Earlier this year, when I was in a moment of absolute despair and truly wondering what the point of me and my life was, I made myself a promise that I would get out of conservative Northwest Montana by the fall and move to a city where it was easier to exist as I do. I make myself a lot of promises and don’t keep very many, but sometimes they stick. This one, like the promise I made to myself that I wouldn’t drink alcohol ever again, happened to find purchase.
I spent the next six months applying for jobs in cities all over the West, with emphasis in Denver and Portland because of their reputations as queer-friendly cities that still have trees and green spaces, but nothing there felt right.
Then I remembered Minnesota, a place that had saved my life before when I was in college and didn’t know who I wanted to be but felt the urge to run. I ran to a summer camp in Northern Minnesota where I worked for a couple of summers and once again got to know myself. I’d left with the impression that the state itself is conservative, but Minneapolis is a liberal city with a queer scene. Also, after I’d started looking for jobs there, I met a woman from Minneapolis whom I almost immediately asked to be my girlfriend.
As autumn approached and I stared down another winter of misery and solitude, I knew I had to make a choice, and Minneapolis was it: where I’d make my new home and hope to feel more accepted for who I am.
That moment of knowing acceptance came a mere week and a half after I arrived, and not where I expected. It happened when I walked through a castle gate and into the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
This was a first for me. Though I respect everyone’s nerdery, renaissance stuff isn’t my kind, and I hadn’t sought it out before. But my girlfriend and I made plans with friends to go to the big festival here in Minnesota, and I agreed to it blindly, assuming I’d be walking into a small area in a field where people set up stalls and hollered at you in olde tyme accents.
I was sort of right about the content, but very wrong about the size. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival is humongous, the biggest of its kind in North America, hosting 300,000 people annually and settled on 200 acres near the town of Shakopee. All my ideas about what this festival would be were shattered in the parking lot, which was bigger and took longer to traverse than what I thought the whole festival would be.
Instead, I found a renaissance festival that has been growing since 1971. There is an entire 16th-century city built out in the fields, with more than 250 artisans selling their wares in the massive marketplace. There are also seemingly unlimited food options; I expected to have to make do with a turkey leg, but instead I had a blooming onion, gelato, Diet Coke, fried alligator, and kettle corn. And I don’t drink alcohol, but there were plenty of pub options, complemented by singers and servers in 16th-century garb who don’t mind if you need to use a debit card to pay for your vittles.
The shops sold all things renaissance, from clothing and weaponry to glass bulbs for the more magical folks to store their ingredients and places to make perfumes and soaps. Hundreds of character actors in renaissance garb wandered the streets, making for an interactive experience (which I usually hate and sometimes try to fight, but this wasn’t aggressive and I liked watching it happen around me).
There were performers juggling fire, singing, telling dirty jokes, writing puns, tricking folks with riddles, and full-on jousting. And I went on the second-to-last weekend of the season, in September, after a hard rain, so there was a lot of mud and humidity. (I was sweating so much in my long-sleeved shirt that I had to buy a souvenir T-shirt there to wear, which has quickly become a favorite.)
We spent the entire day there, and I walked around for hours to new places and corners of this little world. One of my friends had a fitness tracker and said we covered a cool five miles that day.
While I really love the feeling of being transported to a new time and place, like when I’m reading a good book, what really got me misty-eyed about this festival was how inclusive of all weirdness it was.
Everywhere we walked, we were the odd people out because we hadn’t dressed in renaissance outfits or Harry Potter-inspired outfits or Celtic-inspired outfits (“renaissance” is apparently a broad term). My modern dress made me stand out, but no one treated me as lesser.
There were rainbow flags everywhere, which is nice to see, but I really felt my queerness and otherness was accepted there because honestly, everyone else was weird, too. People clearly spent a lot of time and money on intricate outfits they could only wear six weekends a year, and they reveled in each other’s company and being in a place that they belonged.
I watched as packs of young men in leather and other animal skins and boots and modern glasses wandered and laughed and practiced chivalry for other people of all genders. Despite the crush of the crowd, everyone seemed to be in good spirits and was patient. Especially intricate costumes were praised, not ridiculed, and the wearers had visible pride about their work.
Toward the end of the evening, I watched as mating rituals began in earnest among the costumed young people and felt lucky to be there, watching them flirt chastely in their garb.
It’s hard to let other people see what you’re truly passionate about and who you really are, because it opens you up to vulnerability. What if they make fun of you? What if you’re beaten up because you’re different? What if they think less of you after they know?
These are all questions I wrestled with living as an openly gay person in Montana, every time I went out in public and decided to keep on my flatbill hat and risk being stared at and wondered about and even questioned about what and who I am just because of how I look.
Of course, being gay isn’t the same thing as wearing a costume, but how many times did I feel like I was wearing a costume in Montana, not wearing the long shorts or baseball caps I wanted to because I didn’t feel safe enough? I dressed and acted like a muted version of myself, in a way that accentuated feminine qualities so people weren’t tempted to ponder my genitals or if I’m allowed in this bathroom or that changing room.
It was a constant balancing act between knowing what I wanted and whether having it would be worth the trouble it could very easily bring. And now, in this new place, I didn’t have to do that.
At the festival, this realization hit me as I sat on a bench for an hour just watching people walking around, adults giddy in their costumes with their friends, being taken seriously.
I’m convinced this is what humans want, deep down: to be known, to be accepted, to be taken seriously for who we are. And at this festival, that joy was evident in people of all ages, but mostly the adults, from whom make believe has been taken by age and society.
Such freedom is rare for those who don’t get it outright by the color of their skin or gender or who they love. It’s a freedom I’ve only felt in one other place — A Camp — which was also built from the ground up by people who wanted somewhere to be themselves, unquestioned and unmolested.
I held my girlfriend’s hand and didn’t feel like I would get harassed for it. I kissed her by the jousting field in broad daylight and no one died or screamed “HOW WILL I EXPLAIN THIS TO MY CHILDREN?” People just milled about and smiled at us.
Is this life in a city? Is this what happens when you leave the odd social confines of rural living and go somewhere you can be part of a mass of people and can’t be singled out? Living in Northwest Montana was beautiful — I was next door to Glacier National Park — but it was killing me, slowly. I felt so alone, so isolated, and often afraid of my neighbors. I’d been razzed for having short hair, for looking like a man, for appearing too masculine. I knew I was always looking over my shoulder when in public, unable to relax, and it had become a regular part of life.
There’s only so much of that pressure that a body can take before it has to change or go under altogether. I knew I had to leave my life there or I’d be at risk of losing myself, but I didn’t know what to hope for. I’d lived in Montana my whole life, all 34 years thus far, except those summers in college in Northern Minnesota, and this fear of letting myself be known was all I knew.
I didn’t expect to be so profoundly moved by a bunch of folks performing their anachronistic passions in a Minnesota field. I’m ashamed to say I really didn’t expect much out of the experience other than excellent people-watching (which I got).
It was a day planned on a whim that ended up being a balm to my queer soul, and for that, I have nothing but respect for renaissance festivals. Who knows, next year I might even dress up as something other than a nervous ruralsbian crying about how beautiful all these nerds are.
As we walked out on the long trek back to our car (we could have taken the bus shuttle option but didn’t want to wait in line), we followed a couple of guys also making their way out. One was dressed as a wizard, and a man called out to ask if he was “Gandalf or Dumbledore.”
“Neither,” he said. “I’m Brian,” and I laughed and cried some more.