It’s by no means a unique struggle to move to a new place and try to find community; starting over, meeting new people, and learning the way of the land is a challenging task for anyone. For me, moving from a small community of students in Virginia to a big city was definitely a culture shock, but until now – nearly four years later – I haven’t been able to really work through and articulate what I find odd about large urban spaces.

Recently I’ve been reading a book by Mary Gray called “Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Urban America.” In her book, Dr. Gray powerfully describes learning the ways of a small community that leans politically to the right, and the difficult process that all members of the community experience confronting LGBT issues. The inescapability of a small, rural community demands that all members of this town have a stake in social and political outcomes.

The story Dr. Gray tells reminds me of my experience as an activist in a small, pretty homophobic college community. At first, when I had no foundation of support, oppressive forces within the community were crippling. It’s hard to explain what it can be like to be living in a total institution without a support network to those who have never experienced it before. But gradually, as I learned more about myself and was eventually able to meet kind and sympathetic people, I began to understand what change can feel like in small communities. It can be exposing, debilitating, eye-opening; individual or small group behaviors can have profound impact on your neighbors. It’s intimate. Total communities like those found in small college campuses or small towns are unique spaces where the self may be at odds against a powerful few; the local organization of politics and power plays a considerable role in the well-being of any given individual.

Urban spaces certainly have their perks; the popular notion that LGBT people can run away to New York or San Francisco and finally “be themselves” certainly holds some truth. But I argue that part of the luxury of big cities – the anonymity and ability to do certain controversial things without devastating repercussions – comes with a price. It’s much harder to see how beautiful it can be to make a difference for not only a small group of individuals but also the every day operation of local institutions and the people who make up that community. In big cities, presentations of self can hold much less meaning in terms of how others in that space interact with any given individual.

I’m not arguing that cities do not provide a space for individuals to grow and, much more practically, offer a safeguard against abuse certain people might experience elsewhere. Or am I trying to say that it’s sugar and daisies to live as a marginalized person in a seemingly inescapable small town. I guess I’m just trying to articulate that localized struggle can bring about some truly transformative and powerful experiences, and it takes some strength to willingly be part of it. Cheers to those who work hard to make a difference in these small communities.

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