In August, I spent 10 days visiting my fiancée Erin and her son Andy in Maryland. Erin and I were celebrating our birthdays, and my soon-to-be stepson was about to start third grade. During my stay, Erin and I told Andy a series of collaborative bedtime stories: Erin would start, and whenever Andy wanted, he’d say “switch,” and I’d jump in to tell the next part of the story. Together we spun tales of siblings who defeated an oil dragon in a magical realm made of paint, solved puzzles in a world made of food, and more. On the night before the first day of school, the siblings had escaped from inside a giant cyclops, and as we tucked Andy into bed, we wondered aloud about what both the next story and the school year might hold.
“Thank you for loving me,” Erin said as we walked downstairs to savor the quiet hours between when Andy goes to bed and when we follow suit.
“Easiest thing I’ve ever done.” My standard response. A cute little ritual we started shortly after we’d found the courage to say, “I love you,” meant to express both the ease of our love and our gratitude for it.
I met Erin, a fellow activist, in February 2022 amid a moment of crisis for trans people. Texas’ governor had already ordered the department of family and protective services to investigate families who were suspected of providing gender-affirming care to their transgender children. Trans youth were not only at risk of losing access to their health care but also of being taken away from their parents and homes. I took calls from parents who loved Texas, who had lived there for generations, yet were terrified that the state was no longer a safe place to raise their kids. Erin and I volunteered to help several families raise funds and find safer states to relocate to, and it was in this work we found one another.
Erin and I chatted throughout the spring, then began dating that summer, after my heart skipped just a little too much when she brushed her hair behind her ear on a video call. Over Thanksgiving, a few weeks after I was elected to the Montana house of representatives, Erin visited Missoula, Mont., for the first time, and a week later, I flew out for what was supposed to be a quick trip to Maryland to visit her and meet her son. Over the three days, I not only got to see what an amazing mom Erin is, but I also began to form the beginnings of my own relationship with Andy. On the last night, Andy asked if I could read the bedtime story—my first!—and afterward he told Erin, “Mom, I don’t want Zooey to go.” Erin and I tucked him into bed, and I immediately changed my flight to 10 days later.
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I filled that time with a mix of parks and parkour with Andy, as well as hikes with Erin, all while prepping for the upcoming state legislative session. Toward the end of my trip, Erin and I were invited to the White House for the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act. We gathered alongside hundreds of other LGBTQ people in what was a moment of culmination for one aspect of the fight for our rights. I cried throughout much of the celebration, and as Sam Smith performed a delicate rendition of “Stay With Me,” I leaned against Erin and whispered, “I’m going to marry you some day.”
“God,” Erin replied, “I can’t wait.”
Then 2023 came. The progress celebrated on the White House lawn was contrasted with a resurgence in far-right animus toward LGBTQ people, with more than 500 bills targeting the trans community filed in state legislatures across the country–more than in the past eight years combined. By April, the Republican supermajority in Montana had already brought bills banning our art forms and books, bills banning our ability to update our government documents, bills codifying a right to deadname and misgender trans kids in schools, and ultimately a bill banning the health care trans youth need to live full and joyful lives. And we’d seen the harm these bills created: multiple accounts of suicide attempts from trans teens in the state, at least one of whom attempted to take her life while watching an anti-trans hearing on her computer at home. And so, in late April, I stood on the house floor and told those who voted for these anti-trans bills that I hoped they saw the blood that was on their hands. It was not an act of hyperbolic rhetoric, but a call to account for the real harm these bills had done and would continue to do.
Reaction was swift. The speaker of the house refused to let me speak on any bill. After a public protest, Republicans voted to censure me, removing me from the house floor. That night, as we’d done throughout the legislative session, Erin and I talked about our love as well as the work ahead—Erin making sure I knew she was there to support me, and the two of us building a plan to make sure my constituents and community knew I was still fighting for them. When I began working on a bench outside the house floor, the speaker attempted to kick me out of the public seating area. And when he lost that fight, his mother showed up early the next morning to sit on the bench in order to keep me from using it. However, I walked past them without so much as a glance, setting up my workstation at the nearby snack bar, where I stood all day with an unbreakable smile. I had work to do, and what’s more, I had just received the news that the engagement ring I’d designed had arrived in the mail. There were only a few more days until the legislative session was over, until Erin and Andy arrived, and I would ask Erin to marry me.
That Friday, after the legislature had adjourned for the year, I took Erin to Missoula’s Queer Prom—a night of celebration for LGBTQ people in Montana. There, I was afforded a few minutes to give a speech in which I expressed the various loves in my heart—love of the woman I’d become, love of the community I get to be a part of, and my love of Erin and everything she means to me. Before my queer community, in the city that had cared for me throughout my transition and gave me the honor of representing them, I got down on one knee and asked Erin to marry me. She said yes, and we spent the night awash in our love for one another. Then 48 hours later, I took Erin and Andy to the airport, so Andy could get back for school on Monday. As they left the car, Erin said, “Bye, baby,” and Andy—who didn’t quite understand the difference between engaged and married—blurted out, “Goodbye, stepmom!”
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Often in my travels, I am asked a simple question: “What is queer joy?” And my answer is always the same: Joy is the things they can’t take away. Texas could target trans kids and their families, but they could not take away the love those parents had for their children. Montana’s Republicans could target trans people, but they could not stop us from loving ourselves, and they could not stop our communities from supporting us. The Republicans could even use their super-majority to remove me from the House floor. But there is no vote that could take away my willingness to fight for my community. There is no policy that could take away the love I have for Erin. And even as anti-trans animus becomes a major talking point of the Republican presidential primaries, there is nothing in this world that can take away the family that Erin, Andy, and I are becoming. This love is—as it’s always been—the easiest thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to see where our story takes us.
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