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
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.