Leaving a Mark on the American Heartland With My Solo Queer Trans* Woman Roadtrip

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I have peed on sacred ground and no deity has struck my hot trans* ass down. I have peed in the American West. I have peed in the truckstops and the rest areas. I have peed in the foothills. I have not been misgendered! (Take that, Winston Churchill.)

I have also walked arm in arm with my girlfriend at a midwestern Christian college. The worst that happened was bubbly undergraduates asking if we wanted some coupons. This past year of my transition, 2012, has been one of road travel with many miles revisited across numerous American states.

My first road trip occurred in the summer, when my girlfriend and I moved her brother to college. It was also when we visited my mom to tell her in person of my transition. Needless to say, it wasn’t quite a carefree emotional vacation. Yet there were light moments. On our drive between these two events, we stop to get some snacks. As we wait, a hitch-hiker engages me in conversation:

“Are you guys sisters?”
–No.
“Mother and daughter?”
I look askance. “No. We’re partners.”

After 7 years together, that word still strikes me oddly. It’s the best word we’ve got since we have no interest in marriage. Before transition, “girlfriend” bestowed more heteronormativity than I was comfortable with. At least “partner” introduced queer connotations. Now, though, I’m loving “girlfriend” because of the obvious queerness. It’s a linguistic stake in the ground declaring us a girl-girl couple.

Our stoned friend continues, “business partners? Travel buddies?” My partner finally turns around and states: “girlfriends.” “Whoa! That is so cool!” he goes on and on. We take our food and go back to the car. Two hours later, we’re back in Chicago having dinner with good friends and recounting our day.

Anxiety Checklist

I’m no newbie to the road, having driven 44 states and 6 provinces — more than most people I know. As a genderqueer non-binary male, I bore the cross of whatever locals and cops assumed about me. Those assumptions are gone now, replaced by new ones. So after my first successful trip with my girlfriend, it was obviously time to take my show on the road solo, right?

Not the least of my concerns was driving my friend Xene’s unfamiliar Prius from Seattle to Omaha through possibly inclement November weather. Yet, my larger concern was driving solo as a woman. My overactive imagination wrote the scenarios of the damsel in distress as if my extensive experience had been nullified. Additionally, it wrote the narrative of the trans* victim trope. I’d be lying if I said that my sheer excitement was not perfectly balanced by sheer fright.

Unlike summer, I was on my own. Outside of Seattle, I had no idea what to expect. There aren’t many positive narratives about road-tripping trans* women outside the comparative safety of the urban archipelagos.

A definitive, six-question “What Rogue are you?” internet quiz identified me as a highwayman. That’s cool and fitting. Unlike Noyes’ Highwayman, I made it back fine. Like him, though, I may have engaged in crimes. Exhaustingly, peeing while trans seems a radical political act these days and possibly an outlaw act depending on the jurisdiction.

Correct documents notwithstanding, I was still transporting my penis across state lines. I couldn’t help but have a few concerns. For example, I’m callous and lazy; I refuse to tuck. I don’t go out of my way to highlight my non-standard equipment. However, I can’t be arsed with providing the cis world the misguided satisfaction that I’m ashamed of my anatomy. It’s turned into a point of pride as well as a bizarre, TMI-based, political statement. It’s taken me many years to finally realize that I fucking love my body, all of it.

Yet it’s a defiance I embody while comfortably ensconced in queer-friendly Seattle. Reality is different outside the archipelago, where political statement can become tempered by survival concerns. What could go wrong?

Naturally, these concerns would play out in the many restrooms along the route. Spiro! Amirite ladies!? I can’t be the only transwoman who feels a little vulnerable every time she stands up exposed to those two, centimeter-wide gaps, stage right and stage left, on either side of the stall door. Intellectually, I understand I see more outward than people see inward. Yet in the unfamiliar hinterland, informed scientific knowledge takes a backseat to survival paranoia.

Armed with equal parts excitement and fright, callousness and caution, I leave Seattle’s warm, queer embrace. I feel a little like Bernadette in Priscilla, piloting my vehicle into uncertain territory. All I’m certain of is that I have timelines and I must proceed as the way opens.

As with all proper road trips, this one gives me time to think. Thoughts become beautifully disjunct as the placelessness, unfamiliarity, and discovery distort time in strange ways. The following thoughts cross my mental field of vision. They aren’t fully formed, much less resolved. They’re starting points for future travels, literal and figurative.

Interstate 90 East; Mile 37

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Truck Nutz! On the west side of the Cascades? Well played, Washington! As it’ll turn out, these are the only pair of danglers I’ll see. It’s cold, after all; I suspect most have fully retracted toward the gas tank until April at least. I revisit my fantasies about welding a vagina dentata to the front of my Jeep: Truck Teeth!

Eastern Washington

At a rest area, a car parks next to mine. Two women about my age get out of the car. Having known fanfic, I can’t help but ship them. Of course they are a couple. The subtext will not allow anything less! There’s far too much heteronormativity out here anyway.

Despite my imagination, something real happens in a single second. As I sit in my car, fiddling with my iPod, I look up at the driver. As she looks back toward her car, our eyes lock through the windshield for the briefest moment. I’m shook by her subtle expression as she glances my way and non-verbally communicates something wonderful. A warmth washes over her eyes and she flashes the subtlest of smiles. I stop. I probably flash a smile. I feel complete reassurance. I feel admiration. I feel acceptance.

I’ve never experienced this before transition but I’ve been sensing it ever since. When read as a woman by another woman, especially in unfriendly or unfamiliar spaces, I get this knowing look like some secret handshake. It’s a feeling of solidarity maybe? I don’t know exactly but it is completely affirming. Even now, writing about it months later, I’m deeply moved. I tear up every single time I remember it.

Thank you, unknown traveler, you have no idea how much this means to me.

South of Butte, north of Pocatello

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The previous night I visited my librarian friend, Regan. We discussed Montana’s “live and let live” ethic and Butte’s “toughness”. As this was my first visit since, we talked about transition as well. Toughness. I cringe when people call me brave. My evolution and becoming has been absurdly, laughably easy compared to others. Still, I appreciate the sentiment.

The road from Butte is the most treacherous, with ice and blowing snow. With resolve, I pilot myself the best I can, through obstacles and hazards. Perhaps I’m finally starting to internalize my own agency and accomplishments. Sometimes I even believe some of my hype.

Pocatello, Idaho

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One thing I love doing on solo trips is pulling off the interstates around larger towns and driving through their centers. In all these towns, I’m struck with the social landscape’s overwhelming heteronormativity. I get enough polite looks from trucker dudes, but I’m missing glances from lady-loving ladies. I’ve been getting these more often at home and I really love them. So, this trip reminds me just how much of a fabulously amazing queer bubble Seattle is. I no longer take this for granted. On the way out of Pocatello, I do manage to stumble across the gay bar. Queerness exists in the heartland, imagine that. We’re everywhere.

Salt Lake City, Utah

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I had two missions here. Foremost was visiting my friend, Greg, now a university librarian. As it turns out, his partner has written on legal issues of trans* discrimination in bathrooms. These are the coincidences in my life. I’ve chosen correctly to visit friends along the route – the perfect balance to many miles spent alone.

Before seeing my charming friend, however, I planned to pee at Temple Square. Yes, it’s sophomoric. However, given my mischievous agnosticism and the LDS’s relationship to TBLG folks, I wanted to leave this symbolic mark. If nothing else was accomplished during this trip, it was imperative, as a queer trans* woman, to urinate at Temple Square and bear witness to the stunning lack of consequences, divine or otherwise. Peeing While Trans* is a theologically symbolic act, too.

Reader! Next time you visit the amazing North Visitor Center, think: a trans* woman urinated here! The time of the Great Mundane Micturition has passed! We are still here. And I am still peeing. I’m thinking of taking this superpower back on the road, hiring myself to ranchers to mark territory.

Wyoming

elk_mountain_wyo

Wyoming is the Equality State. Women here achieved suffrage way back in 1870. Additionally, a number of notable political firsts for women have occurred here. For the moment, I take Wyoming’s claim to equality at face value and head into Laramie to have dinner with Kaijsa, yet another librarian friend.

The previous evening, my friend, Cheryl, messaged me: “Safe travels, cowgirl!” Such tiny little words, finally in the correct gender, make me so profusely happy I could squeal.

Sydney, Nebraska

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At the motel, the young dude checking me in is checking me out. I think. He’s chatting me up with sheepish laughs and cutesy jokes giving him away. My deeply internalized self-doubt interjects. Exactly 63 reasons other than I’m an unaccompanied chick come to mind. Such ridiculous back-bench arguments occur in my mind’s parliamentary chamber.

I’m quite certain my boobs have been speaking for me. Among several passports granting me passage through the heartland, my boobs are among them. My back-bench voices still try to shout down claims that the face in the mirror is a woman. My front-bench boobs counter those attempts with aplomb. Steadfast against compromise, rising from obscurity, they are fierce diplomats. I can really fill out a pair of A-cups, let me tell you, yet they are larger than life. They take after my tedious extroversion. Regardless how I feel about my face, I flash myself a bit of cleavage and snap back to affirmative reality.

Even I am mesmerized by the ideological power of my own boobs.

North Platte, Nebraska

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After some exploration in town, I drive out the long way on the business loop. There’s a cop some distance behind me. I know they’re going to follow me to the interstate because that’s where their work is. Still, it makes me nervous to be around cops when I’m a long way from home.

By this fourth day on the road, I cannot ignore that my vanilla whiteness bestows me an unchecked passport through the heartland. It’s been the elephant riding with me. I’m a middle-aged white woman in overwhelmingly white America. My whiteness and age combine, lending me a certain invisibility that works systemically in my favor. This is partly why I don’t see myself or this endeavor as exceptionally brave. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do with this passport to help open the world for those who don’t have similar privileges.

In the end, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of intersectional issues followed me out of the city and hitchhiked cross-country. I’m being an urban snob but I suspect most people figure that trans* people exist… somewhere else. I have stronger suspicion that most people I ran across in the interior wouldn’t ever expect to see a trans* person in their part of the country. This invisibility leaves me unchallenged.

Omaha!

I have arrived! My confidence now can propel me to the Atlantic. Xene takes me out for dinner and a tour of Omaha that includes a dive bar… serving strawberry champagne… on tap. This is one classy city.

The following day the whole family and I go to the zoo, have lunch, and visit a playground. While I have no desire for kids of my own, I’m happy and honored to be any visible, positive combination of queer and trans and woman in my friends’ and their kids’ lives. I’m actually fairly excited about becoming crazy Aunt Amy.

Xene first introduced me to her 3 year old daughter (Hi Cleo!! *waves frantically*) a while ago, before transition. She mentions telling Cleo that she’d see me again because I was coming. At one point, her daughter asked, “So Amy is a girl now?” Her daughter accepted this without too much effort, Xene tells me. Kids are usually more amazing about these things than adults, I’ve been finding.

Remarkably, as my parent friends keep telling me, kids show amazing, nonchalant acceptance of the fact that people can change genders. It strikes me now that this familiarity may actually be why bigots are afraid to have queer/trans folks around children. Kids accept us as people and will grow into accepting adults.

This trip bookended the final administrative dealings of my transition. A week later, I received my shiny new passport, replete with hilariously unflattering photo. I am now a fully legally credentialed woman. I’m still learning, over-stepping, and growing, of course. But as far my (re)appearance into the world, I have arrived.

I am Amy autonomously, who drives across the cross-country because it seems like a scary and fun thing to do. But mostly, the road is wide open and I must keep moving forward.


 
Amy Dobrowolsky lives in Seattle with her lovely librarian lady and their two lady cats. Let the stereotypes commence! When she is not driving, wrenching on her Jeep, or building art cars, she is an insufferable academic working toward becoming Dr. Amy. She blogs academically at urbanarchives.wordpress.com and tweets inanely as @AmyBoldItalic because Emphasize All The Things!!

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21 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    I hope you loved Pocatello, I was born there and just went back for the first time since transition. Its a little slice of a messed up shit show thats for sure. I feel so much better knowing Charleys is there and even all my relatives say it is the best bar in town.

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      Hi Jessica, I enjoyed the old architecture and old signs on buildings. And it was a nice break from highway monotony. But I did get the feeling to move on; some towns sometimes induce a melancholy. Charley’s looked abandoned in the afternoon, of course, but it sounds like it gets lively later.

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        Wow! I’m really glad you were able to find our one gay bar! It was really weird and cool seeing someone else talk about my hometown here on Autostraddle, especially since this is the second time in a week. It’s really frustrating living here with such a small queer (and especially trans) community. But Charley’s does have a pretty good reputation among pretty much everyone here in town.

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          Hi Mey, thanks for writing. I can see how it would be frustrating. Good to know that there is at least something, however small. If I’m ever passing through again, I’ll maybe check Charley’s out when it’s open. I wish you the very best, though, either in town or elsewhere. Take care!

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    “When read as a woman by another woman, especially in unfriendly or unfamiliar spaces, I get this knowing look like some secret handshake.”

    Thank you so much for sharing this (as well as the whole article!) It’s less obvious/discussed but equally important anecdotes and feelings like this one that I think really allow us to connect with experiences/perspectives that aren’t our own, thereby becoming more aware and compassionate human beings.

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      Yes, that was my favorite part of the article too. First because I totally recognize that look from others and never really placed it as female to female, as I’ve never been male. Second because I give this look too and didn’t realize before that it usually is exclusively to other women. Not consciously, but I guess I always attributed it to my overwhelming gayness that I don’t tend to notice men walking down the street so I don’t make eye contact and smile.

      So yes, thanks for that very important perspective. I love being aware of subtle, non-verbal social interactions like that, and now I will notice even more.

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      You’re welcome, and thank you for the kind words! I completely agree. On the one hand, the academic and sociologist in me is utterly fascinated with these subtle experiences and interactions. But then also their personal, human, warmth reminds me that compassion and empathy are among the most important things.

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    This was a great read! Firstly, because of the humour in your writing (a cups, marking your territory, etc… So many good lines!) And secondly because I’m planning a roadtrip and this got me super excited for it!

    Also, I’m just imagining there’s a secret society of librarians all across the country, in every town.

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      Thank you!! Librarians kinda are a secret society that controls things (don’t be fooled by our denials! :) ) …like Freemasons but far cooler… and more sinister. I hope your roadtrip turns out to be fun and awesome too.

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    As someone who never have been to US I do enjoy the tiny fractures and intimate details that you mention about each City and State. A lot. I also love how body & boob positive the article is. It just makes me smile and be super happy for you. So thank you, Amy, for sharing!

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    Hi, Believe it or not I grew up in the Dakotas, lived in Montana, and my dad grew up in Nebraska. I have travelled this area from just east of Boise, Idaho, trough Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, etc. For the most part people are polite, but there are areas such as Butte, Mt. People in this area do notice strangers quietly sizing them up and deciding how they fit in and rather they are just passing through. I have never tried to live as a transwoman in this area and may still be too paranoid to do so. But I have come out as a transwoman on Facebook, and some of my former students are my friends and very few of them have defriended me.

    What is important in this area because of the distances between gas stations and car repair is how to travel across this area. Few small towns have more than one motel, if any, and only one hospital. If you run out of gas at night you have to go to the local bar and they will help you out with gas.

    What this means for a transwomen is that you have to be careful because their are varying degrees of tolerance and very few if any trained policemen in the very small towns. If you are lucky you will meet people who will meet you with friendship and tolerance if they see you are moving on. If you are unlucky you will meet with some intolerant drunks who will take pleasure in treating you badly. If people like you and you have a job in the community you may even be treated in some towns as a woman, little different than any other woman. But every town has town bullies who may treat you badly. In small towns of this area everybody kinda knows your business and sharing just enough about yourself may just keep the town gossips from going wild on you. Yes, and in most towns their are the straight laced just so people whom you can’t avoid. I am talking about towns from 95 to 10,000 people, many of them in the less than 3000 people range.

    So be careful. Keep your vehicle in good repair, keep the gas tank at least half full to full. Make sure your tires are road worthy. If you are getting tired try to find a safe place to stay by 6:00 pm. Running out of gas or getting a flat tire or getting tired in the empty spaces between larger towns could put a transwoman’s life in danger. There are lots of good people who will bend over to help you. But there are bullies and intolerant people and drunks who tend to come out at night. In the winter and extremely poor weather it’s deadly. Professional policemen are few and far between. The local bar is where you can find help, but also find elements of danger.

    So travel, enjoy and be careful, and know that many of these country folks are aware of transwomen and transmen. Some small communities are very conservative in their values and some could care less about you being trans and many are in between. To the traveler passing through its almost impossible to know which is which.

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