October 20, 2014

Commentary | March 13, 2014
Out of the closet and into the city
Addressing my urban-queer superiority complex
Written by | Visual by Catherine Polcz | The McGill Daily

Like many university students these days, especially those also pursuing Arts degrees, I look toward the future in this constantly changing and hectic world with blank, undiscerning eyes. I often wonder to myself how the hell I am going to fit into this world.

Part of my musing includes wondering where I’ll live when I’m older. I can’t really see myself moving back to suburban New Jersey, but New York is obviously pretty cool. Living in utopian Canada has jaded my view of the U.S. though, so maybe I should consider staying here: I love Montreal, but am skeptical on whether or not I’d be able to learn enough French to completely integrate into this city.

I often wonder if my queerness will resign me to always living in large, urban areas. I knew very little about Montreal before coming to school here, but as I made the decision to come here as a closeted teenager, I hoped it would be a good place to figure my queer self out. It has far surpassed the few expectations I had.

It’s a common narrative: a queer person coming to the city from a rural area or small town, escaping close-minded communities, unaccepting family members, and small-town mentalities.

It’s a common narrative: a queer person coming to the city from a rural area or small town, escaping close-minded communities, unaccepting family members, and small-town mentalities. Although I don’t identify with all those conditions, cities offer a solution to unprecedented numbers of people of all shapes, colours, sizes, and of course, sexual preferences.

Whether on purpose or inadvertently, cities seem to be the places where queer communities form, a fact with historical precedent. It was not until the late 19th century, following powerful forces of urbanization across Europe and North America, that same-sex relations led to the creation of a ‘homosexual identity,’ challenging the perception that these were merely sinful acts anyone was capable of.

Bert Hansen’s chapter in Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History outlines the medicalization of homosexuality in North America in the last decades of the 19th century. Although homosexuality was stigmatized as a disease, the rise of sexologists across Europe and North America pioneered an important recognition and acknowledgement of (what was then termed) ‘the homosexual.’

In the U.S., Hansen remarks that urbanization in the 19th century brought people away from their family-farming communities and toward cities, offering greater opportunities for people – first men, and later women – to pursue sex differently. Those with same-sex desires seemed to find each other. As meeting places such as bars and parks formed, leading to clashes with doctors, reformers, and police, these communities developed a greater sense of self-awareness.

Contemporary writers, many of them in Canada, have focused on reclaiming the notion of the rural queer, establishing themselves as more relevant to LGBTQ populations than previously recognized.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century in the U.S., which brought new waves of urbanization, cities continued to be the sites of relaxed sexual morals, offering greater opportunities for sexual experimentation and fulfillment. Since then, what is considered the ‘gay liberation movement’ of the 1960s and 1970s, marked by events such as the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, was focused on urban areas. Similarly, AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s was centred in San Francisco and New York, where large populations of gay men meant many people were affected by the epidemic.

This is a cursory look at queer history, but it is nonetheless easy to focus on cities when examining the advances and changes in perception of queer people. Today, queer communities still seem to have the greatest visibility and recognition in urban centres.
Nevertheless, contemporary writers, many of them in Canada, have focused on reclaiming the notion of the rural queer, establishing themselves as more relevant to LGBTQ populations than previously recognized. Lesley Marple, an LGBTQ advocate based in Nova Scotia, writes about the privileging of urban queerness and the need for greater interaction between queer communities in Rural Queers? The Loss of the Rural in Queer.

According to Marple, “Within the broader queer community, the rural queer needs space to talk about areas of struggle, without being dismissed with the familiar quote ‘why don’t you just move to the city?’ as though urban life is the solution to queer challenges.” Rural queer people need space to be respected and acknowledged, instead of disregarded and undermined.

I definitely find myself guilty of an urban-queer superiority complex, and Marple’s call for greater interaction, without urban queer people belittling the lifestyle choices of their rural counterparts, is valid and salient. With greater recognition and respect, increased solidarity between the various queer communities could result in increased visibility and acceptance of rural queer people, both by their urban counterparts and broader communities. The advancement of rural queerness, with activism focused outside cities, can only mean greater visibility, acceptance, and progress for more LGBTQ populations.

The advancement of rural queerness, with activism focused outside cities, can only mean greater visibility, acceptance, and progress for more LGBTQ populations.

Although articles such as Marple’s have helped me gain greater respect for rural queer people, at this point in my life, I know a city is where I need to be. In part it’s my personality; I like to be around people and am extroverted in some ways. I found integrating into Montreal’s queer community difficult at first, but have since enjoyed and benefited from interacting with more queer people. If I had gone to college in New Jersey, the only other option I considered besides coming to Montreal, I can’t see myself having become the gender-fucking, sparkly nail polish-wearing, proud queer that I am today.

I couldn’t wait to get out of my stuffy, conservative New Jersey town where I still don’t feel completely comfortable being the person I am. While I’ve had friends from small towns and rural areas struggle with their sexualities, many queer friends from urban areas tell stories of coming out at younger ages, sometimes with easier transitions. Of course, it’s all based on context, and everyone’s journey of sexual self discovery is different. Marple asserted that urban and rural queer people have various privileges, face different struggles, and confront diverse challenges.

I can’t help but see cities as the places where the largest queer communities will exist, be recognized, and mobilize. Cities have been centres of queer activism, and they will continue to be. However, that’s not to diminish the importance and credibility of rural queer people. The unity of various queer communities could mean stronger activism and a greater push for equality, acceptance, and respect. Above all, I hope a conglomeration of queer communities means allowing for any queer person to be who they want to be – free of judgment, violence, and discrimination.


White Noise is a column exploring what it means to identify as gay or queer in McGill and Montreal communities. Eric can be reached at whitenoise@mcgilldaily.com.

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