This post is for Trans Day of Visibility.
Content Warning: This post contains graphic personal descriptions of sexual and physical assault. Professional colleagues, recruiters, family members, and those who might be uncomfortable with those topics are asked to find other resources for learning/support, such as this.
I moved to Charlottesville in 2008 for a job. I had recently finished college—three-and-a-half years late, thanks to a thyroid condition and two rounds of radiation—and was eager to discover a new city, a new career, and a new life. I have written before about discovering, hiding, and rediscovering my sexuality, but I wasn’t ready then be out with regards to my sexuality or gender.
In the years between leaving school and re-enrolling, I had a regular bar. My friends and I would go there on Friday nights. It was a not-quite-a-gay-bar in Hartford, and for the most part it was welcoming, vibrant, and comfortable.
When I arrived in Charlottesville, I looked for a place just like it. I would discover a place on Charlottesville’s Downtown pedestrian mall—a picturesque setting, one of the prides of the city. I would stop in every couple weeks. But it wasn’t the same. My friends weren’t there, and I wasn’t finding much success in making new ones. Nevertheless, it reminded me of home. Like my old bar, it was a not-quite-gay bar. And like its equivalent in Hartford, I went there not to find hookups, but to find comfort and connection in a community I wanted to belong in.
One summer evening in my first summer there, I stopped in for a drink. I sat at the bar, in the only open seat, behind the beer taps. I was alone. The bar was busy.
Although I knew by then I was gender-variant, and regularly presented as such, this was not a venue I felt comfortable presenting in. I was wearing shorts and a badly-fitting button down shirt. I was, by all looks, a rather pedestrian cisgender dude, sitting alone in a queer bar.
I was approached by two people. One was a woman of color, the other a hispanic man. The woman squeezed herself into the spot between me and the seat to my left. She said something to me; it was loud and I couldn’t understand her. Wanting to be left alone, I simply gave a curt nod of my head and went back to minding my beer.
Suddenly, the man put both of his hands on my shoulders. I was seated up against the bar, and his forcefulness pinned me in my place. I was shocked; I looked around quickly, but no one was paying me any attention. I looked to the bartender, but the beer taps obscured his view. I was trapped in a barstool. I couldn’t stand up, push back, or slide out.
The woman said something to me, I don’t remember what. She reached her hand up my pants and grabbed my penis. I was being forcibly sexually assaulted in a bar full of people.
Afraid to fight back, I eventually thought up an excuse – I had to use the bathroom, I said. I snuck out of the bar instead. When I arrived at the bar that night, I noticed some bicycle cops on patrol downtown. I went looking for them. They weren’t there anymore. I turned back, deciding instead to leave my credit card at the bar and go home.
When I did, I saw the couple come out of the bar, apparently angry. I ducked inside another establishment instead, deciding to lay low. I was still desperately trying to hold on to my masculinity back then. Actually calling 911 was not an option to me.
I had another beer at the second bar. I waited an hour or so and decided to leave. I tentatively went back to the first location and received my credit card. This was a mistake. I figured I’d take a taxi home, in part because I was in shock. I headed over to where the taxis cross the downtown mall, and I saw the couple again, a block away. They saw me and started walking briskly towards me. I decided to run to my car and drive home instead. My assailants were chasing me and I didn’t know what else to do.
At that time, I was a virgin. The first person aside from my parents or doctors to touch my genitals was my rapist.
I was, back then, fully aware of my gender issues and trying very much to control them. Being sexually assaulted called into question many of the anxieties I had about my sexuality and gender. I was a man, right? I can defend myself, right? I ran scenarios through my head a thousand times. What would I do if someone tried to rob me? What if they had a gun? But all of that went away. All that hypermasculine hypothetical warfighting vanished into thin air the moment that man laid hands on me.
I wondered what that meant. What it said about my masculinity. What it said about my sexuality and my gender. The first person in my pants forced her way in. How could I control my gender issues or my sexuality if I couldn’t even control who has access to my parts? What if next time I’m wearing a skirt? Is that an invitation? Oh god, should I stop wearing skirts? Maybe I’ll throw them all out. I didn’t like what happened to me. Maybe I’m not bi. Maybe I’m really just gay.
I put the incident behind me and moved on. I never reported it. Never sought counseling. I drank until the anxiety that incident caused faded into the background, and let my gender dysphoria continue its unabated march forward into my psyche.
Years later, I was married happily to the woman who is my wife. The bar moved; a gay club opened in another part of town. I found a hockey league and played regularly. I became comfortable with being trans. I started seeing a therapist. But I wasn’t out.
One night, after hockey, I came to find my truck being towed. I had paid for parking, so obviously there was a misunderstanding. I spoke with a woman with the tow truck, cleared up the understanding. Some more miscommunication happened and she started yelling at me. The tow truck driver came up to me, grabbed me by the arm, and put his hand around my neck. Eventually, he was talked down. I wasn’t ready to leave; I had a beer after the game, and just wanted to drop off my gear before walking to a pizza place. The tow truck driver forcibly escorted me to my truck and forced me to drive home.
I didn’t sleep that night. Twice, while presenting cis, I was attacked. But both of those attacks were not against a cis person. They were against a trans person. Even if those assailants didn’t know that. Even if I wasn’t visible. Even if I wasn’t targeted because I was trans. These attacks shook me to my core, triggered my deepest dysphorias, and undermined all bodily autonomy I had.
The next day, I put on my cutest outfit and went to work. I told my boss I was transgender. Cis presenting did nothing to protect me from trans assault. Hiding wasn’t helping. It made it worse.
Half of all transgender people report being subject to sexual violence.. When bills like North Carolina’s HB2 are introduced or passed, it normalizes the notion that trans people are others. When these bills explicitly define a gender gradient, they reinforce all harmful gender norms, including the ones that say men can’t get raped, men can’t call for help.
Just after HB2 was passed, a trans woman was raped at the Stonewall. Think about that for a moment.
A transgender woman was raped at the very location where a bisexual trans woman of color started the modern American gay rights movement.
Where else can we be safe? We are not safe hiding behind our cis identities. We are not safe in the bars and clubs that cater to the queer community. We are not safe in bathrooms. We are not safe in the locations where we should be respected the most. The Stonewall is designated as a permanent landmark. But the work of trans people has been trampled in that memory.
Today is International Trans Day of Visibility. Trans folks have gained a lot of visibility in the past few years. That visibility has brought hateful bills into the public sphere in about a third of all US states. That visibility has brought backlash and fear. I have thought every day since coming out about these attacks. Half of us will endure something like this in our lifetimes. We don’t even have to be visible for it to undermine our identities. But if we are visible, the risk skyrockets. Many of us, particularly those in tech or gaming, receive threats of violence regularly. If we share an opinion online, people threaten rape and murder. I am 100% certain that one day someone will use this post to threaten me.
You may revel in your tolerance and acceptance. You may admire our bravery. You may admire our openness and our aesthetic and our talent. I choose to be visible and trans. You can see me for those things if you want. But you must also see the other parts of who I am—and who we are. Abuse survivor. Sexual assault victim. Physical assault target. See us as trans, but you must also see the violence.
It needs to be seen.