Ryan Shea's picture

The Difficulties of Becoming a Small-Town Gay... Even for a Moment

For the first time in my life, I visited the Midwest for a travel feature that I'm doing outside of this particular publication.  Even though I grew up in somewhat of a conservative area, I knew the place that I was going to was in a huge red state so the thoughts of how I was going to have to shift my behavior was constantly on my mind during my long weekend there.

I will not name the state that I was in, as the overall experience I had there was quite lovely, however it was a major culture shock compared to the big city that I currently reside in.  The word "backwoods" was pretty common, country music was on in every restaurant and bar I went to, Trump/Pence signs were everywhere, and there was even a sporting club on a main street, but it was spelled "klub" which definitely got mu mind going into a truly dark place in terms of why it was spelled with a k and not a c. 

In doing my research, the area that I was had no gay bars or any gay culture in it.  The nearest gay bar was about 45 minutes away, compared to where I live now, which has a plethora of gay bars on every two blocks or so.  This sort of reminded me of where I lived growing up, and why I went to school in a gay friendly area that was surrounded with a ton of gay culture and nightlife, but it didn't exist here.  

Logging onto the gay apps was also an interesting experience, as a good 80 percent of the men who were on there had no photo or had the "guillotine head" where all you see is their torso.  I don't consider myself to be an extremely good looking guy, but I don't think my app has ever been hit up more than it was there for guys who were interested in me for an assorted amount of reasons.  I didn't know if they wanted me for me or because of how open I was about my sexuality, which only went as far as me showing a full body photo and information about myself and my likes.

I am usually someone who is very talkative and chit-chatty in any social scenario, where talking about things related to being gay is easy as the area that I'm in makes it that way.  That sort of rings true nowadays to my suburban upbringing, as times have changed, but it felt like being in the 1980's of sorts in terms of where I was over the weekend as being authentically myself was not the right thing to do.

The first night that I was there, I went to a popular steakhouse which I reviewed for another publication.  I took my friend, who was also gay, and sat down with group of other people as this was a tasting done by the restaurant.  As my friend and I were discussing other men in our community, I couldn't help but notice that the people around us were not only listening, but staring in a way that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.  What was even weirder was that two people at our table happened to be lesbian partners, who had no problem talking with me about aspects related to our sexualities however their friend (it may have been one of the women's fathers) pretty much looked like he was staring daggers at me each and every time I spoke. 

When I packed for this trip, I knew not to bring any of my graphic tees that were made by gay designers as I did not want that attention.  My two other friends who came to visit me, both from South Carolina, didn't get that memo as they showed up in bright colors and graphic tees that sported muscular dudes on the front of them in a funny sort of way.  When we went to a local deli by a major college campus, the looks of disgust that we received could've been seen by Helen Keller, it was that bad.  It was absurd, and something that I have never personally experienced.

I spoke with some of the locals there, and these types of situations are every day life for them.  "Being gay has gotten progressively easier as time has gone by, but its not flaunted, at least where we live," one of them said.  "We have to drive 3 or 4 hours to a major city in order to not only feel like we can be ourselves but ultimately safe."  I asked if this was common in small-town areas to which the person in question gave an emphatic nod.  "There is a ton of envy when I see guys who live in big cities, as they are able to be their authentic selves with little to no issues.  I yearn for the day when I can do that myself, as the situations we deal with aren't necessarily vocal to a certain degree (being called a faggot outright, etc), but the looks alone are enough to keep most of us in the closet."

What has your experience been like, coming from a small-town?  Do you think there's been any progression in LGBT acceptance?