Illustration by Jess Aleo
A tale as old as time: the queer kid and the small town. The unstoppable duo that loves to hate each other. Look across pop culture and you’ll see endless examples, from negative stereotypes like Little Britain’s Emily Howard to the bounty of LGBTQ+ characters bullied to near death a-la Skins or Glee. Queer kids and their small home towns are like oil and water. It’s why 59% of LGBTQ+ youth don’t feel accepted where they currently live, and why one in ten of us leave home because of factors relating to gender or sexuality*. But what about the ones that didn’t? I got in touch with two queer people in their early twenties who are currently living in small towns close to or where they grew up. Shelby, 22, has moved from one small town just outside of Norwich to another with their girlfriend. Eliza, 23, moved back to her hometown in Lancashire after attending university in London. Comparing their experiences to mine, I hope to quell some of the fears I’ve noticed in myself and my other queer friends about what life would have been like if I’d never left for the big city. Why do kids leave in the first place? Obviously, for the majority of queer kids, school fucking sucks. 49% of LGBTQ+ young people say their time at school was negatively affected by discrimination or the fear of it*. I was closeted until I left for university, but will always be horrified by the treatment of my bisexual friend who was ostracised to the point of moving school when we were 13. It seemed impossible to accept myself, let alone explore myself, in a town where anyones business – including their sex life – was everyones business. Shelby says that growing up an LGBTQ+ community was never a thing in their small town. “I was changing in more ways than I could keep up with, and it was quite a suffocating experience”. People who were suspected to exist outside their norms had “the shit ripped out of them” or were thought to be attention seeking. For Eliza, loneliness was the main issue. “I spent a lot of my teen years online and focused very intensely on places like Tumblr where there were a lot of queer teenagers like myself. I wanted to get to a city and find a more queer community as soon as I could”. Both of them, like myself, talk about having amazing friends during high school. But no matter how good your support system is, you’ll always be, you know, that one – so the idea of being no one actually sounds good.
Where my experiences differ from Shelby and Eliza’s is that I fled the moment I was able. Shelby comes from near Norwich and decided to go to college and then university there. Their plan is to move to this city, but they’re currently living in a different small town to the one they grew up in with their girlfriend. Shelby misses their family, but for a temporary home their new small town isn’t so bad. Eliza moved to London for university and loved it, but moved back home because of the extortionate rent. There’s not any community in her small town, but she’s “lucky to have many LGBTQ+ friends to contact” and loves the area she grew up in. Although content, she thinks a lot about moving to the lesbian capital of the UK - Hebden Bridge - just an hour away from where she currently lives. When I talk to people back home, even my non-queer friends often look at moving to a city, or at least spending weekends there. Maybe the difference is queer people have, at least in the past, not really had a choice. Moving can mean acceptance and actually starting your life. But in talking to Eliza and Shelby, neither of them seem overly unhappy with where they are – it’s not their forever home, but settingling at such a young age is rare anyways. Shelby and their girlfriend found that moving from one small town for another was difficult at first. As female presenting, Shelby has had people yell from cars and windows, harassing them and their girlfriend. With each other’s support, they’re now a lot more sure of themselves. Shelby says people are getting used to “a tall goth girl and a short emo tomboyish looking human holding hands walking down the street”. Shelby still says ‘my partner’ instead of ‘my girlfriend’ – but when it does come up organically, people generally don’t blink twice. If it is a problem, Shelby’s learnt middle finger communication is generally the best route. For Eliza, she only really notices it when she starts working somewhere new and people ask if she has a boyfriend. I asked if anything surprised her about being a lesbian in a small town, and she said that the fact she’s not miserable is a surprise. She often gets told she “doesn’t look like a lesbian” which, as blindly offensive as that is, she admits probably does make things easier for avoiding outright homophobia. But on the flip side, dating simply doesn’t exist for Eliza where she currently is. Both Shelby and Eliza told me they feel more comfortable with who they are now than when they did growing up. Both of them - despite their different paths - felt as though they grew when they met other people like them, and their positives seemed to be linked to having a strong sense of community. In Shelby’s words, “there are more queer people here than you think – you’re more than likely not alone in what you’re feeling”. On the other hand, the people that helped them grow weren’t found in their hometowns. They’ve both moved around a bit, and it was in their respective cities (Norwich for Shelby, London for Eliza) that they found the people who helped. However most people - queer or not - find their way once moving. Staying in an isolated community doesn’t really exist like it used to, even though small towns will never stop being more tightly knit than bigger communities. Queer communties tend not to exist in small towns as most leave the area. Maybe if we stopped moving around those communities will develop. But, present pandemic aside, the world gets smaller every day: and if anything, our long distance socialisation has shown us it doesn’t take proximity to find community. I sincerely (and naively) hoped that their answers would be that they were happy, that they would bump into other queer people in clubs, that there were probably LGBTQ+ coffee mornings happening in my local cafes that I just didn’t know about because I don’t live in my town anymore. My most simple hope was that they didn’t feel ostracised for being who they were. But while their answers were a far cry from what they might have been even ten years ago, the headlines given were closer to ‘young people crippled by city rent’ than ‘young queers find acceptance at home’. Acceptance varies from community to community. Shelby, Eliza’s, and even my own experiences are but one facet of a multicultural Britain that becomes increasingly accepting every year. But while the ‘village lesbian’ might not get torched anymore, they’re still exactly that – the owner of a title that marks them as something other. Hopefully, when Jodie Comer and I decide to adopt our children together, I’ll have the confidence to move out of the city to raise them. I can see a horizon when the happy ending for the gay character isn’t that they finally moves out of abusive small town, and becomes one of peace and acceptance. But we’re not there yet. Tunnel. Light. Let’s stay on track. Written by Gaby Dixon *Source: The Metro Charity. (2016). National Youth Chances Integrated Report 2016.