restricted access Johnson City
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Johnson City

Stephen was singing along and tapping his hands on the steering wheel to the Mountain Goats, one of his favorite bands. It was a good day for driving and singing. October blue sky, hills layered with oaks and maples and sweetgums flashing scarlet and gold leaves. We’d left Chapel Hill in the afternoon and were on our way to Johnson City, Tennessee, where Stephen was born and raised. [End Page 34]

“Remember, don’t call me Stephen around my granny,” he said.

“What about around your parents?”

“Yeah. They won’t but you should call me Stephen.”

He reached to adjust his glasses, and then rubbed his finger over the naked patch of skin in front of his ear. This morning he had shaved off his sideburns and stubble, but there was nothing he could do about his deep voice.

“I don’t get it. How can your granny not know?”

Stephen had started taking testosterone about eight months ago. He’d come out as transgender to his parents, but was too scared to tell his eighty-one-year-old grandmother, the woman who’d helped raise him. They’d seen each other many times since Stephen started physically transitioning, and his grandmother never asked questions. As long as she didn’t say anything, Stephen wasn’t going to either.

“I guess people see what they want to see,” he said.

Stephen and I had met that summer. He was my closest friend in Chapel Hill, where we were both grad students at UNC. I’d moved there from New York. When I left the city, I was afraid I wouldn’t find a queer community—I never dreamed that one of the first people I would meet would be a trans guy from East Tennessee.

Stephen pulled in to a gas station and parked his Subaru wagon behind a massive pickup. I followed him in the rundown store, feeling uneasy. Sometimes that’s how it is when you walk into a straight space, especially in rural America—you know you don’t belong, and they know it too.

But we were trying. We were wearing flannels and jeans and boots. Stephen read easily as male, even with the smooth face. He was tall, that helped, and his salt and pepper hair, neatly clipped, made him look older than thirty. Plus he had the low voice, the thick neck and strong jaw. Back then, I never knew how people [End Page 35] were reading me. I was skinny and tall. I wore my hair short with a line of bangs angled toward my eyes. This was before I’d changed my name or started using male pronouns, and a long time before I even considered taking testosterone. Still, I didn’t look the way a female is supposed to look. Mostly, I just confused people.

The grizzled guy behind the counter, sporting an impressive set of chops, wore a trucker hat with a deer patch on the front, a hat for which hipsters would pay good money. He watched us walk in, arms crossed over his chest.

“How you doing, buddy?” Stephen said.

Stephen’s loose way with strangers, even with the straight, potentially scary kind, always eased the tension.

“All right, man, how are you?”

“Good. Real good.”

While Stephen went to the men’s room, I wandered the aisles, pretending to study rows of chips and candy, wondering what this guy thought of me. There were times I got called ma’am by one person then sir by the next in the span of about thirty seconds.

When Stephen came back out, he nodded at the guy. “Thank you, sir.”

“Y’all have a good one.”

Back on the road, I asked Stephen what he thought—how did that guy see me?

“He probably saw us as two guys,” he said.

I didn’t believe him, but it was nice to hear. I didn’t know what I wanted exactly, except that I was feeling more and more uncomfortable being seen as a girl. I flinched whenever I heard the word “ma’am”—it came at me like a fist. But when...