Welcome to the first edition of Queer Tejas! I know I just started this project but I’ll be moving it off Substack soon to a different platform that doesn’t financially support transphobic writers.
One year ago, I was supposed to be going to Mexico City with my wife and our two best friends. I had imagined us eating tacos, exploring Chapultepec Park, and taking shots of tequila at bars in the Zona Rosa. My wife and our friends talked about our upcoming trip on a video call the weekend before we were to hop a plane. “Should we be worried about the coronavirus?” my friend asked. It certainly was on all our minds.
I had listened to an episode of The Daily podcast where Michael Babaro spoke to (now former) science and health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. about the emerging pandemic. It was a couple of days before March 2020. I had been accepted to my first choice journalism grad school in New York City and I was so excited to travel with friends who live in a different state — everything was right in the world.
But when I listened to the podcast episode while driving home from work, it was the first time the news of COVID-19 felt like a thousand stones on my chest. Everything McNeil was describing was terrifying. “It means you don’t die — 80% of people have mild cases — but you know someone who dies,” he said. The coronavirus felt irrelevant to me up to this point because it was happening far, far away but now it seemed like it could touch me.
“Everything feels suspended in midair and defying gravity and at any moment it can just drop to the floor with a loud THUD,” I wrote on March 3, 2020. “I’m well aware of what can happen and there’s nothing I can do.”
“Well, there’s only one case in Mexico right now. I think we should be ok?” I reasoned out loud on the call with my friends. We agreed to keep our plans. But each day leading up to the trip sowed more and more doubt that we weren’t going on vacation. A conference I was supposed to attend for work later that month was cancelled. SXSW was cancelled. Finally, the day before we were supposed to board a plane things intensified. Trump closed the borders to Europe. My friends, wife and I went back and forth on it but we finally decided to cancel our trip. It wasn’t worth the risk of getting covid or getting others sick or getting stuck at the border.
Quarantining in Texas feels like being constantly gaslit. It was a lonely endeavor from the start. It seemed like only some of the population got the memo about the dire consequences of the virus while everyone else was still gathering with friends and family. I mean, I couldn’t blame folks because there were conflicting directives from all parts of government. In the beginning, I think the most we were told was to wash our hands, keep six feet apart, and limit social gatherings to 10 people when in reality we needed the state to be shut down to stop the virus from spreading. That never happened.
Instead Texas left the decision largely up to counties, cities, schools and universities to respond however they saw fit. It wasn’t until March 31 that Gov. Greg Abbott told Texans to stay home for a month unless they were essential workers.
My 9-5 allowed me to work from home. On the other hand, my wife (who uses they/them pronouns) continued to work at a grocery store. I was worried for my wife and angry about the stories they would tell me about rude and inconsiderate customers, as well as management trying to prevent worker unions from forming across the country.
To cope, we went on long walks with our dog. We cooked fancy meals. I even made the shallot pasta. We danced to Safaera a lot. We binged a cheesy telenovela because it was easy to watch. We rode our bikes to the lake. We completed a 1,000-piece astrology puzzle.
Our balcony became our refuge. My wife tended to their plants while I wrote. We bird watched and enjoyed the warm weather. Our friends visited us while we sat on our balcony like we were Juliet and they were Romeo.
While we tried so hard to find joy every day, the coronavirus kept upending everything we ever knew. The media company I worked for laid people off. An editor I worked with was furloughed, even after working for the company for 20 years. “Not to be rude, but why did they let me go and not you?” the editor wondered out loud. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious, I’m less expensive than you,” I answered. I had to absorb her duties overnight and later on I would have to take on even more after another writer left.
My dreams I had worked towards for two years evaporated overnight. How was I going to move across the country with my little family when the coronavirus was ravaging the city? How was I supposed to justify paying thousands of dollars to attend grad school on Zoom? I wasn’t moving to New York and I wasn’t going to grad school, at least for now.
I was in college when I faced an obstacle that seemed so insurmountable that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. It took the wind out of me every single day of my sophomore year of college. I was either drunk or crying on most days. I had a horrendous breakup with my first love, my best friend from high school. I had cheated on her and we both weren’t out. We didn’t know how to cope without each other. She was a freshman at an ivy league on the east coast, away from everything familiar for the first time in her life. There were several times when I was terrified she was gonna die by suicide and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone or ask for help. I was immobilized by shame and by fear of being found out and of being rejected.
I’ve had to be resilient since I figured out I was gay at 17. Time and time again, I’ve had to endure painful moments and realizations caused by homophobia. The danger of heartbreak has put me on guard, ready for a tackle. It took me years to come out to my parents because I had to build myself up and make sure I didn’t crumble if they reacted negatively.
Over the years, I’ve braced myself for the bad. I’ve had to accept that there are people in this world who despise me and others like me. I’ve had to be vigilant in strange places while holding my wife’s hand or kissing them. While living in Texas, I’ve had to endure lawmakers refusing my rights and targeting my community’s existence through discriminatory laws.
These difficult moments have built up my resilience. I think the only way I survived that traumatic year in college was by opening up to close friends and my sister. What saved me was studying abroad in Spain the following semester. That fall I spent time alone in cafés, wandering around old cobbled-stone streets in Andalucía, and admiring ancient Islamic architecture. It gave me time to reflect and to heal and to tell my story on my own terms to new friends I met.
All the difficult times I’ve navigated as a queer person has prepared me for this moment.
Resilience isn’t an antidote to a truly shitty year like 2020. It doesn’t cure you of your problems. Resilience is knowing you can weather the storm because you’ve done it before. It reminds you that you are built to withstand and that you will come out of it alive in the end. In order to be resilient, you must hold on tight to the things that will keep you afloat.
I had to reckon with my mental health early on in the pandemic. I always struggled with anxiety but compounded with the pandemic, I needed extra help. I started taking anti-anxiety medication and saw my life improve drastically.
I gave meditation another try, out of a desperate need to find calm. I found the Shine app and finally understood the hype around taking deep breaths, gratitude, and affirmations.
Although I couldn’t hang out with my friends like we used to, seeing them outside with masks on meant everything to me. During the summer, we had picnics and played soccer. In the fall, we ordered Chili’s takeout like royalty. The Facetime calls I had with my family, who lived hours away from me, made me feel closer to them.
Investing in my well-being and holding my loved ones close are the things that keep me afloat. I might’ve braced for the bad as a queer person, but it’s holding on to the good that has given me the real strength to keep moving forward.
What does it mean to be resilient? What does it mean to be queer and/or trans and living in Texas during these times?