On Dec. 21st, 2014, the Back Porch Grill in Hot springs Arkansas was having their annual Christmas party. For the employees It was cause for celebration, but for Jacie Leopold the night was about to become a fight for her life and eventually, justice.
Jacie had been working as a full-time chef there when she began her transition to female in mid-2014. She was open about it to her friends and family, but she was afraid to tell her coworkers.
"I was working with a group of people who worked hard and liked to relieve stress through humor," Jacie told me. LBGT people were commonly the butt of their jokes.
The humor did not just remain in the kitchen.
Even the manager was in on it. Jacie told me,
The owner liked to brag about his interactions with LGBT people. Making fun of them behind their backs. If an openly gay person applied for a job, he would laugh and joke about them for days. Which gave me a constant fear of being discovered that I was transgender.
But she wasn't able to hide it for long:
I had reached out to support groups and was beginning my transition. I was on HRT and dieting and exercising. My hair was getting longer and I was having laser hair removal on my face. Which always left it red and swollen for a few days after. I had an obvious enlargement in my chest area which I hid pretty well under my chef coat, so I hardly ever wore a t-shirt at work anymore. I started receiving comments about my appearance. I was pretty concerned that they were figuring it out, but I kept working and doing my job, so everything seemed ok.
Then something terrible happened.
On the night of the company Christmas party, Jacie was struck in the face by a coworker who will remain unnamed at this time. She was knocked unconscious.
Jacie told me,
I woke up on the floor lying on my back. There was a lot going on around me. A lot of shouting. People being moved back and told to get away from me. There was quite a bit of blood. I did not know what happened. I was in shock. I was embarrassed and scared. I remember all I wanted was to get out of there and get away as quick as possible. I went straight to my car as two of my coworkers kept everyone away from me. That's where I remained. Terrified and in shock. With my doors locked.
The police did not immediately take a statement. Jacie was taken to CHI St. Vincent Hospital where the doctor told her that her eye socket and cheekbone had both been fractured. Her nose was broken in two places and her teeth were chipped. Her mouth had been cut, her head swelling from all sides.
The police came and took her statement as well as photographs of her injuries, but she was very confused about what had happened. What she did remember was the name of the person who initially attacked her. When she mentioned him, the police seemed to know about his record.
Jacie knew this person had not been the only attacker.
She was afraid to go back to work.
"I was scared," she said.
In a sense I felt betrayed. These were still the people that I had seen every day for four years. I wished that it wasn't real. That maybe if I didn't talk about it, it would go away. I waited as long as I could and when the swelling was down enough that my face had its shape back. I put heavy tattoo concealer on my face and returned to pick up my pay check. I couldn't possibly get away from there quick enough.
Her father arrived shortly in Arkansas and quickly followed up with the local police department but found that there had been no investigation. He obtained a copy of the police report and brought it to the attention of the county judge and sheriff. Believing they would help, he and Jacie waited but there was no reply.
He went back to the police again and found that there still had been nothing done.
Jacie and her father met with an attorney.
"He said he did not have enough evidence to support a hate crime," said Jacie.
He told me the reality of the situation was that this is the south and any jury here would tell me the same thing they told any woman; that I should not have put myself into a situation where alcohol was being served. They would tell me that it is my fault.
He said because I am transgender, they are going to be scratching their heads going, 'what is that?' He said I would not get a fair trial, even if he could get it to trial. So I shut back down. The police didn't want to help. The attorney didn't want to help. And I was scared of going public about transitioning. So I shut down. I tried not to talk about it to anyone.
It was during this time of her life that she began to recess into her bedroom.
This is the South and any jury here would tell me the same thing they told any woman: that I should not have put myself into a situation where alcohol was being served. They would tell me that it is my fault.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Seven months after the incident, she received a cease and desist letter from The Back Porch Grill claiming she had fabricated the whole assault.
"I felt like they had broken a huge piece of me and crippled my reputation." said Jacie.
"I had heard from the attorney," she began.
Now I was being told I was facing being sued by them for telling people what they did to me. I was on the verge of shutting down. I hid for a few days. I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I posted the letter to Facebook and I said, 'I will not stop speaking the truth.'
Jacie posted the letter on her Facebook and was contacted by the previous attorney who had refused to help her. He was gung ho until a couple of weeks went by and then the office stopped responding to her.
She has been afraid to tell her story to the media for fear of a backlash from local groups and authorities.
Matters would only get worse.
A year later on December 13th, 2015 Jacie was stuck by an uninsured motorist. Jacie had the right of way as the other driver ran a stop sign and stuck the side of Jacie's car totaling it and leaving her without any means of transportation.
It was a car she still owed money on.
The officer was very curt with her and she remained in the car until the tow truck arrived.
When the ambulance got there, she went to speak to the paramedics and the officer drove away without giving her any proper paperwork on the accident.
The lady who hit her was given a ticket for no insurance and drove away.
Jacie had to go to the police department and fight her way up the ranks to the officer's supervisor to get a proper citation ordered and a court date. She was also told that the officer would be reprimanded.
When Jacie showed up for the court date, they were not expecting her.
When I was standing in the court room and the judge told me there was not even a record of an accident and nothing he could do to help me, I felt really small in the community. Like there was just nothing that I can do to get help or justice. When the police department will not even do their job for you; you have a sense of fear that anybody can do anything to you and nobody will care.
Jacie and her father were not going to accept that, so they went to the police department again where they were met with by yet another officer who did not seem too happy to be speaking to them.
"The officer was agitated," Jacie began.
All of his comments were brief and aggressive. He kept repeating that he did not have to explain it. That it is just the way they sometimes choose to do things. In my particular case, they had chosen not to issue a citation to the driver. He agreed that the police report showed she was at fault and that the citation could be issued still, but persisted that they did not have to do it. He told me if I wished to hire a lawyer, I could pay out of pocket to file a suit, but that they were not going to issue her a citation. For failure to stop at a stop sign. End of discussion.
Jacie is now without a car or a job. Her face may have healed but the bills still need to be paid and the emotional scars will forever exist.
She had nowhere to turn
So Jacie reached out to people on Facebook in the following post and it was shared over 6000 times at the time of this writing:
She also has a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for her various bills and get her back to where she can function again in society, hopefully.
You see, Jacie is very lucky. It's hard to comprehend that after everything you've just read, but this is not a unique story. This is happening to transgender people all over the United States, not just the South. Instances like this, can often lead to death.
To stop the violence we all have to stand up for people like Jacie and show the world that transgender people are just that -- people.