Adirondack towns don’t love me back.
I’ve gone through a lot of moments of frustration, confusion, and loss for how to deal with the topics floating around in my head. They’re not easy to talk about. Often I’m left on the other end of a conversation feeling as alone as when it started. I’ve stopped trying to correct comments that subtly put down Queer people, or address responses that don’t understand where I’m coming from. I’ve ignored the people imposing their own experience on mine, the comments that assure me they completely understand.
Their intentions are good, and I get that. People are full of good intentions, but those intentions do not always translate to actions or behavior or language that seeks to understand.
It is exhausting to always explain it.
It’s okay to get things wrong and there is no “right thing” to say. What matters is that you are genuine and willing to listen, and make an effort to understand. The problem is that a lot of folks don’t accept that their viewpoint comes from privilege, their accomplishments come from privilege, and that they are inevitably going to get things wrong.
What matters is what you do when you mess up. Do you stop, have the humility to acknowledge the mistake, and listen?
I come from a place of privilege, and I get things wrong all the time. Despite being a member of an underrepresented group I come from an accepting family, and was given access to the outdoor world from a young age. I’m white, and because of that I did not have to face the countless barriers and systematic racism BIPOC individuals have to deal with on a daily basis.
But getting it wrong doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. It means we need to talk about it more.
Conversations and stories are what give me hope that we can bridge the spaces between us. That we can reach a deeper understanding of each other not to erase the differences, but to uplift and value them.
So here is a story.
Rural communities are a place I fear. They are full of queerphobia and I don’t feel safe simply existing in these spaces. Yes, even Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. It is isolating and in many cases dangerous for someone who is from an underrepresented group to live in a white, heteronormative rural town where they feel cut off from people like them, and immersed in a place with a profound history of discrimination.
The thing is, I grew up in one of these places, in the Southern Adirondacks. My Queer ass grew up watching NASCAR and ice fishing while eating powdered donuts from Stewarts and pulling in the big lakers. I drank orange juice mixed out of one of those frozen cans and played basketball with my brother on a hoop nailed to a tree in the driveway. I built a potato cannon with 4-H and took it to the New York State fair. It was painted it black with orange flames. I rode in the back of a pick up truck, walked around car shows, and graduated high school with a class size of 62.
I was also obsessed with the color purple, played with dolls, believed in fairies, dressed up in rainbow sparkly shirts with pink tutus, attempted a study on the local squirrel population and tried to communicate with trees. I hit my brother over the head with a metal shovel before I could talk and was known to stand up on a chair at the dinner table and inform him that he wasn’t nearly as important as he thought he was.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was allowed to be whoever I wanted to be. Then I went to high school.
The first time I remember hearing the word gay was in 8th grade health class. We watched a movie on HIV that was probably supposed to scare the sex drive out of us, and then our Health teacher seized the moment to talk about “the gays.”
I remember the awkwardness that filled the room, we all shifted in those uncomfortable metal desks and looked at each other.
“It’s normal and they can’t help it, and you could never tell just by looking at them” He paused, and stared around the room dramatically.
“In fact, I guarantee you there are gay people in this room right now and they don’t even know it yet.”
We stared around at each other, mortified. Who could it be? In the room at that very moment? The health teacher went on to site statistics that proved without a doubt that at least one of us had to be gay.
I was pretty sure it was Devin. Guess the joke was on me.
I’m glad to say things got better from there. I fit in best with the people who were a little bit different. I was surrounded by people who were open minded, who supported Queer people, and who were fierce social justice advocates in the making.
I also had beliefs and internalized notions about how the world works that were privileged, white-centric, straight-centric, and despite considering myself “open-minded” was full of beliefs that were incorrect and formed from a small-town experience. I’m sure some of them are still there.
My junior year of high school two big things happened. My mom was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and my brother came out as gay. He is four years older than me, and was already off to college. I was home and all my thoughts went to my mom and wondering if she was going to live. Nights alone as my dad spent the night with her in the hospital, the blur of drugs and medication. The morning her hair started falling out, and all the complications. I grew up fast, I was convinced I was as much of an adult as I was going to get. I was 16.
Any thoughts that I might be gay totally left my mind. Besides, my brother already was. How could there possibly be two of us. (I have since met at least four pairs of queer siblings)
After about a year my mom was declared cancer free and my brother brought home a boyfriend who is now my brother in-law.
I started to find the space to figure out who I was. Around me I saw the local priest getting kicked out of his position because the community found out he was gay. I remember little kids on the bus, elementary kids, insulting each other with the word gay. That’s so gay, you’re so gay, what are, you gay?
Am I gay?
My hometown is not a great place to be Queer.
Then one day our GSA club loaded up in a Subaru and drove to the University of Connecticut for a True Colors Conference. There were speakers on gender, sexuality, sexual health, gender expectations, slam poets talking about identities I’d never heard of. Transgender people sharing their experience, gay men, lesbians, non-binary people, bisexual folks. My closeted queer self from ice-fishing New York did not know what to think. Did not understand why I felt so at home. So comfortable. Why I related so much.
Overinvested “straight ally.”
The next year I went off to college, and started dating someone from near my hometown. In fact we had built that potato cannon together. Everyone told him he was gay and he told me I was a lesbian. I cut my hair short and he wore flannel shirts with stud earrings. We were occasionally mistaken for a lesbian couple.
He was the first person I came out to. We were together for almost three years, and we broke up just a few days before I started my job as a Summit Steward with ADK.
Two years later, when the leaves changed and nights got cooler I didn’t leave. I got a job within the state wildlife department, and next thing I knew was sitting in an empty apartment wondering if this was the town I would spend my life calling home.
It was a thought I didn’t mind.
Winter came. In the sameness around me, I became uncomfortably aware of my own differences.
At first I comforted myself in saying it was the minority of people who boasted Trump Flags and homophobic signs. That most people in these places were liberal and accepting. That I didn’t need to be afraid.
But feeling accepted means more than not being afraid of getting beat up when you walk down the street.
I tried to find a Queer Community. I met a couple folks but the only thing we had in common was being Queer.
Fast forward to Spring 2020.
Black Lives Matter. A community focused on social justice. Biphobic comments from a coworker. A pandemic. A blog post accidentally gone viral. Publicly saying I’m Queer. Writing about being Queer. Being scared writing about being Queer. Feeling like a part of me is hidden because it makes others uncomfortable.
Then I found myself alone with another Queer person. I don’t know how it came up or why it kept going, but suddenly there were thoughts coming out of my mouth I didn’t know were there.
Until that moment I didn’t realize that I had been keeping them in. Tucked away in a folder labeled “too embarrassing, too deep, too personal, too uncomfortable”. The lock kept on by memories of losing friends, or the messages I never got a response to.
But with this person it was safe, this person understood not just what its like to be Queer but what it’s like to be Queer here, in the Adirondacks, as a single person in their mid-twenties.
There was a huge space that we didn’t need to cross. A space I’m so aware of with many of my friends. They were a near stranger. Yet somehow this stranger understood something about me that people who have known me for years never could.
Relief. He made a joke about straight couples and I nearly hugged him, the type of humor that doesn’t come up among my heteronormative friends. I felt that I’d been hiding a part of myself, and suddenly I didn’t have to anymore.
My hand is numb, gripped tight to the shovel, and my straight friend stands in the snow. It’s 7:30 in the morning, I haven’t been able to sleep.
Not since my coworker got a flat tire on the way home and went into an auto shop in Lake Placid. He told me what the waiting room was like.
I couldn’t get it out of my head.
There was a sign up in the waiting room. It said No Trans People, except instead of Trans was a highly derogatory slur. Hate speech.
While the sign could be referring to transmission work, it’s also a slur that can easily be misconstrued. In 2021 we should be more conscious of the language we use, regardless of its intent. As for the intent, the sign sits among a wall of Trump signs and pictures of scantily clad women.
I needed to talk about it and I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who. I felt the spaces between myself and the people around me more heavily than I ever had before.
This would be my third time trying. Now in a snowstorm at 7:30 in the morning. I’m surrounded by people who care, but few who understand.
It’s a person I am good friends with, have known for two years and we had hiked together, worked together, and even shared an apartment for a few months. Now he lives upstairs.
We both clung to the shovels, like they were going to make the whole thing more comfortable. My face was hot, I felt the snow turn to water on my flushed cheeks. The tears could just be melted snow.
I told him about the sign. I heard the words coming out of my mouth and understood for the first time why it upset me so deeply.
I took a deep breath and avoided his face. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this but I’ve questioned my gender a lot. I identify as gender queer.”
I hear myself stop talking and there is that horrible moment, the space in-between where you don’t know how they are going to react.
But then I saw it in his face, maybe it was the pain in mine. Something happened, something he understood. The spaces felt a little bit smaller.
If we can close the spaces at 7:30 in the morning between parked cars in a snowstorm, maybe there are more ways to not feel alone than I thought.
To many, rural towns like those in the Adirondacks are not a place for Queer people. I’ve heard countless transphobic comments and jokes that perpetuate the feeling we don’t belong here. I want to scream that we do, and prove them all wrong. But I also want a community, and to find someone to build a life with. I want a more diverse friend group, I want to hear different ways of looking at the world, and I don’t want to feel like the only queer person around. None of that is going to happen here.
And it sucks. It really does. It hurts when I hear people say how much they love this place. Because I do too, I love the mountains and the lakes. The loon calls and the spruce trees. I grew up here, and it’s hard to put into words how much the Adirondacks mean to me. These mountains are my home, but the community is not. I belong here, but it’s hard to be happy here.
I’m tired. I know I need to leave, but I am also hopeful that I will come back. Hopeful that one day these towns will be a place where differences aren’t hidden, ignored, or “not seen”, but valued and uplifted. A place full of other Queer people, Black and Brown people, more languages, and less hate.