I’m sitting on a crowded south side bus when I see him—he’s wearing low-slung skinny jeans that cling to a body buzzing with furtive femininity and nervous tics. His skin is a piercing, polished black. He examines his nails, smacks his glitter-glazed lips, nods his delicate head to a beat unraveling from his headphones. He looks no older than seventeen.
A man’s voice cuts through Beat Boy’s muted rhythms and the white noise of CTA conversation. “Look at that faggot! Just look at him!” I turn around. The hate-spewing volcano is a drunk man sprawling in a seat across the aisle. A jagged trail of hair creeps along his belly; drool slithers down his chin. “What kind of childhood did this kid have?” he asks no one in particular. “Bet he was raised like a girl. Bet he got fucked like a girl, too. Did somebody fuck you up that black ass, faggot?”
I can see the words slice through Beat Boy’s protective headphones—his muscles grow tense beneath tight fabric—but he doesn’t bother to hurl a glance in Spewer’s direction. Beat Boy has clearly felt the sting of these words before. I see scars in his starry eyes.
“Faggot, I’m talking to you! Do you see this kid?” Spewer searches the startlingly blank faces of his fellow travelers. No one says a word.
I can’t let this happen. I’ve been here before, caught in the shame-bearing burn of the queerphobic CTA spotlight. Watching from the edges, I feel empathy clawing up the back of my throat until I gag.
I’m about to tell Spewer to fuck off when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the bus window—short hair, bound chest. Even if he read me as a guy, I would still look precariously queer.
But I can’t watch Beat Boy suffer. As a silent symbol of solidarity, I get out of my seat and stand beside him.
“What the fuck are you doing standing next to that faggot?”
I stare out the window until we reach our stop, playing gender games in my head.
We walk along the sidewalk to the red line, leaving Spewer and his spittle behind. Beat Boy bobs along with an attention-grabbing sway of his hips, and the middle-aged men on the curb release a twisted string of catcalls. Beat Boy kisses one of his admirers on the cheek and whispers something in his ear—the man slips him a dollar. I catch a glimpse of the darker side of Beat Boy’s life.
I wander restlessly down the train platform and try to shake the tense bus ride from my thoughts. Beat Boy waits beside me, examining my clothes and my hair beneath his half-closed painted lashes. He sees the marks of CTA genderbashing written on my boibody—I am his queer brother.
When the train arrives, Beat Boy finds a seat beside me. His ears still travel through defensive rhythms that loop around his headphones; I dip into a book. We finally lock eyes for a moment, exchanging so many stories in a single glance. I desperately want to say something, to know him, but I realize that I already do. His chiseled face cracks into a grin. We sit in silence, safe and smiling. I feel like we’re holding hands.
Footnote: The pronouns and name that I used to identify my fellow adventurer in this anecdote were selected based on my “reading” of this individual. I had no verbal interaction with this person; therefore, their gender identity and pronoun preference remain unknown to me. The aim of this piece was to clearly convey this extraordinary person’s bravery and the profound effect that they had on me in a particular time and place. Thanks, Beat Boy.