Small Town Kid’s Long Way Home
It’s August 1, which means we have exactly 31 days until the release of The Long Way Home. I’ve been so wrapped up in other projects, traveling, and life in general that I haven’t had time to think about The Long Way Home much until I arrived in my home town this weekend.
I’m from Carlinville, Illinois, population 5400, and if you’ve followed this blog, you know I have a complex relationship with my home town. I never came out while living here because I was terrified of people’s reactions. Folks in the corn belt don’t hold pride marches. They fill Southern Baptist churches, carry membership cards for the NRA, and pray before football games. As a gay teen who watched Queer As Folk in the basement with the lights off and the closed captioning on, I felt suffocated at best and terrified at worst.
I’m not a teenager any more. I got out, grew up, and got educated. I like art house theaters and indie documentaries and goat cheese and all sorts of things you can’t get in Carlinville. I’m a leftist, socialist, academic, lesbian. I always envisioned myself making a break for the Castro or the Village, or even Boystown. That was the life for me, the life I was told to want, the life I did want in a lot of ways. Still, at the end of the day, I also felt myself being drawn back to small town America.
It baffled me for a long time that for as far as I’ve come from the trappings and dogma, I still associate with my hometown, and I find myself missing it. When I was in college at ISU in Bloomington/Normal and later visiting truly big cities like Chicago, Toronto, or SanFrancisco, I missed knowing my neighbors. I was disconcerted by the fact that no one made eye contact when they passed. I hated the way people treated each other in traffic. I wondered who I’d call if I ever got in trouble. I felt goundless, rootless, adrift.
When it came time to settle into a new town after graduation, I had expected to head for a city. We visited a few of them, and while all of them felt exciting, none of them felt like a home. Then we found a little lakeside town in Western New York. It was a tiny community of less than 10,000 people wrapped around a small liberal arts college. Could that work? Could a lesbian couple really make a home in a small town, surrounded by grape farms, with little ethnic diversity and a non-existent gay community.
During my first year there I felt claustrophobic. I was afraid to go out too much for fear the locals wouldn’t be accepting. We were timid in our half-hearted attempts to find a liberal church. Visions of torch-carrying villagers made me hesitant to engage the local charm in any meaningful way. But for some reason our neighbors kept smiling and waving. People invited us to pot lucks, and we eventually visited a church where they were so happy to see our newborn son that they seemed downright giddy about having the lesbians who came along with him. I was at home in a small town.
It was about this same time that I started to examine my feelings about my own home town, and small towns in general. I’d come out at college and gossip spreads like wildfire across the central Illinois prairie, so everyone knew I was gay. Aside from a few empty threats early on, I’ve yet to face any confrontation. My pastor still hugs me when I go to church, my high school friends still gather at my parents’ house every time I visit, and folks always ask how Susie and Jackie are when I see them at the grocery store, and yet for some reason I still get a sharp shot of terror every time I come into town. It took until last year for me to understand that the narratives my culture told me about small towns had been so deeply ingrained that I let it override every positive experience I’ve ever had. That dichotomy became the basis of Raine’s journey in The Long Way Home. I hope that as you read her story, you find it to be genuine and relatable, because while the actual, events, town, and people are not real, the story is in many ways a true one.
I’d like to say that I have it all worked out and that I now adore every minute I spend in Carlinville, but that’s not the case. I still wish we had some goat cheese in the house. I still wish that I could go see The Kids Are All Right at the local theater, and I still cringed at the big American flag in the church sanctuary this morning, but the terror has subsided, the claustrophobia is down to a manageable level, and while there is no gay community to be found, I am surrounded by people who love and accept me for who I am.
I guess I too am taking The Long Way Home, and while I will likely continue to roam, I’m making peace with the fact that at the heart of me I’ll always be a small town kid.
And just to prove a little bit of my small town kid credibility, I thought I’d kick off the final month of The Long Way Home blogs with a home video of sorts, my own small town memories set to the song “Small Town Kid” by the Eli Young Band.