By Aaron Foley
I‘ve tried over and over and over to try and push out some thoughts about gay life in the Midwest. What exactly is there to be said that would help outsiders understand what we’re like around these parts?
I keep coming up short.
Our collective images of gay men at large are that of coastal gays. They are young, white, well-dressed, in shape, out on the town every night and in someone else’s bed by the next morning. Queer as Folk personified. If one were to picture a gay man living in the Midwest, it’d probably be Kevin Kline’s character in the comedy In & Out. Single, mild-mannered, asexual, suspected to be gay but never quite confirmed.
Sure, there have been some images of gay males in pop culture that have permeated the young-and-white prototype – think of the coming-out arc of young Justin in Ugly Betty, or Joanne the Scammer, the popular drag performer with a huge online following. Still, if we’re going to have these postelection conversations about the coastal folks getting to know the inland folks (and vice-versa), we have to understand how LGBT individuals – myself included – fit into all this.
What’s there to understand?
Last Saturday night, my friends and I went out dancing. I am not a dancer. I’m supposed to be Detroit through and through, and yet I fail at Detroit hustles and I could never jit. There isn’t much to dancing to loud, gay pop music, though – you just sort of shuffle side to side in rhythm, throw up your hands when it’s called for, and just try not to step on anyone’s toes.
We’re at the Temple Bar, one of the last dives in Cass Corridor – half of which has already been rebranded as Midtown, the other half of which is becoming the Arena District. Temple is not a gay bar, but it has gay or gay-friendly nights occasionally. On Saturday night, a popular gay DJ spins remixes of top 40 with techno mixed in.
Part of this is escape. Since November, the common refrain around these parts is, “I can’t believe my parents/brother/uncle/cousin voted for Trump when I’m gay.” (I’m hearing this mostly from non-black gay friends; thankfully, to my knowledge, my relatives weren’t as short-sighted.)
All of my gay friends are upstanding members of society, whatever that means – and unabashedly Midwestern. They have dinners with family regularly; some attend church. Quite a few are looking for marriage and a family, not an endless string of hookups. They drive American cars (or SUVs), drink beer and watch football. It’s not wearing a mask of masculinity. It’s just what we value here.
There’s the one guy coming from a conservative Macomb County suburb whose parents voted Trump. The other guy who keeps swiping right on gay men who turn out to be Trump supporters – oh, and a few of his relatives voted Trump, too. Another guy who grew up white in a suburb with a huge Muslim population, and despite having open-minded parents, they also voted Trump. The multiracial guy who doesn’t communicate with his white relatives because, yep, Trump. That’s just a few.
We live in close proximity to what we try to leave behind; the “big city” is not a train ride or a long drive away.
We live in close proximity to what we try to leave behind; the “big city” is not a train ride or a long drive away. if you live in Detroit, your conservative hometown is within a 45-minute drive, or the church that will condemn your homosexuality is right around the corner. You’re never too far.
This dance party is an escape for people like us, but here in the Midwest, we reject the idea of a “safe space.” I bristled a bit when news reports about the Orlando massacre talked of a shooter descending upon a “safe space,” because I’m not quite sure what that is. Unlike a West Village or a West Hollywood, where coastal white gays appear to peacefully coexist with carbon copies of themselves, the Midwestern gay life – at least here in Detroit – isn’t so cut and dried.
I’ve always felt like my New York and L.A. gay friends have it easy because their chances of meeting someone not from those places, respectively, were greater. When you have less in common, you are introduced to new ideas. Because many of here in the Midwest have never left where we’re from, we have too much in common. Now you’re seeing carbon copies of personality. That results in boredom, and nothing good ever comes from being bored.
I don’t want to say we’re stagnant. But being set in your ways, I guess, doesn’t always make for fruitful conversation. Especially here in Detroit. Each time I go out as a black male, I always have to prepare myself for the following:
1. The shock from a white gay who finds out that I’m not only from Detroit, I still live here on my own volition.
2. An uncomfortable, unprovoked confrontation about whether they can use the n-word. (It happens! And it happened to me at Menjo’s.)
Or, most often:
3. Confronting some of the ugly stereotypes the suburbanites have about the city kids. There is no safe space when everyone is too close-minded to learn something new, and others are fearful in truly expressing themselves.
I suppose Indy, Chicago, and Cleveland gays might have the same issue. Cities that were hubs for black Americans during the Great Migration and later suffered white flight, history is now manifesting in the oddest of ways in their gay descendants. It’s why our drag queens only fetishize the black boys as having BBC (I ain’t talking about the TV network) and affect exaggerated accents for the Latino boys. Sometimes you need to escape, but you end up right back in the same old bullshit.
I dunno. Maybe the average Midwestern gay can be summed up as this: Not exactly mild-mannered Kevin Kline, but definitely blending in with the rest of the world around him. That may have its positives; we want to be seen as equal, right? But to be honest, we, like the rest of the country, have a lot of work to do in understanding each other – especially within our own community. If we’re already content with the way things are, then that’s just not going to happen.
Aaron Foley is the editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine, the author of How To Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass (Belt, 2015), and the editor of The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, coming in 2017 from Belt Publishing.