Content disclaimer: This is about transphobic violence
This story takes place in St. Louis several years ago. This story takes place in a sequence of lightning moments clouded by confusion and disbelief. This story dissipated into a protective mist inside a barrier in my heart immediately after it transpired. This story takes place every day of my life. This is a story i relive, one that’s been inscribed on my body and on my life. This story takes place in tears, in pain, but also in renewal and redefinition; it takes place in the space between confusion and clarity. This is a story i’ve told a thousand times and i’m sure i’ll tell it again.
i wanted to die that weekend. i tried to die that weekend. Piss drunk with a belly full of tequila and sleeping under a waterfall. Dragged to safety by a friend. Dragged back into the dangerous world i was daring to escape. A glorious, epic escape, that i thought far superior to the death i’d seen flash before my eyes the day before. i’d escaped death and my immediate response was one of self-destruction.
A group of friends, activists i did a lot of work with, were taking a vacation together in the Ozarks. We needed to decompress and to bond over something besides banner-painting and polemics. We needed to get out of Chicago. Several folks had left a day or two earlier than the group i was in. We’d stayed behind to wait for one of us to finish her work week.
We drove down late at night, constellations flicking between bits of clouds. We smiled and laughed and told stories. We listened to a Moldy Peaches album on repeat until we were sick with happiness. i saw a sign pointing toward Cahokia.
“Hey y’all,” i mused, “would you be interested in stopping there and waiting for sunrise at the mounds?”
Nothing seemed like a better way to begin our adventure. So we pulled off the highway. We stopped to pick up some booze at a gas station. One of my friends was wearing a kefiyah, which lead to us befriending the Palestinian clerk. He was here working to send money back home, and was smitten by the idea that these four random travelers were in solidarity.
After chatting for a while we left to search for a cheap hotel to spend the night in. We ended up at this dingy place that had thick glass walls between the lobby and service desk. We paid by the hour, it was that kind of place. We went into our room and were shocked to see a black light; i was more sheltered then than now.
As we carried our jugs of alcohol inside the hotel phone began to ring. Everyone jumped. i answered. The person on the other end told me that i couldn’t bring three women into the room with me. Apparently that was against policy. We got our money back and left.
We had nowhere else to go, but were too drunk to continue on to Arkansas. Besides, we wanted to see the sun rise at Cahokia. Being a group of activists, we weren’t easily deterred from our goals. We went back to the gas station and asked the clerk if we could hang out there. He was delighted and said yes.
By this point it was maybe 130 in the morning. As we chatted further, a large man in a flannel shirt came in. His eyes were glassy from years of alcohol abuse. His body hulked forward toward the counter and he looked me up and down, befuddled at my presentation. The combination of a pink shock of hair and nail polish on my body clearly did not sit right with him.
He growled from his belly. His eyes met mine as he said “We like steers here, not queers.” I couldn’t help but laugh my ass off at his implication that bestiality was more socially acceptable in this locale than queerness. i didn’t recognize how terrifying the moment was at first. i didn’t link this moment to the violence i’d experienced in high school. i didn’t link it to all the people who’d thrown things at me from cars. i didn’t link it to a system of oppression and ignorance.
A few hours later i was outside alone smoking a cigarette. i smiled brightly and felt refreshed in the cold air. i wasn’t on alert. i hadn’t learned to do that yet. A big truck rumbled into the station. There were two men inside. One was sleeping; the other was the same man who’d mocked me an hour earlier.
The car stopped and the door flew open. The tendons in his arms bulged through his shirt in fury. He barreled around the front of the truck, his eyes always on mine. His expression was one of death. My death. Time slowed to a near halt. Each second dragged out into eons.
i stood, unable to respond. My only thought was that this man was going to murder me because i was queer. i distinctly remember thinking that i’d be like Matt Shepard—at that point i didn’t have stories of other gender non-conforming or trans* folk dying to think of. i thought about how odd it was that this man decided, probably after several more drinks that he needed to return to the gas station with the purpose of murdering me. i thought about how much he must have brooded over that time. i wondered what his sleeping friend had said and if he’d waited for him to fall asleep.
i stood. i brought my cigarette to my lips for the last time. Breathing deeply i readied myself. i’d like to say that my non-response was one of resistance but that would be a lie. It was a lack of capacity to respond, a lack of knowing how to respond. Even if i wanted to defend myself i couldn’t have, he was enormous and determined.
His arms began to lift, tree trunks ready to descend on me. i couldn’t perceive what happened next because i was too struck, too much waiting to die. These moments came to me slowly over the next few minutes, drifting into my memory without fully integrating into my reality. i was still waiting to die.
The clerk had come out and fought this man back into his truck. He’d screamed and yelled. He refused to let this man hurt me, perhaps out of pure goodness and perhaps out of the solidarity we’d built earlier. He told the man to drive away or he would call the police.
The clerk came up to me and told me that the man had wanted to kill me because i was gay. Then he said, “You’re not even gay, are you?”
My teeth chattered. My soul gasped. i didn’t know how to answer that question. i wasn’t gay. But i was queer. That man wanted to kill me because i didn’t conform to his idea of what a body assigned male at birth should look like. That man wanted to take me off the earth because i was queer.
i said “No.” i lied to him. i didn’t want him to realize that he’d saved me under false pretenses and face more violence. i denied my truth to the person who saved me and immediately began to weep. i’d done violence to myself and the world by my silence.
i lay down in the back seat of the car and cried desperately for what felt like hours. My friends had come out and sat with me. They kept asking what had happened, but i couldn’t find any words. i just wept.
Eventually i told them a version of this story that started with the phrase “i lied.” i’m still not sure whether or not they fully understood what happened. Fuck, i’m not fully sure i understood what happened.
i slept. i woke up convulsing in the back seat, my head on my friend’s lap. i was still crying, as if seamlessly throughout my slumber. Everything felt grey. Everything was covered in a mist. Nothing felt real. Nothing felt real for a long time after. We made it to Cahokia and saw the sun rise. It was the most beautiful sunrise of my life, if only because it almost didn’t happen. But i wasn’t in my body and didn’t really get to see it.
We went to the Ozarks later that day and met the rest of our group. i don’t remember a lot of trip. i was so actively blocking out pain and experience that i wasn’t engaged in the moment. i know what happened, i have memories that i can see through thick glass, but i wasn’t present for them. i put up a front and pretended to be my normal happy self. My self-destructiveness wasn’t really noticed by my friends because i was already in a fairly destructive place after an incident of partner rape.
i drank too much tequila and tried to sleep under a waterfall. Only retrospectively do i recognize this as self-destruction. A friend pulled me out so that i could breathe. Sputtering and reluctant, i lived.
In the years since i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violence that didn’t happen and about the violence that did. i lived. But i did violence to myself by lying about my identity. Sure, maybe it was self-preservation that felt necessary in the moment. But it also felt, and still feels, like violence.
This was one of several moments that made me decide not to continue my transition at that point. i decided that i couldn’t handle the violence i would experience. This, along with some other moments that happened around the same time caused me to choose the violence of hiding over the violence of being out.
i grew a beard and shaved my head. i bought men’s jeans. Even as i grew to embrace this identity i recognized it as deliberately hiding. i knew that eventually i would have to deal with my gender again. Even as i created a gentle masculinity for myself, i was doing violence to my queerness.
i remember the moment frequently. Transphobic statements often put me back in St. Louis, reliving those moments over and over. Other moments of violence (verbal or otherwise) are, for me, tied to this moment of violence. As i feel the violence again i wonder what impact it would have had on my life to tell the clerk the truth. i wonder if the violence of the sadness i feel about this lie could have been avoided.
Now that i’m again living as queer i remember to be alert. Admittedly, i’ve gotten to a point where i work to consciously disarm this because i need to in order to exist in the world. But i remember that moment and other moments. The fear that these moments of violence have placed in my heart is violence itself.
But through all this violence i have survived. i have been saved by others. i have struggled to persevere in moments when i was alone. i was saved and i initially felt guilty about this survival. Not everyone gets second chances. But i recognize my guilt as self-serving. I’ve learned to accept the risk of being myself. i’ve come through flames to get to where i am today and am thankful for my place on the Earth. i’ve chosen to put this second life to use; to cherish it, to use it to love and to resist, and to work to hopefully help others do the same.