I stuck my hand out the window of his ’98 Camry as the sun set over Newport Beach. He was laughing at a joke I’d made, but time has erased the punchline—I imagine it was something about his fresh stubble or the fast food wrappers that littered the floor. We’d been driving for two whole days at that point. Our friends made conversation in the backseat, and I could hear him asking me which CD to play next. I’m glad nobody could see me clenching my hand into a fist around the packet of Marlboros in my pocket. I knew if I turned from the ocean I’d never look away from him. He’d finally know the many secrets I kept close to myself. And that couldn’t happen, obviously. So I kept my eyes fixed on the Pacific and cried silently.
I’ve thought quite a bit about where to start my story—how best to describe the journey that led me to unromantic indiscretions with skaters who didn’t shower enough. There’s more to it, obviously, but it’s always easiest to start with the sexy stuff. As is true for any trans woman, the men in my life form a complicated web of secrets. The very first found me in 2001—somewhere in rural California beneath the shadow of a church steeple. I remember adjusting the itchy blue uniform that was slightly too big for me. We didn’t have much money back then, and my wardrobe was everything my brother didn’t want. I was 6 and standing in a puddle behind that cathedral, kissing Anthony. He smelled like a bologna sandwich.
Anthony was as bad of a boy as any first-grader could be. He sat next to me in class, and we’d pass crayons and weird rocks under our desks. He was a year older but had been held back. His dad was dead or in jail or something? Freckles threatened to overwhelm his face, and his dark hair stuck straight up from his head. We were two kids reenacting something we’d seen on TV. Eventually a bell might have rang. Or a teacher was calling for the class? Regardless, he pushed me away from him and said it would never happen again. The next week he was kissing Phoebe by the swing sets, and I was being sent to the principal’s office for lining up with the girls at morning prayer. He stopped passing me rocks and by second grade was in another class entirely.
It became apparent quite young that, despite my boy’s uniform and itchy buzzcut, there was something going on that attracted the attention of just about everyone around me. I can vividly remember getting sent to the principal’s office for “walking with my hips”—can you imagine? Other infractions piled up: for playing “princess” with my friends; for drawing myself in classroom illustrations with long blonde hair that grew past my waist; for punching a kid when he called me gay. Picture a pair of seven-year-olds wrestling on the asphalt because Trevor and his fucked-up bowl cut wanted to look cool for Jessica! I hated the boys who would throw me under the bus to impress the girls in tweed skirts and white polos. The girls couldn’t help it, I think. But sometimes I hated them too.
If I look back, it makes sense that Anthony was the first in a long line of boys who told me one thing and did the complete opposite. l should make it clear that as a young trans girl I wanted many things out of life I couldn’t yet have: clothes and Barbies and hair that grew to my ass. More than anything, though, it was to understand why—why boys cornered me behind gymnasiums. Why they kissed me when no one was looking. Why they beat me up to impress the the other girls in class. And why they would never do any of that for me.
As I got older, the constant policing of my existence turned me into the typical bratty delinquent. Funny how that works! it’s almost as if children learn from the ways adults treat them: hit a kid enough times and they learn to dodge the blows. Yell at them enough and they find a voice to talk back. It didn’t help that I was thoroughly too smart for my own good—adults will hit a kid who talks back, but they fucking hate when that kid has opinions. It was a fucked-up cycle, and we were all trapped in it: the worse I was treated, the worse I reacted. Within a few years of sneaking out of Sunday school to play Gameboy in the bathroom, I was telling our principal she was going to Hell in front of the entire fifth-grade class. (Jesus Christ! would be both the appropriate response and obvious joke here.)
If it sounds like I grew up in a backwards, overly religious farm town, you would absolutely be correct. It was the early 2000s and seemingly everything was changing in the world but us. The hidden corners of this country are notorious for that. Secrets and hatred fester easily in left-alone truck stops, and mine was no different. Just about everyone went to one of the billion churches that littered the streets. And both my elementary and middle schools were tucked away behind the biggest of them. Of course, our early curriculums were tailored to fit the vaguely protestant teachings:
God held up all the planets in the sky with his love.
Pokemon cards were the tools of the devil.
Evolution was a lie the hippies made up.
Children who talk back go to Hell.
Global warming was un-Christian because of science.
George Bush Jr. was the best president we’d ever had.
I mean it when I say those cathedrals cast long shadows.
Now, I have this theory that young, queer kids cast very bright lights in early ‘00s small town America. There were exactly 5 of us in town, and we all knew of each other. Some of us never even met, obviously, but gossip spreads quick, and we’d all touched at least one of the others inappropriately at some point. It didn’t help that we also formed a large contingent of the Coalition of Depressed Future Addicts and Alcoholics Who Wear Lots of Black and Can’t Stop Getting Detention. Bright lights do attract lots of fucking flies, after all. And I was no different: by middle school, I’d smoked my first cigarette with Roman. I drank warm beers in the shed behind the house with Chris. Zach, who wanted to be a rock star when he grew up, showed me what his brother’s porn looked like. And Justin kissed me in the garage while our friends played Mario Kart inside. It wasn’t our first kiss. (Definitely wouldn’t be the last.)
As a teenager, the wants of my young trans self naturally turned to cigarettes and drugs and anime and black skinny jeans that hugged an ass my hair had not yet touched. All of that came easy with Justin, of course. Out of the 5 queer kids in town, we were numbers 1 and 2. Beneath the repressed sexuality baggage, it was sneaking out of windows that was the true foundation of our friendship. We even tried to run away once and only got as far as the fruit stand a few miles outta town. There was never a fence that couldn’t be climbed or a lock that couldn't be opened with the two of us around. Our friendship might have spanned a seemingly endless summer, but stuff like that never lasts—we were both young, sexually-confused delinquents who kissed and lied and stole from and smoked with and drank to much because of. We lost touch after he was hospitalized by his dad for the depression and drugs and getting arrested.
Where middle school was a time of thinly veiled sexual repression, high school presented me with an opportunity to fulfill every gay stereotype that ever lived. I wore lots of crazy outfits, yelled a lot about my militant queer communist agenda, got sent to the principal’s office for wearing makeup to class, and was beat up by football players who had touched my dick the previous year. It helped that I was shipped to a high school almost 40 minutes away from home to (hopefully) soak up its blissfully ignorant religious education. It didn’t work, but a new city and a new school meant I could act out in ways those childhood church steeples never let me. I knew that if I yelled at my teacher for correlating gender identity with biology, the youth ministers at church wouldn’t find out. I was free to fully act out, and it was here I became genuinely unhinged. I fell in with a crowd of post-emo mid-scene Hot Topic junkies who exposed to me to hard drugs and the art of successfully cheating on Biology exams.
But class always ended, and I’d drive back home under the shadow of those steeples. My nights and weekends were packed with church activities and overbearing youth ”ministry”. Most of it involved sitting in dark rooms, snacking on stale cheez-its, and texting under the desk. Sometimes there were trips to camps in various mountain ranges, where we’d all hold hands, speak in tongues, and cry about how much everyone loved Jesus. It was all such a departure from the secret life I’d been living at school, and the dual identities wore thin on me. My church friends could never meet my school friends. Never cross the red and blue wires, or something like that.
At one of the camps I bunked with a boy who I would have sworn was the hottest guy I’d ever seen in my whole life. His family was heavily involved in the church, which meant he was a central fixture both at camp and at after-school activities. What sick joke led the two of us to share a bunk, I’ll never know—but a few nights in oppressively cold mountain climates will bring anyone together, and the two of us were no different. I discovered he lived something of a double life, like me. It felt nice to find an ultra-hottie who, when we got back from camp, would volunteer to drive me around in his Camry while we chain-smoked American Spirits.
A fixture at the center of every interaction I’d ever had with the boys in my life was my inability to see myself as anything like them. I’d always been something else—a kid who slipped between the cracks of gender politics in small-town America. The boys who kissed and touched and beat me up were never doing any of that to other kids. And my inability to wrap my head around that frustrated me beyond belief. My new friend was no different—worse, even, because a year into our friendship I genuinely believed I was in love. We were 16-year-olds with cars that could drive for hours in any direction whenever we felt like it; the freedom was exhilarating, and my misguided affection for him didn’t help. When he got his first girlfriend that summer, I tried to play it cool, but I cried myself to sleep more times than I have the self-esteem to admit.
Our senior year, he had the idea to road trip to Southern California. For a weekend we slept on stranger’s floors, ate at truck stops in the middle of nowhere, and stood on the shores of countless beaches. But there’s a memory that continues to come back, even years later: I stuck my hand out the window of his ’98 Camry as the sun set over Newport Beach. He was laughing at a joke I’d made, but time has erased the punchline—I imagine it was something about his fresh stubble or the fast food wrappers that littered the floor. We’d been driving for two whole days at that point. Our friends made conversation in the backseat, and I could hear him asking me which CD to play next. I’m glad nobody could see me clenching my hand into a fist around the packet of Marlboros in my pocket. I knew if I turned from the ocean I’d never look away from him. He’d finally know the many secrets I kept close to myself. And that couldn’t happen, obviously. So I kept my eyes fixed on the Pacific and cried silently.