Alysse Dalessandro grew up feeling like an outsider in her small hometown. A small town can magnify a person’s individual differences, and as one of the few large-bodied kids in her school, her classmates bullied and rejected her for her size.
Alysse retreated into a painful shyness that made her doubt her own self-worth. She began thinking that all small towns came with small minds — wondering whether she’d ever find a community of similar people where she could authentically be herself.
With time, she began forming an affirming social network. Some of her pals and family members became her biggest supporters, refusing to let others badmouth her.
She connected with online communities and found a support group about 40 minutes away that helped her understand her queer identity. Though, as she made more queer friends, she realized that many of them only felt comfortable coming out after leaving their hometowns.
So, after graduating high school at the age of 18, she did the same, leaving her hometown for Chicago and coming out. She thought she’d never look back. But after living for a while in a metropolis of 2.6 million people, she soon found herself missing some of her hometown’s charms.
“I missed getting to know my neighbors and the feel of a community at local events. In small towns, you have the ability to get to know more [people] on a personal level,” she says.
Another big pull home was Alysse’s relationship with her sister, now married and raising kids in their hometown. By visiting them, Alysse has seen that the town is far more progressive than it was when she left. Her old high school established a gay-straight alliance that invited her back to speak about her life as a plus-size queer model. Her nephews wear “I love my gay aunt” shirts to their grade school, something she’d never have dreamed of doing when she was a student there.
Her sister became part of a local group working to ensure that schools and local businesses are safe and LGBTQ-inclusive. In other small towns, she has seen LGBTQ people and allies successfully pass anti-discrimination ordinances when their state’s conservative legislatures won’t.
“While big cities may be known as havens for LGBTQ folks, queer people live everywhere, including small towns and rural areas,” she says. “In a big city, affecting change might mean a ton of hurdles, but in a small town… you can make small changes that make big impacts. [Your] voice for change can resonate more on an individual person-to-person level… and show that you, as a queer person, are in many ways just like them.”
She believes a lot of homophobia and transphobia comes from learned behavior and fear of the unknown. But when queer people show up as their authentic selves, they can help inspire others to make their towns more inclusive for LGBTQ youth, families, individuals, and allies, she says.
“As LGBTQ+ people, we are everywhere and we deserve to feel safe everywhere,” she adds. “We can’t change every heart and mind by showing up as our authentic self but it’s definitely a good place to start.”