After a five day road trip relocating from Cleveland to Los Angeles in the middle of a pandemic, emotional exhaustion doesn’t begin to describe how we were feeling.
We weathered winter storms, pouring rain through rocky mountains, and questionably safe hotels. Gas station stops in blood red rural counties where masks were nowhere to be found on highways lined with hastily handmade “TRUMP IS STILL PRESIDENT ” billboards felt more like booby traps than rest stops. We parked our uHaul, ready to unpack in front of our new home in the middle of an unusual Los Angeles rainstorm like something out of a rejected Alanis Morrisette lyric. The irony of two queer women waiting to uHaul until after we were already married was not lost on us.
A few days after arriving, it was time to venture into our new community for the first time and face the public by making a pilgrimage to our least favorite place in the world–the grocery store. Leading up to the shopping trip, I started feeling the same way I used to before going on stage in a musical. My heartbeat quickened, a massive lump took home in my throat, my hands began to tremble–and I hadn’t even put on my shoes yet. The pandemic makes going anywhere in public a stressful situation to begin with, but after years of constant harassment in Ohio, it’s my body’s learned response to what feels like impending danger.
Because back in Ohio, it was never “if” someone was going to harass us, it was “when.”
Everything is bigger out here, so when we pulled into the (no joke) three story Target, it made perfect sense that our only choice of parking was in a parking garage. Anxiety immediately overtook my entire body. I felt myself deeply breathing in through my nose and out of my mouth like I used to at college house parties trying not to puke after too many games of beer pong. I clenched our reusable grocery bags so tightly I was afraid I’d break the skin between my knuckles. There were many, many people. What if someone said something? I don’t know my available resources here! I don’t know who to call for help! What if someone did something?
I hadn’t even taken off my seatbelt.
When the moment came, we got out, and we walked in with our heads held high. I avoided eye contact with everyone–focusing solely on our grocery list and how the hell to navigate a Target with cart escalators and an actually enforced six-foot socially distanced standard. (Author’s Note: Capitalism is obviously a plague upon us all, but I’d be lying if I said cart escalators weren’t one of the coolest thing my little Midwest brain had ever seen, even if we embarrassingly tried to figure it out like Hansel & Derek Zoolander trying to extract files from a computer.)
We weaved between aisles and scanned directory signs like children with a treasure map, encountering tons of strangers who genuinely didn’t give a flying rat’s ass about either of our existences. No stares. No comments. No unsolicited photos. No muffled whispers. Nothing.
I tried to allow myself to relax, but every time we went down a new aisle, I felt my body tense back up on high alert. The trauma we’ve endured from constant harassment trying to complete very basic errands is so severe, I am going to have to legitimately deprogram the overwhelming defense mechanisms I’ve developed over the years. I may be in a new time zone, but Ohio is still seeped into my pores and weighing heavily all over my body. It feels like a cinder block on my chest that I can’t seem to shake off.
And it’s not just stemmed from my own lived experiences. I don’t want to assume gender identity or sexuality, but a tall, masculine presenting individual was leaving the store wearing a Britney Spears “Work, Bitch” t-shirt cut to expose their midriff, and I impulsively started scanning the area for safety the moment they came into view.
Back in Ohio, noticing a visibly queer person would trigger my defense systems knowing that this individual is at risk of targeted violence and there’s a chance I may need to step in or intervene if they need support or backup. Part of the trauma of being queer in a red state isn’t based solely in a desire for my own protection, but also for the safety of my community. This person walked by, hand in hand (with presumably their partner), and no one even flinched. Just two people living their best life.
Here’s the thing: I wish I could say that we left Ohio for some glamorous new job or some massively impressive reason, but the reality is that we’re now paying over 3x our former rent for the peace of mind and comfort of living in a more affirming area. We’re paying for social security offices that don’t list me as “the groom” on my wife’s name change paperwork. We’re paying for doctors that don’t grimace when we have to out ourselves during basic checkups. We’re paying to live in a place where I can teach in schools that actually protect LGBTQ+ students and will listen when I try to advocate for my kids. We’re paying to live somewhere where the largest state health insurance company and Medicaid doesn’t have explicitly written exemptions against trans people.
Obviously it’s foolish to believe that because we moved here we’ll never experience bigotry or harassment, but coming home after the trip to Target brought me to tears. I genuinely could not remember the last time I went grocery shopping with my wife without enduring blatant homophobia or transphobia. And yet, I can’t turn off the panic button.
Unlearning fear and retraining the way your body reacts to triggers is hard. For some people it’s a lifelong process, and for my queer self, I genuinely don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever be able to fully overcome. It’s been a few months since we left Ohio for California, but every time my chest clenches tighter when I step out of my house, I know that Ohio has not left me.
For better or worse.