When I asked my girlfriend to marry me, I had just finished staunching a pretty serious nosebleed. It was Christmas morning, still early. Frost bleaching the window panes. We were staying at her parents’ house in Richmond, Va., for the holidays. It was incredibly cold and the heat had been running nonstop throughout the night. I’m third-generation Floridian; I’ve seen snow only a handful of times and often joke that I’m a bona fide swamp creature that needs humidity to survive. Subsequently, my dried-out nasal passages had decided to mutiny right before she unearthed the ring “box” from her stocking (a glittering geode with a clasp; my girlfriend has always claimed to love “cool rocks”). As she pried it open and the ring tumbled out, I was still furiously swabbing at my nostrils, heart beating like it wanted to smash open my ribs and escape.
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This will make a great engagement story, I thought, blood-stained tissue still wadded in my fist. I stumbled through the proposal, barely able to form a coherent sentence. “Do you like it?” I finally asked, instead of the all-important engagement question: “Will you marry me?” For someone who calls herself a writer, this was not my most eloquent moment. But throughout all of it – the spontaneous nosebleed, my frazzled nerves – I wasn’t worried that my girlfriend would turn me down. I knew she would say yes, and she did, sweetly taking over for me when I lost all my carefully planned-out words. I knew we would get married. I knew we would be happy.
What I did worry about? What would happen when we got back to Florida, which over the past few weeks (months? years?) has become an increasingly hostile and inhospitable place for queer and trans people to live.
I’ve spent much of my adult life writing about Florida. Essays, novels, tweets. My entire body of work is an homage to my home state. Everything I create is saturated with it, the sunshine and the rot and the thunder thumping hard as a bass drum in my chest. I’ve always said that Florida is embedded in my work because it lives inside me. How could it not? I was born here, grew up here, loved and cried and ached here. Gave birth to my son here. Received both of my degrees here, working full-time days in libraries while I went to school at night. I’ve spent my entire adult life in Florida, building friendship and lasting community. Making art. I have become an unofficial brand ambassador for the state, someone willing to talk about Florida as it actually exists because otherwise someone else, usually not from here, will open the conversation with misinformation and hysteria.
But in asking my girlfriend to spend the rest of her life with me, and with no plans to live elsewhere, I am once again reminded that this place I love dearly has not always loved me back. As a queer person living in a conservative state, I have long been subject to laws denying my rights. Other LGBTQ+ people have chosen to move away, rightfully worried by the lack of care and concern from our lawmakers. It is a precarious and destabilizing way to live. To ask my future wife to live here indefinitely – bound with me, in sickness and in health – requires that I consider her safety as well as my own. I am white and she is not; that means that things are different for her than they are for me. It’s the nature of our country.
My fiancée – who had never been to Florida before dating me – understands how much this state means to me. She’s seen the sunsets sink sherbet-stained behind a long row of palm scrub, swum in the Atlantic and dusted sand from the car for days afterward, watched raccoons and possums and bees and cardinals drink from the birdbath in our yard, eaten sandwiches from the place near my old house that’s been open since 1967, befriended booksellers and writers and artists and attended dozens of their events, become close with the bartenders at our local cocktail place, The Courtesy, where everyone knows our name like it’s Cheers. Florida has become important to her, too; her compassion toward the people here has deepened my love for her immeasurably.
As I prepare to marry the person I love in Florida, I vacillate between excitement and dread. Though our wedding will be a day to celebrate our love, it will also be a time to show off my hometown. To offer up recommendations for our favorite restaurants and shops, day trips out to botanical parks and walks along the lakeshore. To introduce our real community, the people who live and work here alongside us, the very best parts of Florida presented to our out-of-town guests, because the rhetoric around where we live is often dictated by people who don’t know us at all.
But there are also plenty of things to fear in the Sunshine State. Log onto the internet and you’re inundated with an avalanche of Florida problems: hurricanes and flooding and climate change. Poisonous animals and humongous insects. Sharks and alligators (though in my personal opinion, these last two are nothing to be afraid of). And, of course, the source of almost all of my anxiety: our current governor, an individual who has worked ceaselessly to take away rights from trans and queer individuals, using anti-LGBTQ bills to score political points off people’s lives. This deluge of legislation is meant to layer harm. “Don’t Say Gay,” first enacted, then later expanded. Drag bills that sneakily work to undermine the rights of trans folk. Transgender bathroom bans and bans on affirming care. Stacking school boards. Refusing to allow CRT into schools. Attempting to remove college majors in gender studies. Book bans; ways to take crucial information away from the public. Allowing medical practitioners to refuse care to LGBTQ+ patients based on moral concerns. It can overwhelm you if you let it. How can I best advocate for this place when I’m sometimes afraid to hold my fiancée’s hand in public?
Maybe it can be as simple as taking direct action, no matter how small that act might feel in the moment. If the bad can layer and expand, then so can the good. Living here so many years as an out gay person has meant creating a found family in lieu of my biological one. My fiancée and I have made it a point to hire queer people to work at our wedding: a gay friend’s catering company will provide the food and drinks for our reception; a queer local DJ will handle the music. Why not pay other LGBTQ+ people in our community to help with our event, supporting their businesses in the process? In lieu of wedding gifts, we’re donating money to Zebra Youth, the local LGBTQ+ initiative for young people. We want to bolster and sustain the next generation of Floridians; this is a way we can do that.
Hope is a thing with wings, I’m told, and this state is chock-full of birds as well as mosquitoes. We experience the pleasure and the pain simultaneously. I want to fight for the home that I love, and that means staying here, regardless of my exhaustion. Clinging and sticking like a sandspur into Florida’s side. I don’t see this as a burden, but rather a chance to wake up every day and work on our collective future. It’s also a privilege; not everyone can afford to take this kind of stance.
After my girlfriend said yes to my proposal, we woke up her family and shared our good news. And there was champagne, and there was celebration, and then there was breakfast. As we enjoyed our meal – Norwegian waffles with jam and powdered sugar, another of her family’s many beautiful traditions – I joked about the fact that I’m very serious about orange juice. “I only like the real stuff,” I said, shrugging. “It must be the Florida in me.”
The Florida in me wants you to know that I’m not giving up. I’m just as hardy as this state. Just as grasping and tenacious and hopeful, despite all the people and the laws that might try to tear us down. And it’s more than just me. There are plenty of us. All wanting to show you that we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not leaving.
My future wife also feels this way. And God, I love her for that.
Look at this place, we’ll say. We fought for it. It’s our home. And yes, it’s messy, but isn’t it beautiful, too?
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