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.
Well, as a trans person, I can give you my perspective on why it's more complex than just a tussle over the legal jargon of an oil contract. But as an expat of the prairie, my solution 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.
Now, let me digress as I paint a picture for those who haven't experienced a small town.
You're as worried about impressing your next door neighbor as you are about impressing your aunt. Anything at all that makes you stand out is immediately noticed and called upon by those around you; sometimes lovingly, sometimes negatively. A great example is myself, a child who was not accepted by my peers until I finally dressed in clothing that was deemed "acceptable" even if it was just a pair of hip-hugging jeans that my sixth-grade hands had to wash with extra care.
When our class was instructed to do diversity group projects in seventh grade, the kid with Irish grandparents stood out because 86% of us were German and the rest were Norwegian.
And when I stood in my back yard, staring into the flat horizon, it was easy to believe that running in one straight direction would eventually lead right back around to my front door.
Until I reached high school (which required a 50 minute bus ride every morning) , there were no children with Native American heritage in my classes. No queer kids, no children of color, no one besides myself to hold up a label as 'somehow different,' and I was too scared to do so.
In heavily isolated towns like these, there is no desire by most of the townsfolk to expand beyond their way of life, because their way of life has simply worked. There's no need to expand their 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.
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 I would run away to the second I hit legal adulthood. This great loss of adventurous residents 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. 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 rights for minorities, whether queer, Native American or both, 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.
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 precious 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 be an opportunity to prove that transgender rights are a very real concern for our society. And who knows, that might be the first step that my little hometown would need to understand that we all need to stand together against the threat of oppression.
It doesn't matter if that threat is against trans people, lesbians, Native Americans, or against any other people of color. Whether we're fighting an oil rig or a political agenda, we must stand together.
What would be in it for the expats like us? 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. 🐾