Even Though I Love My Hometown, I Could Never Live There

9/17/2017

Before diving into the heart of this article, I want to make the following clear to everyone reading: I love my hometown. It was an amazing place to grow up and is full of happy memories, fantastic friends, and an incredible family. But just because you love something doesn’t mean it’s perfect, nor does it mean that it’s ultimately the best fit for you…and that’s how I feel about the place I grew up.

I had what many would consider the quintessential midwestern childhood; riding bikes all over town, neighborhood games of hide and seek, walking to and from school with little worry…we even had a tire swing in our back yard. In this charmed life, I think my biggest complaint was having to eat my vegetables at dinner time. I’ll be the first to say how lucky and privileged I am to have the childhood I did.

However, as I grew out of childhood and into adolescence, my bright life darkened. Slowly but surely, it dawned on me that I was different than most of my friends. I desperately tried to cover my feelings and fit in, but of course it ultimately was for naught and just led to years of anxiety, insecurity, and depression.

The main reason I put so much effort to fit in is simple: in my small midwestern town, there was virtually no LGBTQ community and no LGBTQ representation. The lack of resources available to me contributed an incredible amount of stress and confusion while I desperately sought validation for how I felt. Identifying as bi was particularly tough, mostly because for a long time I didn’t even know bisexuality was a legitimate orientation; in my experience at that point, you were either straight or gay.

I eventually did find out what bisexuality is; not through an educational program or through the LGBTQ community, but from the punchline of a joke in the movie “Dodgeball.” The female lead is teased that she is a lesbian throughout the film because she can throw the dodgeball hard and at the end of the film (spoilers ahead), when they win the championship, her girlfriend comes out of the audience and kisses her. The male lead says something along the lines of, “Huh, I guess she was a lesbian after all,” to which she replies, “I’m not a lesbian, I’m bisexual,” and she walks up and kisses him too.

It was the AH-HA! moment I had been searching for; I finally had an example (albeit one used for comedic effect)  that what I was feeling could be valid and might be recognized as a real thing. However, I couldn’t be 100% sure, as it was used as part of a gag in a comedy.

After that moment, despite the momentary rush of excitement, I pushed my feelings down and tried to ignore them. Even if it was a subject I wanted to pursue, where did I have to turn to in order to learn more? As far as I knew, there was no one else like me in my hometown. I’m sure I could have turned to my family, but it felt hard to approach them with something that I didn’t even understand myself. So instead, I suffered silently through adolescence, hoping that it was “just a phase” that I would grow out of once puberty ended. Of course, I now know the “it’s just a phase” moments just came from a lack of understanding.

As I made it to my high school years, I still felt burdened by this uncertainty, but I did my best to stay busy in order to keep my feelings at bay. Despite the ever-present anxiety lingering in the back of my mind, I had a great high school career. I played sports, participated in several clubs, was Senior Class President, Editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and even crowned Homecoming King my senior year. I had an amazing group of friends (who I still talk to almost every single day), had a tight-knit family, and basically everything one could ask for in my hometown.

The sad thing is, I still wasn’t happy; I wasn’t able to be myself…I still didn’t even understand what it was I was feeling. I continued to carry around the weight of confusion and secrecy, that got heavier and heavier with each passing day, and started to associate those feelings with my hometown.

I remember feeling excited when we broached the subject of sexual education in health class my sophomore year; I thought, “Finally, I’ll get the answers I’ve needed all these years.” Unfortunately, I did not. Virtually all of the topics covered were centered on sexual health for heterosexual students, with little to no educational coverage of LGBTQ sexual health…not even a thorough explanation as to what it means to identify as a member of the LGBTQ community.

Some of you might be thinking, “Why should they educate all students in those areas? The ones who need it only represent a small portion of the student body.” At the time of my health class, I would have seen some validity in that statement, but now, I know better.

I graduated with roughly 200 students, and at the time of graduation there were maybe three openly LGBTQ individuals. Fast forward roughly seven years later, and there are around fifteen students from my class who now identify as LGBTQ. Multiply that by each class level, and you have over 50 students who are being left to their own devices to figure out their sexual orientation and best safe sex practices. That’s a larger group than most of the sports teams, clubs, and other extracurricular activities at my high school, yet sadly there were no resources available to us.

I also fail to see how providing everyone with a well-rounded and complete sex education, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, could be anything but positive. One day dedicated to LGBTQ sex education would have saved me years of confusion and struggle, and I’m sure the same can be said for some of my fellow classmates.

Looking back, I wish I was as brave as those few individuals who did come out in high school. I wish I could have helped start some sort of club or organization for the LGBTQ community, both in my school and for the outside community. I could have been the one to demand answers I sought. But I didn’t…instead I chose to leave. It’s not a desire I ever really hid, it was just masked with other reasons. The simple fact of the matter is I was 18, tired of feeling like the odd man out, and the tools to figuring out who I was weren’t in my hometown. I felt like I needed to escape to a new place; I hate to use the word “escape” but at the time, that’s exactly what it felt like.

Today, I live in a city a few hours away. I play in an LGBTQ sports league once a week. I frequent a neighborhood just minutes away that is full of LGBTQ bars, restaurants, and shops. There are countless groups, organizations, and events I can be a part of here; it’s the community for which I’ve been searching ever since I first realized that I was different.

I still venture home quite a bit; at least once a month, oftentimes more. Like I said in the beginning, I love my hometown. I love being able to visit to see my friends and family. But not much has changed in terms of the LGBTQ community there. While my hometown has given me so much and helped shape the person I am today, it still can’t provide the sense of community that I get from the LGBTQ community where I live today. I’d love to help build one in my hometown in any way I can, but I know that, at this point, I will be contributing from afar.

Blaize Stewart
Blaize Stewart is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received a BA in broadcast journalism and a MA in journalism. He currently lives in Chicago, IL and works as an influencer relations associate for a full-service influencer marketing agency called Faam and as an adjunct instructor at Robert Morris University. Additionally, he runs the LGBTQ+ blog Out Loud, a space for members to share their experiences and thoughts on current events and more.