If you were to tell me fifteen years ago where I would be now—where we would all be now—I wouldn’t have believed you. I had hope back then that, despite everything going on in the world, it would somehow all be okay in the end. That maybe I wouldn’t be able to get the best paying job but something that paid the rent would suffice. And I certainly didn’t think I would be living under a bridge in Minneapolis.
I used to be very intelligent, people said, but my shyness prevented me from progressing emotionally beyond childhood. I made some strides in my confidence in my early 20’s and life seemed like it was looking up. Sometimes my friends would tease me, say that I had it all: an apartment, a job with health insurance, a wife who really loved me. She made dealing with all this shit so much easier.
Things didn’t get worse all at once; it was gradual, as if poison slowly leaked into people’s hearts one by one. As if everybody had lost the qualities that made them human. I lived through this time in blissful ignorance. As long as I kept away from reading the news, that is. I had the privilege of passing and most people I met never even suspected I might be transgender. As long as I wore something feminine enough in public, kept my hair long, and my voice high, no one had reason to harass me.
My wife had a harder time passing than I did. Marlene was tall, which was often a dead giveaway to those out in the street. Sometimes Marlene would come home from work with a tear in her skirt and a fist-full of bloody Kleenex. “I tripped down the stairs. Don’t worry about me, Jordan,” she would claim, and before I could ask any more questions, she would rush to the bathroom to clean herself up. I knew the truth, though. Going out in public, we would get sneers, scattered laughter, sometimes the yelling of the T-slur. She would wince every time she heard the foul word escape from someone’s mouth. All I could do was hold her hand tighter and keep on walking.
Things got worse from there. There were hundreds of anti-transgender media campaigns to convince America of our deviance. Shortly after that came Federal Laws that excluded us from housing and employment. I thought I would be able to dodge it; after all, I looked “normal” and had not disclosed my gender to any of my coworkers. My neighbors informed the company and both Marlene and I were out of work within a week.
Once we lost the apartment, we floated around the Twin Cities, crashing at friends’ houses, but none could really house two unemployed transgender people and a dog for an extended amount of time. Shelters were either full or wouldn’t accept us.
We ended up under a bridge at Hiawatha, and surprisingly found community and acceptance. There were about eight of us in total; most of us transgender and traumatized. Quickly, we found solace in each other. During the day, half of us went out to find food, scavenging behind Whole Foods and other uppity grocery stores.
During the night, we would gather around a lantern and tell stories, mostly. Some of us had really fucked-up pasts-- like our friend Jaenelle. She’s not even trans, just a stone butch with a heart of gold, but she gets harassed and assaulted regardless. Jaenelle was living on the streets for over two years, ever since her mother kicked her out. So many of us still face this reality.
Marlene and I rarely shared our stories. I didn’t feel like my story was important enough to tell. Even in my oppression, I had privilege in the space. I was white, and could “pass” as cisgender. Who was I to act like my experience was worse? I wasn’t getting beaten up by the cops and heckled on the street. In comparison, I had it easy. I remember the night Marlene did share, though. We had finished our meal and gathered around the flickering of the lantern.
“I was an artist.” She paused. “A painter, actually. I don’t think I was half-bad.”
“Are you kidding?” I retorted, “Babe, you were amazing! You even had stuff in the museum, for Christ’s sake!” Marlene was far too humble for her own good.
“You mean like the museum over there?” asked Ben, the youngest of the group, a transgender boy of merely fifteen.
“Yes, the big one,” Marlene said sheepishly. “Jordan and I used to go all the time when we lived in the neighborhood. They exhibited my work a few times but I haven’t been back in years.”
“Not that we could afford to go, anyway.It’s thirty dollars just to get in now.” I scoffed
Marlene lit a cigarette. “Yeah. I miss art, but I haven’t created anything in years.”
“Oppression kills the desire to create,” Jaenelle remarked. “All we do is focus on survival and it kills our creativity.” We all murmured in agreement.
That was the last day I saw Jaenelle, Ben, and the others. Police came in during the night and arrested anyone they could get their hands on. I don’t think I had ever run so fast. I don’t know how I even made it. All I know is that when I ran as far as I could and when I looked back, Marlene wasn’t behind me.
I felt a lot of rage at this period of my life. Towards the cops, towards the government, towards all the rich cisgender people who could continue living-- existing-- without being in constant fear for their safety. Why would parents hate their transgender child so much that they would disown them.
After the encounter with the cops, I wandered on my own. Sometimes I wondered if my old friends or Marlene were still out there, looking for me. Maybe they had escaped the cops somehow…and she could to contact each other. While I drifted from place to place for a few months, sometimes even in shelters because of my passing as female, I could not stop thinking about Marlene, about how people like us were being treated now. And how everyone saw it happening gradually in front of their eyes but nobody did anything. Society could have intervened, protested the amount of trans murders going on. But since we were the only one to speak up about our oppression, our cries were drowned out in a sea of propaganda against us. I became infatuated with the idea of vengeance; to get back at the people who had done this to us, to Marlene.
On a late February afternoon, I headed towards the city’s art museum. For the past few months, I had saved enough money for a museum ticket and a new pair of clothes. I hadn’t changed outfits for at least a month, but I knew I needed new clothes to pull this off. The only people who even visited museums now were the wealthy and I would look out of place in stained jeans and tattered shoes.
The woman at the counter could tell something was off about me. Maybe she had smelled my breath, and could tell that I had not brushed my teeth in a while. Maybe she had never been denied of certain comforts.
“Is this your first visit to the museum?” she asked me with a performative smile.
I did not falter. “No, just my first time in years. I’ve heard it has changed quite a bit.” I handed her the cash with my palm turned up so she would not see the dirt under my fingernails.
“It has indeed. We have had a drastic drop in the amount of people visiting the museum, so we had to close off a few of our gallery spaces.” She handed me a ticket and a map of the museum. “The Modern and Contemporary wings have been closed off but if you go up the stairs, you’ll be able to find a good amount of our Classical art still on view.”
“Thank you,” I returned her fake smile and bid her a good day.
As I passed through the door, the security guard checked my ticket and my bag. He was one of the two security officers in the museum, the other one in a control room in the basement. It became too expensive to have guards patrolling the galleries, so most museums operated that way. Walking through the museum halls, I felt a sense of loneliness. It almost depressed me that no one visited this museum that was once full of life and culture, but at the same time, I felt like the art world deserved it. They did this to themselves.
I was shocked at how much the museum changed in terms of content. It used to be a place where people of all walks of life could come to learn about art from all cultures and time periods. Now, the museum tried to cater to the small demographic that still went to the museum by only displaying ‘high art.’ The rooms that were still open displayed what Marlene used to call “generic art.” In other words, art that is meant for aesthetic and has no cultural or political significance behind it. For the privileged, art that dealt with the political made them far too uncomfortable. They didn’t want to think when they look at art; they wanted to look at things that were beautiful, that inspired beauty. But, of course, a little voyeuristic gazing was never off the menu.
I only saw two other visitors that day. A young couple, both white, making their way through the galleries, commenting on each piece. They were so engrossed in the art-- they wouldn't be a problem.
Marlene’s paintings were in the museum’s storage but I didn’t know where, exactly. I started in the room where her one of her pieces once was, in the Contemporary Wing. The room itself felt shameful; I had never seen an art museum without any art in it. Without all the artwork, the room felt naked. There were a couple textile sculptures lying around the space that caught my eye. They had been part of a woman’s textile art exhibition ages ago and had been left abandoned. I quickly examined one: due to its softness and length, I decided to take it with me-- not like they were to care, anyway. It would be of use to me instead of lying on the floor. I took the woven blanket in one hand, and another textile piece in the other; a fuzzy yarn ball the size of a basketball.
I located Marlene’s piece shortly after. It was lying against a wall in a fortunately unlocked storage room. I hadn’t seen the piece in years. It was definitely one of Marlene’s best works.
As I walked to the bathroom, I inconspicuously dropped the blanket by an emergency exit door. I chose to use the family restroom so no one would interrupt the plan. Once I locked the door, I grabbed paper towels, and threw them into the trashcan along with the ball of yarn. I lit a paper towel with my lighter, then placed it inside the trash. Sure enough, the can went up in flames and I scurried out of the restroom and back to the storage room. It took a couple minutes before the fire alarm went off. I waited until I heard the guards run up the staircase to tend to the fire. I picked up Marlene’s piece, opened the door, and ran out as fast as I could.
Running to the emergency exit door, I grabbed the woven blanket and ran down the narrow flight of stairs as fast as I could. Between the clanking of the metal steps and the thudding of Marlene’s painting against it, I couldn’t tell whether or not someone was behind me. I couldn’t look back, lest there was someone there but the fear of not knowing was terrifying.
I reached the end of the steps, which led to a door which led me to the outdoors. I didn’t stop to look. When I paused to catch my breath, I saw a tower of smoke trailing up from the building. I smiled, then kept on running.
Two days later, I read in the newspaper that some of the paintings were damaged in the fire. A portion of the classical pieces had been burnt. The museum, unable to afford repairs, had to throw them out. Any information about the arsonist was encouraged to be reported to the cops.
I wrapped myself in my new blanket, immersed in its warmth. It was cold outside but my new location wasn’t so bad. At least I had things that reminded me of her. It didn’t have use in the museum, even when it was on exhibit, but in the right context, it became an item that helped someone live. Marlene used to tell me that there’s a right context for everyone and just because we had no “use” to society, that did not define our value. It becomes our silver lining.
As I began to cry, I took another look at Marlene’s painting and turned it to its back.
The label read: “My partner, Jordan.”
If only the rich could look at art,
I sure as hell would give them something to look at.
Frencia Stephenson (they/them) is a visual artist and writer from Saint Paul, Minnesota. They wrote “Silver Lining” as a short story originally, but while writing it, realized it was part of a much larger story. “Silver Lining” follows Jordan, a transgender artist living in a dystopian future, and how they take revenge on systems and institutions that oppress them. Frencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.