It started out as just another night.
My best friend and I drove to the town next to ours to grab some Taco Bell, stopping near the lake to eat and play Pokémon Go afterward. While we sat there, two pickup trucks pulled up without their lights on and parked next to one another.
"We can leave whenever you want," my friend said.
"I'm cool with whenever," I responded.
We tried to act like we hadn't both felt the tension as the trucks pulled up. We turned around and drove past the trucks as someone shouted, "Get it!"
It was, I'm sure, a popular place for teens to get away from their parents and have sex with their girlfriends or boyfriends. That wasn't what we were doing, but that didn't seem to make a difference.
We pulled out of the area and onto the road. A few seconds later, we saw the trucks pull out behind us in the same direction. We took another turn, and the trucks followed.
At one point, they drove next to one another, covering both lanes in case we decided to turn around. After taking more turns, they continued to follow us, and at various times, they turned off their headlights behind us.
We decided trying to lose them would be best.
Why were they following us? Was it because they saw that we were two guys after they yelled, "Get it"?
We turned in and out of residential areas in hopes of losing them and made shitty jokes fueled by adrenaline and shock. We drove back home, and I knew I wasn't the only one constantly checking the mirrors for headlights.
So why am I afraid?
This isn't the first time something like this has happened to my best friend and me. On January 7, 2016, we were hiking on public property when a white pickup truck pulled up on the road above us.
I continued walking in the direction of our car, which we were already heading toward, when my friend looked back to see the man pull out a shotgun and what police determined later to be a .45 caliber pistol.
We ran through the last half mile of woods while gunshots rang out and bullets hit trees where we previously stood.
When we reported the incident, the deputy confirmed we were on public property and not in the wrong. Two days later, they changed the story and told us there was nothing they could do.
They made an announcement on the college's homepage portal, stating that “two students were taking a nature walk” and that we “observed [a man] shooting a rifle."
The announcement also stated the sheriff's office indicated the person was using his firearm on private property. The truth of the matter, however, was the man shot at us from a public road.
Later, I talked to the professors I trust the most, and they asked if my friend and I were holding hands or standing too close to one another -- anything that might have told the shooter we were queer.
I am afraid because in the small town I live in and those surrounding it, I can be shot at in the woods without reason. I have to provide video evidence that the bullet holes in a street sign weren't there before I was shot at.
After scaling a 30-foot dirt wall and waiting to hear where the shooter was before scrambling to my car, I still have to keep my eyes peeled for the white Ford F-150 that might recognize me or my friend.
After running for my life, I have to live with the reminder that the man who tried to shoot me still lives in the town of 9,000 where I go to school.
After all my friend and I went through, the town changed the story and did nothing about it.
I am afraid because a simple hike in the woods in the middle of the afternoon could end my life. I am afraid because a midnight drive to Taco Bell and parking at a public lake can result in being chased down by two pickup trucks because of a misperception.
I am afraid because, as two cis-passing trans men who have never dated each other, we have been the victims of hate crimes just by existing near one another. I am afraid because I do not have to hold anyone's hand or show anyone affection to be outed as queer and seen as disgusting, wrong, sinful, sick or broken.
I am not afraid of the people who want to have a conversation, and I am not afraid of the people who do not agree with who I am, but remain peaceful with their opinions.
I am afraid of the unnecessary violence that being perceived as queer evokes in small-town America. Even in small towns in Illinois, 30 minutes away from Iowa, one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly states, I still run for my life because of the violent acts of one person filled with unwarranted rage.
My college does not stick up for me in the way I need it. The announcement of my near-death experience was not talked about on campus. There were no news reports. There was no thorough investigation.
As a result, the message in small-town America is that unnecessary hatred is OK. It is suddenly OK to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community or to endanger the life of an innocent person who you think is gay.
I am afraid of small-town America and its wish to bury me silently under its hatred toward my community, and I am afraid of my college that did not stick up for me then and will not stick up for me now.