One year ago today, my life changed forever.
I was living in Washington, DC and doing advocacy work for Casa Ruby, a grassroots organization that provides resources to the local LGBT community. I was also involved in DC Trans Power—an activist organization I’d founded with friends the previous January. Through both these organizations, I was tasked with creating a week of events and actions leading up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance held on November 20 to honor the lives that have been lost to transphobic violence.
Up until Wednesday the 18th, the Trans Week of Action had been a rousing success. Working with organizations from all across the city, we hosted film screenings, panel discussions, and open-mic fundraisers; the previous night we’d marched through the streets of DC demanding justice for the transgender community and condemning businesses that were complicit in transphobic violence. Our communities were coming together to fight for transgender rights; my future working to help other trans people looked bright.
November 18th was supposed to be just another night of action. DC Trans Power was supporting a small rally that was happening in a square in Columbia Heights to draw attention to the violence faced by the Latinx transgender community. I was invited to give a speech in which I read some of the results of DC Trans Coalition’s recently released Transgender Needs Assessment—the largest survey of a local transgender population ever conducted. Among the statistics I read was that 19 percent of trans women in DC have been physically or sexually assaulted by police.
I was about to experience both firsthand.
After our speeches, we took to the streets and blocked off traffic—a protest tactic that is, generally, tolerated per law enforcement policy in Washington, DC. Quickly, however, a DC police officer started shoving one of the protesters. As one of the organizers of the action, I went over to keep an eye on the situation and to get the officer’s name and badge number. Instead of giving me this information, the officer threatened to arrest me. Before I could even ask what I was doing that was illegal, I was being dragged through the street and thrown down onto the concrete by the officer. A whole group of officers then came over and continued to drag me for nearly a block down 14th Street, stripping me partially naked.
Before I knew what was going on, I was assaulted and placed under arrest on charges that I was told I had no right to know.
Given my organizing experience, I knew my rights as a transgender arrestee in DC and I intended to demand them. But because I stood up for my rights as a trans woman in jail, I was treated far more violently than I would have been had I allowed the cops to do as they wished without complaint. Under the guise of getting me the prescription medications that I needed to take while in custody, officers took me to Howard University Hospital. When I got there, however, I was handcuffed to an ER bed and told by hospital staff that they didn’t carry the medications I needed, even though the medications were incredibly common.
Instead, I was given a tranquilizer to make me docile and less likely to confront the police about my rights. Then I was shuffled back to the precinct and denied the ability to make a phone call. Finally I was told I was being charged with assaulting a police officer. I spent that night in central lockup in Judiciary Square on a piece of sheet metal thinking that at least the worst of it was over—but the worst had yet to begin.
The next morning I was placed on one side of a divided police van with another trans woman. The cops buckled in the side of the van full of cisgender people, but didn’t lock us in, and refused to even once we pointed it out. As a result of their failure to secure us, we were thrown around the inside of the van while being transported to the courthouse—the same kind of “rough ride” that caused Freddie Gray’s death seven months earlier. Luckily, we managed to buckle ourselves with our hands handcuffed behind our backs before getting too injured.
Once at the courthouse, I was forced to dead-name myself and was called a “he-she.” I was placed in ankle cuffs that weren’t locked, so that they kept tightening, making it so that I couldn’t walk without severe pain and causing injuries I’m still dealing with today. But by far the worst thing of all happened right after meeting with my lawyer, when I learned that assaulting a police officer charges had never even been filed against me; I’d been held overnight without charge.
As a part of moving me to my new cell at the courthouse after the meeting, a male U.S. Marshal went to pat me down. I told him that I was a woman and needed a female marshal to do my pat-down. The marshal then asked me if I “had a dick.” After telling the marshal that he wasn’t allowed to ask that question, I was held down and sexually assaulted by two marshals so that they could figure out for sure what genitals I had. After being stripped naked in public, drugged, rough ridden, humiliated, and now raped, I was absolutely broken.
Mercifully, after 20 hours in custody I was finally released—although two hours after they told my lawyer I would be.
While in jail I expected that my arrest had gone unnoticed; I was even planning how I was going to get home with no phone and no money. So when I was released, I was blown away by the attention that my arrest had received. There was a large contingent of friends and acquaintances at the courthouse doing jail support for me, bolstered by a hashtag that was going around on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to a video of my assault captured by the National LGBTQ Task Force—which also released a statement condemning my arrest—news and documentation of my assault had gone viral. Articles about my arrest popped up in both local and national news. The Advocate even included me in their end of the year list of the 25 Trans Pioneers of 2015.
Initially, the support I received from my community was great. People were reaching out and sending their love and thoughts, offering to keep me company, and helping me to get things that I couldn’t access because my assault had left me in a wheelchair.
However, just as it was becoming clear to me that I was not going to overcome what had happened to me quickly or easily—in both the physical and mental sense—it was also becoming clear that the support I’d receive was to be largely fleeting. Once I stopped being the big news story, most of the people who initially supported me stopped reaching out and checking in on me. I found myself spending most of my time stuck immobile at home with my increasingly negative thoughts. This, in turn, caused people I considered friends to accuse me of no longer caring about social justice as I wasn’t showing up to protests—despite having been in a wheelchair for six weeks and then on a cane, which I’ll likely need to use for the rest of my life.
When I needed help the most, I was getting help the least.
Looking back on my assault a year later, it is clear how irrevocably the events of November 18th, 2015 changed my life. Physically, I need a cane to walk, cannot stand for more than 10 minutes without being in severe pain, and almost certainly have developed fibromyalgia. Mentally, my condition is even worse. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and an anxiety disorder, and show strong symptoms of agoraphobia. My trauma made it impossible for me to maneuver DC without getting severely triggered, eventually forcing me to flee to Massachusetts in order to begin to heal. Yet even here I still have constant flashbacks and nightmares—in addition to anxiety attacks every time I see a cop. I am not the same person I was before my assault and I never will be again. This is a fact I am still learning to live with.
Yet, while my trauma will affect me for the rest of my life, I’ve learned that the vast majority of the world thinks that I should have returned to “normal” a long time ago. After all, my assault was a year ago—why can’t I just get over it already? I think a lot of this attitude has to do with the way we conceive of transphobic violence. Violence against the trans community is, thankfully, finally, beginning to receive attention in our society, yet the types of transphobic violence that we see discussed almost always fit into one of two categories: murders or suicides (which, I would argue, are also murders).
To be clear: Murders and suicides are incredibly important to talk about; we must honor the lives of those we’ve lost and hold them in our hearts as we redouble our efforts to fight for change. But the result of our society’s primary focus on murders and suicides is that we lack any framework for discussing the needs of those of us who survive transphobic violence—and these needs are many and multifaceted.
Living as a survivor of transphobic violence means grappling with the daily realities of life with mental illnesses. For me, this manifests as frequent flashbacks, constant anxiety, and being afraid to go outside for fear of being assaulted again. On top of that, I also face the issue of many mental health professionals not understanding or respecting transgender identities. I constantly have to worry about finding a professional who won’t blame my mental health issues on being trans. Further, any sort of mental health care therapy group or inpatient center that is segregated by “biological sex” is absolutely out of the question.
And, like many other survivors of transphobic violence, I also have to deal with navigating the world with a physical disability. Using a cane as a person who looks young often leads to more attention and unwelcome comments, which, as a trans woman, intensifies my fear of facing new transphobic violence. Further, my inability to stand for long periods of time or walk for long distances often excludes me from actions and events that are held in locations that I can’t access. And my chronic pain often forces me to stay home, which leads me to feeling even more isolated.
When it comes to addressing the needs of the transgender community, we need to have an intersectional approach. Transphobia and ableism, as but one example of an intersection, are often inextricable in the lives of survivors of transphobic violence. (It should be noted that racism, classism, and homophobia, etc. also affect the lives of trans survivors and their ability to heal.) I, for instance, recently had to leave the therapist I was seeing for the mental health issues caused by my transphobic assault because she decided to move her office to a building that wasn’t disability accessible.
Truly helping survivors of transphobic violence requires all of us talking about and addressing the various ways that transphobia intersects with mental health and disability issues. It requires not just being present in the days after a friend is assaulted, but in the months and years that it takes for them to come to terms with the mental toll that being assaulted took on them. It requires creating healing, community spaces that are accessible to those who can’t climb flights of stairs or stand for extended periods of time.
Only by viewing transgender, mental health, and disability issues as interconnected can we as a society finally begin to do justice to those of us who are attempting to survive transphobic violence.
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