Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Story of Assault, and Why I Need to Tell it

Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Things I told myself when I contemplated sharing this difficult part of my life:

It's not relevant to your life today. Don't tell your story.

It's not as serious as what other people have been through. Don't tell your story.

Are you sure it wasn't your fault? Don't tell your story.

What makes you think anyone would care? Don't tell your story.

Nobody is going to believe you. Don't tell your story.

People won't look at you the same way. Don't tell your story.

Nearly 24 years later, I'm still afraid to talk about the fact that I was sexually assaulted. And that's why I'm going to talk about it. That's why I'm telling my story. I'm telling it for me and for other victims. I'm telling it for those who are afraid to come forward, and those who did and are burned at the stake of public opinion for it.

I was fourteen. He was nineteen and my first boyfriend. I was making a lot of bad choices at that time, and starting to date someone my gut screamed at me not to date was no exception. He was pushy from the start, trying to get me to do things I didn't want to do. I didn't feel ready for sex yet - with him or anyone else. I just wanted to date someone, fall in love, and, when the time was right, make the choice to lose my virginity.

But I was young, insecure, and loved the compliments and attention that fell in between the moments that raised giant red flags. He was older and lived on his own and had cool friends. I didn't know what healthy relationships were supposed to be like because I had never had one. Maybe this was it.

We had only been dating for a couple of weeks. It was New Year's Eve and my parents were out. I had told him he could come over (even though they had told me he couldn't.) When he did show up, he was drunk. We ordered pizza and watched TV. He had his hands all over me.

"Remember how you said you might want to tonight?" he breathed in my ear.

"I remember," I said. "But I don't think I'm ready."

"Come on. I didn't come over here so we could just eat pizza," he said with a hint of aggression, and began getting a little more forceful with his hands.

"I really don't want to have sex tonight," I said.

"But you said you wanted to."

"I said I might. And I now don't want to."

"Come on. Don't be like that," he said, and pushed me down onto the couch, roughly kissing my neck.

I tried to push him off of me.  I said stop. I said no. He kept going.

I remember weighing the options in my mind:

1. I could fight back harder. It's what my insides were screaming at me to do. But he was bigger, stronger and intoxicated. Our short history had told me he had no respect for boundaries. Would he get mad? Fly into a rage? Put a throw pillow over my face to stop me from screaming? I legitimately feared for my life.

2. I could stop fighting and let him have his way with me. I would very likely get out of the situation alive that way.

I chose survival. And so, through tears and pain, I lost my virginity to the man who took it without my consent. 

When he was done, he asked me if I had enjoyed myself. Something in his eyes told me I should lie. So I wiped my tears and said yes. I even tried to convince myself I had.

When he left, I hugged and kissed him. I then paced around the house with my arms wrapped around myself. I wondered if this was how every girl felt when they lost their virginity. Maybe it was that painful for everyone. Maybe all girls were scared and needed to be forced a little, or it would never happen. I tried to reframe my rape in a positive light. It didn't work.

I broke up with him the next day.

I never thought about going to the police. Part of me felt like it was my fault. I chose to date a guy who was clearly bad news and far too old for me. I chose to ignore the signs prior to that night, which would have sent many girls running in the opposite direction. I chose to have him over when no one was home, knowing what he was like.

Some of the (very few) people I did tearfully confide in didn't believe me, or felt it must have been my fault for many of the reasons I tried to tell myself it was. One even went so far as to call me a slut.

If there was ever a dark tipping point in my life, that night - and the reaction that followed - was it. Within months, I was in a drug and alcohol treatment center, my already addictive personality now completely out of control. I nearly died trying to suppress the pain.

Years later, when I was in my mid-20's, a friend of mine dated the same man. I warned her, but kept my distance. Within months, she had to get a restraining order against him for violence and stalking.

I often wondered if any of her traumatic experiences would have happened if I had gone to the police and tried to press charges. Would he have been put away? Would he have received the help he certainly needs? How many other women had he assaulted over the years? I'll be honest; I try not to think about it too much.

Like so many women (and men), I am a victim of rape. I was a fourteen-year-old girl. It was not my fault. It took many years of therapy to be able to say that and believe it. Still, the little shame trolls sit on my shoulder, reminding me that society never sees victims as blameless.

Why am I sharing this now? Recently, Canadian radio show personality Jian Ghomeshi was fired from his job at the CBC, most likely due to allegations from four women that he physically and/or sexually assaulted them.

The number of women coming forward has now climbed to eight. While most of the alleged victims have remained anonymous, Actress and Royal Canadian Air force captain Lucy DeCoutere has bravely chosen to come forward publicly with her story. Given how difficult it is for me to write this blog post, I can't begin to imagine what it took for her to come forward in such a public case.

I don't know Mr. Ghomeshi outside of listening to him on the radio, nor do I know any of his alleged victims. Is this one giant conspiracy against a man who is arguably Canada's most famous radio personality, or is this a case of someone we thought we knew with a much darker monster inside than most of us could imagine?

If these allegations become formal charges, we can let a court of law decide who's telling the truth. What I find interesting, however, is how quickly people have taken sides in defense of or against Ghomeshi. Two of the most prominent arguments I've seen in defense of him are: "No way. I love his radio show!" and "If these allegations were real, charges would have been pressed already."

So, basically, if you think someone is likeable, they can't be an abuser. And if you were really assaulted, you would have gone to the police.

I dated a likeable guy and he raped me. That rape went unreported. It altered my view of men and changed my relationship to sex. It reshaped my life - and nearly took it. It was most definitely real.

It's my hope that sharing my story will help others to let go of any shame or guilt they might still cling to. The more we share our stories - publicly or privately - the less shame there will be to them, the more educated people will become, and the less society will blame the victims. Because we are victims.

Rape is about taking someone's power away. Today I'm taking it back.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What's in a Name? When You're My Daughter, Everything.

PS: This is not her new name, in case you've never read a history book.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Last week, my daughter got the best piece of mail in the history of ever: her legal name change certificate from the province of Ontario.

Right?! How great is that? She's all officially her new self now, and she couldn't be happier.

I got the news in a text while I was sitting in the clinic waiting for the doctor to check out my sore foot and give me a magical bean or whatever to make it better.  He only gave me stretches and a lecture about wearing inserts in my shoes, but I didn't care at that point. All I could think about was getting home to give my kiddo a near-bone-crushing hug and some serious mom props.

We worked hard to make this happen, doing a lot of research, making phone calls, finding a guarantor and signing in front of a lawyer. Then we waited what seemed like an agonizingly long time but was, in fact, only a few weeks. I checked the mail each day like a kid checking under the Christmas tree, getting that fluttery feeling in my stomach as I opened the mailbox, followed a sting of disappointment when I only found bills and stupid coupons to shitty places (made shittier by the fact that they were stupid coupons and not, in fact, my daughter's name change documents.)

And then, one day, there it was: exactly what we had been waiting for. The official certificate with her official new first and middle names - both undeniably female.

Everyone we told was ecstatic for her. This is a big deal, after all. New names don't happen every day unless you're a rapper.

The questions I had been anticipating didn't come up nearly as often as I thought they would, but come up they did. It's ok. I'm used to questions and I'm cool with answering them as long as they're not full of stupid. These aren't. They're probably the same questions I would have thought of if I were watching someone live the life I'm currently living: Why change her name now? Why not wait? Are you sad about it? Are you really that sure she won't change her mind?

Why now? Why not wait? Because Gutsy's original birth name, as much as I loved it and still hold it close to my heart, was causing her a tremendous amount of pain.

Having spoken to a lot of transgender folk and parents of transgender folk, I've realized that gender dysphoria rears its ugly head in many ways. For some, seeing pictures of themselves before transition is really hard. It reminds them of a time when they were living an inauthentic life; a life of sadness and feeling out of place.

For Gutsy, the name we gave her when she was born was the source of many tears and anxious moments. She would wince seeing that name on medication labels and report cards. She was scared of being called in a busy waiting room, because the masculine name on paper no longer matched her feminine presentation. She excitedly awaited her bank card to come in the mail, only to see her old name on it and tearfully throw it in a pile because she couldn't bear to look at it. (That bank account hasn't been used since.)

Coming to terms with the trauma of your past, no matter what it may be, is a process. I explained this to my daughter, and we've worked through some if it.  Gutsy eventually learned to look at her old name without getting sad or panicky, but we could still see that flash of pain in her eyes.

Look, I'm a chick. I wouldn't want to be called "Ralph Edward Chesthairington" everywhere I go when I'm clearly a lady person and present like a lady person and feel like a lady person on the inside. People would be all "Ralph Edward Chesthairington?" in the clinic waiting room and I would hobble over with my damaged lady foot and they would look confused by my appearance and I would get flustered and I would be reminded that what society legally thinks I am is not who I actually am. That would both blow and suck simultaneously.

I would not want my picture next to the name "Ralph Edward Chesthairington" on my I.D., nor on the medication I need to take every day, nor on the awards and accomplishments I receive in my life, when I don't relate to that name or call myself by it. It would hurt in a way I can sort of imagine but can't fully comprehend. I take for granted that my name is Amanda and I look like an Amanda. My daughter doesn't have the privilege of being born biologically female, immediately identified as such, and named appropriately.

We can't take away all her pain and all the uphill battles she's going to have to face. But we can change her damn name so she smiles when she sees it, and connects with it, and proudly owns it. That, we can do. And so that's what we did.

Simple. Right?

Are you sad about the name change?

Not really. I mean I'll always have a connection with the name I chose for her in the womb. And I say "I" because it I was the one who stole it from my little sister, who said it was her favourite boy name. So I did what any good sister does and insisted we call our baby that the minute we found out she had a peen (the baby, not my sister). My husband protested a little and I ignored him and kept calling my unborn child by that name. And then it became the name. And my sister was a little ticked off at me, but it's ok because she hasn't had kids yet and she can totally have it back now. We've returned it for a new one.

Incidentally, the name Gutsy picked for herself was my sister's top girl name. True and somewhat unfortunate story. Oops.

I went through my grieving time for my son. I was a sad Maven for a little while because I had visions of who he was going to be and what he was going to look like and what kind of life he would have. But I'm now super excited about this girl business. I have a girl child now! And for some reason, the official name change made me even more excited about that fact. It brings home the femininity that is emerging more and more every day inside her. I'm excited to see what she's going to be and what she's going to look like and what kind of life she's going to have.

Given how much happier she is, I think it's going to be a much more positive experience than what was awaiting my son.

I admittedly cried happy tears when the name change came. The goodbye tears were shed a while back. It's all good.

Are you sure she won't change her mind?

I will be an annoying bitch and answer that question with other questions: Do we get married thinking of the possibility of divorce down the road, or do we celebrate the love we have today? Do we buy a house thinking we might lose it in a fire or flood, or do we sign the papers while excitedly discussing the new wall colours and flooring?

We're never sure of anything. Nothing is 100%. Ever. But statistically speaking, my long-term loving marriage is far more likely to crumble than Gutsy is to stop identifying as female. Research strongly supports this.

But more importantly, many conversations with my child have led me to believe that she is very sure of who she is, even at eleven years of age.

And, even more importantly, she steals my fucking shoes right out of my closet. Right out of my closet. What more proof does anyone need?

Our job is to support her where she is today and help her move in the direction she's aiming for, not to impose fear or doubt on her. If that means giving her a new name, that's what we do. Worst-case scenario? We change her name again. And my sister gets two recycled baby names. And Gutsy gives all my fucking shoes back. I don't think any of those things is likely to happen, though.

The name change is done. Next up: gender marker. We might be waiting a little longer for that one.

We've reached another milestone in our journey.

And now that I've brought it up, I'm a little pissed about my missing footwear.

And grateful that my name isn't Ralph Edward Chesthairington. Like seriously. Wow.

Off to go poke around in the kid's closet while she's sleeping. I'm pretty sure I'm going to finally find my sandals - in October.

Daughters, man. Someone should have warned me.

P.S.: As always, every bit of this was written with permission from one amazing kiddo, who really wants the world to understand what it's like to be a transgender child. She is super awesome beyond measure. And needs to grow out of my shoe size.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A Parent's Guide on What to do When Your Child Comes Out

Step 1: Take a deep breath. OMG, right? Big news. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe you suspected this was coming. But you should still breathe anyway because you need do that to keep being alive. So this step applies no matter what. Get some oxygen into you.

Step 2: Tell your child you love them. That might seem obvious to you, but they just told you something really big and they're probably pretty worried about what's going on in your head right now. Even if you think you're the coolest, hippest, hipster-hat-wearing, beatnik glasses-sporting, ukulele playing, social network-roaming parent out there - so of course you're supportive and how could they think otherwise? - you're still one of the most important people in the world to them and they need to hear "I love you" right now.

Step 3: Behave like you love them. Seriously. Loving them means being supportive. It does not mean trying to fix them, lecture them, use religion to shame or dismiss them, worry aloud about what everyone else will think, hurt them, kick them out of the house, or disown them completely. That's not what you do when you love someone. Don't do it. You'll spend a lifetime regretting it.

Step 4: Believe them. After my child came out, I spent a couple of weeks asking her if she was "sure." Because, like, I wanted to make sure that she was sure, and that I wasn't reframing my idea of her only so she could tell me she was mistaken at a later date. I think that was understandable in some respects; I was after all, trying to wrap my head around something I didn't understand. But it was also really hard on her because she felt I wasn't listening. This might be brand new to you, but your child has been feeling this way for a long time. And yes, gender and sexuality can be pretty fluid for some of us, and how we feel one day may not be how we feel the next. But if your child was sure enough to tell you, they're pretty sure about how they're feeling. So honour them where they're at today. Right now. If things change later, you can both deal with it later. (But there's a pretty good chance things aren't going to change. Just a heads up.)

Step 5: Educate yourself. Even if you think you know everything, you don't. There is some great lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) literature out there. Read reputable books and websites. Join a local support group. Talk to people in the LGBT community who can offer you some perspective. My child is trans and I have no idea what that feels like. I never will. So I appreciate any time I get to chat with a trans person about their experiences. The more I know, the better I can help.

Step 6: Love your child. Did I mention that one already? Well, too bad. This is important and deserves another mention. Lead with love and everything else will fall into place. I held on to that belief over the first few precarious weeks and it saved me from eating too many stress cookies. Ok I'm lying about that. I ate way too many stress cookies. But I definitely hyperventilated a lot less while I was trying to figure everything out. I knew if I loved her and showed her I love her, we would sort the rest out. So far, so good.

Step 7: Recognize that your child is the expert on your child. The only one who knows what's going on inside your kid is your kid. How they see themselves and who they're attracted to is all inside their brain. You're the grownup, so you probably know more about preparing a budget or driving a car, but you don't know more about your child's sexual orientation or gender identity than they do. My child's job is transitioning. My job is facilitating that transition and going to bat for her when I need to. I follow her lead. Period.

Step 8: Stop caring what everyone else thinks. This one is harder for some of us (and by "some of us" I mean me, the people pleasing junkie.) This isn't about what anyone else thinks. The opinions of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours need to take a backseat when you have a LGBT child. Not everyone is going to understand and not everybody has to. We had a pretty positive experience after our child came out, but we still lost some people. It hurt at first, but the folks we've met since are far kinder and more open-minded than their predecessors. And isn't that the type of person we want in our lives anyway? We upgraded, that's all. Newer friend model. More bells and whistles. Now comes with side airbags and empathy.

Step 9: Every now and then, make sure to look back and see how far you've both come. Maybe you've made some mistakes along the way, but look at where things are now. Your child is likely the bravest person you know for being true to themselves in a world that tries its best to force us to be like everyone else. And you? Well, you've grown too.  In fact, you're one of the strongest people you know - even if you don't always see it. You've held someone's hand through a proverbial hurricane and never let go.  That takes an incredible amount of resilience. You rock.

Step 10: Use what you know to help others. Right now, there's a child getting ready to tell their parents something big. And right after that happens, there are going to be some loved ones who will be as scared and lost as you once felt. That's where you get to come in. Now that you've weathered the initial storm, maybe you can share some perspective - and an umbrella. And if they're not ready to support their child? At least they know where to find you. If one of your child's LGBT friends doesn't have good support at home, offer your home to hang out in as a safe space; a judgment-free, LGBT-friendly spot for kids to just be themselves. We have a sticker on our door that indicates our home is safe. And I have one on my car. Oh, and I have a button on my jacket. I'm pretty much a walking safe space, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Step 11: Did I mention love your child? It's not easy when you don't fit neatly inside the typical boxes society has laid out for us. Some days will be harder than others, even weeks, months, or years later. But if our kids know they always have a soft place to fall, it can make all the difference in the world. Unconditional love is the biggest gift we can give them. And what they will teach us in return is priceless. Our children are incredible when we let them shine.

So let them shine.