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For a Job, For a Guy, For a Change: Gay Men and the Decision to Relocate

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Over the course of my long (29 years in 2021) career as a gay men’s specialist therapist and life/career/relationship coach, I’ve had a certain list of topics that guys come to me with regularly.  One of these is someone who wants guidance because he’s trying to make an important life decision, which is whether to relocate from where he currently lives and uproot to go somewhere else to re-invent his life.

It makes sense that guys want help when they face this kind of decision, or even if they’re just thinking about it.  It’s a bit scary, because they’re right: relocating your home to another city, state, or country is daunting, because it’s a decision that is not easily reversed.  People can be concerned that they really want to “look before they leap,” and try to make the best decision possible for their long-term wellbeing, which involves some careful speculation about what that new life might look like.

I tend to work with guys often on what I call “developmental” issues – where you are in the phases of life – and “existential” issues, which involves who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing (personally and professionally) to give your life meaning and purpose.

What Home Means

One of my favorite inspirational New Age authors, the late Louise L. Hay, used to talk about how the home that we find ourselves living in has enormous impact on our mental and spiritual health.  She noted that she liked homes where there was lots of natural light, which she found inspiring (which can also have positive effects on the brain and regulating your circadian rhythms and moods).  I wrote a previous article on gay men and “making your house a home”, which is here.  But just like it’s important to find the right dwelling (house, apartment, condo, loft, etc.) for what we need and what we can afford, the town/city/state/country that you’re in is also important.  Where we live has implications from what that place is in terms of history, culture, climate, politics, geography, and economy.

This is especially true for gay men, because, let’s face it, gay men (and other LGBT+ issues for sexual and gender minorities) have a different time of it in progressive and welcoming, versus conservative and rejecting, types of locales and environments.  I, for one, am glad every day that I live in West Hollywood, California, part of the broader Los Angeles, California metropolitan area, that has a majority LGBT city council in a firmly “blue” (progressive/Democratic) county in a firmly “blue” state, where LGBT+ issues are politically validated and legislators generally vote in favor of LGBT+-affirmative laws (save for that awful Prop 8 in 2008, which California passed, temporarily outlawing marriage equality, which was in place until the US Supreme Court ruling negated those discriminatory laws in every state).

Existentially, we say “home is where you hang your hat.”  Many gay men move around a lot, especially to further their career, just as many straight men do.  In Los Angeles, many gay men come from other places to be a part of the “Hollywood” entertainment industry, rivaled perhaps only by New York City (although there are some other cities that are starting to have important entertainment industry representation, such as Atlanta (with its Marvel, Pinewood, and Tyler Perry studios).  Guys who are Wall Street go-getters flock to New York.  Other guys might be drawn to the academia that proliferates in the Northeast (United States).  The clients I work with from other countries might be a part of the very gay-friendly aspects of London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, and Bangkok.  There is definitely a sort of “unwritten” (although some travel sites do tend to write these down) set of rules about how relatively LGBT+ friendly a place is (Tel Aviv, for example, will score much higher than, say, Tehran!).  For many, the “home” part can be dictated by the industry we want to stake our fortune in, or it could be where our Family of Origin is, and we want to be near them.

One of the most important variables I see in my work (and it was true for me, too) was that there can be conflict between living in a place where your Family of Origin is, versus “where the work is.”  Unfortunately, this is a relocation dilemma that is not easily resolved.  I went “where the work is,” but now, at middle age, I realize I missed out on a lot of events in the life of my Family of Origin (especially watching my nieces grow up) that I regret, especially if your work doesn’t provide for frequent leisure travel or time off to visit loved ones.  It’s important to make your location (or relocation) decisions in the context of not only what serves you now, but the implications for potentially many years into your future.

Another variable that can be challenging is that a locale might be great for advancing your career, but not as great for the local LGBT+ atmosphere (such as in rural areas, in the American South (to varying degrees), or in various countries of the world (the Arab and African countries, especially, having the most severely negative laws and practices for LGBT+ people, up to and including capital punishment of their LGBT+ citizens just for existing).  Or, another conflict can be feeling pressure to relocate to an area that you don’t really enjoy, but it’s a place where you can either get ahead more readily in your career, or it’s where your particular company/industry is situated (although working remotely, fueled by the COVID pandemic, has made “working from anywhere” more of a realistic option, worldwide).

History of the Wanderlust Instinct

Despite these occasional conflicts (that sometimes need “talking out” and weighing the pros and cons with guided critical thinking (such as from a therapist or coach), American gay men actually come from a certain built-in, genetic predisposition for wanderlust.  I don’t have the exact citation (this is a blog, not an academic journal; ordinarily, I really should cite my sources!), but I read an article once that talked about since so many people in the United States came from other places, we have “wanderlust in our DNA”.  I also think that gay men’s capacity for trying new things and having a certain “neuroplasticity” for adaptive coping and new ways of looking at things (which can come out of the critical thinking process required in the coming out process for gay men in the first place) also gives them, in general, a certain sense of adventure and “oh, what the hell, let’s try it” disposition.

Gay men for decades (especially after World War I, and certainly after World War II) have grown restless in small towns, and flocked to cities where they can “blend in” a bit more, experience more diversity of populations, and find each other more readily for social (and romantic and sexual) support.  Even in the 2020 election, we saw how urban areas (such as Atlanta) were decidedly voting progressive, while more rural areas of all parts of the USA tended to vote “red” or conservative, but with still lots of “purple” areas (such as parts of Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania).

Reasons for Relocation

The reasons why gay men are faced with a “do I, or don’t I” decision regarding relocation can be several:

Job – Of all the gay male clients I have worked with, most have discussed relocating in relation to their jobs.  I work mostly with gay male executives, and these kinds of high demand/high reward jobs usually require relocating at different points in their career.  I hear of the cultural differences that guys observe in places where they have lived (a frequent topic is that guys report that it’s harder to make friends, and date, in Los Angeles than it is in other cities they’ve lived in).  Guys see relocating for a job as a trade-off to further their economic progress and title/salary history over time, and see it as just part of the deal that they accept.  In many cases, guys don’t regret making these relocation decisions, because they experience for themselves (and observe it in their peers) that it is, indeed, a good way to “move up the ladder.”

Partner – Moving to another city because your boyfriend/partner/spouse lives there is the second-most common reason for relocation that I hear about.  While I support many guys in long-distance relationships (my article with tips on making that work is here), eventually, most relationships want that “domestic” component of sharing a home together, in the same city.  This is perhaps the riskiest option, because if the relationship should end, the guy has already probably left a job and a home in another city that would not be easy to re-create if he wanted to reverse his decision to leave.  Often, I work with guys who moved to the Los Angeles area to be with a relatively new partner, broken up, and then stayed in LA as a single guy again, when they might not have moved there if it weren’t for the original relationship.  There is a triumvirate of city, partner, and job that needs to be OK with you, and OK with your partner – basically, six “variables” in that equation – for life to work out.  If you love your partner and your job, but hate the city you’re living in, that’s going to be a problem that needs attention – or any other of those variables, for you or him.

Fresh Start – Relocating because you want a “fresh start” in life is less common, but it certainly fuels a certain number of gay men’s relocations annually.  I work with clients often on what therapists call “behavioral rituals” that give a sense of ceremony or occasion, which can support cognitive reframing and behavioral change.  There are many rituals that symbolize emotional concepts, such as exchanging wedding rings, or religious/spiritual observances.  Picking a spot on the map and moving there can be a way to give our brains and our spirits “novel stimulation,” and make us more “citizens of the world” to expand the vibrancy of our life experience (beyond visiting new places on vacations).  Relocating for a fresh start can be a behavioral ritual that represents “out with the old, in with the new” and can affirm our idea that if things go wrong, we can always begin again somewhere else.

Life Change – I’ve worked with many guys who relocate after a life change.  This can be after leaving college or grad school, after a breakup, after the death of a partner or loved one, at midlife, or at retirement.  People tend to enter therapy at times of life change and transition, because it is the simple stress of change itself (for better or for worse) that prompts people to seek help.  These kinds of life changes offer a natural “pause” in life that create a natural window to relocate.

In my work with gay men, I often use cultural references that have a certain “gay sensibility,” including quoting classic movies or TV shows that are likely to be familiar to gay men.  TV’s “The Golden Girls,” often a favorite of gay men, featured a flashback episode where Betty White’s character of the naïve Rose Nylund is back in her old home of St. Olaf and holding herself a birthday party for one after the death of her husband, Charlie.  In a moving and poignant monologue, Rose speaks to Charlie’s empty chair at the kitchen table and talks about wanting a change in her life after his passing.  She mentions she’s “read good things about Miami” and makes a wish on her birthday cake.  Of course, the audience knows what happens next – she moves to Miami, meets Dorothy, Blanche, and Sophia – and we have the show we all know today.  But depicting her emotional process to relocate based on the life change of her being widowed via White’s monologue was a beautiful dramatization of a person’s emotional and thought process to relocate because life circumstances opened a window for it.  It’s moving because so many people can relate to that process.

Good and Bad Reasons to Relocate

Moving due to a job, partner, fresh start, or life change can all be good reasons to make the leap.  Those kinds of moves can represent personal growth, job opportunity, cultural enrichment, economic mobility, and social involvement.  These are all sound reasons that make the decision to move prone to succeed.

However, there can be “bad reasons” to consider relocating.  These can involve using relocation as a strategy, when other strategies for managing or improving your life are called for instead.  A relocation move that is not thought out, at least reasonably, can be an impulsive mistake.  Moving without a plan in place such as a job (or a reliable promise of one) or housing can be especially risky.  Moving when what you really need is emotional support to work through a problem (or problems) can be a mistake.

I’m not in AA, but I like to steal their sayings.  One of their terms is “pulling a geographic,” which means someone (likely with a drug or alcohol problem) simply moving away to a different city instead of really coming to terms with their challenges through the AA program (or its alternatives), therapy, and social support.  Too often, relocation can be “the wrong tool for the job,” and this is something that therapy or coaching around this topic can help with.

It’s generally thought that major life decisions that are well thought out, especially by revisiting them over time (not just a temporary whim, mood, or reaction to a short-term stressor), makes for better decisions (and less potential for expensive and time-consuming regrets).  Of all the guys I’ve helped with the relocation dilemma, all of them who have somehow kept in touch (or continued work with me after their relocation) have looked back and viewed their relocation as the right decision, probably fueled by a drive for continuous self-improvement, which is a trait that many of my clients have in common (hence their investment in therapy or coaching to advance their life goals).

Existential Issues

In another article, I discussed the famous Emmanuel Kant quote that in this life we need something to do, someone to love, and someone to hope for (here).  Relocating can be part of those things to do, or people to love.  What we “hope for” in the new location is that we will become more self-actualized in life, and what we will achieve something that is important for us in our own value system that we couldn’t have gotten had we not relocated to get it.

John Bolles, in his classic book about job hunting, What Color Is Your Parachute? (cleverly updated regularly, to sell new editions of the same book), discusses that your career search involves the skills you want to use, in the setting you want to use them in, and for the benefit of an audience (customer, client) worthy of your efforts.  I’d like to add to that, where that audience is!  For example, I am a therapist and coach (which are related, but somewhat different) (these are the skills), at first in Los Angeles (in person) and now worldwide (via webcam), which is the setting, and specifically for gay men (worthy audience).  Any one of those variables could be changed (such as my therapist colleagues in Los Angeles, but their “audience” is teenage girls with eating disorders; same skills and setting, but different audience).

For your career, your skill set could be applied to various work settings (I work in a private practice, for example, while some therapists work in rehab centers or hospitals), and for your chosen audience of people, but the setting could not only be organizational/institutional/corporate, but the town/city/state/country you reside in.  Think about the implications for your career (especially regarding career satisfaction for you, in your own value system) based on where you are located doing it.

In social work (I’m trained as a clinical and psychiatric social worker), we use the “person-in-environment” theory.  This means there is everything that makes you you, but if we change the environment you’re in, you would change to some degree, too, in order to adapt to your local surroundings.  Your environment can support you, and give you resources, energy, and sustenance, or your environment can harm you, and give you stress.  It’s important to choose carefully where you put yourself – and it’s important to make a change if that environment is detrimental to your wellbeing.

Relocation as Anxiety Management

When guys work with me to process their feelings about the decision to relocate, what they’re really doing is managing the anxiety that making a large life decision can bring.  If we define anxiety as the “fear of loss,” that loss could be loss of life and limb (like being anxious that a snake you see in the road in front of you will bite you) or loss of standing (like an audience you’re giving a speech to will boo you off the stage).  Some anxieties and fears are valid (it’s important to avoid snake bites, and it’s important to prepare reasonably for giving a speech), but sometimes the role of therapy or coaching is about really examining your anxieties to form a more realistic view of them.

The stress of deciding to relocate is like this.  If you give up things like your current home, job, set of friends, proximity to family, cultural environment, and all the things you’re familiar with, it can either mean that you’re trading those for an opportunity to form a new (and better) life, or experiencing a loss that you’ll regret.  The stakes can feel high.  But another AA saying is “living life, on Life’s terms.”  This means that you can’t expect to go through life without some kind of acceptance of reasonable risk.  It’s like those game shows where you give up a lesser prize for the chance to win a bigger prize – or lose the first prize.  How do you decide?

The key word there is reasonable.  It’s not reasonable to ask yourself to have a life that is completely without risk.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  But if you feel in your gut that leaving a place for another place is not a good idea, and that you’d be relieved if you did not have to go, then that’s an important instinct to follow as well. I admit, I have sometimes ignored the instinct not to do something, and I’ve regretted it with sadness.  But if you feel a sense of “scary excitement” about an opportunity, that’s probably a good sign.  After all, if you get out of your comfort zone often enough, you build a bigger comfort zone.

In life, we move in one direction: forward.

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