A summer day in the Florida panhandle coats your body. Wraps sticky tendrils across your skin and into your crevices and pulls the sweat out of you within moments of stepping outside. The first day this happens after the too brief winter is the worst. But soon you know no difference. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s not comfortable, but it’s familiar. And besides, you’re adaptable. You have air conditioning and iced tea. Being trans in Florida was like one perpetual north Florida summer, until recently. Until the thermometer rose every day, every year, relentlessly. Until the power went out and the air conditioner shuddered off and the ice melted.
Until all I could think about was getting cool.
I drive west on I-10 through pine plantations and cypress swamps. Leaving doesn’t feel real until I cross the slow dark Apalachicola River and enter central time. Hurricane Michael left a path of snapped trees here. Formerly shaded valleys of fern and columbine now burn and die under unrelenting sunshine. The river flows south past Fort Gadsden, briefly a heavily armed refuge of free Black people before enslavers shot a cannonball into the powder magazine and killed hundreds. I leave a city named by people who were driven from the area by disease and violence long before I was born. Most fled to Mexico, Alabama, and Louisiana. Others integrated with escaped former enslaved people and Creeks fleeing south. They found each other and formed a new community. The Seminoles were never conquered by the United States, but they were killed by the thousands, wrung out for their blood to feed the new expanding empire, to “civilize” Florida and turn it into a tourist destination. Paradise requires a lot of blood.
Before I left Florida, I was first born there. Grew up there, went to school there, got married there, started a business there, bought a house there. I’ve tramped through remote hydric hammock, and dipped my toes into clear sandhill steephead streams not on the maps. I’ve been in more small panhandle towns than you can shake a stick at. I know the canal scars that crisscross the state as well as I know the scars on my body. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel a connection to the land like I do in Florida. Leaving wasn’t my first choice.
I walk my cat on a leash at the first rest stop after crossing into Alabama. He refuses to pee for more than 30 minutes, but I’m in no rush to leave the pine trees. When I moved back to my hometown during the so-called trans tipping point in 2014, I didn’t have a pet to worry about. Back then, Florida was a purple state. The big cities that stretch along the flat peninsula possessed moderate trans resources. The situation for trans healthcare outside of these large metropolitan areas was a relic of the 90s and 2000s era of strict gatekeeping. There were no hormones offered through the informed consent framework when I moved back to my hometown and stopped running from my truth. Planned Parenthood, a staple resource for informed consent hormonal care, didn’t start offering trans care in north Florida until late 2020. The health insurance I received through my wife had a blanket exclusion of all trans related care. The state was being sued over that when I started hormones, was being sued when I paid out of pocket and traveled to South Florida for surgery, is still being sued today after I’ve left. For electrolysis, I drove three hours each way to Jacksonville and paid twice the rate I do out west. This was the state of affairs before Florida started banning all trans healthcare for children and adults, before the steady beat of news articles and op-eds with “concerns” and “tricky questions.” Before opinion polls asked if acceptance had gone too far, if trans people had it too easy, if our healthcare was too accessible, if it was too affordable. Before pundits suggested it was unfair to be trans, was actually oppressive to everyone else. Before people called me a groomer online, dissected my pictures looking for proof of my essential maleness, and worked themselves into a slobbering orgiastic fury staring at my body. Before they sent me violent threats. Before a Florida congressperson mocked my fear after a man stormed into a queer friendly restaurant and screamed that we should all die.
As I leave Alabama, I’m stuck behind a truck with a large bumper sticker that reads AMERICA FIRST, that ubiquitous regressive phrase originating from antisemitic opposition to US involvement in World War II. The past claws at us, desperately desiring to bring us back, to roll back progress. I felt this sense of regression, moving home. Old habits and behaviors long thought lost slipped over my shoulders like a familiar coat. All transitions are in tension with regression. I lived with my parents for several months while I found work and housing. I couldn’t find silence. Even when I was left alone, overlapping anxieties and desires drifted into and crowded my mind. The build up to a declaration of transness is paved with unanswerable riddles meant to drive you mad: what if I’m wrong, what if I’m not pretty, what if I can’t trust myself, what if I stop liking women, what if I lose everyone and everything, what if I can’t afford it, what if they tell me no, what if they’re right about me and I am a delusional pervert, what if, what if, what if. Only later would I think to ask: what if I was never the problem? What if I deserve much more than this state has allowed me?
The month I moved home, the middle school I had attended banned a trans kid from using the bathroom and the local newspaper called her a man. When I was a trans kid, I thought I was the only one. I’ve since connected with another trans woman my age who went to another high school nearby. We were camouflaged by necessity, but we were there. After that incident the school board put in place protections to create basic respect for trans kids, including respecting names and pronouns and not outing a kid to a parent against their will. Something simple that would have improved my life had it existed when I attended those schools, would have let me know I wasn’t alone. This lasted a few years, until a local conservative lobbyist made her child’s transition into a national news story and the impetus for the states’ Don’t Say Gay bill. The protections were replaced with restrictions. The last of the coolant dripped out of the condenser and now only hot air blew over us.
I spend the night in Jonesboro, Arkansas with my parents-in-law. It is a typical American college town, which means it is unremarkable, like other places I’ve called home. Less than a year from now it will be illegal for me to use the bathroom here. A month after that, Florida will make it illegal too. A decade before the North Carolina bathroom bill made national headlines, Gainesville, Florida tried to pass a transphobic bathroom ordinance to overturn city non-discrimination protections while I was at the University of Florida. The political ad I saw back then as a closeted woman featured a man wearing sunglasses, black ball cap pulled low, following a young girl into a public bathroom. The entire scene was shot in a manner that can only be described as “imminent rape.” It could have been released today. The month before I saw that ad, I had thrown away the clothes and hormones I’d ordered from the internet. I’d vowed to stop trying. Concluded that my desires were disastrous and dangerous and doomed to fail. When I saw that man, I knew I was right to suppress myself. I did not want to be a monster. We are stuck in that dark moment from my youth. Even as I have moved on and blossomed, Florida has willfully not. Florida is stuck there at one of my lowest moments. Leaving, I hope, will let me move forward for good. I am tired of being forced to relive the worst moments of my past. I so desperately wish to worry about something else.
The towns are smaller now, scattered sparingly across Missouri. I stop for coffee in West Plains and chat with the purple-haired and septum-pierced barista. Thirty five anti-LGBT bills will soon be filed there, but we talk about our tattoos instead. Coffee shops: if you build them we will come. I kicked over enough rocks to find community. We are everywhere, afterall. We wriggle and crawl into protective shelters amid the turbulent flow of life and we find each other. There was no gender clinic, but there was a friend who knew someone else who knew a doctor who was nice, who would prescribe hormones without attempting to change your mind, and wouldn’t make you wear a dress to the appointment. There wasn’t a gay bar but there was weekly trivia that was not officially queer, but functionally was. I learned how to set my makeup with sprays and powders, to reinforce that fragile armor against the oppressive heat. Against the sweat that leaked from my temple and off my nose and dripped from my chin as I walked into familiar buildings to drop off forms and ran into classmates and family friends as someone else. I met a trans guy at trivia and went to his house parties and impromptu birthday orgies. I met a trans woman through Reddit and played board games and drank beer with her until she left for the West Coast a few months later. One by one, others left. As I grew into myself, the only constant was a sense of temporality. A sense of suspension. No sense of future stability. That’s only accelerated. Less than a year after I left, I now have more trans friends who have fled than remain. Trans people are dwindling like the Florida panther, like unbleached coral in the Keys, like undeveloped wetlands and coastline. New Florida is invasive pythons and golf course neighborhoods and sprawling retirement cities larger than my hometown. They drive golf carts over a ditched, drained, and dried husk and kill the alligators that trespass their manicured lawns. But the cottonmouth that swims by me as I hold my breath in knee deep hardwood swamp is my Florida.
In Kansas I discover that some places are flatter than Florida. At a rest stop, I sit on a plastic bench atop an artificial hill overlooking hundreds of windmills that fade into the horizon. From this distance, I can’t see the dead birds scattered around their bases. The ground is littered with bodies which never got a say in the decisions that brought about their destruction. Florida might be focused on my destruction now, but it nurtured me too. There I first stared down into perfectly still ink black tannic water reflecting the towering cypress around me, reflecting the face of a woman to me for the first time. There I followed a secret path of footholds and handholds to the rooftop alley where my first girlfriend took me to makeout and draw graffiti. There I layed on a beach at night during sea turtle season between two lovers, became lost in the stars that emerge without light pollution. There I sent little oval green-blue pills to a newly out girl and answered her questions, assured her as best I could that it would be okay. Did anything I could to make her laugh, to give her relief from anxiety, to fulfill her trust in me and in herself. Don’t look at the news, sweetie. Let’s go to a party.
In Russell, Kansas, I take a picture of the Dream Theater, an art deco single screen venue built in 1949. I send it to my dad, who shares a name with the town and a love of art deco with me. I remember the first birthday with my parents and wife as myself where they gave me rainbow socks and shirts and buttons and I laughed because it was so cliche and cried because it was so sweet. I will miss our traditional Sunday walk through oak-shaded neighborhoods followed by biscuits and gravy at the vegan restaurant that is superior to every single place I’ve been to on the West Coast. No place here can make a decent biscuit, I’ll discover. When people ask me what I miss about Florida I will lie and say biscuits.
When I leave, I will miss thunderstorms. The slowness of an afternoon thunderstorm unfurling, the anticipation as I watch from my porch, observing how the storm glides towards me with familiar anger, releases large drops that percolate into the ground underneath the yellow wildflowers that spill over into the pebbled path next to my garden. I too unleash. Hot salty droplets and crackling screams. Perhaps if I could be so powerful, I could stay in Florida. But I am not a storm. I know my limits. The future I know is one I do not want.
After hours of driving through rural middle America, Denver is shocking. I go out to a lesbian bar and makeout with a bass guitarist who invites me to visit her cabin. I feel in my element. Later she’ll post a transphobic screed on Instagram, and I’ll shower until the water runs cold. The evil in Florida is not confined to its borders. The next day I drive through mountainsides spilling over with golden aspen groves and decide that there is a lot I won’t miss in Florida. I won’t miss the new suburban development with a private gate that fills in a wetland. That springs up next to the previous development that filled in another wetland protected by another gate which is also next to another sprawling development that filled in another wetland. The confederate flags on trucks and houses and next to highways and the man with the rifle sneaking up behind me in the woods while I work who demands to know what I am doing. Who remarks, his eyes tracing over my emerging curves, that the woods are dangerous. There are bloodthirsty snakes, don’t I know? The snakes are scared of me, I reply. I won’t miss that the woman who sells me the sweetest and juiciest mango in Homestead has to take the bus two hours south to Key West to work a minimum wage job serving snowbirds. I won’t miss the sheriff who buzzes me with his SUV, leaving my arm scraped from his rear view mirror. The other sheriff who tells me he will cover up my death when his friend runs me over for the crime of cycling on a public road when I’m 16. Everytime I see rotting roadkill, I remember his words. I remember those words later, when yet another sheriff with a rifle stares at me with a scowl from the rooftop as I protest in the street when I’m twice that age. Nor will I miss the thumping drone of the new police helicopter circling the city constantly as it beats the air into submission, peering into my backyard and shining a spotlight through my windows and into my soul. Florida has a seemingly unlimited supply of angry men with guns. Who arrest women like me and put us in men’s prisons. Who kill us and record our deaths under the wrong name and gender. Who shoot strangers who make them uncomfortable. I won’t miss the government that thinks this is too kind a way to treat me. That enacts bills to kidnap our children, to cancel Pride, to make it a crime for me to pee. That eliminates access to hormones and replaces it with protected discrimination by healthcare employees. That bans the simple joy of participating in a sport. I won’t miss my existence being made illegal and unspeakable, that my future child will grow up with a more trans hostile government than I did.
I pose in front of a covered wagon in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, where soon providing gender affirming care for minors will result in ten years of jail. The testimony and language used to justify the extreme bill is the same I heard in Florida. The witnesses flown in by conservative organizations to testify in favor of it are the same people too. Florida reaches for me even out here, but I’ve shed the weight of past shame, and it cannot grasp ahold of me anymore. In Florida I leave that shame, accumulated while seeking belonging in an unaccepting society. They want us closeted, afraid, exploitable, and despairing — like I used to be. In Florida, I leave the woman who invited me over with the promise of doing my makeup, who instead pressured me to go down on her boyfriend while she watched. I leave my regret of turning her down because who else could ever understand me, could give me the permission I sought, could look at me as my true self and get aroused instead of disgusted. I leave sneaking into a construction site and climbing the tallest crane on a balmy fall evening. My flip flop slipping from my foot, watching it fall away from me towards the dark pavement far below and wondering how it would feel to follow it. How it would feel to not feel anymore. I leave watching the years pass by and the businesses rotate through the corner lot of the strip mall where I first worked up the courage to wear a dress I later threw away during an episode of self revulsion. Returning to that corner six years later as a woman and hoping for what, closure? A revelation? I could stand in that parking lot baking in the late summer heat and never be done, never fully thawed.
People move all the time, I remind myself. Stop thinking you’re a victim, I say to myself. I am weak. I am pathetic. I am too emotional and melodramatic. I suppose these toxic thoughts affirm my womanhood in a misogynistic way, and I do live for affirmation. If anything, I conclude, I am a coward. I am a white tailed deer that outruns my friends and family, leaves them to be torn open, to let their blood sink into the sand and down deep into the aquifer that supports the tens of millions of people in that state. Do you think they know it will run dry? That the state is already building pipelines to transfer water to lakes that are drying up? That the salt water is intruding higher and higher through the porous limestone and no wall will keep it out. Florida will flood while the government polices bathrooms. But no, do not be absurd. I am a vital resource to be extracted relentlessly and fed to the people with blood soaked teeth who invade school board meetings and public workshops. Who sit on boards of medicine and of universities, who sit atop the phallic Capitol that looms over my former home. Who loudly declare that I am a threat, a corruption of nature, a mutilation, a devil, a demon, a disease in need of a cure. Who proclaim that the younger version of me is a degenerate creation of a vast conspiracy, a confused object without free will, a precancerous tumor. Who declare that we are both something in need of purification, cleansing, and removal by any means necessary.
But each of us only holds so much blood, can be squeezed only so much. We are not a renewable resource and I do not want to be squeezed anymore. They will always need more blood, and when our bodies are bled dry they will replace what they’ve extracted with embalming fluid.
I arrive in a Seattle smothering under wildfire smoke. A yellow-orange tinge drapes the city, and I wear my N95 mask outdoors. I meet a new friend for a beer, and we watch the Mariners lose on TV. I’m in an unreal state, still ready to wake up and drive eight hours the next day into yet another state, but knowing I finally don’t need to.
That evening I call my parents and cry for the first time since leaving. We understand, they say. I hope they do. This is for the best, they say. I hope so too. The first mail home I send is a package of blue-green ovoid pills for a friend who stayed. Build up your supply, I tell her. The parties aren’t as fun now, she says. She leaves a few months later as my social media feeds fill with gofundmes to escape the state. Pride flags are seemingly in every window here, and it takes me a month to stop nudging my wife in excitement when I notice one. In six months, I’ll be strategizing safety and exit plans with those trans friends who remain in Florida after the latest restrictions are enacted. Do you think I should take my pride flag down, one will ask. When I check my former local paper, I’ll see violent rhetoric on road signs and worse in the replies under any social media about us. It was never about protecting children. It was never about women’s sports. It’s always been about our existence, and it was never going to stop with trans people. Trans and gay and lesbian and bisexual and any other out group. The anti immigrant laws, the anti abortion laws, and the disenfranchisement of Black voters in Florida are part of the same project. Their hatred has an ever expanding need for fresh fuel. Left unchecked and without organized resistance, it will consume us all in an indiscriminate inferno.
But right now, I walk up steep hills and my hot blood pulses, rich and thick and mine. There is still hope, still occasionally good news. Perhaps there will come a day when I feel welcome back in my home state. I have not given up on Florida, even if for now it is best we spend time apart. In a week, a gray cloudy drizzle will replace the smoke and block out the hot sun and I won’t drip with sweat even once. The heat will come for me here eventually, and wildfires will choke the sky with smoke. But summer here, for now, is downright pleasant. I have air conditioning and iced tea. At least for a while, I’ll stop overheating.