The story is as old as time: Plucky young adults, stymied by small-town culture and fueled by grandiose dreams, flee for the bright lights of the big city. It might sound like a story book or a Sex and the City script, but it happens all the time. In fact, it’s happening right now in Cincinnati.
Cameron Tolle is sleeping off the 10-hour drive from Cincinnati to New Jersey, a trip he made yesterday. Tolle, originally from Kansas City and a recent graduate of Xavier University, is starting a new job in New York City as an online organizer with Freedom to Marry, a company that works for marriage equality through social media.
“I always envisioned myself leaving Cincinnati after graduation,” he says minutes after arriving in New Jersey. “But comparing to my life in Kansas City, Cincinnati was very liberating for me.”
Cincinnati allowed Tolle to openly express his sexual orientation. He helped found Impact Cincinnati, an LGBTQ organization that worked to be a bridge between other Cincinnati LGBTQ groups, and has been active in the Queen City’s queer politics.
But while Tolle saw the city as becoming more culturally rich and diverse, he found an unfulfilling void between gay society and gay activism. He went out of state to find his niche in national gay politics and volunteering for gay causes in Maine and New Jersey.
“I kind of just got tired of there not being tangible things to do,” Tolle says. “I had to go to Maine to have something tangible.”
And Tolle isn’t alone. Many young gay Cincinnatians have recently left or are planning on leaving the city for a variety of professional, cultural and spiritual reasons.
Chris Kittrell, 25, frontman of the Cincinnati-formed band Baby Alpaca, recently moved to Brooklyn in order to further explore themusic scene.
While playing shows at Grammer’s Bar in Over-the-Rhine and the Southgate House were early highlights, Kittrell (pictured above) felt he was fighting against a creative ceiling and that he needed to go elsewhere to succeed.
“There’s not many venues (in Cincinnati),” Kittrell says. “I was quickly topped off.”
Although he’s a gay artist, Kittrell didn’t feel embraced by the broader gay community. He felt isolated in gay circles because he didn’t conform to what he perceived as the normal queer world. Living in New York allows him to connect with people that share his values and artistic sentiments, which is crucial for his music.
“Here, they’re kind of a bigger alternative gay community,” he says. “It creates another support network. I feel like I’m happier here.”
Some people divide their time between Cincinnati and other large cities.
Gregory Kiep, 27, owns a marketing firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and often returns to the city for business. For him, leaving Cincinnati made sense for his career, but also fulfilled his need to live openly.
“People want to be able to walk down the street and hold their boyfriend’s hand and not feel any sense of shame or hesitation,” Kiep says. “I thought, ‘Let’s go somewhere where I think they have it figured out.’”
This isn’t just a trend among Cincinnati’s young gay professional students and couples. In the 2008 American Community Survey, 84 percent of same-sex couples live in an urban area compared to 77 percent of the general U.S. population. Also, 45 percent of same-sex couples live in the principal city of a metropolitan area versus 32 percent of the general population.
Available data on LGBTQ individuals suggest they’re just as likely to move as heterosexual individuals but are more likely to move further away.
Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, says that LGBTQ people — a subset of what he refers to as the “creative class,” individuals that comprise nearly a third of the U.S. workforce in industries like publishing, marketing and the arts — often congregate in communities that are open and more tolerant.
“Economic prosperity relies on cultural, entrepreneurial, civic, scientific and artistic creativity,” Florida wrote in an e-mail. “Creative workers with these talents need communities, organizations and peers that are open to new ideas and different people. Places receptive to immigration, alternative lifestyles and new views on social status and power structures will benefit significantly in the creative age.”
Not all LGBTQ people who leave Cincinnati are looking for an escape. Tolle emphasizes that. although he grew up in Missouri, he thinks of Cincinnati as his home.
Others agree. Christopher Fedler, 24, recently moved to Honolulu for no reason other than he wanted to live there. In between jobs and apartments in Cincinnati, there were no local ties keeping him from having a little adventure. He’s currently helping a friend run an art gallery in Hawaii.
“I didn’t go to any gay activities (in Cincinnati),” he says, laughing. “I hung out with bicycle kids and drunkards. So I came to a place that is ideal for that.”
But Fedler plans on returning to Cincinnati one day. “Cincinnati will be home base no matter what,” he says.