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  • Writer's pictureBrendon Lies

The Solidity of Small Town Minds

Because I'm from North Dakota, I get asked the same question a lot lately, with only slight variation.

"What do you think about Standing Rock?"

Of course no one expects me to be happy about the situation. They just want to understand if I have some special insight that will blow the lid off of why and how those darn Midwesterners seem so out of the loop when it comes to human rights within their own state.

First and foremost, I cannot speak directly about the very intense and painful topic of what Native Americans go through in my homestate, as it's not my story.

I can, however, speak as a trans person, which is another topic that my state seems to struggle with, and maybe that will help paint a picture of why this state's residents are so dismal at confronting what other communities are suffering. I'll try to show you, through my perspective, why it's more personal than just a tussle over legal papers, and how such a big state can feel so far away from even itself. But as an expat of the prairie, my solution at the bottom of this post will be entirely hypocritical.

First of all, let's start at the roots. North Dakota is certainly booming in many ways — off and on, adjusting to the ebb and flow of economic fortunes. The oil boom in Western North Dakota has already busted, but it brought North Dakota back onto the map. Young Minnesotans who feel disillusioned with the political fine print riddling their own state are moving to the less-trampled Dakotas next door.

Most, of course, head for Fargo, the biggest city in North Dakota (although, I've been told it's not a city at all by Floridian standards, with a population of about 113,000 that makes it a little smaller than Coral Springs).

Where, then, are the rest of North Dakota's 739,000 people? Let's just say there's no limit to how small the towns can get.

For those who haven't experienced a small town, allow me to paint a picture.

You're as worried about impressing your next door neighbor as you are about impressing your aunt. — because chances are, both will never live farther than a kilometer away from you, so you want to make a good lasting impression. You are part of a VERY small community, and the only way to hide is to leave, which means abandoning everyone you have ever known.

Anything at all that makes you stand out is immediately noticed and called upon by this tiny community; sometimes lovingly, sometimes negatively. A great example is myself, a kid who wasn't even accepted by the other children until I finally began to dress in clothing that was deemed "acceptable" for my gender.

And when I stood in my back yard, staring into the flat horizon, I used to feel deep down that, if I tried to run away, I would end up running in one long straight line around the entire planet until, eventually, I would just end up right back at my front door.

To grow up so isolated, it really feels sometimes like the rest of the world might not even exist. And if they do, then they're not your problem anyway... they're outsiders, with outsider problems, in a land so far away that you'll never see them anyway.

Here's a fun example of how monogomous my home was: when our class was instructed to do diversity group projects, the kid with Irish grandparents stood out because 86% of us had German ancestry and the remainder were Norwegian.

Until I reached middle school (which required a 50 minute bus ride every morning) , there were no LGBT kids that I knew of in my classes, nor were there any children of color. There was no one besides myself to hold up a label as "somehow different," and I was too scared to become the first one to do so.

Such extreme isolation is already changing — in the age of the internet, children now have the opportunity to connect to people around the world, learn about new opinions, and challenge the way they were raised to think. Even I was a part of this.

But those who are the most daring of all, like myself, end up dreaming of escape... and those that remain, who are happy with the day to day, may not have as much desire to challenge their own community as a rogue disillusioned closeted trans person who eventually got so bitter that he left.

Those that stay behind in these heavily isolated towns are, at the very least, somewhat content with the prospect of a community that must be reasoned with.

The problem is, for the majority of that community, chances are there is no desire to expand beyond their way of life, because their way of life has simply worked. There's no need to expand their community's ideas of diversity, or to welcome "outsiders"... not that they're necessarily unwelcome. The idea is that the town functions quite well the way it is, and anyone is lovingly welcomed to settle there as long as they don't threaten that way of life.

This brings a challenge... anyone eager to spend their entire life in such a small community is likely to succumb to its closed-off mindset, or else risk being alienated.

If the majority of small towns work anything like the tiny home I hail from, then it's safe to assume that a vast chunk of North Dakota's residents are similarly ingrained.

For generations, communities have continued to function like well-maintained clocks with tightly-closed cases. Other than the occasional branch between nearby towns, there is no serious concern about what is happening elsewhere; that town is like a bubble of safety that is impenetrable by anything that happens to the outside world, other than what news might turn an intrigued ear.

By the time Channel 3 mentions what's happening a hundred miles away, it's likely you're as lost as the rest of the nation, and even less prepared to deal with the solution. Despite living within the same state, residents know perhaps less about the sensitivities of other cultures within their own state than people watching from their televisions in California.

And once election time swings around, there's little way to know which politician started it — or what the real problem is. So like the small communities that built the foundation of North Dakota, nothing changes.

To add to it, the '90s and early '00 saw a massive outflux of young curious minds much like myself, who would sit in the empty park alone and wonder where they would run away to the second they hit legal adulthood. This great loss only further added to the growing threat that many communities might continue to tick away in the same fashion until there are no longer any young hands to tend the aging gears.

You might think that there's hope based on what I mentioned earlier, with an influx of youth moving from other states in search of jobs, and of course with technology branching us together. Certainly any economic knowledge brought by outsiders is priceless, regardless of form. But when it comes to human rights, there is a fundamental problem.

For our purposes, it's important to clarify that these sharp new minds, bright with knowledge of the "outside world," have no training of how these unique small clockwork towns actually function. And here is what makes me a hypocrite.

I feel that in order for North Dakota — along with many other states in decline — to truly see an upward swing in human rights, there needs to be more of the expats returning home.

The open-minded knowledge brought from afar, combined with the preexisting trust of being a former resident and just the right amount of empathy towards the way their small towns think, would give an unprecedented boost for these communities.

Anyone eager to spend their entire life in such a small community is likely to succumb to its closed-off habits, or else risk being alienated.

Certainly the media and technology have allowed secluded towns a door into the world of new ideas, but without one of their own to explain in Catholic terms how two shirtless lesbians at New York Pride are playing an important role in advancing humanity's freedom, it risks only adding to frustrations — something entirely evident in the current political turmoil revolving around our current Presidential Election.

A small town is a gem in many ways, and it's possible to protect that sparkle without isolating its residents from the future of human rights. Every time a kid leaves home, never to return, that community has lost more than a resident... it's lost an opportunity to learn about a world that, at times, might as well be on another planet.

It's a great fear of mine to return home, because I know that the scars on my chest from gender reassignment are unlike anything that town has most likely ever seen. I know my town is close enough to Fargo that it's also unlikely everyone in town would remember my slew of childhood nicknames, but it wouldn't take long for that knowledge to resurface as popular chatter and quickly spread.

I know, however, that doing so would also be an opportunity to prove that transgender rights are a very relevant topic. And who knows, that might be the first step that my little hometown neighbors would need to finally understand.

Like I said, it's a hypocritical solution. When I look back at that life, I cannot for the life of me imagine returning. There just isn't enough in it that's worth it for me... at least not me personally.

What things might be worth it for someone else to return, though, I wonder?

Any number of things... the security of home, an escape from the grind of the city, take your pick. But ultimately it's about changing the world, one town at a time. 🐾

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