“No one is brought into violence as a perpetrator.” — Mariame Kaba
As the mainstream #MeToo movement continues to name abusers and hold them accountable, a resurgence of #MeToo is also taking place in the queer community in light of recent sexual assault allegations made against famed Hollywood director Bryan Singer, whose works include X-Men and the recent Bohemian Rhapsody. The accusations against Singer echo previous stories about gay actors Kevin Spacey and George Takei, the latter of whom turned out to be innocent. Then, there were the sexual harassment claims against Transparent actor Jeffrey Tambor and the silence around the allegations by the show’s creator Jill Soloway.
I felt strangely — inappropriately — disaffected, almost bored, when I first received the request from Xtra to write about this; the implication, I suppose, is that queer community is long overdue for its own reckoning around sexual abuse and assault in our culture, and on the one hand, Singer and Spacey seem living proof of that. Yet on the other, it doesn’t seem as though there is any lack of discussion about queers and sexual violence in the recent past. A quick Google search of the combined terms “queer” and “#MeToo” brings up several pages of reported articles and think pieces about sexual violence and LGBTQ2 folks — ranging in scope from the erasure of trans women from #MeToo discourse to the prevalence of rape culture among gay men.
Indeed, sometimes it seems that my entire adult life as a queer person has been inflected by furious discussion about the presence of sexual abusers among us — so much so that I often feel disturbingly desensitized to it. From the perspective of a community member, I can attest that public call-outs of queer perpetrators of sexual violence have been going on since long before the mainstream, heterosexual #MeToo moment began. As I have previously written, these call-outs have tended to have varying impacts on queer people’s actual lives, often failing to set boundaries on the behaviour of privileged abusers while severely impacting extremely marginalized individuals.
I recall once seeing an extremely popular white, cis gay man called out for rape on Facebook and suffer relatively few apparent consequences: he stayed on social media, continued to attend queer events with regularity and ran a successful community business. I also recall seeing a trans woman of colour being called out for emotional manipulation of her romantic partner. This trans woman was summarily banished from the city’s queer spaces, kinship networks and social events. She developed what appeared to be intense paranoia and eventually vanished from social media. I have no idea what happened to her.
Queer community doesn’t lack for discourse around sexual abuse. On the contrary, we are suffused in it, and have been for some time. Yet for all of our talk, not much seems to have significantly changed — there are still victims, and there are still abusers.
This raises some interesting questions about the state of the conversation we are currently having: What is it that we really need to say to each other about sexual abuse and queer community? What truths, and whose stories, are getting lost beneath the primal scream that is our collective pain?
Trauma theory and its quest to understand the survival mechanisms of the human body may hold some answers. As a former therapist, I have learned that the sensation of boredom, of emotional detachment in reaction to stressful stimuli is a subtle form of traumatic response: The human brain, searching for a way to protect itself, can turn not only to the instinctive “fight-or-flight” responses that we are used to seeing in trauma survivors, but also to a “freeze” response.
The “freeze” response, which is characterized by involuntary emotional numbing, is an ancient, brilliant defence mechanism, particularly in situations where danger is ongoing, repeated, and not likely to be overcome by fighting or fleeing. For example, when experiencing a sexual assault, many survivors will experience a sort of psychological paralysis in which the processes of thinking and feeling instinctively shut down as a way of protecting the survivor from further harm.
Individuals who live in highly traumatizing environments, such as high-conflict areas or abusive families, may experience “freeze” as their emotional baseline, punctuated by “fight-or-flight” moments of intense, brief crisis. Such individuals may have a difficult time connecting to strong emotions such as fear, anger or sadness, and will often instead experience feeling empty and disconnected from others.
What does all this tell us about the untold stories of sexual violence in the queer community? For starters, it might help to explain the peculiar and ferociously charged dynamics around secrecy, disclosure and punishment that characterize our community’s conversations and understandings of what it means for sexual violence to occur between us.
For a community that is supposedly steeped in progressive politics, sex positivity and mutual love, queers hurt each other — horribly — an awful lot. Nearly half of gay- and lesbian-identified individuals report experiencing sexual violence or psychological abuse from a partner, and more than half of bisexual individuals experienced the same. Similarly, more than 50 percent of trans people report having experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime. Trans feminine individuals, particularly those of colour, are additionally much more likely than other groups to experience physical violence and be murdered by their partners.
This constitutes the perfect environment for a collective “freeze” response, a community-wide numbing of the soul in its most intimate parts: queer community, for all its beauty and strength, is also a closed environment in which sexual violence is pervasive and ongoing. This violence renders itself invisible, not by hiding, but by being everywhere at once: bathhouse culture, party culture, queer sex culture. We all see it, but we become numb to it; it feels banal. What’s the point of talking about it? Nothing will change. Having hard conversations can only hurt us.
This numbness persists until it bursts free in moments of intense, furious crisis, erupting into fight-or-flight responses that take the form of callouts, social shunning, “cancelling,” exile. These strategies serve a powerful emotional role in small communities, especially those traumatized and underserved by traditional law enforcement. After all, we want and deserve to feel safe. Sometimes, also, we want revenge against those who have hurt us — and it isn’t wrong to want revenge when we have been abused.
But community responses to abuse that are based in ostracization and social shaming do not work. The traumatic responses of fight, flight and freeze are excellent when it comes to individual, momentary survival, but we pay a price for them in human connection. When we rush to punish wrongdoers through social mobbing and exclusion, we lose the opportunity to understand the root causes of harm and thereby prevent it in future. We also run the risk of perpetuating an imbalanced penal in which only the vulnerable are punished — as in what happened with that trans woman of colour I knew who was called out and banished from queer community.
Models of justice that centre punishment do not prevent abuse but only react to it, and they don’t offer a pathway toward healing for either perpetrators or survivors. Nor do they acknowledge the dual reality that a great many perpetrators are themselves survivors. For example, a recent study at McMaster shows us that approximately half of prison inmates have experienced abuse in childhood.
Sometimes I wonder, if we exiled every single queer person who had ever done anything sexually inappropriate, abusive or violent, would there be a queer community left?
In her memoir How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, lesbian poet and sex worker advocate Amber Dawn writes that “lying is the work of those who are taught that their truths have no value.” In the society of rape culture, settler colonialism and capitalism, sexual assault and harassment narratives are frequently assigned negative value. They are always loaded with the power to harm both the speaker and the listeners, but only very rarely the power to spark healing in anyone.
Small communities, such as the queer community, suffer particularly from this paradigm. We are already so often at war with the external world. To speak up against abuse — even among our communities — is to bring war inside our own fortress. In a recent article in GUTS magazine, Indigenous trans femme poet and performer Jaye Simpson describes this dilemma in the context of being abused by an Indigenous man.
“Why not just name these men and women and state publicly how they harmed me? Simply, because they are Indigenous,” Simpson writes. “More complicatedly, because the justice system would misgender me and I was threatened with court if I did. More seriously, because one of us would end up dead.”
How do you call-out the community that took you when your family wouldn’t? How do you call-out the people who loved you, whom you still love? The people who taught you who you were and helped you to survive? How do you call-out your lovers, friends, mentors, role models, when you’re not sure either of you will survive?
Sometimes the only safe thing to do is to be silent. To freeze.
The #MeToo movement is like a sudden surge in global temperature that melts the layer of ice covering a planet: old things, buried things suddenly rise to the surface and burst open in all their toxicity. In 2019, R. Kelly is newly infamous for his sexual abuse of young Black women. Yet it was the opposite of a secret that he had sexual relations with the then-15-year-old Aaliyah, and later openly married her in 1994. While Aaliyah later had the marriage annulled and its records expunged, it was her career, and not Kelly’s, that suffered the damage. For all the people who were adults at the time, and who are now ferociously decrying Kelly, a single question comes to mind: where were you then?
We might ask this same question of all the Hollywood industry professionals who supported Woody Allen for decades, who lauded and participated in Roman Polanski’s artistic projects, and who are now supposedly staunch supporters of #MeToo. Meanwhile, on a social plane far below that of American cinema elites, queer community is struggling with similar questions on a smaller scale.
Trans woman writer and video game maker Porpentine Charity Heartscape writes about disposability culture in her polemic “Hot Allostatic Load,” arguing that punishment is not balancing of the scales of justice, but rather a purging of collective pain. Heartscape bitterly observes that communities truly punish only those whom it can do without — those have suddenly become expendable, or those have always been.
Heartscape writes, “Punishment is not something that happens to bad people. It happens to those who cannot stop it from happening. It is laundered pain, not a balancing of scales.” This line has always, will always, haunt me.
Perhaps this, then, explains why it sometimes feels why we are always talking about accountability for abuse in queer community while also never talking about it: for a long time, we have only been talking about accountability for some people and not for others. We purge our pain on mentally ill trans femmes and queer people of colour in order to spare our favourite white queer celebrities and organizers, the same way that Hollywood spared Allen and Polanski.
While the recent move to hold powerful abusers — Allen, Polanski, Singer, Spacey — accountable indicates a shift in social consciousness, the current #MeToo movement is more complex, and more ambiguous, than it appears. Beyond the simple narrative of the triumph of righteousness over evil, #MeToo has the capacity to expose our society’s collective trauma and complicity — which continue to perpetuate themselves today, in both mainstream and queer communities.
There was a decided lack of response to my attempts to bring in interviewees for this piece to speak to the experience of being abused and silenced by powerful queer people. Those who did express some interest insisted on giving their stories anonymously and in vague, almost inscrutable details. They spoke about wanting to protect their abusers. They spoke about wanting to protect themselves.
As I am writing this essay, I am mindful of a handful of queer activists and artists and influencers who are famous within the niche of LGBTQ2 culture, who are also well known for certain patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour lie somewhere on the spectrum between slightly creepy flirtation to ongoing sexual harassment. It is well known who these individuals are. Yet no one says anything. They are not expendable to us yet, not the way that some other members — like, say, mentally ill trans women of colour sex workers — are expendable.
We have been ignoring the abusive behaviour of queer celebrities for years, in some cases decades. When the protective ice around us melts, who knows what will emerge?
I believe that queer people live in what some psychologists might call a “pathogenic environment.” A pathogenic environment is one that promotes illness, and in the context of psychology, mental illness. This is a way of explaining how illness develops that is an alternative to the model that sees illness as the failure of an individual’s body or mind.
Heteronormative society is pathogenic to queers and queer community because it hates us, is violent to us and makes our stories invisible. Heteronormative society traumatizes us by demonizing our sexual expression — and because of this, we come to hate our sexual expression, our sexual identities, our sexual selves. We pass this hatred from one generation of queers to another in the form of unsafe and non-consensual sex practices, in slut-shaming and sex negativity and sexual aggression.
Society sexually traumatizes us, and so we sexually traumatize one another.
Trapped in the fight-flight-freeze paradigm of sexual trauma, we become incapable of imagining solutions to sexual violence outside the realm of terror, death and survival at any cost. We become incapable of imagining that our stories could be anything but destructive — and we create an understanding of justice in which this is true. Trauma dictates that justice must be punitive for us to feel safe. Paradoxically, of course, punitive justice tends to diminish our safety because it involves hurting other people and makes them far less likely to be accountable of their own will.
In simple terms, this means that I cannot speak up about queers who have harmed me because that will result in them being harmed. It also means that if I do choose to speak up, they may try to avoid harm to themselves by suing, intimidating or otherwise enacting more violence against me.
What would it take to create a community, a society, a world in which it was safe to tell our stories? Where we could melt the ice of our trauma without flooding the land with our grief? Popular answers to such questions tend to begin with the words “restorative” or “transformative justice,” but the truth is that we have few models of what such justice might look like.
Queer writers Adrienne Maree Brown, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ejeris Dixon and Mia Mingus are among a handful of activists who have done groundbreaking work in this area. They advocate for a model of transformative justice, which delineates the concepts of punishment from accountability and healing. In transformative justice, the goal of justice as a process is based not on meting out appropriate punishments, but rather on transforming the conditions that allowed harm in the first place. Both victims and perpetrators of violence are understood to be integral parts of the community who require holding, healing and support.
We need a whole movement of transformative justice thinkers and doers. Such a movement will require a fundamental shift away from trauma-based thinking and toward courageousness and compassion. We will have to transform systems that centre getting even into systems that prioritize getting better.
Beyond the frameworks of justice that we apply to cases of sexual violence, I imagine that we will also have to develop new vocabularies and ways of thinking about sexuality in general. We will have to let go of the idea that all forms of sexual boundary — crossing have the same intentions and impacts, and most especially that sexual aggression is a special form of evil that belongs only to monsters.
We will have to create a form of sex positivity in which we understand that sex is sometimes wonderful, sometimes banal, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes painful, sometimes violent — and sometimes a combination. We will have to find a way of distinguishing between these different kinds of experiences and the different kinds of behaviour that cause them to happen so that we can properly address situations of harm. We will have to acknowledge that people can make mistakes about what their partners want, and that not all of these mistakes are the same thing as intentional acts of evil — though we are still responsible when we make them.
Certainly we will need to focus on preventing harm from happening rather than simply reacting, or not reacting, once harm has occurred. We need to have community practices and institutions that acknowledge the social conditions that breed violence — unchecked capitalism, misogyny, a policing system that profiles and fails to protect communities of colour, inadequate social services — and that provide pathways to healing for hurt people. We need more hospitals and social programs, not more prisons and police.
And we will have to give up our defences, our time-worn defences of dissociation and disconnection, as well as those of rage and revenge. We have to be able to care, even when it seems impossible, because caring would destroy us. We have to believe that we will survive each other, because there is something waiting for us when the ice melts and the ashes settle.
Queer community taught me that, once, a long time ago.