Telling Stories That Don't Follow The Lines

08/21/2013 06:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Well into my adulthood, most people -- including many researchers and clinicians -- believed that experiencing sexual abuse or molestation could cause a male child to "turn out" gay. Interestingly, I don't recall hearing that a girl could become a lesbian if a woman took sexual advantage of her.

People who believed that man-on-boy sex led to homosexuality also conflated gender identity with sexual orientation. Male-to-female transgenders were believed to have been male homosexuals before "converting" and female-to-males (when they were considered at all) were thought to be lesbians before their transitions. In fact, most gender clinics would not consider someone as a candidate for hormone treatments and gender reassignment surgery unless he or she was (or claimed to be) attracted only to members of his or her pre-transition gender.

The situation I've described, however briefly, has caused untold confusion, pain and despair. It's difficult for most people to hear, let alone tell, a story that doesn't fit into the narrative patterns to which they're accustomed. By the same token, those whose stories fit the narrative tend (usually through no fault of their own) to take their fortune for granted and cannot understand why others can't just "get over it" and "get on with their lives".

It's even more difficult to tell a story that doesn't fit the narrative when you don't have the vocabulary, let alone the language, for it.

I was reminded of these truths recently, when I talked with Geri Lynn Matthews, the director of Justice Denied. I plan to see the film, which deals with sexual assault in the Armed Forces, when it comes to my local independent theatre. While making the film, she realized that the number of male soldiers and sailors, and airmen, who were raped by fellow male service members is much higher than anyone had realized, and includes her husband. Many such men don't talk about their experiences for many years afterward, if they talk about them at all.

One of the reasons why it's so difficult for men, whether in the military or not, to speak of such experiences is that it very rarely fits the narrative of the overt or closeted homosexual taking young men's heterosexuality (and, therefore, masculinity) from them. It also doesn't fit into the myth of the warrior or, more specifically, the fighting man. One reason for that is that the experiences of such men reveal a truth that military recruiters never tell young people: that they are turned into "lean, green fighting machines" through coerced submission. So, for a young man to report that his sergeant or an officer raped him is to not only to submit himself to having his masculinity questioned, but also to make himself vulnerable to the charge of insubordination which, in the military, is subversion.

Now, just imagine what it's like to feel the need to reclaim and reassert masculinity (or the appearance thereof) that he and others believe to have been taken from him -- which, of course, is to feel the need to show that he is indeed following the military's or society's script for manhood -- while harboring or repressing the knowledge that mentally, spiritually, and perhaps even hormonally, he never was a male at all.

Ms. Matthews put me in touch with two such people she met while making her film. Yes, they are male-to-female transgenders who began their transitions around the same time in their lives that I began mine. Both told me that the sexual abuse they incurred while in the military did not "cause" them to feel that they were women. They had such feelings long before they signed up. Long before. And they spent decades trying to assert themselves as men before, finally, deciding to live as their authentic selves.

There are still therapists and doctors, not to mention lay people, who believe that my two new-found acquaintances decided to live as women in order not to deal with latent homosexuality that was both a cause and effect of the assaults they endured. Such people -- who include a therapist with whom I worked briefly and a former friend -- also would, not surprisingly, claim that a trans person who was molested as a child wants to change sexes in order to "escape" from the homosexuality that is the inevitable result of his trauma.

The experiences of my new-found friends do not hew to those story-lines. Nor do mine: I knew myself to be a female, even though I didn't have the means to express it, long before I experienced the molestation I mentioned in my previous post--or, for that matter, the rape I experienced during an ROTC training weekend when I was a senior in college. I talked about it for the first time only a couple of weeks before I talked to Ms. Matthews.