Gays and lesbians, of course, are born into families in small towns and rural areas and the Bible Belt. At birth, at least, we are everywhere. But while we're spread evenly through the population and the nation as children, queers born into families in Nebraska or rural Texas or West Virginia don't stay for long. As soon as we can leave, we migrate to big cities. Why? Like the cover of this issue says, we know where we're not wanted.
For American queers, the United States is not now, nor has it ever been, a continent-spanning nation, a large, contiguous land mass. It is, always has been, and for the foreseeable future remains an archipelago, a chain of islands linked by interstates and airlines. There are more islands today than there were 20 years ago--credit the collective power of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement and the individual power of gays and lesbians coming out to their families--and some of the islands are larger than ever (Massachusetts, Vermont, California), but each of us, when we first realize we're queer, starts to think about which island we're going to live on. Will we wind up in San Francisco or Chicago? Dallas or Miami? New York or Seattle?
Gays and lesbians have always been migrants and refugees to these islands. We leave places that are less tolerant for places that are more tolerant. Even the most isolated, miserable, despairing baby dyke being homeschooled by her fundamentalist parents on a farm in South Dakota knows this to be true: The larger a city is, the more queers it has; the more queers a city has, the more tolerant it is of queers. She knows that if she ever wants to live openly as a lesbian--if she wants to have a life--she will one day have to get out of South Dakota. And she will, if she has any sense at all, move to a big city, becoming another queer refugee.
We've reached an odd point in the struggle for gay rights. If a gay man in the United States wants to know what rights he enjoys, he has to ask himself, "Where am I?" The issue of full civil equality for gays and lesbians is dividing the country geographically like no other issue in our history besides slavery. Indeed, it's hard not to look at one of the "gay rights maps" on the websites of the Human Rights Campaign or Lambda Legal without thinking "slave states and free states." In some states, we have no rights. We're non-citizens. In others, we have achieved full civil equality.
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When I get letters at Savage Love from miserable homos who live in small towns or rural areas--letters from young lesbians in South Dakota, for instance--I advise them to move, as soon as possible, to the nearest big city. This usually earns me a bag full of angry letters from gays and lesbians--urban gays and lesbians, it bears pointing out--who insist that I should encourage all those small-town queers to stay put. Things will never get better for gays and lesbians in, say, Crawford, Texas, if gays and lesbians keep leaving Crawford for Dallas. Or New York City. Or Seattle.
But even if Crawford, Texas, were to suddenly become the Amsterdam of rural Texas--if nothing but rainbow flags and PFLAG moms were on hand to greet President Bush every time he visited his ranch--young queers would still have to migrate to bigger cities. Fact is, gays and lesbians are a tiny, and a constant, percentage of the population. The old estimate of 10% was ridiculously high. Better estimates put us at 3%, maybe 4%. Which means, of course, that if a gay boy grows up in, say, Nooksack, Washington (population 851), odds are good that he's the only gay boy in town. He can stay put, he can work to make Nooksack a better place for gays and lesbians, but he will, as a consequence, never get laid outside a truck-stop restroom, never have a romantic relationship that isn't warped by fear, never have any gay friends, never have a family.
Is it any wonder that gay boy isn't going to stay in Nooksack? He's going to migrate--he's well advised to migrate--as is Crawford's loneliest lesbian. Gay and lesbian migration is as much about finding a tolerant place to live as it is about creating a romantic critical mass. By gathering together in large numbers, gays and lesbians not only create a tolerant zone in which we can live our lives--an island, to stick with my metaphor--but something else just as valuable: a viable dating scene. Even if the entire United States turned into the Netherlands overnight, gays and lesbians will still be migrants and refugees. Our scarcity compels it.
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What has always been a constant for American queers--migration to bigger cities, the experience of being a refugee in your own country--will, ironically, be picking up pace, not slowing down, after a series of notable breakthroughs in the struggle for gay and lesbian civil equality in the last year.
First the good news: In the last twelve months, we've seen tremendous progress. On June 10 of last year, the first of three Canadian provinces legalized gay marriage. On June 26, 2003, the United States Supreme Court overturned anti-gay (and anti-straight) sodomy laws in 13 states. Homosexuals, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime." On February 3, 2004, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ordered the state to legalize same-sex marriage. Officials in San Francisco began marrying same-sex couples this spring--in open defiance of California's anti-gay-marriage law. Suddenly gay marriage and the rights of gay citizens were being discussed everywhere. Gay marriages were performed in Oregon, New York, and Nevada. And gays and lesbians continued to triumph in the pop-culture arena, from Ellen DeGeneres' new syndicated talk show to Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It was a giddy, thrilling moment.
The victories came so fast and furious that a backlash was inevitable. The backlash that ultimately arrived was a disorienting one--and it continues to this day, and it's picking up steam.
The bad news: In April of this year, the Michigan House of Representatives passed the "Conscientious Objector Policy Act," a bill that would give doctors the right to refuse to treat gay or lesbian patients. Also in April, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law by a veto-proof two-thirds majority that not only prohibits the state from recognizing gay civil unions, but also outlaws "any partnership contract or other arrangements that purport to provide the benefits of marriage." In Virginia, it will shortly be illegal for a gay man to leave his property to his partner, or for a lesbian to give her partner the right to make medical decisions for her in an emergency. In May, the governor of Oklahoma--a Democrat--signed a far-reaching anti-gay adoption bill into law, making Oklahoma one of several states to ban adoptions by same-sex couples and the only state to refuse to recognize same-sex couples who have adopted children in other states as the legal parents of their own children. Thirty-eight states--including Washington--already have anti-gay-marriage laws but anti-gay-marriage amendments to state constitutions will appear on the ballot this fall in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah, and may yet make it onto the ballot in a dozen more states. Even in Massachusetts, site of the first legal gay marriages in the United States, lawmakers have begun the process of amending their state constitution to ban gay marriage. And, of course, President Bush is pushing for a federal anti-gay-marriage amendment.
In writing about gay and lesbian civil rights, it's hard to avoid the obvious cliché, so I'm just going to embrace it: For gays and lesbians in the United States, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. While we were savoring the breakthroughs in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Oregon, while we were basking in the glow of Justice Kennedy's affirmation of our dignity and Canada's example, states that had been grudgingly tolerant were taking a stand for traditional marriage and beginning to actively persecute their gay and lesbian citizens.
And this is why gay migration is going to accelerate. With some states making it clear that we're not wanted, gays and lesbians who've made their homes on the tiny islands of tolerance in Virginia or Oklahoma or Michigan are going to leave for cities in larger, more tolerant states. When considering the islands they might want to live on, young queers will opt for "free states" over states that oppress their gay and lesbian citizens.
Our Queer Issue this year focuses on our status as migrants and refugees, on the places we're not wanted and the places we are. From profiles of recent local refugees to visits to parts of the country devoid of queers, from dispatches from Virginia and Oklahoma to a reminder that things could be worse, we examine what's peculiar--hell, what's queer--about being refugees in our own country.