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Raw DS Article: It Gets Better

October 3, 2010

Grand Forks, North Dakota is a shitty place to live. The rest of the state, and its neighbor, Minnesota are not much better. Branded by some natives as God’s country, one look around this region and you’ll realize that those people have never seen mountains, the ocean, or Israel/Palestine, that place where God (if you believe in him/her) actually did most of his best work. Jesus never had a sermon on the lake, Moses didn’t part the Lake of the Woods to escape from the Canadians, and God didn’t destroy the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in place of Sodom and Gomorrah, but that’s likely splitting hairs.

There are many people in this surrounding area that will be perfectly content living in this part of the country. They are most often white, Christian, straight, and refer to casseroles as “hotdish.” Don’t fit that mold? It’s not going to be easy living here. For those that may be struggling to find a place here, rest assured that even though it might be lonely at times, there are other people like you out there. Gay, Muslim, atheist, Democrat, or

I have lived in this community as an active Jew for the past six years. The synagogue community here is unlike any I’ve encountered in several dozen states, and at least five other countries.  Somehow, a small group of very amazing people have carved out a spiritual home for me during that time. Outside of that small building on Cottonwood Street and in the homes of congregation members around the community, I’m about as far away from home as one can get.

Living in the dorms, I had bibles placed on my computer while I was away. My friends and I continue to face uphill battles with professors and GTAs to get time off for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and other holidays. My lowest point as someone different came over several months in the spring of 2008 when inaction, intolerance, ignorance, and, quite frankly, several idiotic individuals in the school’s Housing and general administration forced a fellow student out of the dorms for fear of retribution for being Jewish. Two years later, systemic changes stemming from that series of incedences are finally being made, thanks in large part to the departure of several bigoted and otherwise ignorant school administrators.

How does it feel to be different? It’s not something many people on this campus, and, on a larger scale, citizens of our country consider often, if at all. In the past several weeks, we have seen a huge rise in the public’s awareness of a fellow minority group as a result of the suicides of several gay and lesbian teenagers around the country, including one from Minnesota. These young men and women faced years of taunts, bullying, as well as emotional and physical violence from their classmates because they were different. To this problem, these young men and women found a permanent solution…one that has left their families, friends, and supportive members of the community questioning what they could have done to help.

Dan Savage is one of those people. For those 11,800 or so at UND that didn’t attend his entertaining talk at the Memorial Union earlier this year, Dan is a nationally syndicated sex-advice columnist for Seattle’s alternative newspaper, the Stranger.  In response to the growing number of oppressed gay and lesbian teenagers committing suicide, Dan and his partner created a YouTube channel with their own stories and one overriding theme: It gets better. The idea? Hundreds of people of many backgrounds and sexual orientations sharing one idea: yes, high school and college can suck, but life gets better. The videos are heartbreaking and paint a picture of the type of intolerance faced every day by people in “welcoming” cities not unlike our own.

Six years in Grand Forks as a Jew has embittered me toward the concept of “North Dakota Nice” or “Minnesota Nice.” Somewhere between the wanton acceptance of the delusional preaching of Pastor Tom Short and the eightieth time I was asked why I didn’t believe in Jesus as the lord and savior I suddenly realized that, much as I like to try and change the world, there isn’t much I can do here to change the community at large. I can, however, hope to make others like me have an easier time during their tenure at the University of North Dakota and here in Grand Forks.

This article isn’t intended to affect those normal readers of the Dakota Student, although I hope you take the time to read, listen, and watch the stories and experiences faced by your fellow classmates and professors. Take their experiences in stride, and do your best to make this campus a welcoming place for individuals of all races, religions, backgrounds and sexual orientations.  It is instead, intended for those who are different, who are made to feel different, and who don’t have a place to fit in.

It gets better. I’ve found that out myself. Find members of the community that aren’t intolerant, aren’t ignorant, and aren’t hiding behind a veil of Jesus to express their true feelings. Escape as much as you can and soak up the world outside of the Red River Valley. There are like-minded people similar to you around the world. It might take some searching to find them. Don’t use suicide as a way out of your problems. Find help, talk to someone, visit a counselor. Your friends and your families don’t deserve the pain and heartache at the hands of people’s intolerance.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 1:24 pm

    Greetings Martin,

    I read your article with interest as I was a UND student from ’87-91, and then some time later an employee for a year in the Continuing Education Department. Yes, I’m white and straight, and yes I call it hotdish. But, I am not Christian. I understand what it’s like to be on the outside, where looking and sounding like the mainstream doesn’t cut it if you don’t have the “right” religion.

    You make it pretty clear in this posting, and several others that I have just read, how much you really don’t like living here. I feel really sad that your experience these last 6 years has been so awful, but I have to imagine that something has been good…other wise you’d have moved on to another university, right?

    I have you ask…What about this place is so good that you can’t help yourself but stay?

  2. October 3, 2010 1:46 pm

    Hi Sparrow1969,

    Why is it that 99% of the people from Grand Forks who read these same posts have the same reaction?

    “If you don’t like it, just leave!”

    There is 100% fallacy in this argument. North Dakotans have created in their heads some kind of fantasyland that, when someone points out its flaws, their first reaction is JUST LEAVE THEN? What does that do to facilitate communal change? People from around here are insulted when they are made fun of by people from around the US and around the world, but yet they won’t do anything to become more open, more adaptable, and actually friendly to we “outsiders.”

    As I hinted in the article, there’s plenty of room for improvement in Grand Forks. I stay here because I have a year left of school. I also stay here because I can, and do, escape to more hospitable, open and scenic places regularly.

    By leaving, myself and others like me give the people here free reign to continue their actions and closed-mindedness without challenge. By challenging these viewpoints, myself and others seek to not only help ourselves, but help the community as a whole improve itself.

  3. October 3, 2010 3:15 pm

    Ah…I wondered if you would accuse me of telling you to leave if you didn’t like it. I very purposefully didn’t do that, as you will see if you go back and read what I wrote.

    You’re right, it is a very common thing for people to say, and I try not to be common whenever possible. In fact, there is no purpose in telling people to leave if they don’t like it here. This place either grows on people or it doesn’t, no harm, no foul. I wonder what you say to people who are vising you home town who regularly berate it in a very public manner? Do you try to show them the really cool things about that place? Do you invite them to join you in whatever entertaining activities might be happening locally? Do you ignore them? Or, do you suggest that they should leave it they don’t like it? People have a tendency to do that in defense of their home. It’s a lazy way to be, but unfortunately very common.

    Regarding what I actually said in my reply to your post, I merely expressed sadness that you were so miserable, and asked what about this place is so good that you can’t help yourself but stay? I really wanted you to think about the good things that are here, whether is has to do with friends you’ve cultivated, or things about UND that you actually do like, and might miss when you’re gone. My point is that there had to be more cons than pros, even from the beginning, if you are still here. I wonder how your perspective would change if you focused more on the good things in your life at UND, rather than mostly what makes you angry/frustrated/bored…at least as far as your public writing goes.

    Not that I think things that are broken need to stay in the dark. I’ve been reading up on the Dakota Student and some of the things that are going on there are pretty outrageous. I can’t believe the crap they’re trying to pull with the UND Pride Card. Yeah, horsepucky like that needs to be called out and exposed. Any time there is an inequity or someone is treated like so many door mats, that needs to be exposed and fixed. Everyone deserves to be treated as an equal.

    Yes, there is room form improvement in North Dakota, always. Just as there is everywhere. Let me ask you this…what is the most effective way to change people’s antiquated/ignorant mindsets?

  4. Paul permalink
    October 5, 2010 9:19 am

    I wanted to respond to your insights Martin… I myself come from a large metropolitan area outside of Philadelphia, Bucks Co. Pa population about 1 million in a county about the size of Grand Forks county.
    Yes Bucks County has its issues of course so does Burlington Co, N.J where I lived most of my adult life, the difference between these places and here in ND and Minnesota is that we tend NOT to hide our warts and down side? Here they say it’s God’s country? As if a God has some other part of the country he or she is less invested in? And that North Dakota Nice infers that no one else is nice anywhere else?
    I have had as much help from passerby’s when I broke down back East as I have had here, I have had a much easier time obtaining a loan here then back East because of a trust issue. I would imagine that back East you don’t know who to trust, whereas here if you’re known then you’re trusted?
    I equate this ND nice to this, I have known some parent (s) that no matter how much evidence you have that their child did something wrong they will deny the truth.. (Personally my mother all she needed was to have a neighbor come to the door and complain and she was whipping our butt?) I have found in my 10 years here they the locals consider this land like their child, like a home, like a family and no amount of truth, no amount of logic will deter them from seeing what they want to see?
    We are from the large cities and we know our warts; we can find the negatives only because we’re so use to being comfortable with our own ugly truths we don’t see them as negatives, it’s all about culture and the only way you can change a culture is to change one person at a time and the only way to do that is to be the example! And Martin I am so glad that I had the short time to spend with you that I had because you are an example…..Keep the faith brother ……

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