When Sarah, my childhood best friend, bought her house in rural Ohio, she called to tell me that it was not just her, her husband and her baby who had a place to call theirs forever, but that it was mine as well. I found it heartwarming in the way I’d found her telling her husband — when he asked her to marry him — that she would be his wife, but he had to respect that she already had the role of best friend filled.
While Sarah’s declaration meant a great deal to me, it also seemed purely hypothetical. I was living in New York City with my then-wife. We were recently married and we were transitioning genders together. Our lives were urban and bohemian: We bounced around Brooklyn and the Lower East Side together, going to and hosting music events and literary readings. When we weren’t doing that, we were holed up in our Queens apartment, snuggling our cat, making art and making holiday dinners for fellow trans people who had nowhere to go. Rural Ohio might as well have been on the moon.
However, when my marriage ended abruptly and heartbreakingly, I boarded an Amtrak train from New York City to Cleveland.
By this point, running to Sarah during tough times had become a pattern. When I had split from my first love, I spent the summer with Sarah in Athens, Ga. When I was going through a breakup a week and serious mental health problems in college, I joined Sarah in Bozeman, Mont., for a summer. I did construction jobs her husband set me up with, and we played Scrabble by candlelight as her newborn slept nearby.
Ohio was a culture shock that added to my heartbreak. When I needed a haircut for a Skype job interview, Sarah took me to a local place where the stylist kept insisting I’d look cute with a pixie cut. As a transmasculine person, a pixie cut was the last thing I wanted, and I kept telling the stylist I preferred men’s haircuts. She fought with me on it, and when she finished said, “It’s not really a man’s haircut, but it’s better.” I left full of anger and convinced everyone in the Midwest was transphobic.
I didn’t get that job, and moved back to New York before realizing I couldn’t afford the city anymore. My family had long since stopped speaking to me over gender and mental health issues, and my options were limited. Suddenly Ohio was back on the horizon.
I got back on Amtrak with my cat a suitcase. I was scared and nervous, still convinced that the people in the Midwest were waiting with pitchforks to drag the trans person down an alley and murder me. But Sarah had already paved a path for me by the time I got there. Sarah had had conversations with all the people in her life, who would soon be in my life, about what it meant that my name and pronouns were different, and about what it meant to be transgender. For many of them, I was the first transgender person they’d ever met. Though her 8-year-old daughter still thought of me by my old name and pronouns, Sarah corrected her each time. After a few weeks, her daughter was introducing me to her friends as: “This is Alex. Alex is kind of a boy and kind of a girl.”
I found a job, and started making decent money. I made friends, all of whom I’ve been able to come out to. Not long ago, Sarah’s next door neighbor, a Vietnam veteran who can frequently be heard talking about his gun collection, took Sarah aside to ask her how my transition was going, and if everyone had been treating me with the appropriate respect.
I never quite imagined my life ending up here, and for a while I was terrified. When I think of how far I have to drive to get appropriate medical attention, when I go to the eye doctor and get asked about whether I want sexual reassignment surgery, I am still somewhat terrified. But when people who have never met another transgender person before defend my right to appropriate pronouns — when I hear my oldest friend explain for the billionth time something she doesn’t want me to have explain — I think about her promising me that I had a home. I can’t believe it took me this long to understand how true it was.
I intended to stay in town just for the summer. But it’s March and I’m still here.
In the fall, I’ll be moving an hour away to Cleveland to go back to school. But I’d prefer not to go too far. And I’m sure that I’ll never again doubt that I have a home here, any time I might need one.