I knew I had to leave. I had to get out. I couldn’t explain it, and I didn’t tell anyone else. I was only 16; I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know when, or how, but I knew that at some point, an opportunity would present itself, and I would take it – I would leave my hometown and my family behind. I love my family and New Orleans, but as I hit puberty and began to discover my (homo) sexuality, I knew that if I didn’t get away, I would never come back.
Growing up in New Orleans is a unique experience (compared to others’ childhoods, or so I’m told). If you’ve never been, the city is never dull, and it isn’t uncommon for residents to boast about its “Big City” feel with small-town values.
Nothing moves fast in New Orleans, except gossip. Don’t let the slow pace of life or lazy drawl accents fool you. Anything remotely interesting or considered ‘abnormal,’ would zip its way through the kaffeeklatsch network of New Orleans like shit through a goose. For me, The Big Easy wasn’t big enough.
As I made my way through college, this yearning to move away intensified to the point that all I could think of was moving when graduation rolled around. Sexually, I was still figuring things out by trial and error, mostly error. The internet has since accelerated the coming out process with a resource library light years ahead of what was available to Gen Xers like me. When I graduated from college, the biggest story on campus was that the computer lab got its first Dot Matrix printer. The story was newsworthy, not for the printer — no one knew what a Dot Matrix printer was — but that no one knew we had a computer lab.
Without the assistance of Google and Pornhub, the road to discovering my sexual identity was a rocky and uncomfortable one. It wasn’t a road I wanted to travel under the magnifying eye of my hometown.
One of the most extraordinary things about the four years of college is not so much the diploma. Yes, the credential is valuable, but studies show that only a small percentage of people work and make a living in the same field as written on their diploma after graduation. Those four years’ value is meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures, discovering who you are, learning social skills, and figuring out who the person is that you want to present to the world. In doing so, I came to realize that what I needed was spatial displacement. I needed room to discover and express these new sexual desires, a place to make mistakes, huge mistakes. I wanted to develop my own identity, not one that was forced upon me by the constraints of friends, family, and a fear of the unknown. I didn’t want to live a life of “what if…?”
While I was coming to terms with my emotions and ‘taboo’ desires, America was in the middle of the AIDS crisis, making my navigation around my sexuality more difficult. Every news broadcast or newspaper headline about AIDS only served to highlight the horrors of a gay lifestyle. Was that going to happen to me? If I’m gay, will I end up like the ostracized, walking skeletons I see on TV? This new “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” syndrome, as it was first called, really ramped up the intolerance level against gay men around the country, including my hometown, which only pushed me further back into the closet.
Homophobia in America was alive and well, and the Reagan administration didn’t do much to discourage it. New Orleans has always had a robust gay population, so it wasn’t only on television that I witnessed the verbal abuse, or hateful rants spewed at gay men by ‘regular’ people. Insensitive and disrespectful comments from within my own house made it clear that it was dangerous and alienating to go through life as a man attracted to another man.
The realization that I was gay wasn’t the only reason I wanted to leave New Orleans. I knew that there was a world out there that I wanted to experience beyond Bourbon Street. There were places I wanted to go, things I wanted to see and do. I’d never get the chance if I didn’t break out of my bubble. So, that’s what I did.
My college degree is in Communications, but my heart was in live theater. I had done local community productions in and around New Orleans. I had an agent and was feeling pretty good about myself. So when an old girlfriend of mine, who was living in New York, said that I should come up and audition for the Summer Stock season, that was my opportunity. “You can crash on the floor a few days until you find a place,” Cheryl said.
Before she could finish her sentence, I had made my decision. Two weeks later, I sold my car, gave up my apartment, and headed to New York to become an actor. I left The Big Easy for The Big Apple and never looked back. For a while, at least.
“Gay Flight” is an actual term used to describe the migration of members of the LGBTQ community from their rural roots to life in a Big City. New Orleans is far from “rural,” but the desire to move to a larger city seemed to be encoded into my psyche. After a recent trip back to New Orleans (which I do once, maybe twice a year), I began to wonder: Why do so many of us gays run away from our familiar, comfortable, hometown surroundings and into the uncertainties and unwelcoming arms of life in a big city? Also, having moved to New York over 25 years ago, was it worth it? Would I do it again?
My answer to the last two questions is “Yes.” It was certainly worth it, and I would do it all over again. As far as why so many LGBTQ members feel it necessary to migrate from home, I cannot say. I can only speak for myself, but this is what I’ve learned.
I suspect that many who participate in the Gay Flight phenomenon do so for one reason I did: anonymity. There is freedom when no one knows who you are. There will be no childhood friends, parents, grandparents, or siblings to judge or compare you to others. It’s incredibly liberating to be able to create oneself from scratch. No one will know of your past mistakes or achievements. No one will expect anything from you, and you can start your life on a clean slate. Should you stay up all night, sleep till noon, get drunk or pick up some rough trade from the local bar, no one will care. You can be gay, straight, bi-sexual, asexual, pansexual, transsexual, and as long as you’re not hurting anyone, people don’t care. They have their own lives to create.
I learned to provide for myself. I had to find a place to live and a way to pay the rent. There was no one else but me. I learned to be independent, assert myself, and embrace life’s competitiveness in a big city. Living on my own awakened a desire for self-improvement.
I learned the importance of self-discipline. I had several odd jobs that afforded me time off when necessary for me to go to auditions. The talent level in New York is what you would expect it to be. If I was going to compete on that level, that meant developing the discipline of going (and paying for) dance classes, vocal classes, workshops, modeling go-sees, etc. It meant forcing myself awake and getting in line with literally hundreds of others for chorus calls. Living on my own, I learned that the only person who gave a shit about me was me.
I learned how to make friends. Anonymity is one thing; loneliness is another. Everyone needs a friend, and when you don’t have any, you figure out how to make some, quick. Some friends come into and out of your life very quickly; some stay forever. As the saying goes, “Friends come into our lives for a season or a reason.” That’s true.
I learned how small my ‘world’ was growing up in New Orleans. Moving away to a large city gives you a different perspective on things. Meeting people from varied backgrounds and nationalities gave me another way to look at things. In New Orleans, I knew very little about Jewish culture or traditions; thanks to New York, I am now well-versed in them. I dated a guy from Algeria; he was Muslim and spoke French. I’d never heard of Algeria before, nor did I know any Muslims, especially any who spoke French.
I learned what it was like to go underground. I never imagined that a large part of New York is underground: subways, shopping malls, movie theaters, nightclubs, etc. Being geographically below sea level, the only things underground in New Orleans are coffins. And we have a hard time keeping those down.
I learned to deal with my insecurities. Everyone has insecurities, especially me. Did I look good enough? Was my body defined enough? Will I make a fool of myself in front of important people? Dealing with that sort of self-doubt every day gets tiring until you reach the point where you say, “fuck it.” If I wasn’t happy with something about myself, I had the power to change it. I started taking more dance classes, working out at the gym a bit more and got a job at a gay bar, which forced me to socialize and meet people. Steadily, my confidence grew, and people began to introduce themselves to me instead of the other way around.
I learned that “fake it ‘til you make it” is the single best piece of advice a person can get. Moving to a place where no one knows anything about you gives you a little ‘wiggle room’ when it comes to job interviews, employment applications, and self-introductions. I flat-out lied on every job application I filled out when I first moved to New York. When it came to bartending, waiting tables, or office temp work, I had seen it done on television, but had no personal experience. Nobody in New York knew that, however, and I gambled that no one would check my out-of-state references, so I just made up names, places, and dates of job experiences that would align with whatever job I was applying for.
And it worked. Of course, that led to some very awkward moments and embarrassing discussions on occasion but, by and large, once they hire you, if you’re a hard worker and well-liked by your co-workers, chances are they won’t get rid of you. And if they did get rid of you, so what? Get a new gig.
Is moving away from home right for everyone? I don’t know. But it was right for me. I could live on my own and develop my persona, on my own terms and at my own pace. I became a man who had my own set of values, opinions, integrity, and reputation based upon my actions and experiences and not ones inherited from my family tree or Southern expectations. Of all of my accomplishments, moving to New York on my own is one of my proudest. Because it’s true, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
It took me a while to return to New Orleans after moving away. I was undoubtedly homesick, but the thought of returning, even for a visit, took time before it would become a reality. I didn’t want to go back to my hometown until I felt like I was ready. Ready for what? I’m not sure.
Over time, I eventually settled into my sexuality and made peace with it, as did my family and friends. I did become a Broadway actor and was fortunate to travel, on tour, around this great country, Europe, Australia, South America, and the Mediterranean Ocean. Moving to New York helped me find the identity for which I was so desperately searching. But not without a price.
Moving away from home means missing lots of important milestones and celebrations. I’ve missed out on more gradations, birthdays, and anniversary parties than I can count. My three nephews have primarily grown up without me. And despite the best-laid plans and most valiant of efforts, my father passed away before I could see him alive one last time.
When Katrina hit New Orleans, I was in New York, unable to contact or communicate with anyone in my family for several agonizing days. I suffered a genuine nervous breakdown over the guilt of not being present, not being able to help in the preparation, evacuation, and the eventual rebuilding of the city I still call home. Guilt that continues to haunt me.
Katrina washed away more than material possessions; she washed away my childhood photo albums, souvenirs, and youth landmarks, which still meant something to me. Memories are all I have to hold on to where things used to be and how the landscape used to look. I love the city of New Orleans. I miss its history, its architecture, its food, its liveliness, and its charm. And even though I make one or two trips a year back to the Crescent City, Thomas Wolfe was right; you can never go home again.
The decision to leave your hometown for a life in a big city is an individual one, but many LGBTQ people choose to do so. If you’re thinking that a move to a big city might be right for you, if you feel the need to reinvent yourself and be the person you were meant to be, I strongly encourage it. Don’t sweat the details so much, you’ll figure it out as you go. If something deep inside is telling you that you need to break out of the box you’re in or if you just want more for yourself than your hometown can provide, do it. Take it from The Boss,
“Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”