It is still a general conception that the United States is an awesome place to be if you are LGBTQ+. In large coastal cities like Los Angeles it is definitely so, but in rural areas, for example, in the Bible Belt, it can even be traumatic. Our interview series aims to show that we cannot make such general and uniform statements, as LGBT, or specifically lesbian, stories differ singificantly even within the same country.
Today Alison will tell us about her experiences at the crossroads of the Midwest and the Great Plains.
Hi, Alison. Can you introduce yourself please?
Hello! My name is Alison Orton. I’m a 49 year old lesbian. Currently, I am finishing my PhD in history while working on some tourism projects on the side. And I’m on the “League of Historians” for the Chicago Brewseum – a museum dedicated to the history and culture of the global brewing industry. I grew up in the United States in a small, rural Nebraskan town. I lived in Western Massachusetts and New York City for a few years, then I spent 20 years of my adult life in Chicago. In 2017, I returned to Nebraska to help my parents when they started having serious health problems. I lived in Omaha for three years and left in late October of 2020. I now live in Bratislava. I spent much of 2015 and 2016 in Central Europe, mostly Czechia and Austria, while conducting research for my PhD dissertation (about beer and nationalism during the late-Habsburg Empire). When my girlfriend invited me to move to Bratislava to be with her last year, I took the chance despite the uncertainties of the pandemic.
Hungary may not be as big of a beer state as Czechia, but the pandemic is over you should pay us a visit! Now tell us a bit about Nebraska.
As those from the US have mentioned in previous interviews, LGBTQ+ people made many advances there in the last couple of decades. In Chicago, I rarely felt the need to hide my sexuality. And I had high hopes for my home state of Nebraska. In the 1980s, I hid my sexuality constantly. But in the last decade, even my small, conservative, and religious hometown seemed to be opening up. A lesbian was president of the town’s largest church board for several years. And my childhood friends were all accepting of me and open with their children about my sexuality. Sadly, what I found when I arrived in Omaha in 2017 was different than I had hoped. The city of Omaha is significantly more liberal than much of Nebraska. But despite the more open attitudes in Omaha, I found that conservative Christianity still dominated many peoples’ mindsets. And these conservative Christian voices grew increasingly louder in the three years I lived in Omaha (reflecting the overall political situation in the United States). In academic circles, I felt safe being honest about my sexuality, but outside of those circles I knew I needed to be careful, especially as hate crimes escalated in the last couple of years. I hadn’t felt that kind of fear since the early 1990s.
Can you say more about cities in the Midwest and the Great Plains?
In Omaha the LGBTQ+ community is not very visible. I was surprised by how difficult it was to meet other lesbians in a city with close to a million people in the metropolitan area. In Chicago there is such a wide range of organizations for the LGBTQ+ community, so I assumed Omaha would at least have a few. Sadly, it didn’t, or they weren’t easy to find. At one point, I spoke with a woman who had tried to organize a Meetup socializing group for lesbians in Omaha and she said that not enough people showed interest for a group to form. So she expanded the group to include the entire LGBTQ+ community and there were still not enough people interested.
I do know of a couple LGBTQ+ bars in Omaha though. There are a few LGBTQ+ groups associated with some of the more liberal churches in Omaha, but I am not a religious person, so attending a religious group wasn’t appealing to me. The local colleges and universities do have LGBTQ+ groups, and there is a small annual River City Pride celebration and picnic. The Pride celebration in Omaha has a very nice, warm, and friendly feel, probably because it is much smaller than celebrations in cities like Chicago. I drove to the smaller city of Lincoln (about 80km west of Omaha) several times for LGBTQ+ social events because their community is more visible and active.
Finally, can you share a memorable coming out story of yours?
I never officially came out. When I was in college, I just brought my first serious girlfriend home to meet my family and friends and that was it. In the early 1990s, many LGBTQ+ people I knew had coming out parties and made grand announcements to friends and family. But none of that felt right for me. I am not someone who enjoys the spotlight and all I really wanted was to have a “normal” relationship without fanfare and spectacle. So I acted accordingly and I actually got my wish that being a lesbian was a non-issue to those who mattered most to me. I suspect that most of the people who knew me well had already thought that I was a lesbian. My mother, who is a devout Christian, did suggest that we sleep in separate rooms because we weren’t married (this was 1993 – long before gay marriage was possible in the U.S.). While it frustrated me at the time, I now see that it was actually an acknowledgement of my relationship. If I had brought home a boyfriend, she would have had exactly the same reaction.