By Lexie Bean
She and I never spoke in college. She was a year older and already tattooed. She looked standoffish, afraid even when we locked eyes at an organizing meeting for supporting survivors experiencing sexual abuse on campus. We watched the conversation unfold between us: Should there be a hotline? How can we help? The attending students described a fear of being raped on campus and being nostalgic for the vibrant and ambitious person they were before.
She and I shift our gazes as she forces laughter with a cluster of friends in matching Urban Outfitters ensembles—white tank tops and cut sleeves dipped down to their waists. I stayed quiet, cupped my elbows, and left without speaking to anyone.
Years later, I stood in her kitchen lined with Bread and Puppet artwork and reused Ziplocks. I just finished speaking on a panel at a local university for an anthology of trans survivors, Written on the Body. Now, older and both of us a few more tattoos deeper, she offers me a cup of hot tea. This is the most we’ve ever spoken. She says, “I don’t remember a before. I don’t remember life from before to feel nostalgic about.”
I say, “Me neither.”
We break eye contact again to sip. You see, we are both survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We miraculously finished college without sharing it directly with anyone who could advocate for us.
Instead, I went to the hospital throughout my college years looking for the words my liberal arts school’s resources didn’t give me. College—like many, was my first time away from home. At home, specific forms of violence were not only normalized but framed as an inevitable future for my body and my mind. Even with a range of “sexual liberation” celebrations on campus like student centerfolds, baskets of free condoms, and month-long workshops on sexual skill-building leading up to “Safer Sex Night,” I felt further away from any future I could imagine for myself.
While my body was no longer in immediate danger when I moved into my freshman dorm and walked through my co-op for the first time, my mind invited the sensation back. Distance of time and space let in new memories and old sensations. Only a month into school, I had to step out of my freshman seminar during the casual conversation about PTSD through the eyes of two young girls in an assigned reading. I texted people from home, “I love you” as if my body would wither away in my new twin bed after the lights went out. In retrospect, and retrospect only, do I realize I am not the only one who did not access university-provided resources. I believe this is because I am a trans and queer survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I entered college already believing abuse was normal. To seek a resource for any new abuse or assault would mean having to come out with multiple identities that society repeatedly does not know how to handle.
Nearly every person I know who has survived this intersection of queer, trans, and childhood sexual abuse survivor also went to the hospital for help, whether in their 20s or far later into adulthood. Many times, we present with seizure-like symptoms—as if what happened is simply a part of our bodies, but in hospitals, the wrong questions were always asked if asked at all. Providers would say ”Seems like just a little anxiety,” or “Sounds like you care too much about what people think about you,” or “Maybe you shouldn’t be a vegetarian.”
This pattern intensified for me during school breaks when I felt the relief and excitement of my peers finishing exams or missing long-distance lovers. I, on the other hand, did not want to go home. I wanted to do anything but go home because I was afraid of what could happen when I got there. Again, somehow I felt as if I was falling at college. Not academically, but socially. I was in the way of other people’s fun. I believed it was better to either disappear, go to my room, or say yes to whatever other people wanted as I didn’t know I could have my own needs.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, “children who had an experience of rape or attempted rape in their adolescent years were 13.7 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape in their first year of college.” While I did experience various forms of assault during my college years, on and off campus, I never thought to go to the university for that kind of support. After all, I was living with the narrative that this was inevitable. Additionally, disclosing my history as a CSA survivor comes with risks since it doesn’t fit the general #MeToo narrative that a majority of first-time survivors are cis, straight girls who went to a college party. It felt like there was no space for my story.
Though I am now a working author, I was afraid to take writing classes out of a deep-rooted terror that saying too much would ruin everything; especially for others who I knew would blame themselves for never saying something before. I probably never would have made it here without the company of songs by Alas, Alas, and poems by Andrew/Andrea Gibson finding me when I needed them. It shouldn’t be in luck that I find the right album to listen to on repeat, or the right class with the right teacher, the right encounter, or the right kind of rock bottom.
While universities have certainly improved in broadening their attention to on-campus assaults, there is much work to be done in advocating and offering language to students arriving who are already survivors. There are many resources and educational tools needed as states increasingly conflate queerness and transness with abuse. These resources are especially necessary and true when academic institutions present themselves as hand-holders in a transitional period where it’s decided “who will go on” in life.
I have visited countless university resource websites in my years of advocacy through anthology curation, writing The Ship We Built, joining the RAINN National Leadership Council, and doing dozens of university events and workshops. Fewer than five of the resource websites I’ve researched directly provided accessible childhood sexual abuse resources, and less than half directly mention the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Some websites had information on either but it was buried. Consider that every second longer it takes to find a resource, the more time there is to convince oneself that getting help is not “worth it” and not “for us.” As the holiday season approaches and many students make the decision to return home: some of us will end up in your offices, but most of us won’t. Most of us will end up in hospitals seeking language or simply a reminder that we have a body, and some won’t. Some of us will find the right set of poems and some of us won’t remember what really happened in our minds, but our bodies certainly will.
Colleges are for teaching, memory, and having fun, but for me, it wasn’t that simple because nobody’s life starts with school. Trans and queer childhood sexual abuse survivors are people. Yes, even when it’s hard for us to remember this fact. So, let us know through support. In order to honor our futures—please, understand our pasts.
Featured Image by Jimmy Chan.
Lexie Bean (they/he) is a trans multimedia artist from the Midwest whose work revolves around themes of bodies, homes, cyclical violence, and queer identity. They are a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, member of the RAINN National Leadership Council, and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for their anthology Written on the Body. They have worked with sexual abuse survivors for nearly 15 years, maintaining a special focus on trans victims. They’ve served as a keynote speaker around the US, led over 100 panels and workshops, and collaborated with restorative justice group Hidden Water. Lexie integrated their personal experiences into the acclaimed The Ship We Built, the first middle grade novel centering and written by a trans boy released by a major US publisher. Their work has been featured in Teen Vogue, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Ms. Magazine, Them, Bust Magazine, Autostraddle, and more. Currently they are working on new book projects, film writing, and co-directing their first feature-length documentary, What Will I Become? www.lexiebean.com