In winter 2018, I made a driving tour of the great national parks of Utah and Arizona. Places like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and the Grand Canyon are national treasures, bucket list entries that a nature-lover like myself had longed to visit for years. My partner and I were all set for an amazing winter road trip, but there was one thing putting a damper on my mood: I very much looked like a person in the first stages of a gender transition, and I was about to leave the safe, blue confines of the Bay Area for some very red territory.
In those days, my presentation was what I called “profoundly androgynous.” Most people probably read me as male based off my overall body shape, my voice, and the shadow of my facial hair, but they would have also noticed the bright red paint on my fingernails, the purse that was always hanging from my shoulder, the skin-tight skinny jeans and leggings that were my go-to bottoms, and the light makeup that I wore on a day-to-day basis. I’d gotten very comfortable presenting as I wished in the Bay Area, where the worst I expected were disapproving stares and occasional comments. But now that I was heading into one of the reddest states around, I was beginning to feel my anxiety spike, culminating in the first hints of panic attacks.
I was coming fact to face with the queer divide in America. It is a simple truth that LGBT people who have the ability and the desire to live in liberal enclaves will have a very different experience from those living in more conservative areas, and these differences are leading to extremely unequal life outcomes. This very important topic is the basis of transgender journalist Samantha Allen’s new travelogue, Real Queer America. While she does not shy away from presenting the harsh realities about the great deal of discrimination against LGBT people in America, she also takes the very important step of complicating this picture by showing that many LGBT-friendly places exist not on the liberal coasts but deep in red states.
Allen begins the book by describing how she owed her own emergence as a trans woman to a gay man from Indiana who took the very necessary step of getting Emory University in Atlanta, GA, to cover transitionary medical care (a year before Harvard did). Allen’s story illustrates a theme of the book: queer people are everywhere, and we will continue to be everywhere even if the laws and communities of a certain place are inhospitable to us. Allen’s story of starting her transition at Emory makes a valuable example of how lifesaving proper trans medical care is, and how just one single person can bring it to a part of the country where it didn’t previously exist.
After telling of her own emergence as a trans woman, Allen takes her car to Utah, the very first red state where I let my queer identity be seen. As a former member of the Mormon church, Allen knows the level of intolerance that exists in Utah firsthand—homosexual “behavior” is still reason to be excommunicated from the Mormon Church, as is transitioning to the correct gender. This intolerance is a big part of why 40 percent of homeless youth in Utah are LGBT (among the highest rate in the nation). But Allen does soften this picture by noting that many Mormons have a much softer stance on LGBT issues than their church, and Utah’s legislature was able to work with the Church to pass a nondiscrimination bill in 2015.This odious bill only failed because it endangered Utah’s chances of hosting a future Olympics.
While it’s true that Utah now grants LGBT people far more inclusion and resources than previously, so much still remains to be done. While one Utah judge recently shocked many by granting Mel Van De Graaff a gender marker of “X”—making them the first person in Utah to ever have their nonbinary identity correctly identified by the government—other Utah judges are proving to be far more regressive. Earlier this year, judge Noel Hyde took it upon himself to decide that the birth-gender of a trans man and trans woman should follow them around for the rest of their lives.
This refusal to recognize their true genders not only denied them a fundamental right that cis people take for granted—it also nearly lead to the passage of an extreme, regressive law that would have banned trans people from changing their birth certificates. (The case is currently being considered by Utah’s Supreme Court.) This odious bill only failed because it endangered Utah’s chances of hosting a future Olympics; Republican state senator Todd Weiler’s reasons for shelving the bill make it perfectly just how much many Utah lawmakers care about LGBT people: “I don’t think anyone in Utah, including the governor, would want to do anything to put at risk attracting Fortune 500 companies and international sporting events.” Weiler might instead have cited the incredibly high suicide rates among youth in Utah, among the highest in the nation and largely due to LGBT intolerance.
In spite of all that, Allen does find many Utah citizens who have dedicated themselves to creating resources for those suffering youths, and during my own trip there, I found it to be a very nuanced state. It’s true that I drove by plenty of intolerant billboards and bumper stickers, but my bed and breakfast in Springdale (gateway to Zion National Park), was run by two lovely gay men, and during my time in Springdale I received plenty of compliments on my manicure. There’s clearly a big difference between more cosmopolitan parts of the state and the more conservative rurals, where I felt much more hesitant about leaving my vehicle and encountered disapproving stares and cold shoulders.
Moving from the Southwest to the South, Allen makes a stop in the Bible Belt, which is by many measures the most LGBT intolerant part of the nation. Her story of the support both she and her bisexual friend Jenn found during their queer comings-of-age in Tennessee, as well as the thriving queer scene in Allen’s hometown—Johnson City, TN—show that this deep red state can be a wonderful place for LGBT people. I myself attended a conference in Memphis in early 2018, right in the initial stages of my transition, and I largely found it a welcoming and accepting city.
Yet queer rights are also under assault in this state: six anti-LGBT bills dubbed the “slate of hate” have been introduced into the Tennessee legislature this year, including ones that ban same-sex couples from adopting and marrying, and one that would make it even easier for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. (Tennessee already legalized the practice in 2011.) Representative John Ragan has also introduced a bathroom bill aimed specifically at trans women, of whom he has stated, “I don’t care if they think they’re a woman.” (Ragan is also infamous for anti-gay legislation, stating among other things that a gay person is not a “mentally healthy adult human being.”) Ragan’s bathroom bill would take advantage of the fact that Tennessee is one of the few remaining states that do not allow trans people to correct the gender listed on their birth certificate, effectively allowing anybody to police trans people’s use of the proper restroom.
Tennessee is like much of the Bible Belt in its wildly inconsistent approach to LGBT equality. To learn more about what exactly queer people face in this region, I highly recommend Pray the Gay Away by Bernadette Barton. Although the title of her book is a clear reference to the infamous gay conversation therapy (now banned in 15 states), it’s much, much more than just a dissection of that practice: the book is a truly kaleidoscopic sociological study, a collection of narratives covering all sorts of gay people living all over the Bible Belt, having all kinds of experiences. With painful stories like bullying by the Christian church, parents brutally disowning children, and even families forcing a child to be locked in a basement to undergo an exorcism, the book can be a very challenging read at times, but it’s full of so much rich information, and it is also full of inspiring stories of strength and resilience. No single volume has done as much to advance my understanding of the experience of gay people in the South.
As I read more and more of Allen’s road trip, I realized how true her message of queer mobility felt for me personally: the requirements of my life and my career didn’t stop the day I became a transsexual lesbian, and nor should they have. I have just as much right—and just as much need—as I did prior to my transition to live in all parts of my country, but this truth often brings me into some challenging situations. For instance, earlier this year I traveled to New Mexico, which was the first state I traveled to as legally female, with female ID and a female name.
At that point I was about a year into my transition, and although New Mexico is a solidly blue state, it felt a far cry from the deep blueness and familiarity of California. I approached the trip with a great deal of anxiety. It was the first time I would be going through an airport TSA inspection as a woman, and I also didn’t know what to expect in a state that I hadn’t visited for 10 years. One thing that lessened my anxiety was that the New Mexico legislature had enacted gender nondiscrimination legislation in 2003 (making it one of the first states to do so). I quickly downloaded the text of the law to my smartphone in case anyone there attempted to discriminate against me.The reality of being transgender is that it often feels as though someone might take it upon themselves to challenge your rights at any moment.
This may seem like an undue precaution, but these are the sorts of things that still happen quite regularly in our community. I was inspired in part by Washington, DC, resident and LGBT rights campaigner Charlotte Clymer, who had made similar use of just such legislation months prior to my trip. When a male employee of the Cuba Libre restaurant in DC attempted to bar her from using the women’s restroom—then followed her into the bathroom to harass her while she peed—Clymer used her smartphone to bring up the text of the DC Human Rights Act, which bars exactly the sort of discrimination this employee was attempting. Ultimately, Clymer called the police, who enforced the law against both the employee and his manager (who had also challenged Clymer), leading to a fine, the requirement that the restaurant post gender-inclusive bathroom signage, and gender sensitivity training.
I admit that I was very unlikely to have a similar experience to Clymer, and once my trip was over I realized that I’d greatly exaggerated my fears, but the reality of being transgender is that it often feels as though someone might take it upon themselves to challenge your rights at any moment. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 survey of trans people—the largest such survey ever conducted—paints a disquieting picture of just how pervasive discrimination against us is in America. After all, Washington, DC, is one of the nation’s bluest places, and its nondiscrimination act has been law for years. The LGBT community has had great successes in changing so much about our laws and ideas, but it is clear that it will take much, much longer for these things to sink in to the extent needed for us to feel fully safe and supported.
Despite being aware of the many obstacles to queer people living our lives, Allen strikes a pose of resilience, writing, “you could re-ban same-sex marriage in Tennessee and make it illegal for me to use the women’s restroom here, but I would still probably choose it over New York.” This is not a dismissal of New York but rather a declaration of Allen’s love for her homeland, as well as a simple assertion of her right to live where she feels best. This declaration is perhaps a major part of the backlash we are currently seeing against LGBT people: much like with anti-immigrant sentiment, as queer people have pushed the boundaries of where and how we are permitted to live, those who are intolerant to us are responding with hate designed to keep us in our place. In this spirit, I’ve tried see my own trips into places that have felt challenging as part of this boundary-pushing, and despite my fears I’ve attempted to be as kind and friendly as possible, letting everyone see that I’m just a girl whose life isn’t that different from their own. I feel that building these tiny bridges one by one with people who may have never met a trans person is a powerful way of changing the world for the better.
“If the dominant LGBT narrative of the 20th century was a gay boy in the country buying a one-way us ticket to the Big Apple,” writes Allen with much insight, “the untold story of the 21st is the queer girl in Tennessee who stays put.” As Allen has so skillfully done in her book, it is important to balance the images of LGBT people as victims and heroes with images of the everydayness that has increasingly characterized our lives in recent decades. A survey of stock photos done by The New York Times revealed that it is practically impossible to purchase a photo of a transperson that shows us as normal people living normal lives, and this is indicative of the larger truth that we are generally known as either victims or gender rebels, and less commonly seen for the mixture of non-gendered passions, careers, communities, and personality traits that are seen as the distinguishing characteristics of cis people.
It is this more complex reality that should be the basis of conversations about how to include us in cis communities—as long as we are simply victims and radicals, we will seem like freaks that can be tolerated but not included. I myself am sometimes troubled by how much of my own life has been spent learning to see myself as a normal person—transpeople are not immune to this tendency to see us as others—but Allen’s writing shows that there is a way to advocate for our unique needs while also underscoring our everydayness. She also shows that there is still much to be done. Real Queer America ends on a note of hope, predicting that its portrait of queer lives will eventually become antiquated as America grows more and more inclusive of all genders and sexualities. But this will only happen if people of all kinds choose to create communities where we can thrive together. In giving us humanizing portraits of places that many queer people fear and will not visit, Allen has done much to close this divide, and now we, her readers, must take up this message and manifest it in our own lives.