Small Town Life

I knew when I moved back to my small rural hometown, things would be different than the city I had been living in for 4 years (and the liberal upstate New York haven I had been in for 3 years before that...and the liberal arts campus for 4 years before that).

In the last year since I moved back, I've thought a lot about what it means to be a liberal person, a progressive activist, a queer feminist in a place where most people don't agree with my point of view. Growing up and attending a small Catholic school for middle and high school, I got used to being in the minority. We weren't allowed to talk about homosexuality or abortion, and we were taught that there were 3 lifestyles to choose from: single with no sex (but heterosexual urges), married with unprotected sex for the purposes of procreation, or a celibate life of the clergy. My best friend was threatened with eviction from the school when she started dating a female classmate. When I shaved my head at 16, someone threw a can at me from a passing car, yelling "fag" (fascinating, since I'm female and was wearing a dress, but whatever.)

But all in all, my life was easy - I lived in the more liberal town in the area (15 miles from my high school), my parents are awesome and supportive (my mom loved my shaved head), and I had the sort of best friend that anyone would be lucky to find once in a lifetime. Still, as soon as I could, I left for a crazy liberal college thousands of miles away, living in an anarchist vegetarian (or vegan or macro, depending on the week and someone's diet) co-op, and being a part of communities where I was considered mainstream (or even conservative!) for the next decade.

So why did I move back to a place where gay kids and other minorities still live in fear, where a Pride group is denied entry to a parade, where Craigslist posts about the float issue devolve into calls for violence against the marchers? Because I love this place. And because I believe in people.

I love the physical beauty here, I love the fresh air, I love the people working hard to create safe and creative and successful communities for their kids and friends and neighbors. I want to believe that you don't have to live in a big city to be progressive, to be sustainable, to be creative and relevant. When friends on the East Coast or in big cities rip on small towns and "middle America," I get pissed, and I get defensive - hey, dudes, f*ck you! It's easier to go to a co-op on your bike if there's one 2 blocks away and a good public transportation system. It's easier to be out and proud, and active and progressive, if all your friends feel the same way and your workplace doesn't threaten to fire you because of your views. Sometimes it's a privilege to be opinionated, to live your life in line with your values.

And yet there is a reality there, too, and I get the anger, and I feel the anger. Most of the people I interact with every day don't agree with me. I spend a lot of time helping people get citizenship and the right to vote, and the large large majority of them will register as Republican. Sometimes I look at my clients, at casual acquaintances, at the people sitting next to me and think, Do any of my clients give a shit that I couldn't marry a woman I loved? Would they step in if they saw me being the victim of a hate crime? Would they defend my right to an abortion? I don't know. I know that many of the people in my community wouldn't vote to protect these rights, or to fund programs I care about.

But I just can't base my work, or my life, on that. I guess I believe that what I choose to do, professionally or personally, cannot be because it benefits me - it has to be because I believe it is the right thing to do, because I believe that everyone has the right to access systems equally, even if they use those systems against me.

Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can believe that.

(Image: one of my all-time favorites, by Eric Drooker)


Sarah Von said...


You are doing the right thing. I know it's difficult and emotionally draining and gray-area messy but you're doing the right thing. The world is a better place because of people like you.


Ashley said...

I am sending you my love! Please believe with me that smart (diverse, progressive) people can be found in small towns and can work for good and find satisfaction in their lives without conceit or patronage. Bless you!

Christine said...

I think it's the right thing to do, but I believe you that it's not simple or easy. I work in a library in a fairly affluent neighbourhood and many of the volunteers I work with are elderly - from a totally different time and from a lot of privilege. It's so interesting getting to know them and to, sometimes, be completely blown away by opinions they express (good or bad). It's been really heartening too to see some of them shift towards more open-mindedness over time. Isn't it telling that when people from disparate viewpoints mix, it's pretty unlikely that the liberal-minded ones will grow more conservative but far more likely that the conservative-minded ones will grow more liberal? That tells me that conservative views can only exist in a vacuum. So getting out there and working with and for all people, even ones we disagree with, kind of breaks that seal and hopefully destroys the vacuum. At least that's what I believe on the good days.

Shorty said...

Thanks for the comments and support, friends! I know many of us struggle with similar conflicted feelings, periods of being overwhelmed, questions about how best to help this world, etc....it always helps to be reminded that I'm not in it alone.


Steff said...

I love this.

I'm in a small town and while the younger crowd is fairly liberal, the older is not. Sometimes it is SO hard to hear peoples opinions that are opposite of mine {like Christine, I work in a library!} and not freak out! Having a huge Mormon family is also a little difficult...

Great post. =]