Trigger Warning – Discussions of rape, assault
“Oh, you knew him? Me too.”
It was of those silences that felt super heavy. The nervous guy who had just asked me that question looked right into my eyes, then looked away, complimenting the rainbow pride flag sticker on my water bottle. I had been in line at the dining hall of my University, I hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet.
In an empty table on the 2nd floor of the dining hall, in a corner where no one else was around, this guy, an incoming freshman navigating his first weeks of classes, quietly talked to me about why *redacted* was no longer on campus, how he had reported *redacted* but the campus security seemed to not believe that *redacted* would sexually assault another man, how humiliating the process was, how reporting this incident forced him out of the closet before he was ready. Hurray for bonding over shared trauma?
But it wasn’t shared trauma. I found myself speechless. I didn’t say anything. Most people who know me now are aware of how rare that is. But back then, I was often silenced by my own shame. I didn’t tell him my story. I didn’t tell him how a similar event with *redacted* had happened to me too, one year earlier. Instead, I was just a safe person for him to share his story.
My story happened during my first month in New York. I didn’t even write the word rape in my personal journal entries until years after, or share it publicly. One of the biggest regrets of my life is not reporting this predator, *redacted*, when I had the chance, thus stopping him from preying on other students. I looked it up once after a Criminal Law class, and I had already been years beyond the statute of limitations for any potential charges or recourse before I could even admit what had happened to myself.
That’s part of why I am posting about this. It should not have taken me years for me to understand and accept what had happened to me, that it wasn’t my fault for being on Grindr or being newly out, how it was unfair for me to tell myself “I should have known better” or calculate how I could have fought harder to get out of the situation. I should not have had to be his classmate, to freeze every time I saw him on campus throughout my first year of college.
But only an hour after it happened, I had already thought up a million reasons why it was my fault. My roommates either weren’t around that night, or politely pretended not to hear me violently sobbing in the shower when I got home, and I told no one, for years.
But the truth is by denying what had happened to me for all those years to avoid feeling like a victim, I became a victim of my own shame. I also didn’t speak up, leading to other victims, like that boy in line for breakfast at the dining hall. I thought about him every time I passed *redacted’s* former dorm for a while, which got awkward when a close friend moved in the same room a few semester’s later. Eventually, that dorm became just another building on campus. I tried to forget anything had every happened there.
Two years later, I was writing a paper on ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). I came across their protest sign, poster, and slogan of SILENCE=DEATH tied to their activism during the worst of the AIDS crisis.
Learning more about even earlier Queer History from the 1800s up to the Stonewall Riots for a final exam project, I realized LGBTQ rights were not won by being quiet. They were won by loud, angry, and incredibly brave people, who were “out” when that could social stigma, time in jail, or even deadly consequences.
My ability to live my life authentically and without hiding parts of myself is because of trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, standing up for themselves and so many others, and demanding respect.
The more I learned about Queer History, the braver I became. I started to slowly accept what had happened to me, understanding it with the clearer vision of hindsight and vowed to never let myself be silenced by shame again. Shame is something I left behind, hence the tattoo on my back.