Notes from a Midwestern Gay

People, especially in college, often assume I’m from New York City. It happens frequently. Speaking to an acquaintance, or even a good friend, whomever I’m with will peg me as a New Yorker.

I am an Ohioan, a Midwesterner, a kid who grew up driving through an hour of cornfields and the smell of pig shit to get to school in the morning. Where I’m from in southern Ohio, ‘New York City’—and the ideas of cultural, political, and capital power concentrated there—is code for snobbish, pretentious, arrogant, mean and cold: city people. It’s the opposite of what country folk are: friendly, neighborly, willing to lend a helping hand, or, at least if you look a certain way—just ask my neighbor who flies a confederate flag. To tell a Midwesterner you thought they were from New York City is to indicate pure contempt and superior moralization without uttering an insulting word: the ultimate shade. So whenever someone I know guesses I’m from New York City, I immediately stop the conversation and ask: What have I done to mortally offend you? Can we please start over?

Recently, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of asking people why they think I’m from the Big Apple. I say it’s a bad habit because my question often makes people uncomfortable and squirm a bit. The reason is simple; I’m gay, and not only do I know that the reason why the given person thought I was from New York City was because I’m gay and give off a “metropolitan” air, but I also know that they know my asking indicates I’ve spotted their assumption. This all makes for a delightfully awkward moment, because under mainstream gay equality, gayness is something that we are not supposed to categorize or stereotype about, and are instead supposed to treat as benignly as, say, a suburban family pruning their lawn or going to Lowe’s to pick up paint for their DIY home project. This is funny to me, because although I don’t promote stereotypes, there is a historical reality—at least in the twentieth century—of queer people congregating in cities. But my mothers taught me to pick my battles wisely and so I choose to play along, to try not to force people to say “Honestly, you’re gay and seem like you’re from New York City.” But I fully understanding that by doing so, I tacitly—and guiltily—encourage the continued use of words like “cosmopolitan” and “stylish” to denote gayness.

In all fairness, I’m well aware that my gay voice, ear piercings, and horn-rim tortoiseshell glasses don’t exactly scream country boy. And I’d also be lying if I tagged myself as completely country; I spent a lot of time with one of my mothers living in the suburbs, attended private Jewish schools in Columbus city proper, and did live in New York City for a year and a half after graduating high school. So in many ways, it’s more accurate to say I’m an amalgamation of various places, with a large dose of southern, rural Ohio in the mix.

Here’s my country cred: My bio-mom and her partner, my step-mother, live on a plot of land of fifty acres. Much of it is wooded, with paths that snake around a ravine, but a lot of it is open spaces too. We’ve had an assortment of animals: horses, goats, donkeys, dogs, and a pack of feral cats that we somehow began taking care of. I own muckboots, wore Carhartts before the hipsters thought the brand was cool, transport hay and horse shit with my four-wheeler, and often go to sleep to the sound of my neighbors exercising their Second Amendment rights. My first gay crush was on a country boy, a family friend, who spent his summers bailing hay (and building terrific arm muscle), riding his dirt-bike (which later upgraded into a Harley-Davidson), and who was trained from an early age by his father, a contractor, to build barns and patch broken fences. The nearest town to my house is called Amanda, Ohio, a place almost stereotypical in its all-American outfit: a local diner and doctor’s office sit side-by-side on the main drag; every year, the town rallies behind the football team; in the fall, during hunting season, people hang their skinned deer on trees in their front yards; and the place is almost completely devoid of any people of color.

The reason I’m so interested in why people think I’m from New York City is because, to me, the misidentification signals a failure to think expansively about sexuality and masculinity, and about the different permutations that sexual identity and gender presentation can take in this world. People can’t imagine I’m from Ohio because they can’t imagine that someone who presents and sounds like me—which, on the spectrum of things, isn’t particularly femme—could’ve had their formative moments surrounded by hay and open fields. And it’s this exact assessment—that I couldn’t hail from anywhere outside of the East Coast, given my gayness and “style”—which further proves my point; in popular culture, Midwestern men can only be bland, masculine heterosexuals. Anything else couldn’t have come from there. I also think the misidentification signals a failure to separate gay desire—the baseline attraction that men feel for other men—from a certain image of contemporary, white, gay culture and masculinity that dominates in New York City. People learn how to be culturally gay—even people in New York City—and one shouldn’t confuse cultural gayness with the desire it does, or does not, correspond to. And on the flip side, some parts of what popular culture think are uniquely gay phenomena are often unlearned. Case in point: this queen’s gay voice, I’m proud to report, has attended rodeo festivals, the local diner with its group of gruff and ornery old men, and many trips to our local TSC (Tractor Supply Company) to restock the farm—and all without performance.

So what does make me an Ohioan? I’d have to say it’s my appreciation for a slower tempo and open space. When I lived in New York City, my poor Midwestern soul was not prepared for the crushing claustrophobia and dull grayness of the buildings, the constant noise and bustle, the smell of rotting trash, and, in Washington Heights, the constant stink cloud of weed. My dorm room was a solid cement cube without air conditioning and during the summer became so sweltering that this Jewish boy began believing in the Devil. The room also overlooked the East River and George Washington Bridge, and I’d often sit at my desk and watch the cars crawl across the bridge, unable to stop myself from thinking that their movement was the perfect metaphor for the city itself: its constant pulse, the way it gorged and expelled people, objects, desires. It was as if the city bred a lack of agency, as if it was controlling you.

It was in those moments that I would miss the Ohio I knew: the calm of the woods, of literally, like in a fairy tale, waking to the sounds of birds chirping, the pinks and purples of sunrises I would drive through in the morning to school. What it all amounted to was a feeling, however constructed, that I was in control of the pulse of my life. I often scoff, especially from the cramped confines of a city, at the American dream of endless expansion and freedom, but when I return back to Ohio I understand the impulse. Driving through open fields of crops, enjoying the swerves and dips of the road, I can’t help but project myself outwards onto the horizon that surrounds me. In those moments, when I’m alone and barreling down a beaten country road at 65 miles an hour, the bright greens of the fields swaying next to me, the music of my choice blaring out of the stereo, and my off-tune voice belting out the lyrics, I catch myself thinking that maybe I can control everything in my life.

I know that’s never going to be true: Life comes at you fast and hard and out of control whether you’re in the sloping hills of southern Ohio or the crammed trains of New York City. But that still can’t stop my Midwesterner heartache for Ohio when I’m gone, and my feeling, however constructed, that I become a little more me every time I come home.

 

 

Joshua Tranen has, at different points, called rural Ohio, the West Bank, ​and NYC home. If that sequence of places intrigues you, Joshua can be found at Joshua.Tranen@yale.edu. He also tweets his feelings at @Jtranen.

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