The first time that Liam passed as male, he was six years old. His best friend had moved away, so he’d taken to riding his bike alone for miles, enjoying the wind in his hair. Some kids he didn’t know were playing a game of basketball in the park. “Hey, kid,” they’d said, “we need another player. You wanna join?” Nobody in his own neighborhood asked him to play because they knew he was a girl, and everybody knows that girls are bad at basketball. He understood what had happened. “Sure,” he’d said. “What’s your name?” they’d asked. “Le-” he had begun to say automatically, but the second syllable would have destroyed the illusion and ruined everything. “…Liam,” he’d corrected himself. They’d smiled and welcomed him, and in that first game of pickup basketball, he managed five baskets and two assists. Not long after that, his mother insisted that he grow his hair out and bought him all pink clothes.

The first time that Liam passed as male after puberty, his palms sweat. The pinch and pressure of breasts bound under Ace bandages, the awkwardness of keeping the sock tucked into the correct place in his underwear— the physical discomforts faded beneath the tide of anxiety that insisted he was walking wrong, talking wrong, standing wrong, and everyone would see right through him. Instead, the other guys trying out for the bowling league called him ‘chief,’ ‘dude,’ and ‘mister,’ and it felt like coming home.

The last time anyone called him by his birth name, he was seventeen years old. In the middle of the night, his mother and father woke him up and told him to pack up and get out. “Leah, if you won’t return to the life that God meant for you, you get out and you don’t ever come back,” his mother had said through her tears. His father was more straightforward: as Liam walked out the front door for the last time, his dad said simply: “I wish you’d never been born.”

Liam hasn’t celebrated his birthday in seven years.

Instead, he’s traveled around in the beat-up old Toyota in which he’d lived for the rest of high school; gone through a few minimum-wage gigs before picking up a decent job working as an apprentice carpenter; met other queers who’ve come together to form a chosen family; lost two of them, one to an accidental overdose, one to suicide; picked up the guitar, the better to melt the hearts of the men and women who catch his attention; and continued to survive despite the black dog of depression that chases him through his dreams and spends its days nipping at his heels. When he feels engulfed, he tries to remember the new family that he needs to watch out for and the jobs that he can’t leave undone.

In Wildside, Liam has found a place where he can let down his layers of defenses and feel free for a little while. It’s something worth fighting for, and the fight can keep him distracted from the black dog that is always growling at the door.
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