This essay will appear in American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion, edited by Zeke Caligiuri and others published by Coffee House Press in collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. This anthology of essays edited by incarcerated writers takes a sharp look at the complexity and fluidity of class and caste systems in the United States. Featuring accounts that include gig work as a delivery driver, homelessness among trans youth, and life with immense student loan debt, in addition to transcripts of insightful discussions between the editors, American Precariat demonstrates how various and often invisible extreme instability can be. With the understanding that widespread recognition of collective precarity is an urgent concern, the anthology situates each individual portrait within societal structures of exclusion, scarcity, and criminality.
The punk show kick drum hammers like a piston as I sweat off a layer of cheap makeup in the middle of a mostly sitting crowd. This feels like an apt metaphor for being a former homeless queer youth. Against Me! is opening for Green Day and most of the people around me could not care less about the first band and its transgender frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace. They do not scream the lyrics to “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”; they do not jump to the beat of “True Trans Soul Rebel”; and they do not understand the connection between fear and makeup. With my all black lips and eyeshadow matching a leather vest bought at Goodwill, I am nothing but a blur of limbs and leather beneath the sweeping stage lights. It’s a relief, as I do not have the money to arrive fully formed as what most people would consider a woman—my transition is messy and must claw its way toward femininity, split-lipped and black-eyed. My transition counts quarters to afford fishnets.
The word transition comes from the Latin root transire meaning to go across or beyond. The first nights of homelessness involve a lot of late-night transitions between scratchy couches, including one seven-hour drive from the suburban hell of Illinois to the small-town hell of Iowa, a necessity of survival, but one that perpetuates new traumas. Then comes the transition to constant police harassment and then the transition to finishing high school in the midst of food and housing insecurity. And then comes the transition after gender transition with its cycles of settle and bloom.
The isolation feels like death. I trade survival sex for a place to sleep. I trade a violent home life for a violent homeless life. The words “former homeless queer youth” cannot encapsulate the whole of every night woken in a cold sweat. I go across and beyond myself. I leave myself behind, floating somewhere in a bedroom with windows covered by garbage bags.
Somewhere in 2013, I stare up at an Iowa sky dotted with stars forever invisible in a suburbia left behind. Borrowed clothes hang loosely on a body—my body—begging for change as the winter chill sets in and grays the grass beneath my feet. A dog barks in a frozen field beside a leaning warehouse full of farming equipment. In the night no one stares at me, and the clamoring noises of a too full, temporary home seem so far away, being nothing but a dim ring of chaos in the background.
And the kickdrum hammers away with my heartbeat. Between the sweat and the tears, every sliver of makeup washes away into the night. Caedyn dances away next to me, throwing their arms out in wide arcs. They crash into me and I into them. We practice a measured violence—one that moves in time with the strum of an acoustic guitar.
I come through clean and new somewhere in the winter of 2017. It is the first year where I feel more a person than a loose collection of coping mechanisms in skinny jeans. It begins a time in my life full of folkpunk, dirty bars, and house parties. An escape spurred on by addiction, music, and writing, but it is the first time I escape toward myself. There is no sweet moment of staring at myself in the mirror considering how soft I would look in a dress. There is a blur of nights twisted into genderless shapes as queer bodies slam into each other on a dance floor. Knuckles dig into my back in a pit and propel me toward a me that is unafraid. This is both metaphor and wonderfully literal.
There is an innate desire in these kinds of conversations to pull gender and class apart and dissect them separately—to understand them as distinct problems. It is easier that way, less full of the mess of nuance. My gender would follow a more stereotypical path in that story—a slow realization that I never fit into the shapes of boyhood. And the story of homelessness would be free of all the complications and violence involved with being transgender. Perhaps the wellness checks would not have been as often or as full of police who look and smell like my father. Boot polish and the same haircut standing in the doorway of a house that I do not belong to threatening to drag me back to my father. Every interaction a chance for queerness to be turned back on me as a weapon.
That first night of homelessness is spurred on by parents bristling at a connection with allyship, let alone with queerness. There is no room for a slow realization in a childhood spent hiding from parents raging through unaddressed traumas. Realization comes when I am finally alone and all at once, like the speakers are blown out on my childhood. It is all static and I am crowd surfing with every other queer kid with no home to stumble back to at the end of the night. We reach for each other at every punk show, hands soft as clouds.
In the first year of homelessness, I settle into identifying as nonbinary. It is an existence as “other” but feels some level of safe. It does not come with expectations of femininity or surgery. The questions are not as invasive, the statistics of violence less well defined. This first year is spent questioning what is means to be a person. Interrogating it, like I can reason myself into feeling again. It will take years to settle into a comfortable, stable identity of woman.
The first time I hear Against Me! it is on a shitty speaker at the base of my phone in a dark bedroom paid for with student loans and I cannot catch my breath. I learn that femininity can be all rasping voice, knuckle tattoos, and piercings. “Woman” tumbles out of my mouth in a hushed whisper between songs and, holy shit, is that terrifying. What a thrill to discover your gender just on the other side of a fading song. There is a freedom in accepting the possibility for violence and joy in a future you want.
The time to move up the waitlist for gender treatment at the University of Iowa is approximately six months and is the only option if you are too poor to pay out of pocket at a clinic. This is also enough time to realize my first therapist in Iowa would not write the required letter of recommendation due to her own unfamiliarity with trans people. Her unfamiliarity becomes inaccessibility, another hurdle that requires jumping in order to access a version of myself I have only dreamt of—a version of me that can look in the mirror without flinching. Too many trans people have stories like this. Too many have years of their lives shaved away by a waiting game that no one wins. I offer to answer questions, to guide, to explore, but ultimately, I have better luck with the second therapist. She has at least met other trans people and she is kind.
A handful of months before the concert, I sit in a shining waiting room at the University of Iowa with my partner, Blue. They drive me the entire way, smiling and laughing to distract from the slurry of anxiety beneath my skin, to distract from the worry that I am not trans enough to be given hormone replacement therapy (hrt), despite the obtuse number of hoops I have already jumped through to make this appointment. Their car smells of pine and the sky overhead rumbles with a barely contained thunderstorm. On the drive home, I cry while looking at a few tiny pills that will change my life.
This is the best way to understand the overlap of class and gender—messy snapshots of joy and panic, the pendulum wildly swinging from one extreme to the other. In one moment, a therapist who takes Medicaid is refusing homeless queer youth the chance to shapeshift, and in the next, a partner is cradling my face between their palms and calling it joy.
In one moment, I am running out of meds because my insurance has lapsed, and my skin feels uncomfortable once more. In another, a friend smiles and sends money so I can buy hrt for the month. We ignore each other’s legal names on PayPal. So many of us have so little to give yet still try. The trying is one of the most important things I learn from the queer community. We always try to save one another. Our impermanence demands this constant attempt to give whatever we can; we all know the statistics for suicide among queer youth.
The Trevor Project estimates that every forty-five seconds one of us tries to erase ourselves. I can’t help but watch the clock with hope that every minute is a survival, someone outliving the things in their head trying to kill them.
We all know this impermanence comes from a lack of structural support—the hours spent driving to unnecessary appointments; the explanation after explanation of gender to gatekeepers who do not really believe us anyway; the rejections for treatment from insurance companies that don’t care about how quickly our bodies disappear. This rejection then leads to hours spent on the phone with people insisting they cannot help, they cannot help, they’re sorry, but it is just the insurance policy. The therapist’s letter wasn’t good enough. Another letter is needed. The doctor thinks you aren’t ready but won’t say that out loud. Conversations about our own health and wellness exclude us. The system’s gears turn as ineffectually as intended. It wears on us—us, a collective of bodies in flight.
So, we push together in dim bars and run-down apartments. trying to build community as best we can. We search for the warmth in each other. Every forty-five seconds spent together is forty-five seconds not spent alone begging for an escape.
The next year, my pockets full of dollar bills from bartending, I buy somebody else their meds. I transition to keeping queer bar rats alive. I transition to being kept alive by queer bar rats. I am hungry, and pizza appears. I am thirsty, and a round of whiskey slides across the bar counter like wind chimes. I spend a night on my knees becoming too familiar with the smell of porcelain and toilet bowl cleaner and someone holds my hair back. Every night is full of new miracles. Look how many of us survive. Look how many of us return from near death.
A chosen sibling overdoses, so I sit on the floor of the bar bathroom and hold them through the rush of stomach blood. I’ve never seen a person look so gray. They come to consciousness long enough to sign a refusal of treatment form so the EMTs don’t take them, and I don’t think I have ever been so pissed at somebody. They tell me they do not have insurance. I hold them sweat-drenched and curled against my chest. I stay with them while the threat of death too slowly slips by like the seconds hand of a clock. One day we will laugh about this. We will message each other from opposite sides of the country and say, “I miss you,” which means “I have more time because of you.”
I’m fucked up and making out with someone in the back of a dimly lit bar and the portrait of a dead boy stares at us from a wall nearby. I remind too many people of him.
I go out for dinner with my partner and a man across the restaurant stares at me the entire time.
Everything about class and gender is a mess of survival. So often the public sees trans people arriving fully formed. They have the money to purchase a new wardrobe and to overcome the barriers to gender affirming surgeries. Often, such people disappear and then appear matching expectations of gender—a magic trick done to escape violence. Most of us aren’t so lucky. Some of us are more interested in preventing violence than escaping it.
A man follows me from one bar to another to ask if I’m really a woman. He refuses to make eye contact. I spend the rest of the night with the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is watching me, judging how I perform femininity.
Passing comes with so many costs. New clothes. New makeup. New voice. I know we’re experts at shapeshifting but few of us can pay all the costs. And if we don’t pay them, other costs come quickly, like a ripple in a crowd. The pressure of depression mounts incredibly quickly. Some of us slip back into the closet for survival. Others are fired from jobs because they are not able to pass as their gender. There is little ramification for this in states that maintain at-will employment.
I raise my fist into the air as “FuckMyLife666” claws its way from the stadium speakers and a handful of people shuffle to their feet. The lights drop low, and the spotlights flicker out into the crowd with each electric strum. I scream the lyrics until my throat is raw. Something about this feels so freeing. In this moment, I can only be seen when the lights sweep over me. What a relief to only be seen briefly. What a relief to be myself.
It is 2022, and most days, especially with makeup, I pass.
Passing has never been the goal. To be in the crowd and never be seen, that’s not the goal. So, I write and speak loudly about being transgender. I fly trans pride flags. I wear buttons with my pronouns. I refuse to be anything but proud of my identity. There are already far too many shameful years of my life. I will not pass because I refuse to hide my identity.
It is 2022. I google my friend’s poetry and their obituary fills the search results.
We both have written so much about queer love and transness and I am alive, and they are not. Everything about their absence screams of isolation. Forty-five seconds can last forever.
The lack of structural support results in isolation and the luck of being alive looks a lot like grieving. More states are passing anti-trans bills after years of a pandemic have once again taken so many from our community. They tell us what bathrooms we cannot use. They ban children from life-saving medical and psychological treatment. They pass bill after bill and I pass out on a couch, trying to fit this rage into a decipherable shape. At times, this rage is a punk show. Fist still in the air but goddamn do I need the band to play louder. At times, this rage is a couch—a space in which I exist but barely live.
The few well off trans folks existing in the public eye are fine, but the rest of us are drowning. Their wealth does not find us huddled at house parties. Their wealth does not find us visiting friends’ graves. Their wealth finds its ways into my rage. It takes so many shapes.
It is now and then and forever, and I am reaching for every queer kid stumbling somewhere that could never be called a home. Forty-five seconds is no time at all.
This is a story both about me and not about me. The intersection of class and gender slamming together like a mosh pit gone wild. The clamor of a community for liberation. The recognizable sound of loss caught in a speaker’s static haze. The pit breaks like a fever and I am so lucky to be alive. My friends go across and beyond. It is a magic trick with no payoff.
It is 2022, and I look at the last message I sent my friend. Their name was Bennett. In that message, I tell them to reach out whenever they need. I think about messaging them again, like the silence would reverse itself. This last year has been so full of silence with all these closed punk venues.
I worry about the deepening of the violence trans bodies have faced during this pandemic. Public figures have become bolder in their attacks on trans voices. Structural barriers have increased. The pandemic has made the realities of homelessness even harsher. Food and housing are even scarcer. What little support there was has atrophied in many ways. How many of us have been forced back into the closet to survive? How many more of us have traded parts of ourselves for couches to sleep on? There is no way to measure this silence.
And yet, I am still here. I have traded pieces of myself. I have bargained for beds, couches, and food. I have choked down whole bottles of whiskey. I have faced down too many cops who remind me of my father. I have stood on train tracks and thought about slipping into the rust-coated night. Through luck, the privileges I do have, and a whole lot of good friends, I am here.
It is 2022, and I go to my first concert since the start of the pandemic. I stand on a balcony overlooking a crowd of bodies rushing to meet each other. I stand next to my date as the queer punk band takes the stage—their faces glowing with dark makeup and colorful hair. The lead singer screams their pronouns into a mic and threatens anyone who would misgender them and then kicks off a song about therapy. My date and I laugh and dance in place, appreciating the movement of bodies in a crowd. Our community is still here through it all.
I yell, “This is breathtaking!”
And my date grabs me by the beltloops and pulls me close. Hair dye and hips swivel in time with the beat.
I have so much love for the queer community around me. In a mosh pit, if somebody falls, you pick them back up. This community of poor queers picks each other back up. We lack so much in terms of resources, but we try our damned best. When one of us disappears, we grieve together. The stage lights flare.
The week my friend dies, their Facebook page floods with testimonials of their fight for queer liberation. Their funeral is a symphony of once more with feeling. The week my friend dies, my partner cooks me chocolate chip pancakes. The week my friend dies, I read every testimonial from the AIDS Memorial. It lets me know there is joy in survival. Memory is the antithesis of loss. Every queer body that has slipped away dreamt of my survival. Death is not a wall.
I carry with me the weight of class, gender, and dead friends. Every support system that is lacking is made up for by a mad rush of love-struck queers trying to hold each other up. Class and gender are messy; my friends are messier. I love them for it. I love them for all the ways they don’t pass because they don’t have that kind of money. I’ll love my friends whether they’re here or not, because the silence can always be broken with joy. This community of queers is so full of love.
It is 2017, confetti and makeup mingle on the floor. Caedyn and I wander with the crowd and out to the parking lot, hearts still hammering quickly. We recount what we found on the other side of a fading song.
In this memory, I find pieces of Bennett and other ghosts. How sweet that all this music can still be felt thrumming in the body. How wonderful it is that this parking lot can hold my sweet dead.
It is every moment all at once and I am so glad to be alive and queer.
My friend and I have so much in common. I think that is what makes their passing so difficult. Our closeness makes me a ghost and it is not the first time I have been the ghost of a dead queer. It probably won’t be the last. And, at some point, someone will be my ghost.
But goddamn, please play the music louder and keep moving.