When the New York Times featured an article about the changing nature of travel amongst LGBTQ* people, a blurb at its end featured a reference to Madison, WI and a popular gay bar there: Plan B. It would also give insight into how a simple feature on the queer community is indicative of how an entire region is perceived outside of itself.
“Sometimes, travelers find [LGBTQ friendly locations] in unexpected places. Bobby Laurie, a California-based flight attendant and a travel correspondent for the Daily Buzz, a nationally syndicated morning show, was surprised at how he felt on a trip to Madison, Wis., where he saw quite a few equality stickers on storefronts. ‘It’s not like you’re looking for it,’ he said. ‘Subconsciously you see it. It does give you more of a sense of security.'”
Social media locally blew up because of the mention and the community showed its excitement for the brief moment it spent in the national spotlight. It was without a doubt entirely positive. It is concerning though, what this type of publicity says more vaguely (not necessarily about Madison per se) about how the Midwest is viewed across the nation as a whole and the East and West Coasts specifically.
Madison’s LGBTQ* friendly nature is not news: the Advocate has named Madison one of the best cities in the United States for queer people on more than one occasion (2010, 2012, 2013, 2014). For those who have visited or lived in Madison it isn’t hard to believe that assertion. Considering the city’s size, the queer community here seems disproportionately large. When one considers Madison’s strong history of liberal social life this make sense. The University of Wisconsin-Madison and the city’s role as seat of the state’s government have long fed the city’s large, highly educated and young population. The rapid growth of high-tech and medical technology industries in Madison is furthering this trend. All this ads up to a thoroughly open city. The state of Wisconsin too has long been known as a bastion of progressive politics and thinking. Indeed, Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay elected US Senator, calls a house in the heart of Madison home.
So why did a well-travelled individual find it surprising that a place like Madison could have a strong LGBTQ* community, but also supported one? It makes it seem like the Midwest is nothing but hooky people living in regressive state of mind. The blurb about Madison immediately followed a section discussion places that are not LGBTQ* friendly too as if to lump the Midwest in the same camp as India, Egypt or Russia, but then remind readers that in fact it is (surprise!) nothing like those places. The blurb is to be is more patronizing than anything. It goes to show that even people who are well-traveled, educated, work for reputable news sources and clearly have a mind for thinking about the world’s diversity still hold on to stereotyped images of the Midwest and the people living there.
The more concerning aspect of this is what it says about the Midwest though: as a region, the Midwest is failing to promote itself to the rest of the country and advertise what great things are constantly going on here. We can’t totally dismiss non-Midwesterners for their preconceived notions of the place. It is as much our job to show what the Midwest really is as it is the job of those talking about it to take the time to acquaint themselves with the place.
But, if one considers images of the Midwest, they often are not the best images. It is the region of rusting cities, deplorable winters, neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side crippled by gang warfare, “flyover country” and the Iowa caucus every four years. They are a far cry from the images that excite people to travel or do business in the region and it does little to make locals want to stay. The few pockets of intrigue for non-Midwesterns are always the surprising exceptions.
Taking hold of the region’s image, promoting the positive and discrediting the negative stereotypes (even those based in truth) is a big step in securing sustainable region wide prosperity that may be going overlooked. Especially when done at a national level. The Midwest deserves a better image. The region is full of vibrant cities, bucolic landscapes, fantastic natural spaces. The desired mix of lifestyles is also available in the Midwest, from Cosmopolitan Chicago, the rural northern Plains to academically minded and progressive cities like Madison, Ann Arbor and Bloomington, Ind.
Exhibiting excitement and value, a belief in the future of the Midwest and the interesting places that exist here is an important tool in developing pride in the region and by extension showing other Americans that there is worth in this part of the country. With increasingly tight strings on the financial purse in American and stronger competition with the sunny West and business friendly South, the Midwest has to step up to keep up with the competition for people, business and resources to continue investment and growth and secure a sustainable future for itself.
If an image of backwards life and untrue stereotypes continues, how can people living outside the Midwest know investing and support the region is worth their time and effort? It is necessary for the region to hold true to itself, but begin working to show how much more there really is to the Midwest. We shouldn’t discredit the importance of image and it is important to recognize that as a region we need to work to support that image. If the region continues to be seen in a light that isn’t attractive to those shaping the world, it won’t be able to maintain itself.
The blurb about the vibrant queer community in Madison might do a bit to get some more national attention an interest in the region. It is publicity, and there is certainly some truth to the idea that all publicity is good publicity. The specificity of the topic also makes it a good gauge for national impressions of the Midwest. It should be a wake up call to Midwesterners that we are still seen in a light that is not always as positive as we may see ourselves, and perhaps some of us are even beginning to lose faith in our home. But, as much as it is a wake up call, it is also an opportunity to begin evaluating the type of image we project of ourselves onto the rest of the world and begin thinking about how to better shape that image and show off what is good in the Midwest.