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Growing up gay in Northern Minnesota: We're all Northerners
In preparation for next year's vote on the definition of marriage amendment in Minnesota, I interviewed over a dozen gay men and women about what it was like to grow up in the region. In part 1, they discussed the trials and joys of coming out. Here in part 2, we'll look at their interactions with a masculine society. For some, fitting in has proven easy, but for others, it has been a harrowing task marked by harassment and discrimination.
This is part 2 of a three part series on gay men and women living in Northern Minnesota.
We're All Northerners
Northern Minnesota's economy is dominated by mining, forestry, tourism, and agriculture. Unions play a major role in fostering and supporting the labor force of these industries, so the area has long been a Democratic stronghold.
Nevertheless, on social issues, Northern Minnesota leans somewhat more to the right. With a relatively homogenous (Hibbing is 97.33% white for example) and older population, homosexuality has been slow to become a part of the culture. What's more, with many of the region's men spending their days doing hard, manual labor, "masculinity is definitely striven for," says Levi Luukkonen, 22 of Hibbing. Coming out publically, then, must be done carefully.
Jacob Woods, 20 of Chisholm, founder of the blog Good as Gay, recounts, "I was very selective with who I told, because I knew who was going to be supportive and who wasn't. When I told my mom I was gay, for example, she already knew...I figured she would accept me because of her history, and because she's always been loving and caring."
As for the community at large, Woods says, "I've never had any trouble with bullying or anything like that." However, he does recall the temporarily uneasy relationship he had with his brother. After returning from the military, his brother "had developed this sort of nasty stigmatization of homosexuality. He was kind of grossed out by it, but after a few months, he learned more about what homosexuality was from a biological perspective and he grew to be fine with it." Woods explains, "Our relationship has shifted a little bit I would say, but we've come to learn more about each other because of it, and I think it has been a good thing."
Chris, 25 of Virginia has also developed a good relationship with the community. He says, "I realized I was gay around age 12. I started coming out to the majority of people in my second month of college, and everyone took it really well. It wasn't a big deal. I was very fortunate."
Steven, 22 of Hibbing, recalls that it took him a while to tell his friends he was gay. For him, the decision to wait wasn't out of shame or fear, but out of uncertainty. "I realized I was gay probably when I was about 13. I didn't start coming out to people until I was 17. I thought it might be a phase-that it would fix itself." Steven laughs, "I just kind of ignored it, and I thought one day I'll like women, I know it...but that never happened." When he finally came out to those close to him, he relates that he felt very comfortable, accepted, and loved. Steven admits that a few kids did tease him in high school, but he says he "took it pretty well."
Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky. Alyssa, 22 of Hibbing, a bisexual young woman, recalls, "I think it was difficult for me because people didn't really know what to expect. Most people, because of the way I look, would automatically assume I was straight...I was a cheerleader in high school after all. People have their stereotypes about gay people-how they talk, how they dress. And most gay women in Hibbing typically played sports or were 'butch' in the LGBT language.
"And when people finally found out I wasn't straight, I got harassed. I got called every name in the book. I had the entire baseball team calling me on the phone and giving me a hard time; the hockey team did as well. I got the whole nine yards in high school."
In fact, pre-set stereotypes seem to play an important role in determining whether or not a gay man or woman will be accepted in Northern Minnesotan society. Despite his success at fitting in, Woods admits, "What always bothered me was the way people talked to gays who were more feminine than I was. I think it's tougher for people who fall into that category." Steven agrees, "In Northern Minnesota, if you don't flaunt [being gay] too much, you'll be ok. People who are very flamboyant often complain about getting bullied...We're a masculine culture, and I think that has a lot to do with it."
Luukkonen acknowledges that he is someone who could be described as a feminine gay. He relates that when he is working at the bars, he "gets comments like oh, so you're light in the loafers." He says, "I've been in a few arguments with people who say, 'when did you decide to become gay?' So I throw it back at them: 'when did you decide to become straight?'
"There does seem to be this sort of straight male mentality where I'm going to throw this word 'fag' around to denigrate the minority or marginalized group. I've been called absolutely everything up North, especially at the bar scene."
For some, living in Northern Minnesota no longer feels like a viable option. Anna, 22 originally of Keewatin says, "My sexual orientation affects my decision not to go back. I wouldn't feel comfortable living with my partner or raising a family in that area. I want the open thought that bigger cities and more accepting areas provide."
For gay men and women, assimilating into the greater Northern Minnesotan culture hasn't always been easy. It can be a struggle; for some, it can even manifest in the form of real psychological turmoil. With the vote on the definition of marriage amendment coming up next year, that struggle is only going to get harder.