When I came out as a transgender woman, a lot of doors closed for me. But the road stayed open. And it’s through criss-crossing the country that I have found not just LGBTQ acceptance but LGBTQ pride.
Road trips have always been the punctuation in the paragraph of my life. When I was little, my parents drove our family of four up and down the Pacific Coast in a Dodge Ram Van that my dad jokingly called “a fine Italian sports car” as he took the winding cliffside turns. That’s one of my earliest memories.
No sooner did I get my own driver’s license than I drove from New Jersey to Utah via several Missouri backroads. (I’ve never liked going straight. Where’s the fun in that?) That’s how I kicked off college, back when I still thought I was a boy.
In 2012, when I finally announced that I was transitioning from male to female, concerns popped up like yield signs: Would I be able to get a job after graduate school? Would my family and friends accept me? But I also wondered how my transition would affect my ability to go on road trips. Would it be safe for me and my friends to travel through red states?
At the time, I was living in Atlanta, an LGBTQ hotspot in the South, but I still had preconceptions about how welcoming the middle of the country would be for a transgender traveler. I would soon discover that the United States is dotted—riddled, actually—with amazing LGBTQ destinations like Blue Ridge, Georgia; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Missoula, Montana.
I was scared at first to drive too far from home, but before long I was exploring northern Georgia and East Tennessee. A summer road trip took me to Bloomington, Indiana, where I fell in love not just with the woman who would later become my wife, but with the town itself—a town where Pride Month was commemorated not with a parade of millions, but with a small film festival.
Johnson City, Tennessee is where I found my chosen family of LGBTQ friends—and where I ate the best hamburgers I have ever had in my life at an all-night diner called Mid City Grill. (The Johnson City area is celebrating its second Pride Festival later this year.)
Road trips continued to mark milestones for me: My wife and I drove from Atlanta to San Francisco for an important transition-related surgery in 2014, and from Buffalo, New York to Seattle, Washington just last year for a relationship anniversary.
But perhaps my favorite road trip I ever took was in the summer of 2017 when I set out to write my reported travel memoir Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. I drove from Utah to Texas to Indiana to Tennessee to Misssippi to Georgia—like I said, I don’t like going straight—spotlighting the sometimes unexpected places that LGBTQ Americans call home.
In small towns and mid-size cities across America I have found not just a vibrant LGBTQ nightlife, but LGBTQ-friendly cafés, churches, and bookstores. LGBTQ pride in these places doesn’t only mean partying; it also means building community and finding togetherness in the face of hostility. My travels have taught me that LGBTQ pride is not just a moment or even a month but a continuing project. I was once scared to travel to places like Jackson, Misssippi and Waco, Texas; now you can’t keep me away.
The road has continued to sustain me in the years since my gender transition. To me, those dotted yellow lines stretching into the horizon represent not just the freedom of travel, but the infinite possibility awaiting the LGBTQ community as we speed toward acceptance.
Samantha Allen is the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States (Little, Brown, 2019).