I grew up in an apartment just off Main Street in Lewisville, Texas. The sign in front of my school, only three blocks away, boasted for all the city’s 80,000 residents to see: “Lewisville High School, Home of the Fighting Farmers.” The logo features Farmer John holding a pitchfork and riding a mule, steam coming out of its flared nostrils. And I, the black boy whose name literally means “happy” in Arabic, was hopelessly gay.
You’ve met kids like me before: the ones who, despite any and all efforts to blend in, switch when they walk, perfect the art of eye rolling and eyebrow arching way too early, and just happen to feel more comfortable with a hand on their hip. Saeed and the Fighting Farmers. I was on medication for anxiety and depression for most of my teens.
To say I wanted to escape my hometown is to downplay the bitterness I choked on every time I thought to myself, I’ve got to get out of here. Debate team president, National Honor Society president, stints in the theater club, writers guild, tennis team, even the school’s ASIA club (don’t ask). I wasn’t simply trying to be a good student and graduate: I was quietly raging my way forward, ever focused on the possibility of a scholarship to a college that would take me far, far away. The words “New York City” hummed under my skin, an engine only I could hear.
If you happen to be a queer person who grew up outside of most major cities, I suspect you know exactly what that engine sounds like. Maybe you had your eyes set on San Francisco or Chicago or Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, cities of queer refuge. You read books and watched movies about those darkly dazzling places. (Go ahead and admit it. You had every line in Rent memorized.) Cities where you could finally be your queer self, your whole self. Cities where you could change your name if you wanted to, kiss a boy and hold his hand on the street if you wanted to, fuck gender norms and make art and be out and happy if and however you wanted to. That’s what “New York City” has meant and, I imagine, still means for so many LGBT people.
I’m not in Lewisville anymore. I’ve lived in New York City, traveled the world, and settled in San Francisco, another city of refuge, since then. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s been a hard lesson in the difference between the idea of a city and the reality of the city itself. The seven anti-gay attacks that have taken place this month in New York City are a disturbing, if clarifying, example. There have been 29 attacks so far this year compared with 14 at this point last year. The recent spate is baffling as much because of the lack of a clear explanation for the sudden frequency of attacks as it is because gay people are people assaulted, sometimes fatally, in the very neighborhoods we’re “supposed” to be safest in. Mark Carson was gunned down just a few blocks from the iconic Stonewall Inn.
I’m reluctant to call this a trend, as there are too many factors and, frankly, too much emotion involved to be sure. There are theories, of course, however inadequate: Crime tends to increase as the weather gets warmer. Perhaps we’re hearing about more crimes because LGBT folks are more empowered to report these attacks and draw attention to them. Maybe it has something to do with gentrification and neighborhoods “in transition” and conflict between new gay residents and reluctant “native” residents. We could go on and on, and likely will, because the news is terrifying and we want to understand why this is happening and what we can do about it.
And so, what are we left with, besides the awareness that even in our refuges we are not safe? Perhaps, little more, for now, than an unsettling reminder that maybe — just maybe — there are no true cities of refuge. Cities, by their nature, are organisms, ever evolving and shifting. The idea of New York City, the glimmering concrete refuge for queer folks, artists, and freaks, however romantic, is increasingly becoming a myth. Hell, how many queer young people can pay the rent in New York these days? Very few if the statistics regarding LGBT youth homelessness are any indication. Maybe it’s the refuge that never was. Maybe all we’ve ever done is escape from one seemingly intolerable place only to put down roots in a place we ourselves could tolerate.
I’ve settled into an even draw with my mixed feelings about Lewisville. Like me, almost every out gay kid I graduated with has since settled out of state. When I’ve gone back to visit, former teachers have invited me into their classrooms to talk about life in the big city. You should see the looks on those kids’ faces; they have my eyes. I hear my high school has Gay Straight Alliance now, which is wonderful. Everyone isn’t going to make it New York or San Francisco or Chicago. Doing so can’t and shouldn’t be the only way for queer folks to fashion a life worth living. And anyway, however high the price, I don’t think we can afford to hold onto the idea of mythic cities of refuge much longer.