The last time I was in Texas, I was on my way to get a vagina.
Corey and I were driving from Atlanta to San Francisco via Los Angeles, cutting across the South on the interstate in three brutal days so we would have time for a more leisurely trip up the Pacific Coast Highway right before the operation. My impatience made the Lone Star State wider. “We’re still in Texas?” I’d whine as we passed yet another Highway 287 ghost town.
Back then — in April of the now-innocent-seeming year of 2014 — I had no idea that Republican-controlled states like Texas would soon develop an incurable obsession with my genitals. At the time, the GOP was still fighting a losing battle against same-sex marriage in order to keep their evangelical base rallied and their fundraising coffers full. Transgender people weren’t on their radar the way we are today. Time magazine hadn’t yet declared “The Transgender Tipping Point” with a photo of Laverne Cox on the cover. Film and TV were still in the courting phase of their love affair with women like me. Sure, we were less visible back then, but I now know that visibility is often the forerunner of backlash more than it is a sign of true progress.
In the naïveté of my mid-twenties, though, I thought that all my rights would fall into place like dominoes: I would get the long-anticipated surgery, quietly update the gender markers on my identity documents, marry Corey whenever it became legal, and just live.
Three years later, Donald Trump is president, I have spent most of my reporting career writing about the endless onslaught of idiotic bathroom bills, and I’m back in Texas because state lawmakers are trying — again — to force women like me to use the men’s room and bearded men like Billy to use the ladies’ room.
Billy and I head for Texas on July 15, 2017, because the state legislature is considering Senate Bill 3 — a bill that would require transgender people to use restrooms in public schools and government buildings that match our birth-certificate gender markers. Were it not for bigoted Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the legislature wouldn’t even be in session now.
Patrick, who has called transgender-bathroom protections in schools “the beginning of the end of public education as we know it,” was so hell-bent on getting SB 3 passed that he and Gov. Greg Abbott forced the state legislature to return to Austin for a special summer session after it failed to pass a similar bathroom bill during the traditional legislative calendar.
That means transgender Texans don’t get a summer break from defending their rights; they get Saturday detention at the statehouse instead — and I want to hang out with the cool kids.
As Billy and I drive from Dallas to Austin, we start to see ads for the legendary Texas gas station chain Buc-ee’s, famous for its house-made jerky and for the sheer size of its locations. Any given Buc-ee’s looks like someone copy-pasted 7-Eleven until it filled up a football field. The billboards — all of which feature the same smiling cartoon-beaver mascot — boast about how clean the “fabulous restrooms” are. They inform us that the best two reasons to stop at Buc-ee’s are “number one and number two.”
It’s funny to me, in a sardonic way, that most people on road trips worry more about restroom cleanliness than they do about restroom safety. My top priority is not getting beaten up.
Even though I’ve never had a problem in a bathroom, the fear of assault is always on my mind, especially in states where bills like SB 3 are being discussed on local news and conservative talk radio stations. As a transgender person, you never know when some self-appointed potty vigilante is going to spot you and decide to make a scene.
Early on in my transition, when I was less confident in my appearance than I am now, figuring out where to go to the bathroom on a long road trip felt like planning a bank robbery. I liked one- or two-stall restrooms in chain restaurants that had enough foot traffic to feel safe but weren’t so busy that there would be a line. A Starbucks or a Panera was ideal. Often I would hold it in for long stretches until I found an exit that looked promising. And as nearly a third of transgender people reported having done in the 2015 US Transgender Survey, I avoided food and water — even when I was hungry or thirsty — just so I would have to use the bathroom less frequently.
When I did find the right spot, I was all business, in and out of there like lightning: no fixing my hair in the mirror, no waiting around to use a frustratingly slow hand dryer, nothing.
Nowadays I don’t think twice about pulling into Buc-ee’s for a pit stop. We fill up the big SUV that we have rented for the Texas leg — “When in Rome,” right? — and walk into a gas station convenience store the size of a large supermarket. It is breathtaking. If Willy Wonka dehydrated meats for a living, his factory would look like the inside of this place: an endless supply of beef jerky on one side, carousels full of beaver-themed Buc-ee’s merchandise on the other, and seemingly every beverage known to man stored in school bus–length fridges along the walls.
In the bathroom, I do what any other decent woman who cares about her fellow women would do: try to find a toilet that hasn’t already been ruined by a hoverer, sit down on the goddamn seat, pee, and leave. The bathrooms at Buc-ee’s are indeed as advertised: sparkly clean, with stall doors that run almost floor to ceiling — a feature that reportedly makes the gas station a favorite stop for Lou Weaver, the transgender programs coordinator at Equality Texas. Being transgender turns you into something of a restroom connoisseur — the Yelp Elite Squad of urination.
I think about it sometimes while I’m peeing: How bizarre it is that some people are afraid of me — or at least the idea of me, a caricature that they’ve been fed through propaganda. I don’t feel like the “beginning of the end” of anything.
I’m a person, not the harbinger of some cultural apocalypse.
Intellectually, I can tell myself these bathroom bills are the product of cynical backroom scheming: When same-sex marriage became legal nationwide in 2015, anti-LGBT hate groups needed a new scapegoat to stay relevant and keep raising money. It’s not a coincidence that there were over double the number of anti-transgender bills filed in state legislatures in 2016 as there were in 2015: When you’re fighting a lucrative culture war, it’s a savvier choice to simply change the target than to surrender.
But when I remember that I’m not just a pawn on a political chessboard but a flesh-and-blood human being, the prevalence of bills like SB 3 — and the persistence of politicians like Patrick who try to pass them — feels surreal, and far from the easy future I once anticipated.
By the time Billy and I are able to tear ourselves out of Buc-ee’s an hour later, we have both bought T-shirts with that grinning mascot on them, half a pound of turkey jerky, a bag of something crunchy called “beaver nuggets,” and two bottles of the sparkling Mexican mineral water Topo Chico. We sit in the car together, washing down the peppery jerky with long pulls of the fizzy drink. I’ll have to pee again before we get to Austin.
Dan Patrick will have to deal with it.
When my waffle comes out of the iron at the Austin Best Western in the shape of Texas, I feel blessed, like I found Jesus Christ on my toast.
I must not have used enough batter, I think, as I rush my plate over to Billy so that he, too, can witness this golden, griddled sign from above.
But upon closer inspection, I realize that the waffle maker itself is Texas-shaped — and, with some web searching, I learn that many Texas hotels and motels use this same model. I have never been to a state as obsessed with itself as this one. Sure, other states have “pride,” but I have never eaten a Vermont-shaped waffle. Just saying.
We are up early enough for hotel breakfast on July 18 so we can protest the beginning of Dan Patrick’s special session. Transgender bathroom rights aren’t the only thing on the chopping block this summer: Planned Parenthood funding and health insurance coverage for abortions are also being threatened. Meanwhile, progressive activists are urging the legislature to use the special session for a nobler purpose: to repeal Senate Bill 4, a law forbidding Texas municipalities from serving as “sanctuary cities” — safe havens for undocumented Americans during a time of rising deportations.
As Billy and I walk up the tree-lined sidewalk that leads to the south steps of the Capitol, volunteers from half a dozen advocacy groups are handing out signs and — more important, given the hundred-degree weather — bottled water. There are signs for women’s rights and signs for LGBT rights and signs for immigrant rights, with a smorgasbord of messages to choose from: “My Faith Does Not Discriminate,” “Y’all Means Y’all,” “Just Wash Your Hands,” or — my favorite — “Build This Wall,” with a line pointing to the separation between church and state.
I’m wearing a shirt that says “1987,” which a stranger assumes is a political slogan.
“What does that mean?” she asks me.
“It’s the year I was born.”
The unrelenting heat hasn’t deterred turnout, so it takes me a few minutes of wandering through the crowd to find the people I’m here to meet: Jess Herbst, the first openly transgender mayor in Texas history, and Amber Briggle, the proud cisgender mother of a transgender boy named Max. Once again, I’ve made the mistake of not dressing for the weather: Jess and Amber are both wearing airy, light-colored skirts; I left the hotel in black fleece-lined leggings.
Together we work our way up the steps while the scheduled speakers line up behind the podium at the top. Jess excitedly introduces me to a dizzying number of transgender Texans. Amber hands me her “Stop Bullying Trans Kids” sign and tells me to hoist it up, freeing her to hold a Transgender Pride flag and a framed photograph of Max. (Someone came prepared.)
The speeches begin as the sun bakes my lifted arms. Every so often the door to the Capitol opens behind us and an air-conditioned breeze rushes out of the building — but it doesn’t provide enough relief to stop us from eventually relocating to the shade, where we can make more comfortable introductions.
Jess Herbst and I first bonded when I interviewed her over the phone in February 2017 — shortly after she had come out as transgender in a letter to the 673-person town where she, her wife, and their two daughters have lived since 1999. That town is New Hope, Texas, a rural suburb of Dallas just north of McKinney.
A longtime city councilor before her transition, Jess was appointed mayor pro tempore in May 2016 when the previous mayor died of a heart attack. At that point Jess had already been taking estrogen for a year and a half, quietly coming out to her loved ones, living as herself much of the time but still presenting as male during town business.
Nine months later she decided to simplify her bifurcated life, posting an online message to the government website and addressing it to “the citizens of New Hope.”
“As your Mayor I must tell you about something that has been with me since my earliest memories,” she wrote. “I am Transgender.”
By the time I reached out to her, Jess had already given dozens of interviews and her inbox was full of requests for more. But I said the magic word: I told her that I was also transgender.
Cisgender reporters are often so fascinated by the mere existence of transgender people that they treat us more like exotic zoo animals than human beings. They ask boilerplate questions like “When did you know?” or “How does it feel?” or the ever-popular but remarkably invasive “Do you want the surgery?” When I interview other transgender people, I treat them like equals, not science experiments. So when I got Jess on the phone, we skipped past the sensationalizing questions and just talked. I wasn’t interested in the simple fact that she was transgender — whoop-de-doo, so are 1.4 million other Americans — I was interested in New Hope, in her life as a member of a marginalized community in a county that chose Trump over Clinton by a margin of 56 to 39 percent.
Jess told me that the people of her town don’t seem to care about what name she goes by or which gender pronouns she uses; they care about eliminating public eyesores, like the rusty cars sitting on cinder blocks that some residents have left on their lawns.
“Being transgender has nothing to do with my job,” she told me. “The car on blocks and the house next door are way more important than what I’m wearing.”
When we hung up, I knew I had to meet her in person one day. And now here she is before me, looking like she’s ready to pick me up from soccer practice.
I kid, but Jess does have a maternal air about her, which makes sense because she’s now a second mom to her two daughters. She has short, layered blond hair falling just above her shoulders, clear blue eyes, and expertly drawn brows. Like my actual mother, she is an Apple addict, as evidenced by the watch on her wrist — held in place by a rainbow pride band, no less. She is gregarious and charming, instantly making me feel like I’m part of her pack of friends.
Her wife, Debbie, is decidedly more reserved — the brunette to Jess’s blonde — but she still carries herself with the forceful resolve of a lifelong Texan who will not abide any more of this bathroom-bill bullshit. Debbie has lived in New Hope since age 2 and knows the town even better than its famed Madame Mayor. In the year and change since Jess came out to her constituents, Debbie has become a professional at occupying the Capitol Rotunda.
I can tell from her mild impatience to get inside the statehouse that this protest is an obligation for her — not one she fulfills grudgingly, mind you, but rather a duty that she feels to protect her wife from a bill so stupid she can barely believe it’s being considered.
“I’m here to write a book about LGBT organizing in red states,” I tell Debbie as the last speaker wraps up and the crowd filters toward the statehouse, forming neat lines outside the doors so that we can get through the metal detectors as quickly as possible.
“Well,” Debbie deadpans, “this is it.” ●
Samantha Allen is a GLAAD Award–winning journalist and the author of Love & Estrogen (Amazon Original Stories). She is a senior reporter for the Daily Beast, covering LGBT issues, and a former Sex + Life reporter for Fusion. She received her PhD in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies from Emory University in 2015 and was the 2013 recipient of the Kinsey Institute’s John Money Fellowship for Scholars of Sexology. She has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, and NPR’s On the Media. She met her wife in a Kinsey Institute elevator — a true queer love story.