Friday, July 27, 2012

Oh, To Be Queer in the Suburbs

I've lived in the suburbs for most of my life.  Often, people have asked me "Which do you like better--the East or West Coast?"  But between the suburban towns that I lived in on both coasts, the main difference is probably the climate.  Until a certain book made me question it, I took this view of suburbia, which is shared by many both inside and outside it:  That the suburbs are a tragic, boring, isolating place where creative people experience "aesthetic peril*".  At the same time, I accepted the view of cities as superior and unique.  I never thought about the fact that "great world cities" are grouped together based on many similarities.  And a lot of what makes cities "great" tends to be based on Eurocentric standards.

Enter the book Relocations.  It might actually make me feel slightly better about living in the suburbs, which is no small feat.  The author, Karen Tongson, writes that for too long, studies of queer life have privileged the city, even though many queer people (especially women and people of color) live in the suburbs.  The prevailing idea is that after coming out, queer people need to migrate to the city or risk the sad and irrelevant life described earlier.  That queer people might choose to stay in the suburbs, or actually migrate from cities to suburbs, is rarely examined.  

While there is no city with an asexual community on par with San Francisco or New York's gay communities, I accepted the same narrative of suburban to urban migration.  I always pictured myself living in a city, since it was what seemed "normal" for a young, single person from the suburbs.  It's true that the suburban demographics are changing.  They're no longer places that are solely composed of heterosexual couples with kids.  However, while there may be a certain number of people "like me" in the suburbs, the difference is that they're less visible than they might be in the city.  When I visit a vegan anarchist cafe (as I did in London), I can assume that many of the people present share some of my interests, whatever their age or appearance.  At a Starbucks in the suburbs, there is no way to guess about the interests of anyone present.  While in my personal experience it's harder to meet new people in the suburbs, its lack of niche activity might actually yield a more diverse group of friends for the suburban person, which is something that I value.

Tongson writes that there is something fundamentally queer about the suburbs' odd juxtapositions of time periods, architectures, forgotten histories, and groups of people.  While the suburbs are usually seen as boring, in many ways they're also very strange, surreal places.  One of my biggest problems with the suburbs is being seen as culturally irrelevant.  After all, cities are promoted as the site of alternative culture, and suburbs the place where people escape from it.  And this is why, according to Tongson, suburban queers of color love the Smiths (I could not believe that this was A Thing, but apparently it is).  While I am white, I could relate to this British pop admiration, although maybe for slightly different reasons than the ones Tongson posits.  We love bands from unlikely places, such as Manchester, because they show that you don't have to come from new York or LA to be relevant.  (I have always loved the fact that Yo La Tengo is from Hoboken, New Jersey.)  While some bands could be from anywhere, the Smiths are very grounded in what Tongson would call "the imaginary" of Manchester.  To suburban Americans, a place like Manchester is exotic, but at the same time, we can relate to it in a way that we can't relate to, say, London or Paris.  We do have suburban culture, although it is so overlooked and devalued (by residents and city folk alike), that it has a hard time thriving.  In some ways, the cultural wasteland of the suburbs is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Driving in your car through lonely stretches of Southern California or elsewhere.  Driving in your car with someone else, with significant others (not necessarily lovers--or are they?).  Rollin' deep with your homies, sisters or bros, real or conjured, desperately seeking excitement elsewhere, somewhere, but realizing that it might just be all about the ride, the inevitably aimless transport of accidental reverie--and all about who you're riding with."  --last page of Relocations

(*this term is from Relocations.)

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