Picture where you were on election night 2016, the night we heard the words: “Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States of America.” What were you wearing? What were you doing? It feels, despite everything going on in our country today, like it just happened yesterday. It feels like I’m still trapped in a fever dream, that I might wake up at any moment. But we aren’t dreaming; we’re in the middle of a very real fight for our lives.
While I was in Kansas City that fateful election night, my heart wasn’t. For some reason—maybe because some part of me will always be a rural Kansas girl at heart—my mind recalled my home town, Hutchinson, Kansas, and The Wizard of Oz.
Though Dorothy found friends to guide her along the yellow brick road, I always felt like she must have been terrified at the same time; Dorothy knew nothing about this strange, new world and had nobody to show her the way, nobody to trust. But she ventured forward, bravely, uncertain of what might happen, only sure where she wanted to go: home.
I remember the same feeling, growing up as a closeted, trans woman in Hutchinson, like the walls were closing in around me and the world was getting to be a scarier place, like I was always hoping to find home. Unlike Dorothy, I didn’t have a simple, yellow brick road to follow. As a kid, I never knew who was trustworthy enough to tell about my gender identity, that I’d always been a girl. If I am Dorothy in this story, then my dear friend Katie would be Glinda the Good Witch. There is a Bad Witch, too, but we’ll come to her in a moment.
Katie was uncommonly, unfailingly kind to me. She was the first person to suggest to me, independently, that I should consider starting estrogen. She was the first person to help me try with makeup, to help me go shopping for clothes that flattered my changing body.
Katie taught me what it means to be ‘seen,’ really, for myself, for whom I always was. She taught me to trust my instincts, to trust my sense of self, and to always do my best to take care of myself. Katie taught me that it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s OK to run away, if it means keeping yourself safe.
I met Bad Witch, on the other hand, in the self-checkout lanes at my local Walmart. I never learned her actual name, so she’s always been Bad Witch to me. She was just a woman, in a black coat and denim jeans, with thick, black glasses, herding her children through the self-checkout lanes. Where Katie taught me to love and to care for myself, Bad Witch was the first person to publicly teach me shame.
As we stood in line, Bad Witch turned toward me and gave me elevator eyes, up and down. Tracing my silhouette, as if to find any evidence that I wasn’t a woman, the very reaction I’d been worried about since stepping out my front door.
Her lips tightened in disgust or loathing. Does it really matter which? They feel interchangeable when they’re directed at you, personally, for who you are. And, without some kind of apology or explanation from Bad Witch to the contrary, how else could I understand her actions?
The woman stepped backward toward where I stood, careful to keep her back to me. She held out her arms and beckoned for her children to come stand near her, and pleaded with them to stay put. She herded them away from me. I realized I was the monster. There was nobody else standing in line with us, so it had to be me, really. Just me.
A few years ago, when this moment happened between Bad Witch and I, it seemed to happen in the midst of a political moment when I kept reading about the ‘transgender tipping point.’ The argument, as it goes, suggests that transgender people like me are on the cusp of some real gains in social acceptance across the country. But there are spots, like where I lived in Kansas, where that’s definitely not the case, not even today. So, two years after the Trump election, I find myself asking: did I do the right thing? Did my husband and I make the right decision to pick up everything and move to Denver, where it’s supposed to be better for people like me?
It feels surreal to be where we are now, as a country. Transgender troops are banned from serving in the military. Protections for LGBTQ youth in schools have been set back a decade or more in many places of the country. Our opposition is bolder, stronger, and more entrenched in their beliefs than ever before, with our country rapidly approaching a tipping point.
I wanted to believe that, soon, I would be free to visit or safe to live and work in any of the 50 beautiful states that make up our country. It wasn’t that way in Kansas, even in Lawrence—home of the University of Kansas, and the state’s then-burgeoning capital of progressive thought. The further west and south from Kansas City you got, it seemed like you were going backward in time to the 1950s or earlier. People stop caring about being politically correct, because they don’t see it that way—they don’t want to, either.
But now? Now, I feel torn about that sentiment. Did we—my husband and I—make the right call? I think so, despite the manic feeling of political whiplash that comes with being transgender in our current environment.
In Kansas City, there are nondiscrimination protections that are intended to keep folks like me from being harassed across the metro area—but that’s just it. The city line is often where those protections end. Someone in the suburbs demands to see your genitals in a public bathroom? Sorry, out of luck. A landlord who refuses to rent to you? No chance. Get fired for being transgender? That’s a shame, but Kansas is a right-to-work state.
Denver, by contrast, has statewide protections that provide robust remedies if my rights are violated. I can’t express how important it is to have the option to retaliate in the courts, to hold people accountable to equal rights for the LGBTQ community, and, what’s more, to have a robust legal system that demands our decision makers respect the rights of people to live safe lives free of discrimination or harassment, even if those people might be different in some way.
A little over a year from the date of this article’s publication,
I was the victim of a hate crime on public transportation here in Denver.
A man, channeling Bad Witch, gave me the very same elevator eyes, becoming angry, even menacing, when he heard my deeper voice and clocked me as a transgender woman.
The man threatened to choke slam me, told me to “back the f*ck up,” which I did, immediately. My bus driver, alarmed at the sudden yelling from the back of the bus, tried to get this man to calm down. But he didn’t calm down; he didn’t—maybe he couldn’t—listen to reason.
I kept backing away and turned toward the front of the bus. Headed in the direction of my bus driver, my eyes screamed a sense of panic. Sensing my unease, the bus driver asked me if I wanted him to stop the bus and call someone, and I nodded. He stopped the bus and apologized to the other passengers, recommending they get off and walk to the next stop if they were in a hurry, because this would take a while to resolve itself.
While my driver was taking care of his passengers, my potential assailant quickly made his way off the bus. I was worried, because I don’t own a vehicle, that he would get away, only to return another day and threaten me again, or to exact revenge for my retreat into the bus driver’s protection.
I stood in front of the white line the whole time, where you’re not supposed to stand, and the bus driver told me I was fine right where I was and not to be sorry. Looking down, I mumbled clumsy, shocked apologies to the passengers who were departing. I felt bad, even though one kind man told me not to; he told me to keep my chin up and to keep fighting for respect. I wonder if the kind man knew I am transgender. I wonder if it would have mattered either way.
My bus driver told me, when the bus was finally empty, that I was absolutely free to sit or stand if I wanted, whichever made me more comfortable in the moment. He went above and beyond to try to put me at ease. He told me he’d called RTD security, who were already on their way.
When not just one, but two cars, from RTD security arrived, I began to relax and breathe easier. The security officers took my statement and then got off the bus to speak with their supervisor. Then, their supervisor got on the bus and told me that Aurora PD was on the way, too. I gave them the same statement I gave to RTD security, and the officers from Aurora PD explained that they were already in the process of getting both the audio and the video surveillance from RTD’s teams who were responsible for data compliance.
They asked me if I wanted to press charges, and I asked what that meant. I got two explanations: that they would try to apprehend my would-be assailant and charge him with bias-motivated intimidation, legal jargon in Denver for a hate crime, because I felt (and the officers agreed) that, based on what happened, any reasonably-minded person would have concluded the same thing. They would have seen this man’s actions and heard his tone, watched him advance on me, and concluded that some kind of violent response was imminent.
They even arranged to have an officer meet the bus along its route the next day and follow behind it in a squad car, just in case trouble was brewing, so they could respond quickly. I’d never been offered a police escort on public transit before, but it made me feel much safer, that my safety, too, was a priority for these men. I mattered, not only as a passenger of the RTD transportation network, but also to the City of Denver, which was willing to defend my rights in court.
The truth is, our country is a patchwork of protections—in more than half of states, people like me don’t get to enjoy the same vital rights as our neighbors. Do I think I made the right choice in relocating my husband and I to Denver? As I said before, it’s a hard question to answer, but I still believe the answer is,
“Yes, without question.”
Because the law was written specifically to protect people like me, it worked. It still might not have, though, if the decision-makers who might have otherwise stood in the way had felt differently. My bus driver, the RTD security team that showed up on site, the RTD security supervisor, the Aurora PD officers involved in finding my would-be assailant after he’d already fled the scene, or even the prosecuting attorneys who were responsible for seeing justice done in court; any of these people might have decided I was wrong, that this was not discriminatory.
That, in place of observing and reporting what had happened to the proper authorities—according to what the law requires—they would instead take the interpretation and enforcement of the law into their own hands: judge, jury, and executioner.
These people—Bad Witch and my would-be assailant—didn’t see me the way my friend Katie saw me. Not for who I am, what I value, or what I believe, not really. They saw, as is often the case, what they wanted to see or, worse, what they’d heard about people like me from others. But American freedoms shouldn’t just exist at the surface level; they should be so much more than a skin-deep reflection of whoever rules from the Oval Office.
Growing up in Kansas, one of the things I loved most about my rural upbringing was the sense that salt-of-the-earth people believed in live-and-let-live. They believed, as I still do today, that, even if my life’s choices weren’t right for them personally, we could still be friendly and respectful to one another, to treat each other with basic, common decency. That, truly, America was built on a foundation of multicultural celebration, and we would be forever poorer for losing that sense that we all depend on one another to keep that sense of civility alive.
I find, today, that these people who believe the same things I do are still out there; we’ve just flocked to places with laws that match our personal values. I did it, too. We left our homes behind in cities and states where it’s wrong or bad to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, because we too want to have families someday.
And, even if we don’t, we want to be a part of a place where it feels like our values are shared, even with neighbors with whom we might otherwise disagree. When I went back to my high school reunion in 2016, the same year as Donald Trump’s election, it didn’t feel that way in my home town anymore. It felt, strangely, like the magic was gone.
More than anything, I wish there were an easy answer, like when Dorothy clicked her ruby red heels together three times to return back home, but the return to common decency won’t be as easy. We have to work harder to see, to feel for our neighbors, to sympathize with them and to stand up for what’s right, no matter what. We need more people who want to do something, anything, to help restore a sense that everybody who contributes to the United States of America’s future prosperity should share in its promises of equality.
A few months later, one of the officers from my incident ran into me at work, off-duty and in plainclothes. He asked me how things were going, if I’d had any more trouble since that day. I smiled, happy to hear from him again, and told him that, no, I hadn’t been accosted yet. He told me, also smiling, that he was glad to hear it, despite the awful way I’d already been treated.
He apologized, again, that people are like that sometimes and gave me another copy of his business card, since I’d managed to lose the first one he gave me. He told me, suddenly serious, to call if I ever had trouble like that again. I asked him for a hug, quite genuinely, and told him I’d be happy to call if I ever needed help.
That’s the America I remember, from the queer farmers I know and love from my childhood, to the classmates who were still happy to be my friends after my coming out, even a decade later.
It’s still great—it always was—and I believe it can be that beautiful, for everyone, from sea to shining sea, but it takes legal protections that stretch that far, too.
As long as there are places where our laws lapse in those protections, the best parts of our country will refuse to be there, too. All it takes is good people who are willing to stand up and do something about it. It takes lawmakers who are willing to put pro-equality laws on the books. It takes business owners putting anti-discrimination policies in place and also actually holding people accountable when those policies are violated. It takes serious effort, but it’s not impossible. Our past is proof of that, in some ways. Our future can be, too, if we want it badly enough.
There’s a scene in The Wizard of Oz where the great and powerful wizard is unmasked for a fraud, running an impressive, commanding illusion from a small tent. He doesn’t have a booming voice; he doesn’t shoot flames when he speaks. He keeps yelling into his microphone, even as Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, peels back the curtain on the wizard’s illusion.
He’s not actually a magician, either, as it turns out. He’s just a human, the same as the rest of us, at the end of the day. Like Toto, peeling back the curtain on the wizard’s grand illusion, we will see you for who you are, and not for who you pretend to be. We skeptically believed you before, but we know better now. The stakes are high, and we’re in the fight of our lives. Let’s put them on notice: when you come for us, we will come for you on Election Day, and we will win.