My partner and I left Portland, Oregon, for Los Angeles, California, almost exactly one year ago, distancing ourselves even further from our families based in the more rural parts of Eastern Oregon. During the entire twelve years that we lived in Portland, always within a few hours’ drive of our families, there was never a conversation that took place between one of us and our respective family that didn’t impose at least a hint of guilt for abandoning the family, a manipulative tone that begged us to return and fulfill some unspoken but oft-implied duty to remain physically close even if emotionally distant. “Someone I spoke with in town here wants to hire someone like you!” “A teaching position just opened up at the high school!” “There’s a family birthday party this weekend and it would mean a lot if you could come.” Over time, the comments grew less sincere. They knew I wasn’t coming back, but every additional comment and invitation fueled my punishment of feeling eternally guilty, uneasy, anxious for daring to venture out. When we moved to Los Angeles, the antagonizing comments gained more fervor, even if mixed with the occasional, feigned word of support.
My story is not unique, so please don’t take my introduction as some attempt to garner sympathy. I don’t care except to be a beacon for others who have gone through the same thing. A lot of millennials experience this, especially those who make a bold move to a new city, a new state, a new country. This begs the question: Why do we leave our families in the first place? Why did I leave? Why do millennials flock to cities? Or is it that we are fleeing something that haunts our hometowns?
I grew up as gay kid born into an ultra-conservative, evangelical family, on the outskirts of a town of fewer than 20,000 people. Without going into too much detail, staying in that town after high school was never going to be an option for me. I could not stay there. There was no place for me at the time, there is not a place for me there now. Maybe some day there will be a place for people like me there but, frankly, regardless of my sexuality, my dreams and aspirations alone were yearning for something bigger and grander. I wanted more than elephant ears at the county fair, more than rodeos and the same ten country songs, more than dusty gravel roads and my choice of seventeen fast food restaurants. I can appreciate those things now, but I resented them during my adolescence when I had no other option, when I felt suffocated by my seasonal allergies, my hidden sexuality, maybe even my teenage hubris. I could not stay there and it still stirs something painful inside to go back to visit.
My experiences are my own, but they are part of a larger trend of young people fleeing their hometowns for the bright lights and busy streets of the big city… any big city. Sometimes that catalyst is pain, fear, or rejection. Sometimes it’s a pursuit of more professional opportunities, an education, a community of like-minded young people gathering in one place to share ideas, stories, resources, homes. Sometimes it’s all of these things or something else entirely. It can be difficult to justify this move to the people you leave behind, to impress upon them the importance of this new, intentional community, of growing professionally, personally, and emotionally, of diversity, of what lies beyond the county line. It probably feels like rejection to them, too. I’m sure it hurts to see us flee.
For many of us, the city provides a refuge from everything that hurt us or held us back and, in its place, gives us a place to grow, like a nursery for young adults ready to bloom and sprout. In the city, we don’t have to convince our father that women are strong and capable, that they can wear what they want, that their bodies are their own. In the city, we don’t have to explain to our grandmother why immigrants are important and worthy of respect, why people of color are not the source of all her problems. In the city, we don’t have to convince our uncle that LGBTQ people deserve happiness and safety, that they aren’t sick and aren’t going to hell. In the city, we don’t have to argue with our mother about the reality of climate change. In the city, we don’t have to justify why we studied philosophy or literature or women’s studies or art or biology. In the city, we don’t have to be treated like lunatics for believing in science, community, equality. In the city, we don’t have to constantly fight against disinformation spread on Facebook or by Fox News, against “entitled millennial” narratives and claims that we are destroying the world they built to fail.
Not all young people find themselves in a home or a hometown that they feel the need to flee, and not all young people need to leave home to pursue opportunities or find community. Not all young people are hurting. Not all young people are exhausted at the thought of visiting their hometowns. But many of those who do flee, who do flock to the city, are fighting some form of the battle outlined above. I know that many families feel they are losing their children when they see them flee to the city. In many ways, the children feel the same way, but don’t see any other choice. They have dreams to pursue, after all.
So… I usually write about nudism. (Maybe that took you by surprise if you’ve never read my other posts. Sorry. Well, not “sorry” so much as “surprise!”) You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned nudism at all until now. You’re right, I haven’t. That honestly was not the reason I wanted to write about this. I wanted to write about this topic because it has been pressing on me personally lately, and I know that I am not the only one who has experienced this conflict. In a way, though, I think maybe I have written about nudism. In a way, a lot of what I outlined above is at the root of declining membership at clubs, of seemingly decreasing interest in organized nudism. Young people fled to the city while nudist organizations and clubs maintained their focus on existing, aging communities in rural areas across the country. Young people sought progress while the nudist community sought to maintain the status quo. Young people pursued new dreams in new places with new people while the nudist community just sort of… stayed where it was, in a world further and further away from the one that young people wanted to build, geographically and ideologically. Much like so many other things that get left behind. It’s much bigger than the nudist community, though.
I won’t list off ways to fix the issue. I won’t provide a strategy. Not in this blog post, anyway. That wasn’t the point. I just wanted to say, to those young people reading this who can relate, you are beautiful just as you are and your journey is valid and important. There will be people in your life who will not appreciate that journey but it is a reflection on them and their character, not on you, the validity of your pursuits, or the importance of your community. If your journey gets hard—which it will—it does not mean that you failed or that you made a mistake. It means you are trying, you are human, and you are learning. I will leave you with one last thought: If you get where you’re going—whether that’s surrounded by city lights, fresh mountain air, or a warm desert breeze—and something you love is still missing, it’s up to you to find it, create it, adapt it. Maybe you’ll miss those rodeos, that country music, those fishing trips, that old nudist park tucked in the woods. Those things aren’t lost, they’re just waiting for the next generation to pick them back up and make them their own, when they’re ready. When you’re ready.