A story of queer migration.
LGBTQ+ people have been moving around far longer than Cher’s career in showbusiness. Throughout history, queer people have been forced to set-up camp somewhere new, either in search of acceptance, community or a new beginning. The late 20th century urban landscape in Europe and North America became havens for LGBTQ+ people, with the proliferation of queer bars and clubs in sexually liberated cities such as Berlin and Amsterdam creating de-facto enclaves. Gay communities could be found in major towns in the US such as Harlem and San Francisco, which came to host a new drag and ballroom subculture and celebrated a newfound unity, marking the modern metropolis as a visible home for those forced into isolation in their own.
Today, we could easily point to common migration paths for LGBTQ+ people, i.e. Tel Aviv, which Out Magazine named “the gay capital of the middle-east”; attracts many LGBTQ+ immigrants from surrounding Arab countries where being queer is often grounds for persecution if not capital punishment. The route from Ireland to London, for many Irish queer people in the 1980s and 90s, afforded an escape from the influence of the Catholic church and the importance of family reputation. Today, liberal states often claim to provide asylum for migrants who come from places where they will be persecuted for being openly LGBTQ+. Maybe being flighty and craving whatever is beyond our current horizon is just too embedded in the LGBTQ+ psyche.
In a beautifully reflective piece on growing up gay in Stirling and the melodrama of adolescence, Scottish writer James Greig writes:
“It’s unfair of me to write off a whole city, an entire nation, on the basis of my experience there over a decade ago. But unless you attended a liberal private school in London or Brighton, perhaps resenting the place you’re from is an inherent aspect of being gay.”
In my own experience, ditching the idleness and general mundanity suburbia for the subcultural cross-roads of Glasgow, where glitzy drag-queens and 80s disco nights were just a Scotrail journey away, was fuelled by a yearning for delayed self-discovery, and a need to distance myself from the place I had struggled to achieve just that. But things are changing, my old high school now has an LGBTQ+ society, and I hope students are able to find some sense of belonging, solidarity, and representation that was nonexistent for me a decade ago.
I spoke to four LGBTQ+ students at the University of Glasgow to document their experience of growing up different, leaving home and finding a new home-away-from-home. Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people vary across the world, and the environment we are raised in can affect the way we come to embrace our own sexual or gender identities.
When I spoke to Even about attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in Beijing, she pointed to how it depended “on the extent to which you are ‘out’, how visibly LGBTQ+ you are”. For Even, it was clear that though some workplaces and environments could be supportive, it was a matter of not offending the powerful, with media censorship and a forbidding of “LGBTQ+ events or rainbow symbols on campus for fear of getting in trouble.” Although Even pointed to Destination – “which is the biggest gay club in Asia” – arguing that as a matter of subculture, these spaces didn’t garner as much negative attention.
For many of us, the struggle to understand who we are comes from a lack of visible queer people in the media and around us in our home and school environments. Growing up in Ireland, Marcus would note that “I don’t really remember LGBTQ+ people being discussed much when I was growing up, but when they were, it was usually in a negative light.” It wasn’t uncommon for Marcus to hear the phrases “You’re gay” or “That’s so gay” hurled around at school. For Marcus, the best characterisation of the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland at the time was one of invisibility. Though he notes that today “it seems almost inconceivable that that was the case just a short time ago, but then I remember that homosexuality was only decriminalised in the country in 1993. True change didn’t come until the 2015 marriage equality referendum and that brought LGBTQ+ issues to the fore.”
Although recent reforms to the education system in Scotland point to greater inclusivity, it remains deficient particularly with reference to LGBTQ+ sex education, anti-bullying, and mental health. Beth commented that “I don’t remember any LGBTQ+ issues being discussed by teachers or pupils when I was in primary school and generally when ‘gay people’ were talked about they would be the target of ridicule.” Though she feels her coming out at 20 meant this didn’t really affect her at the time, she notes it “did later in life when I was coming to terms with my sexuality.”
Growing up in a city where queer people are often more visible in public, and with the existence of queer communities, can make life a lot easier. Manuel noted that growing up in a more rural setting, there was less acceptance or understanding of queer people:
“Living in a small village in the south of Italy is not easy for an LGBTQ+ person. Given the lack of cultural diversity, everyone tends to think or act the same way, and to harass whoever behaves differently.”
For Manuel, this meant spending time feeling marginalised by his fellow peers due to the gentle nature of his gestures or the fact he attended dance school.
Feeling like we don’t belong and knowing that there may be a better place to live out our true selves makes the prospect of moving somewhere new an important aspect of queer trajectory. When asked if her experience of growing up LGBTQ+ in Beijing influenced her decision to move to Scotland, Even agreed, noting that the country “has still not passed the same sex marriage law, which means LGBTQ+ people don’t have equal rights compared to heterosexual people.” In regard to fluidity, Even believes that the issue remains closed off which further worsens queer experience. She’d go on to note “I feel I can’t be myself all the time, because I’m supposed to consider the opinions of those around me or my family.”
Marcus noted that while Ireland has become much more accepting of LGBTQ+ people in recent years, “the main reason I chose to leave was to experience greater independence and that desire certainly extends to the expression of my sexuality”. It’s true that our family’s level of involvement in this part of ourselves can affect how well we cope with it. Manuel commented despite the widely held negative perceptions of homosexuality in southern Italy, “the acceptance from my family gave me the strength to still be myself and explore this quality of mine: I met a boy, with whom I am still in love, who made me grow up as a person and experience new aspects of me. For this reason, I did not feel the urge to leave”.
For many of us, our journey to acceptance begins after we’ve already left home. Beth said that she was living in Aberdeen during her undergrad when she accepted her sexuality, and this prompted a desire to move somewhere bigger “where there would be more people like me.” Once she moved to Glasgow, she was able to better embrace and explore her sexual identity, pointing out that the city has many more thriving queer spaces. “In my new home I feel extremely safe and supported here with amazing friends and freedom to date and sleep with whoever I want…Glasgow is pretty gay.
Having a distance – whether geographical or cultural – from the place we grew up can help us to process the pain of growing up LGBTQ+ in a straight world. But once we’ve left home and found our people, how do our feelings towards where we grew up change? About visiting home, Manuel said that while he loves to visit his family, he still has a tricky relationship with his hometown due to the culture of homophobia, saying that “I still do not feel unfettered by prejudice.”
Even highlighted the differences in law between Scotland and China, and how she feels “more comfortable” being herself in Scotland. “I feel LGBT people could lead a relatively free and brilliant life here. But in my city, I could imagine it would be more tough to both come out and start a life without bias or judgement from others”.
Living in Scotland, LGBTQ+ people are now granted full legal equality and share the same rights and protections as heterosexuals. However, this is not the case across most of the world, and it’s important we lift up the torch and continue the fight for those in a less privileged position. Marcus commented that, although Ireland’s stance on homosexuality is changing, he still has to remind himself how much worse it could have been had he grown up elsewhere, saying “Whether I am in Ireland or Scotland, I know that I’m privileged.” On his most recent return home, Marcus “fell in love with Dublin again and appreciated my family a lot more.”
Having lived in three cities in Scotland, Beth reflected on her feelings towards them now that in Glasgow she has found a community and a space to feel completely herself. She loves her hometown of Edinburgh and stresses the feelings of safety and comfort she feels when there but points out there aren’t as many LGBTQ+ spaces as Glasgow. On Aberdeen, she finds going back to visit “triggering” due to being unhappy there previously because of her sexuality. “But every time I go back it feels less and less scary, probably because I’ve grown so much since that time and feel totally at home in my own skin now.”
As times change and societies and cultures begin to accept the fact that not everyone is straight or cisgendered, schools and home environments will become more welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ people, and perhaps they will grow up with a sense of belonging and won’t need to move away to put a difficult childhood behind them. Until then, it’s important we share our stories and experiences, and that we elevate voices who normally go unheard.