In July 2020, my complex 15-year relationship with London came to an abrupt end. The big, smelly smoke is a cold-hearted bitch but ultimately, it was the most supportive bitch I’d ever been with. Like many LGBTQ+ people, I’d migrated there from my hometown looking for an escape and, at the risk of sounding wanky, to “find myself”.
I moved from Hull, aged 20, because my dead-end, suffocating existence was causing me to sleepwalk through life. I needed to rid myself of childhood trauma and thought I could just chuck it behind a chippy somewhere, before starting afresh in a place that would welcome and accept me.
A 2017 survey compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which for the first time mapped the UK’s LGB population (data for transgender and other parts of the community were not compiled) found the majority of responders resided in the capital, with Manchester and Brighton and Hove, predictably close behind. The data was based on 560,000 individuals and gathered via confidential phone or in-person interviews, over the course of three years.
But can we only feel safe and live authentically in big UK cities like these? After leaving London via Herne Bay in Kent at the height of the pandemic, I returned to my hometown of Hull, husband in tow, last November. It offered cheaper housing and a way for my husband and I to finally save up to have kids. I thought I’d drained London of everything it had to offer, but was I a freak of nature for leaving it all behind?
Geographer Gavin Brown, a visiting professor at the University of Sheffield and University College Dublin’s USD School of Geography, says that the LGBTQ+ community migrate to larger cities because they are “imagined as being safer and more supportive places, in part, because they tend to have more diverse populations and people who are marked as different tend to stand out less”. I can massively relate to this, enjoying the feeling of anonymity that London afforded me after years of essentially feeling like a circus freak.
Big city life isn’t for everyone though. Elis Blake, a 28-year-old transgender queer-identifying man who grew up in Essex, tells me that, “everyone lives so far away in London, so you feel really isolated even though you're surrounded by all these queer people.” Distance wasn’t his only obstacle in meeting other LGBTQ+ people, as he explains that social anxiety also played a role, preventing him from ever enjoying London and finding his “group”. It wasn’t until he too made the move to Hull, last July, that Blake was finally able to do this. “I’ve made friends through Facebook groups. I’m a vegan as well and all the vegans in Hull know each other, hanging out in a café that is accidentally queer.”
Manchester is known as being a major draw for the LGBTQ+ community, thanks largely to the city’s historic Canal Street, brought to widespread mainstream attention in 90s TV show, Queer as Folk, which – like a little perve – I devoured as a teenager. Joe Stafford, a 37-year-old cis gay man, moved to the city at 22. It was here that he really connected with other LGBTQ+ people after he started the city’s first gay indie club night. “Manchester is the sort of place where you get subsets of the community, like those who’re into guitar music, rather than dancing till 6AM.”
Despite more “predictable” experiences of living in big cities like mine and Stafford’s, Blake and Aimee Blease-Bourne’s, a 40-year-old queer, gender non-conforming woman, show that it’s far from black and white. After growing up in a small village, Blease-Bourne moved to Leicester and then Stoke, both of which didn’t feel LGBTQ+ friendly. “I was asked by a man on my street if I was gay and after proudly saying yes, we had our windows put through,” she tells me.
Eventually, Blease-Bourne found her crew in the city, though they weren’t part of the LGBTQ+ community - something she “wasn’t interested in”. Instead, she was drawn to alternative people like her and a life separate from the confines of society. “I'd much prefer to be in nature, camping, having a fire and singing songs. We saw another way of life was possible, a DIY alternative culture… Stoke-on-Trent was a great safe base to explore our identities.”
Blease-Bourne is now a New Age traveller, residing in a small village near Monmouth, Wales. Previously, she lived on a bus, helping “clean up a protest site that won a nine-year battle against quarrying” as she studied for a PhD. Her story may be a unique one, but it highlights just how unimportant it is for LGBTQ+ people to be in a big city to find contentment.
Stafford’s story is very similar to mine – he’s now back in his hometown (of Stafford), having found that what was once so great about Manchester gradually came to seem less so. “Once I started getting a bit older and settled down with my partner, the negative things about living in a big city started outweighing the positives, like being broken into and getting mugged.”
Stafford and his fiancé were already planning on leaving Manchester, with the Netherlands being a top choice of destination, but then Brexit happened, and his fiancé got on to a ceramics course in Stafford. Now, three years later, they have “no plans to leave”, living in an area that is much safer and cheaper, allowing them a home that’s more spacious than the one they had in Manchester. They were blown away by how welcoming the neighbours were. “There's a bloke at the top of the street who has a big St. George's flag in his back garden and a dodgy tattoo… He’s nothing but nice to us,” Stafford tells me.
There’s a presumption, especially by cis-heterosexual people, that our community resides in big cities because we’ve no aspirations other than to splash out on the pink pound and enjoy lives free of responsibilities – I see it in people’s shocked expressions when I tell them I want children. Sure, we have more legal rights now, but it doesn’t automatically shake off the stereotypes that have stuck to us.
I talk to Brown about the fact that despite what many of us are led to believe, LGBTQ+ people haven’t always existed in big cities. It’s just that theirs are the only stories that are told - if told at all. It’s what attracted me to London and subsequently made me feel guilty about leaving.
Brown explains that “people tend to move in and out of cities as their circumstances change – looking for a new job, wanting to raise kids, or needing to care for elderly relatives etc.” After conducting research a few years ago on the history of GRAIN (the Gay Rural Aid & Information Network), which existed in the 1970s and early 80s as a way to support LGBTQ+ people living in rural areas of the UK or wanting to move to the countryside, Brown found that many participants were bored, alienated, or dissatisfied with what gay life in big cities had to offer them. “The history of GRAIN is important for reminding us that LGBTQ people have always lived in rural areas and smaller towns, and have found ways to make life there more liveable,” he clarifies.
There’s definitely a stigma attached to life outside of the big cities for the LGBTQ+ community, that people are less liberal, less educated and more narrow minded. Perhaps, in some cases and in a very generalised way, this is correct, but it doesn’t mean life away from them has to be torturous - as shown by mine and others’ experiences. The systematic abuse of our community isn’t isolated to villages and small towns. My husband was called a poof whilst walking in Hull City Centre the other day – I’ve had the same happen to me in London. You’re always going to get some wanker.
Brown does believe that times are changing, something Stafford and I ponder over a lot as we discuss similar experiences. “I think changes in social attitudes to sexual and gendered diversity over the last 20 years – and the positive changes in legal equalities that have accompanied them – have made it easier for people to imagine living a safe, supportive, and welcoming life outside big cities.”
Whilst LGBTQ+ people migrating out of big cities is far from a “new thing”, why and when we do it - if at all, is not completely black and white - we’re all individuals, despite standing under the same umbrella. The anonymity of being in a big city can be a good and bad thing; the expense of it an obstacle or not. Some of us need domestic bliss and space to have families, while a person of colour may find it hard moving to a village which turns out to host deeply ingrained prejudices. We all hold some form of privilege, which can be a deciding factor. Moving also doesn’t mean never doing so again – every place has its downsides, with Blake telling me that living somewhere smaller means he must travel further to get to a Gender Identity Clinic.
What we do share however, is the often-lengthy and difficult time spent thinking about how safe somewhere is before moving – a luxury that cis-heterosexual people take for granted. We must consider whether the way we present ourselves is too “out there”, whether today will be the day we’re attacked…
Knowing that we’ve been doing it for many years is encouraging however, as is seeing how much progress is constantly being made. I’ve certainly noticed it moving back to my hometown and I can’t wait to finally (maybe) have some bloody savings.