Before I moved to Toronto, I lived in Minneapolis for eight years. Although it’s not my birthplace, it’s definitely where I was born. My hometown of Norwalk, Iowa was a wholesome and cordial place to grow up… if you were white, Christian and politically conservative. Me: gay, agnostic, artistic, and precocious; I didn’t exactly fit the bill. When I went to Minneapolis I went there first and foremost to go to art school, and, although I knew it would instantly be a more progressive and exciting environment than what I was leaving behind, I really had no plans to stay. Over the course of four years, however, I fell madly in love with that place. I fell in love with my like-minded classmates, with the snowy winters and the paradisiacal summers, with the zeitgeist of the city—it’s vibrant punk rock music scene and grass roots politics. In short, I felt truly at home for the first time in my life.
Fast forward to last year, holiday season. Each December I still make a pilgrimage, stopping in for a week in Minneapolis before I scuttle down to Des Moines for the actual X-mas festivities. As always, I was looking forward to seeing the vast amount of friends, colleagues, partners-in-crime, and everything in between that I consider the people who really know me best. Little did I suspect that the trite aphorism of ‘you can’t go home again’ was actually a double-edged sword for those of us ‘queering into our 30s’.
It was an overcast Sunday afternoon at LUSH, one of many new gay bars in Northeast. I was brunching with two of my friends having bottomless mimosas and coffee, and wondering if I should make an innuendo to our hunky waiter when he asked, “More cream?” The plan for that night was to gather at my friend Heidi’s house for a sort of taco potluck and spiked hot chocolate. My phone seemed to be vibrating constantly as I, per usual, attempted to orchestrate a friend reunion of epic proportions. As I was playing socio-maestro, I noticed that my friend Lauren was getting a little agitated.
“How many people are there going to be there, exactly?”, she asked.
“I dunno..maybe ten or so?,” I casually replied. “You know! … the Gang!”
“Oh. Ok..So, who exactly?”
“Yeah!” piped up Paul. “If there’s any chance that John is going to be there, I’m out. No way!”
“Also, added Lauren. “We should get going soon, cause I really can’t stay late. You know, I like to be home by 9 at the latest on a Sunday.”
My internal-jaw dropped. This was coming from a girl who used to pull an average of three all-nighters a week when we were roommates. Sometimes, she’d take breaks from doing her freelance to go to the bar, come back at 2am and work diligently until sunrise, nap for an hour and then rush off to her day job just to do it all over again.
Had I missed something?
In the background, Paul was still complaining about the possibility of his ex showing up—flailing his arms around like Bette Midler if she were a sailboat in a windstorm. I gently assured Paul that everything was going to be fine and to drink another mimosa, and, for the first time, felt an ominous twinge that I might be wrong.
We eventually made our way to Heidi’s house. She was texting me the whole time I was in Lauren’s car, yelling at me for not being there yet. I wondered why… So what if people were arriving before I got there? They were her good friends too! People we had known for ten years—laughed with, cried with, drank too much with, (occasionally slept with)—no one was a stranger. Yet, when I got there it was like a grade-seven mixer: Boys on one side and girls on the other, people hugging the perimeter, looking sheepishly around the room and maybe uttering a polite something or other to the adjacent wallflower.
Thank Bejeezus there was music on. I pretended like nothing was amiss and did my usual waltz-around, ecstatically hugging and saying hi to everyone.
The night went on. Tacos were consumed, the pot of schnapps and hot chocolate was tapped dry, records were played and photos were taken. But, the atmosphere still felt chilly.
I sidled up to Heidi, who I trusted enough to share my dismay with.
“What’s the deal with people tonight?” I said with a half-laugh to make it seem less critical. “I mean, you’d think that no one hangs out anymore or something…”
“They don’t”, she replied calmly yet sharply. “They’re only here to see you.”
I don’t know why that moment affected me so greatly. Hearing her say those words so matter-of-factly put a weight in the pit of my stomach. I, of course, told her that was nonsense. But she kept on, explaining that this was the first time many of the people there had even been together in the same room since the last time I was home. I didn’t understand at first (or rather, chose not to) and had to shrug the notion off to get through the rest of the night. But, I couldn’t deny that there was staleness in the air. Conversation by conversation, I, too, began to feel a distance emerging from people I consider kindred spirits. The more I shared about my life in Toronto the more I felt it was shaping up to be nothing like theirs. I work, but I work freelance. And, I teach. So, my time is flexible and I like the sensation that no day is ever the same. But it also means that the future is uncertain.
One would think that this cavalier would bode well with a group of art school graduates. But, they all seemed alarmed that I had no desire for a routine or regular hours. Any comment I made about going to a party or out to the bar was quickly cut off by a complaint about having to get up for work, or an affirmation of, “I’m not really that much of a drinker anymore,” or “Yeah, but don’t you feel like shit the next day?” I’d also been dating more since moving to a larger LGBT community in Toronto and explained that I was exploring new forms of relationships, like polyamory. This topic was dead right out of the gates, and somehow evolved into an itinerary of who’s getting married next year.
That night made it clear that I was on a different wavelength than the people I felt closest to. Worse than that realization is that I felt judged for it, and treated as if I just “hadn’t settled down yet” or wasn’t ready to “grow up”. What didn’t become clear until much later (perhaps just now) is that I have indeed grown up. I’ve matured in so many ways since moving to Toronto. I left an entire life behind to come here: to go back to school and start a new career path.
It took courage and tenacity to get through it, and I’m more industrious than I’ve ever been because of it. But, maybe I’m not quite done ‘queering up’. Maybe I’m not done discerning how exactly I want to be queer, or how best to continue queering my life as I head into my 30s. By this I mean expressing my right to continue experimenting with different modes of being and questioning—to continue living in or around the margins, outside the box of the status quo. Since I was 20 all I’ve been told is how great it will be when I’m 30—I’ll “have it all figured out by then”.
But, to me, that golden light of stability at the end of the tunnel is still a unidirectional move. Where are the side doors? Where are the alternate routes? I don’t think that I should have to stop going to bars on a weekday or go to bed any earlier because I’m turning 30 and my carriage is becoming a pumpkin. Doing those things means entering into a convention. It’s not that I find it wrong or offensive. But, it’s a code of convention nonetheless. It’s too restrictive for the curious life I want to live. Behaving like I’m 30 is an abstract concept—it’s imaginary, and it won’t magically make my life better.
If there’s one thing that being gay in small town Iowa taught me is that nothing in life is worth doing unless there’s risk involved.
I knew little else when I left, but I knew that if I stayed there I would suffocate under a blanket of homogeneity. So, I did leave, and I found an amazing support system of friends in Minneapolis who I still love and cherish to this day. The risk involved this time around though is ironically not one of leaving them behind but keeping them closer. As I keep queering up, I’m unsure if I’ll ever have that same connection with Heidi, or Lauren or Paul again that we did when we were all experimenting at life in our 20s. But, I know that they’ve defined me. They helped to mould me into the person I am today. And so, no matter how different our lives may become, it’s only through embracing those differences that I can truly begin to define myself.
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Zach Pearl is a freelance designer and independent curator. He teaches in both art and design at OCAD University and co-produces KAPSULA—an online art criticism publication founded in Spring 2013. Zach holds a BFA in Illustration & Graphic Design from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and an MFA in Curatorial Practice from OCAD U. Before moving to Canada in 2010, Zach spent five years teaching for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and three years as Assistant Coordinator for the Susan Hensel Gallery. Since relocating, he’s helped to produce exhibitions for the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Textile Museum of Canada & the Gladstone Hotel.