By Christopher Treacy
It’s always shocking to discover ingrained, unhealthy beliefs within us. It’s especially alarming when we find them in our notions of queer identity. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to make my home in various cities, but I now realize that urban living hasn’t been good to me. From an early age, though, I believed it was the only chance I had at real freedom.
This is an ongoing topic in our culture, and it certainly speaks to the journey of many a queer country artist. In Country Queer‘s most recent interview with Garrison Starr, the artist talks about being outed and essentially run out of town by evangelical Christians in her native Mississippi. Now, she makes her home in Los Angeles. Indigo Girl Amy Ray talked to us about choosing to stay in the Georgia mountains — a locale parodied for its backward sensibilities in the Adult Swim cartoon Squidbillies — and how she thrives on the friction of the dynamics there. But she also pointed out that her choice to remain rural might be more difficult for a gay man.
There are many reasons why rural areas are less than ideal for queer folks, but living in the city is fraught with its own challenges. Thirty years on, I’ve had enough.
A little history…
The Lure of the City
I always wanted to live in the city. It was my ticket to freedom. I can remember being a kid and riding the train to Manhattan with my grandmother. I’d gaze out the window as we exited the comforts of suburbs, staring in astonishment at the alternating high-rise projects and piles of concrete rubble before we’d enter the long tunnel to Grand Central Station. Did people actually live in these places? I was too young and far too spoiled to understand poverty, but learning that people made homes for themselves in these environs alerted me to something important: the city was for everybody. Anyone could belong.
When we’d get off the train, my heart rate would accelerate. The pulse of the city was exhilarating. As I got older and more fully realized my sexuality, the idea that I would find a place for myself in a city became more persistent.
For reasons too complicated to go into, I ended up going to college in New Hampshire, where there were a vanishingly-small number of out queer people. Predictably, I felt isolated, and yearned for the city even more. Keep in mind, though, that it was the late 1980s. AIDS was everywhere, and the media had made AIDS and homosexuality synonymous. In high school, it’d been relentlessly drummed into my head that my sexuality would likely end up killing me. The idea of the city was was both scary and reassuring at the same time.
Toward the end of my senior year, I began spending weekends in Boston. The sense of community there seemed undeniable — an endless supply of faces and stories. I loved the clubs, the crowds, the vastness of it all.
But I was just looking at the shiny surface of something that I truly desired. At that moment, I was not interested in seeing any cracks in the facade, nor was I willing to entertain the idea that I might not be able to sustain the type of life I was observing. I mean, the city was for everybody, right?
Gayborhoods were still a thriving facet of queer urban life in the 90s, and Boston’s South End was a gay hot spot. True, it became prohibitively expensive within my first five years there, but I found ways to stay. My determination was impressive.
This meant squishing my life into increasingly tiny spaces in order to continue feeling that addictive urban pulse. But even the pulse became elusive in time. As the South End became more gentrified, the queers that had thrived in the neighborhood began scattering. Many paired off and moved to the suburbs. Walking down the sidewalks in my ‘hood, I would encounter SUV-sized strollers pushed by young mothers raising families. A feeling of displacement began to penetrate. I was no longer in sync with my neighbors at all.
And then there was the noise.
My budding writing career meant that I needed to be able to think and function in my apartment. I needed peace and quiet. Every place I attempted to work had drawbacks, and each day involved weighing out the lesser of evils. Even the library was noisy.
Still, the illusion of my sexual identity being intrinsically intertwined with my locale persisted. It was hard to shake off.
Eventually, I found myself in my late 30’s, living and working out of a bedroom in an apartment with four graduate students. This was the best I could do to stay in the almighty gayborhood. I had made a name for myself in local journalism. People knew who I was. But I had next to nothing in common with the other gay men around me. The kinds of success we were experiencing were very different. I was so economically out of league with my gay neighbors, the idea of attempting to date any of them seemed ludicrous. Here I was making various sacrifices to stay among my people when, really, maybe these weren’t my people at all.
But somehow, it remained vital to try and stay located in town. I was clinging to an illusion.
Since then, I’ve lived in Austin and Buffalo, the latter being my current city. There was no gayborhood in Austin, nor any cohesive gay community that I could discern. I only made it two years in Texas. From the beginning, Buffalo has felt more familiar. But Buffalo’s gayborhood, known as Allentown, has essentially been reduced to a bar strip. There are some art galleries and restaurants, but folks mainly convene there for the bars. It, too, has become unreasonably expensive relative to what rents were in this city a few years ago.
Time to Say Goodbye
It’s time to leave. I need to let myself off the hook. I’ve lived in many a gayborhood – but the sense of being “less-than” among my well-to-do gay peers was demoralizing. How could I feel good about myself in that environment?
More than being the rich tapestries of diversity they once were, cities are now portraits of the haves and the have-nots. As a byproduct, I’m not sure that true gayborhoods even exist any longer. Even if they do, I know now that I am not meant for this. Life in the city is constantly forcing me into uncomfortable situations. I yearn for space and silence.
I am no longer afraid of what lurks in rural areas. Now I can see that a fear of feeling outcast, something I had struggled with in grade school, is what pulled me to the city. But that feeling found me there, too. Worse yet, it came from the folks whose approval I sought the hardest: fellow gays.
The truth is, there are plenty of people with oppressive beliefs right here in the city. A Trump presidency and a lingering pandemic brought them out of the shadows. Does that mean I should move to Mississippi, where Garrison Starr got outed and run out of town, or the mountains of Georgia, where Amy Ray thrives on the sociological friction? Probably not. But with a little more space between us, it might not be that important what my neighbors believe. We don’t necessarily need to know each other. In the end, maybe I’d prefer it that way. Kumbaya, indeed.
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, among others. Additionally, he’s written for myriad LGBT outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He currently resides in Buffalo, NY. His new website is currently under construction.