By Bret Anne Serbin

Montana is a private state. Here we value our autonomy, cherish our right to live undisturbed, and spurn attempts to reign us in. I fit in because I’m a private person. 

I never coddled up to the crush of people sharing the sidewalk when I lived back east, or the ever-present pressure to tell my digital followers about my preferences. I still cringe when I remember how my dad found my journal in elementary school, baring my tightest-held secrets to an unwanted audience. 

It’s an uncomfortable feeling that has begun to feel more familiar lately. 

I thought I was safe out west, thousands of miles from people who used to know me. I foolishly believed I could be myself in the land where cowboys and ranch hands still peddle their traditional trades. 

I didn’t think I needed to explain my sexuality to the flannel-clad blonde who casually draped a hand over my thigh. She cooked me dinners, complimented my outfits, and coyly told me how she wanted to kiss me. I was smitten with her gentlemanly manner and eager to earn her affections. 

But it all came to a halt when she zeroed in on a minute detail in one of my photos and pointed suspiciously to a man’s wallet. I double-tapped the screen to bring the little brown blob into relief. Sure enough, there was a leather wallet. Mine. 

I didn’t bother explaining this to her. I knew I wouldn’t win her trust. 

Later, when I finally dipped my toe back into the dating pool, I found I couldn’t articulate my excuses to my new partner as we sat isolated, high above the trees in a fire tower lookout in western Idaho.

The excuses came surging out after a long, idyllic weekend with a woman whose wildflower tattoos matched my own. I had felt deliriously connected to her as she sang my favorite ’60s songs and produced cans of my preferred local beer from her cooler. But the connection shriveled when she insisted on writing about our intimate exploits in the log book at the fire tower, and I balked. 

I told her I didn’t want random strangers to know about our most vulnerable moments, but she insisted I was simply embarrassed. Days later, she called me and said, “This can’t continue.” 

Months passed before I returned to her street and parked my car down the block from her house. When I returned to the car, I at first thought the yellow streaks decorating my vehicle were some sort of celebration. But as I got closer, I saw an aggression in the haphazard lines covering my roof and doors. 

The acrid smell dispelled my confusion. Mustard. It was strewn in nearly impossible-to-remove dollops all across my car and topped off with a small note tucked into the windshield. 

“Go home,” it instructed me, with a homophobic slur thrown in for emphasis. 

I shook with the ripped-up paper in my hand, standing alone in the street next to my defiled vehicle. I looked around the empty road, trying to gather some idea of who might have seen me and my former girlfriend. 

In the end, I never found the culprit, but I found that it didn’t matter. I learned I had been too naïve to imagine my femininity or my sexuality could ever be just my own.  

Bret is a journalist in Montana, USA.

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