Written by Jacob Dagit, Staff Writer
“I’ve never felt so judged in my entire life,” my friend quivered as the seemingly paper-thin buildings no more than two years old loomed overhead, blocking out the sun and making everything feel much colder on an otherwise balmy Tennessee day.
During my spring break trip to Nashville, I found out just how hard it can be to blend into the background as a stranger in a strange land.
When originally moving from Kansas City to Chicago, I didn’t find many glaring cultural differences between the two places. I had noticed a significant change in how many people of color I was surrounded by, but even then I had intentionally rejected the communities in my hometown that weren’t inclusive to these groups. While in this strange place we were forced to synthesize a sense of self that didn’t feel honest to ourselves, but allowed us to pass as just another group of tourists.
My own group of predominately white, but queer, friends I was traveling with were immediately met with judgmental looks from white, wealthy, heterosexual couples wearing designer clothing, driving fast cars and moving through the city without a care in the world.
We planned our first brunch in an area known as “The Gulch,” but immediately changed plans to a park picnic once it was clear that we weren’t welcome. It was almost as if it was an entire city made up of Chicago’s Gold Coast, but more outwardly aristocratic and far sunnier.
It reminded me of certain areas of Kansas City (like Leewood or anywhere close to the speedway, for those who are familiar), where it seemed like the brand new and obnoxiously modern patch of luxury condominiums had sprouted up amongst the prairie grass, where it had no business being.
Back in Nashville, areas like Broadway, where historic buildings and bars had a presence of Wild West saloons on the river, felt much more comfortable than any overpriced biscuit corner. These bars were never short on white patrons eager to drink themselves incoherent until staff would help them stagger to the nearest curb. An intoxicated bachelorette clad in cowboy hat and boots, daisy dukes and veil climbed atop CR-Vs and dry-humped the windshield.
While on the main strip, police sat quietly in their cruisers, hoping that nothing bad enough to warrant movement or any kind of action would happen before finishing their next doughnut. However, when attending a Redbull SoundSelect showcase of BJ the Chicago Kid, which provided a big act with cheap drinks and a $3 cover, the presence of security was entirely different.
This show was the one place we were not surrounded by whiteness. Suddenly, police officers were at each of the four checkpoints before patrons were allowed into the stage area and throughout the venue. Their silver badges shined upon their bulletproof vests with sharp eyes peering out from their furrowed brows, greying high-and-tight haircuts.
Bolt after bolt of lightning struck no more than two miles off in the distance while the soaked line of concert-goers patiently waited to gain the approval of security staff, comfortably stationed beneath the venue awning. Passing through the gendered pat-downs and ID checks was required for everyone, although particularly uncomfortable for myself as a non-binary-identifying individual. However, the “family” bathroom was a pleasant surprise once inside.
A much more low-key operation was Santa’s Karaoke Bar, housed in a double-wide trailer some 10 minutes outside of downtown. Our “bartender” turned out to have been a Columbia College Chicago theatre major, not sure if he had graduated or not. Cigarette smoking was allowed. The book of available songs had been stolen, so anyone who wanted to sing had to write their song on a scrap piece of paper and take it to the MC to find out if it was on the roster. My rendition of “Friends in Low Places” was undoubtedly flawless, but once the staff started ignoring our Latinx friend and not acknowledging her when she asked why her song wasn’t called, we decided to leave.
A bar in the historic Printer's Alley area called Skull’s Rainbow Room featured an incredible burlesque show complete with a French pianist and full band to back performers. They gleefully sang their numbers and removed corset after garter belt while strutting along the catwalk that stretched through the dining room. Photo opportunities were made available after the performance. Several had studied burlesque in Chicago and connected my friends with their mentors.
The place that truly felt comfortable were places that were cheap, free, or historic to the city. The beautiful Nashville Public Library had an incredible children’s section, a photography exhibit and didn’t give second thought to the presence of the homeless, queers, travelers, and intellectuals alike.
Of course, Nashville isn’t inherently bad. Chicago is no stranger to institutional racism either. However, these feelings toward the non-white, hetero-patriarchal structure are far more widely and outwardly expressed by the culture.
It became clear that assimilation was the key to safety — a defensive act that I didn’t even realize I had been done while growing up in the my home state of Kansas but could now painfully feel as an adult.
All photos courtesy of Jacob Dagit.
Contact Jacob by email at Jacob.firstname.lastname@example.org.