cw: sexual violence, transphobia, CSA
I mean, he’s a professional at fooling people! The defense bellowed to the jury. Not allowed to speak out of turn, I sat on the stand and felt my face get hot. He was referencing the fact that I am trans, to convince them that I am a liar so they would not believe my testimony that his client, an acting coach from my adolescence, had committed a crime. There were a number of us who gave testimony, but as the only one with any other “evidence” of our claims, they really needed to ruin me. The defense attorney, a partner at his own practice, decorated with awards for his commitment to social justice, chose to bet simply on transphobia to do the job.
The idea that trans people are really just liars playing pretend, not to be trusted, must have literally been unobjectionable because…nobody objected to it, and we were in court.
The idea that trans people are really just liars playing pretend, not to be trusted, must have literally been unobjectionable because…nobody objected to it, and we were in court. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised – I grew up surrounded by this narrative. Real-life horrors like Brandon Teena and Rita Hester. Cruel and beloved media like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover, The Silence of the Lambs, Ted 2, all of those Family Guy episodes, like the one with the vomit… these are just examples I have seen, but there are so, so many more. At best, we’re punchlines, and at worst, we’re deceptive criminals. You may think these “jokes” are absurd, or harmless, or that people know better, but these ideas are exactly the ones that a real-life lawyer brought into a real-life courtroom to defend a real-life child molester against the kids he had harmed – and in popular opinion, it worked. Our local papers had a field day that ran the duration of the trial, identifying and outing me, recapping gruesome details, and sensationalizing years of pain. The comments were hideous, and for a time I thought I could never go back home, seeing our small town seemingly siding with a man who had committed heinous crimes while calling me crazy.
During pre-trial hearings, they solidified this strategy – painting my teenage self as a manipulative, sex-crazed trickster who sought to seduce older men, “a little actress,” like… something out of a movie. For nearly two years before we actually went to trial, I returned to court repeatedly for pre-trial conferences where painful details from my past were used to drag and blame me. In front of God and my own face, they angled that going to therapy, a requirement of the Standards of Care that was widely followed at the time for trans people interested in any kind of gender-affirming healthcare meant I was unstable. I had depression, I had engaged in self-harm. I had shown interest in BDSM. These things had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that my acting coach was making up methods to justify touching me and my friends, but that didn’t matter to the premier defense attorney of my home state. To seal the deal, they reminded me (and eventually, the jury, because this “evidence” was allowed) that I had in fact had an encounter with a teacher from my high school while I was a student– a crime for which he could have been convicted but I apparently carried the guilt.
Now, the truth of the matter is, it was his client who was totally fucking guilty. I know this, because while he was grooming me, he confessed it to me in graphic detail over AOL Instant Messenger in the wee hours of the night, and against his advice, I had saved the conversations. And after confessing to me what he had done to a beloved friend, whom he had relentlessly encouraged me to pursue (his fantasy) despite the fact that doing so would certainly ruin our friendship, he went ahead and did the same to me. Talk about manipulative.
I pursued the transition this man, and that teacher had selfishly tried to convince me to abandon because they both liked me better as a little girl.
I was one of those out, trans, high school students whose rights, dignity, and lives are routinely used as kindling for far-right fire and fury. I had come out midway through my freshman year, asking my administration to support the use of my correct name and pronouns in school. They didn’t know what to do with me. Some teachers were supportive, others stopped speaking to me, or worse, made a point to use my birth name and feign ignorance or openly argue with friends who had my back. I wasn’t allowed in the bathrooms or locker rooms and was told to go to the nurse’s office if I had to pee, but I went to school with students who had colostomy bags and serious medical needs – which sometimes meant being locked out of there for hours. When it came time to make my second-semester schedule, my guidance counselor said to me, and I quote, “putting you in a class with him would be like putting a gun to your head,” in reference to our school’s gym teacher. I was assigned an independent study instead, but missing four years of gym also meant that I never got a single day of health or sex education in high school. No one followed up on the independent study either; I was largely on my own. When I turned 18, I moved away. I left theater behind and never went back. I pursued the transition this man, and that teacher had selfishly tried to convince me to abandon because they both liked me better as a little girl.
I was only 19 when I started making the trips back to the hometown I’d let this man drive me out of, to participate in those pre-trial conferences and debate the prejudicial weight of my high school habits. My therapy, depression, self-harm, other assaults, and even the normal, budding sexuality I had with people my own age, were all used against me, yet no one questioned how this man came to know such intimate details about my young life. I was 21 by the time I actually took the stand. I missed school, started having panic attacks, and developed relentless insomnia. I couldn’t eat, or take the train, or look in a mirror. The process of testifying, being cross-examined, and gaslit, and scrutinized, was retraumatizing. No charges were ever filed for the things that happened to me (detectives felt my situation was too “complicated” to be viable) – my testimony was used to bolster the case of my friend – and while I’m not a chaser for carceral “solutions,” the process left me extremely exposed. My identity was not protected. People from my past let me know that they knew it was me they were reading about as trauma porn in our local paper. The public weighed in. I struggled to cope.
When all was said and done, he served five years and landed softly back in my hometown. I miss it there and wish it was a place I could consider returning to settle down in, but the thought of bumping into him in our singular grocery store, or passing him in a crosswalk on one of the three main roads, won’t let me relax. It’s like a grey cloud is looming overhead, crackling with little zaps of the past, and threatening to leap from above to below at any moment. I don’t visit much, but I often wonder: how the fuck was this allowed to happen?
Always the monster and never the victim, gender variance as a social transgression becomes both invitation and excuse for violence.
It’s an obvious insult to any notion of justice that a hack without a hint of a clue about what it means to be trans is allowed to invoke such pathology of transness in order to blame a young person for their own abuse by an adult. Always the monster and never the victim, gender variance as a social transgression becomes both invitation and excuse for violence. The perceived deviancy of my gender and sexuality meant that I couldn’t have been a victim of abuse and that I couldn’t be trusted. But we all know that court isn’t really about getting justice for violence, anyway. DAs build narratives, based on a select assortment of details, which they’re tasked with selling to the jury to produce results that validate the authority of the state, but that’s another conversation.
The cultural process, though, that generates the argument that a trans kid seduced an adult with their otherness (a ridiculous claim to make about any kid, because it’s the responsibility of adults not to fuck with kids and teens, duh), begins with the marking of certain genders and sexualities as “other” in lots of more everyday ways and places, like schools and sports and media and policy. Cutting young people off from needed resources is perhaps the most effective way to make them vulnerable to exploitation, because young people, like all people, will seek out ways to get their needs met. My own story is only one example, an experience cushioned significantly by my whiteness, of how directly exclusion and violence are connected.
Years before Mister Redacted Redacted, Esquire was allowed to argue in a court of law that my gender identity meant I was unstable, I was just a young teen trying to grow up. I had never set out to seduce his client, and I never enjoyed the activities that man manifested with me. He had seen that I was in many ways excluded, and vulnerable, and in that, he saw an opportunity. I didn’t have safety and support in school, so he took advantage, luring me in with the promise of acceptance, initially pretending to be unbothered, understanding even, of the struggle I was having with my changing body and lack of access to affirming healthcare as a minor. He quickly turned those struggles into reasons I should listen to and learn from him, and without any other guidance, he took the chance to “teach me” exactly what he wanted me to think about sex. Years and years of therapy later, I’m a whole adult still struggling to untangle the impact of that mal-intended influence.
We have to know what it looks like for queer young people to thrive so we can make space to nurture it, and we have to reject the argument that they’re asking for violence by being who they are.
Kids and teens deserve to feel safe and included at school. To be able to protect them, we have to see them fully – we cannot turn a blind eye, do the bare minimum, or send them away. We have to know that kids and teens are going to express themselves differently, and we have to be prepared to engage with them in more than one way. We have to know what it looks like for queer young people to thrive so we can make space to nurture it, and we have to reject the argument that they’re asking for violence by being who they are. When we say trans kids can’t use the bathroom, trans kids can’t be on the team, trans kids can’t choose their clothes, trans kids can’t have access to medication that would improve their relationships to their bodies, trans kids can’t receive an education that reflects their experiences, well… we don’t set them up to thrive at all, and we leave them extremely vulnerable to the kinds of exploitation I experienced, and worse. It is perhaps the most bitter irony of the claim that excluding trans people works in defense of cis people, that this exclusion places us directly in harm’s way.
Keeping me out of sex ed (and the locker room, and sports, and humiliating me in class, and barring me from medication that I needed) was supposed to be for everyone’s benefit, but it meant I missed out on education and community that I desperately needed, and it opened the door for an adult man with his own agenda to teach me exactly what he wanted me to know and believe. Now – do I have a heap of faith that the sex education program in my school included the kind of consent and relationship education that would’ve enlightened me to my own abuse or prevented it? Probably not, especially given the asshat who was in charge of it. But had there been a program like that in place, that I was actually allowed to attend, had there been an adult who had a full spectrum understanding of sexuality and a rational enough grasp on what kind of behavior is and isn’t problematic, whose job it was to watch me and teach me something on a consistent basis? Well, maybe someone at least would have noticed.
I’m nearly 30 now, and I’ve put in the work to heal, but what wounds me all over again is watching youth today – 15 years later – face the same circumstances that I did. Legislation like what we are seeing now in Arkansas, and have seen in North Carolina, South Carolina, Idaho, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Utah, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and many others, is not at all the campaign for fairness and protection it claims to be, ever. These gestures are political posturing – attempts to make a strong “moral” stand to rally a base and generate campaign dollars with complete disregard for the actual studied impacts of these stances on human lives. Trans people deserve better.