Samantha Allen- Real Queer America
Ya’ll, let’s talk about Samantha, an all around inspirational babe, a GLAAD award-winning journalist, and the author of our team’s new favorite read, Real Queer America. Since I discovered Samantha, I’ve been mildly obsessed with her. She’s a brilliant storyteller, an incredibly open person, a political powerhouse, and all in all a lovely human. Samantha, thank you for reminding us about the good and beautiful aspects of life in the South.
Name: Samantha Allen
Hometown: Long Beach, California
How do you identify? Queer transgender woman
Out of all the crayon colors, which one would you be? The best crayon color: magenta
What do you do? I’m an author and journalist
Outside of your family, who was the first person to inspire you? Molly, my 2nd grade crush, inspired me to master my multiplication tables
What are you reading these days? The Soul of an Octopus and House of Leaves
What are your favorite queer resources? For nerdy queer data needs: Movement Advancement Project
Describe yourself in 3 words. Aspiring alpaca owner
The heart of it:
Tell me about your coming out experience and transition. In your book, it seems like you slowly came out to yourself first as you became surer of who you were.
Growing up in a Mormon household in the nineties, I had no idea what it meant to be transgender. With no language to describe how I felt, I instead internalized a pretty poisonous dose of self-hate. I thought I was a pervert, a freak, a sinner. At some point in my teenage years, I discovered the term “cross-dresser” and tried that on for size but that still didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t just want to dress up as a woman, I wanted people to see me as the woman I didn’t yet know I was.
From about age 17 to 20, I tried to suppress my identity and be the very model of a Mormon young man—but I couldn’t keep up the ruse for very long. (Picturing myself now as a suit-and-tie-wearing Mormon missionary makes me laugh and squirm in equal parts.) I knew, though I could not yet express the idea, that I was not a man—that that word didn’t match up with my experience of the world.
For a while, I was certain that I was going to hell because I just couldn’t shake these feelings no matter how hard I prayed to God for help. Finally, though, I left Mormonism in 2008 and learned more about what it meant to be transgender in college and graduate school. In 2012, I faced the facts that seem so obvious today: I’m transgender—and that’s OK. That’s great, even! It took me a long time to get to self-acceptance but I’m glad I made it.
I’ve had readers write in asking about changing their gender markers. What did that process looked like for you?
I always joke that half of a gender transition is doing paperwork. (Of course, stuff like hormone therapy and surgeries and social transition are more important, but wow, do bureaucracies keep you busy!) You don’t realize how many places your gender is listed until you have to correct all of them.
If I recall correctly, I submitted proof of sex reassignment surgery to get my birth certificate changed, but I believe transgender people born in California can now do it with a simple doctor’s note.
One of the things I love about your story is that your wife was right there with you along that journey. What was that like?
My wife Corey is an incredible woman. We met in the elevator of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, where we were both doing summer research. She captivated me from day one: Corey can be goofy one moment, and then deliver an incisive intellectual breakdown of an issue the next. On top of that, she’s more beautiful than she has any right to be. Like, it’s dangerous to look at her.
I wasn’t far along in my gender transition when we met, so I felt pretty awkward about how I looked. I was still wearing a wig, for example, while I waited for my own hair to grow out. Hormones had just barely started to kick in. I wasn’t expecting this woman who was attracted to other women to be attracted to me—I think in part because I didn’t feel like I could call myself a woman yet. So I found it tremendously moving that Corey didn’t see me any differently because I was transgender.
Six years later, we’re married and still just as in love as we were in Bloomington. Corey and I love to cuddle at home and travel all over. We dream about buying a pick-up truck and an Airstream and just roaming the American South, chasing the sunshine. Corey is always pushing me to try new things, go new places, and take more risks. I would be dreadfully boring if she weren’t around.
(Oh, and P.S: I wrote a short memoir about our little real-life queer summer rom-com called Love & Estrogen for anyone who wants to read a heartwarming transgender love story.)
I’m interested as to when you took an interest in politics. Naturally, just by being yourself politics is personal, but beyond that when did your interest really take root?
I started taking Women’s Studies classes as an undergraduate at Rutgers University in 2008–four years before I came out as transgender—and that opened my eyes not just to the way women are treated but also to the ways in which systems of power work together to keep all marginalized groups in check. Coming out as LGBT myself only accelerated that understanding, adding experiential knowledge to what had been an intellectual understanding. These days, I mostly express my politics in writing, where I try to showcase an understanding of the systemic operations of power and, I hope, empathy for the other.
You’re a wonderful writer. How did your journalism career begin and what inspired you to write a book?
Thank you! I started freelance writing while I was in graduate school as a way to earn extra cash, mostly writing about women’s and LGBT issues. Faced with a choice between chasing humanities postdocs wherever they opened up and trying my hand at journalism, I chose the latter after I graduated with my PhD. But I have always dreamed about writing a book. Both academic and short-form journalistic writing are constraining in their own ways: One requires you to communicate in arcane prose to a select group of equally-privileged peers, the other often requires you to sacrifice beauty for brevity. Books really give you the opportunity to let paragraphs breathe and to let ideas unfold as they may.
Now, tell me everything about Real Queer America!
Real Queer America is a reported travel memoir that takes you on a two-month-long road trip through LGBT communities in red states, covering Utah, Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. I tell a lot of my own story along the way, while showcasing the incredible strength of LGBT folks living in places that are traditionally perceived as being hostile to their existence. I tried to make the book both fun and informative. I wanted it to be the sort of book you can read on a beach or an airplane, but that has a splash of queer theory in it, too.
I wrote the book to mark the simple fact that LGBT Americans live all over the country. Even today, I encounter folks who assumed that all the LGBT people got out of Middle America and went to coastal safe havens like New York and San Francisco, and that’s just not true. LGBT people have been staying in—and even moving to—regions like the Southeast, the Rocky Mountain West, and the Midwest for years, opening amazing bars and youth centers, battling anti-LGBT bills, and transforming churches.
Real Queer America is a window into that life for anyone unfamiliar with it, and a testament to LGBT red-state resilience for those who are living it.
Above all, it’s a road-trip book. Friends have described the experience of reading it as being like sitting in the passenger seat of my car, and I hope that’s a compliment!
As someone who has also lived in the South, I’m really excited about your book. Our team really believes that stories change lives. Were there any stories that particularly stood out to you?
I’m so glad you’ve lived so much of you LGBT life in the South because you’re part of the change I was trying to capture in Real Queer America.
A favorite story from the South? I really cherished the experience of visiting Wonderlust, the LGBT nightclub in Jackson, Mississippi and interviewing the woman behind it, Jesse Pandolfo. She’s an amazing lesbian business owner who struggled to keep the bar afloat in her first year—but even then, insisted that the club be 18-and-over so that struggling LGBT teenagers in Jackson had a place to socialize. She told me that she was paying for groceries with quarters for a long time, but still decided to allow these non-paying younger customers to come to Wonderlust. (Jesse is amazing, by the way. She will literally go wipe down toilet seats in the ladies’ room even though she owns the place.)
I think we’re long overdue for a collective cultural realization that this whole country is queer. People like Jesse are not outliers: there are LGBT heroes all over the South by function of the fact that so many LGBT people call the South home. It’s been fun to watch the book be a wake-up call for people who didn’t realize that yet—and to watch it be part of some long overdue and well-deserved recognition for the LGBT Southerners who have known that all along.
One of my favorite lines from Real Queer America reads, “That's why I feel lucky to have lived all my queer adult life up to now in red states: we dream big and we don’t take progress for granted.” I would love to hear what advice you would offer LBGTQ people living in the South.
My advice would be that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. I have lived all over the country—in California, Utah, Montana (very briefly), Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington State. The South was the place that lacked the most LGBT protections on paper, but it also had the most active and engaged LGBT community out of any I’ve been a part of. Everyone has to build a life that’s best for them; some folks just don’t feel comfortable or safe staying in the South, and I totally respect that. For LGBT folks who do stay in the South, keep showing the rest of the country how it’s done. For LGBT folks who leave the South, just take the South with you. I lived in Georgia and Florida for a combined eight years, and I’ve tried to carry that hospitality and that fierceness with me since.
Finally, we love to end interviews with coming out advice. What advice would you offer trans readers who are still figuring things out?
The most life-changing advice I received while I was figuring out my own identity was this: You don’t have to be sure of everything. Coming out can be scary. So many obviously transgender people doubt whether or not we are really transgender, in large part because our lives would be easier if we weren’t.
Early on, I thought that I had to commit to everything in advance—hormones, surgeries, gender marker changes—and that if I wasn’t ready for all of that, I should do none of it. But still, it was obvious I had really terrible gender dysphoria and needed to do something about it. Then my therapist said something that just totally blew my mind: “If you don’t like what hormones do, just stop taking them.” Duh!
Of course, as soon as I started taking hormones it was completely obvious to me that estrogen was the missing piece in a life that hadn’t made sense until then—but if I had decided I didn’t like it, I could have stopped, no big deal. I had been freaking out for no reason. So take things one step at a time. You’ll get there—but more importantly, you’ll figure out where “there” is.