends did it, and clearly the author did it as well, but what happens to all of the queer people we left behind?

    To be frank this is a conversation about numbers, it is not a conversation about homophobia, the nature of the small town, or the cultural elasticity of the rust belt. There is comfort in community, and it takes more than 2, 3 or 4 to make a community. Young queer people should go to cities just so they can meet other queer people.

    I grew up in rural northwest Ohio and went to public school. People take for granted how much “coupling” is promoted in this environment. High school kids are expected to date, people are awarded for being prom king/queen, homecoming attendant, blah blah blah. Now imagine being the queer kid who sees all of this, all of the time, and wants to date just like all of his or her friends. More than likely there is just no one to date.

    Let’s run through as example.
    I graduated with 140 students in my class. I have no idea how many queer people were in that class. No one really knows what percentage of our population is queer, but let’s look at it in two different ways.

    The flawed number from Kinsey is 10%.
    (140 students x 10% of population)/2 removing the opposite sex= 7

    Recent estimate from the Williams Institute at UCLA
    (140 students x 3.9% of population)/2 removing the opposite sex= 3

    Simply using this easy back of the envelope math and my anecdotal experience, you can see that my pool of people to choose from in my high school class was somewhere between 2 and 6. (Don’t forget I had to subtract myself from the math.) That is assuming everyone is out both to himself and publicly. If only half of the potential dating pool were out of the closet, that means my choices for dating could have ranged from 1 to 3. Let’s hope we actually enjoy each other’s company and are attracted to each other.

    This is not evidence; this is just me trying to paint a picture that says queer people should go to cities just so they can experience some of the fundamentals of living life to its fullest. They should date, fall in love, fall out of love, have fun, have regrets, etc etc, but they can’t do that when they are in high school in a small town.

    We are seeing some interesting shifts in queer demography in the United States. Dr. Gary Gates wrote an excellent book titled The Queer & Lesbian Atlas that shows concentrations of queer people in the United States. One can draw their own conclusions, but we are seeing the cities still accepting queer youth, but now that our first generation of queer people are older, partnered and generally more settled there is movement outside of the cities to the suburbs.

    I will probably never return to a small town. Beyond dating and romance I enjoy being around queer people. I enjoy walking through a cities gayborhood and blending into the crowd and not feeling like the “gay” guy. Sometimes we just want to blend and fade into the fabric around us. This can be done in a big city, I am sorry to say it is not possible in a small town.

    To all the queer youth out there. It will get better, and once you have an education, get the hell out of your small town. Go to a city and live life a little bit. You can always return to your small town whenever you want. Go, learn to be out, learn to be yourself, and learn to live life never denying any part of who you are. Once you are doing that maybe you should go back to your small town and make life there. There are queer youth in every town who need to look and see real life queer people who are out and comfortable with themselves.

  6. EDIT: Dr. Gates’ book is titled The Gay & Lesbian Atlas

  7. Paul

    “New York, with its large and vibrant gay community, offers a rough parallel to the relative freedom straight people take for granted.”

    Couldn’t have said it any better. Although hopefully one day we’ll find that parallel to be non-existent.

  8. Stanley Parker

    Frank – great essay. Erie was the site of the 2nd gay bar I ever visited – as you know I lived in Jamestown for 5.5 years and now you and I are close pals in NYC. I second your emotion. Part of me wishes I had found a life Partner in Erie, Jamestown, Buffalo, Rochester or Cleveland (all the many places I went out when I lived there). If I did, I would probably still live there. But God didn’t have that in the cards for me – so here I am in NYC trying still to find a life partner, but having the time of my life with other activities (sports leagues, social life, career).

    Keep writing!!

  9. Dino Kiras

    Frank, nice piece, enjoying reading about a something that has certainly been the topic of a few conversations in the city – particularly, your comment about gay people having “trouble building the kind of strong bonds that people enjoy in smaller cities.

    There’s an interesting relationship between having a lot of choice and not being able to ‘settle’. So, in New York, you might have the dream of meeting a Mr Right (well, he would be Mr Right and not ‘a’ Mr Right, to be more exact), but in a place with less on the menu, one might settle for Mr ‘Good Enough’.

    To clarify: in a small town like Erie (or New Haven for that matter), there is more of an incentive to ‘hang on’ to attractive, wonderful, potential life-partners. By comparison, in New York, we’re willing to pass someone by (someone perfectly decent, attractive and smart, by the way!!) for the smallest reason we can concoct (you name it, we’ve all made these justifications). If it were not so easy to simply stroll into the next house party and meet a(nother) perfectly wonderful gentleman, one might consider accepting slightly less idealized versions of the soul-mates we imagine – and that, in New York, we believe we can (and deserve to!) date.

    And it’s this kind of next-best-thing-ism that makes New Yorkers so notorious when it comes to long term dating.

    Is availability directly proportional to the inability to form real bonds? Is settling preferable to the abundance of options? I mean, what does that say about those of us pursuing relationships in urban environments? In my (humble) opinion, those are some of the questions that you raise, Frank.

  10. Special K

    I guess even New York isn’t perfect though.

    This article focuses on an anti-gay attack in the Bronx, but also mentions others in the city:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/nyregion/16gays.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&src=twt&twt=nytimes

  11. Chip

    Frank,

    Intimacy and opportunity. I love that juxtaposition. Thank you so much for reminding me of my gay roots. I’m not from the Rust Belt, but was from a town in Southern California known as “Iowa by the Sea”…small town, intimate, everyone knew each other’s business. It was a great place to be from, but not necessarily a great place to be. At age 22, I was in NYC working for an investment bank for the summer and on Independence Day decided to saunter from 86th & Riverside down to the Village (this was a quarter century ago). I ended up in Uncle Charlie’s (in its day, it was sort of the small town gathering place in the big city), my first gay bar, and I had no fear that I’d run into someone I knew as the anonymity of Manhattan was my veil. For the first time in my life, I felt home…I was able to connect with a very diverse collection of young men – all from different backgrounds but with the common experience of being relatively new to coming out – it was the kind of experience that a gay man or lesbian probably can’t find in their smaller hometown and, certainly, the sheer diversity of the crowd and my ability to just be myself as opposed to “Steve and Fran’s oldest son” was liberating. In sum, Frank, what’s so charming about you and thoughtful about this piece is that you can take the boy out of the Rust Belt, but you can’t take the Rust Belt out of the boy. Your roots are showing and it’s a good thing….

    All the best,

    Chip

  12. Christine Rush-McCullum

    Frank,(Frankie)

    WOW! Outstanding… I laughed out loud, cried and most importantly recognized for the first time your perspective of home. I love you and celebrate who you are everyday.

    Chrissy 🙂

  13. We want to respond to tonyg’s comment
    hey Tony ! We make a splash everywhere
    we go everytown,everycity,everywhere.
    You just weren’t close enough to get wet
    from our tsunami ! Ha ha
    Jesse and Ricardo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s