I spent the late 80’s at two universities. One was USC, which borders on South Central Los Angeles. The other was the University of Redlands, an hour inland where the smog collects.
Like most poor white kids in the Central Valley I was raised to be racist. You might have asked me if I was a racist and of course would have said no with a horrified stare, but then maybe secretly shown you where I hid my Prince tapes or parroted some stupid racist joke from some popular, quotable movie — say, WEIRD SCIENCE or REVENGE OF THE NERDS. I’m ashamed of this behavior, but I cannot deny that it happened. Once my eyes started to open, once I walked around South Central and began to recognize how deep that brainwashing went, once I realize that one of the acceptable euphemistic epithets I was raised to use — “cotton-picking” — is an adjective of disparagement racist at its core, it became clear that I had a difficult, decades-long road in unlearning these behaviors. I don’t deserve any kudos for committing to this unlearning. It’s basic consciousness-raising; it’s basic decency. It’s literally the first thing a white person must do if they want to claim anti-racism.
So I went to LA, and did my best to get city-wise. Then I transferred to this little liberal arts school in Redlands where I thought I’d get less of a sales pitch for my future and more of that “life of the mind” romantic ideal I craved. I grew up a poor white trans girl in rural California; you’d think I would have known better than to leave the city for a place where there were more racists and orange groves, where it’s easy for violence to happen hidden behind big round trees that all look the same.
You may remember Redlands as the city where the people lived who shot up that daycare center for developmentally disabled people in 2015. It was a town built on and around orange groves. It was also, unlike South Central LA, very white.
The thing I discovered almost immediately when I arrived in Redlands was the degree to which white men scared me, infinitely more than black men, infinitely more than men of any other color. I began to realize that my whole life, the men who have threatened violence towards me; the men who have committed violence towards me; the men who have sexually abused me; the men who have emotionally abused me — to a man, they have been white men.
And, in fact, as I began to date, I found that black men treated me with a shocking amount of respect. Never once in my dating life did I date a black man who even slightly questioned my gender identity. I was so full of self-loathing that at the time, so this positive attention puzzled me.
I was at Redlands at the height of HIV/AIDS despair. I was there when the first Gulf War started. There were only a handful of out gay and lesbian kids, like four or five of us at first. I still have a t-shirt from this time; black with a big pink triangle on the front, and “Coalition To End Homophobia 1990” emblazoned in a slender serif; on the back, in a font that might as well be Comic Sans: “SOMETIMES IT PAYS TO BE INDISCREET.” Despite our coalitionaI status, I remained deeply fearful of telling the gay and lesbian kids I was trans. I suspect I was reading my peers’ microagressions – a term then yet-to-be-developed — around trans issues. Microaggressions, Those sometimes unintentional, sometimes deliberate shitty little things we do to each other just to prove a point. Somehow then I was still “passing as male,” which I’ve never had much of a talent for.
We had our little group of people who were in desperate need of a better dating pool. Of course, we had other immensely important things on our gay agenda, but in my experience, activists tend to burn a little hot. Suddenly all this crazy shit started happening on campus. There were gay students getting death threats from faceless and nameless people. Our quaint gay event flyers were found graffiti’d with swastikas, which we thought was overkill since we’d already put pink triangles on everything. New classes arrived, and a few more queer kids came out, but our numbers remained small; everybody but me dated everybody else. Anonymous homophobic posters would appear in the commons for us to stare at during meal times. Several times I was cornered by large athletic white men or followed by pickup trucks around campus at night. I was not the only one this happened to.
One day we heard that a cross was burned on the lawn of a faculty member who lived very near campus. Our little group walked over to watch it come down.
This went on every year. We went to the administration, and were told by alums of the university that we were the first gay kids to go there in its 80+ year history, and they didn’t know what to do if they couldn’t figure out who our antagonists were, and that people need some time to get used to the idea of gay stuff and as you know HIV has people concerned. Sorry, but their hands were tied. Our complaints and fears fell on completely deaf ears. I was terrified.
A few towns over was a place reputed as the home base of some KKK Grand Dragon. Just over the mountains, in the deserts, was where Tom Metzger and his Aryan movement was housed.
There was another town, Yucaipa, where you could drive around on Sundays and see white signboards hanging from mailboxes, each reading some deeply disturbing quote from Isaiah or Revelations, reminding everyone in this otherwise very placid town that eventually the snakepit would open beneath their feet and then what, sinner? Maybe half, maybe more of the houses in that town displayed these signs. It seemed like Sunday was the day they all traded signs so people didn’t get so bored seeing the same old boring verse about the Whore Of Babylon at Chuck’s house.
We got wind that a teacher at Yucaipa High School who had been given a commendation from the state – something on the order of “Teacher of the Year” – was being fired from his position because he was outted as gay. The students wanted to do a walkout. They invited us to help. We did our amateur best, which wasn’t very good.
I had a good relationship going with a woman who was very supportive of my transition, but still I was caught in so much despair about the situation. I spent all my time in pursuit of resources that were dry wells and I was left with the thought that I’d actually never be able to transition. I thought I’d never survive that college. Transferring again was right out, and my only other option was to return to my home town, where for sure I was going to be forced back into the closet and under the same constant threat of violence.
My grades suffered immensely. I had been a straight A student, graduating near the top of my high school class. In my whole academic career, I only got one C, and that was in a philosophy class at the height of this terrifying time. That C kept me from getting Phi Beta Kappa and Cum Laude, which I missed by a couple hundredths of a percentage point. This was personally devastating, and it permanently derailed my academic career.
I will never forgive that university for failing me and my queer class so completely, and to add insult to injury I’m still in great financial debt from the experience. Maybe if the coming fascists decide to reinstitute debtors prisons I’ll have that to look forward to as well.
I don’t know how I survived that time. I don’t know how I’ve managed to continue to live pay the costs that this violence and terrorism has marked me with.
But I expected to be dead long before now; nevertheless,I’ve survived somehow and maybe if we’re lucky most of us on the margins will survive this coming administration. We’re beginning what appears to be this generation’s labor of love, which is going to cost us financially and emotionally for a long time, and it’s really heartbreaking to know that those of us who are continually victimized by this racist, heteropatriarchal violence will continue to have our wealth violently extracted from us.
My heart is utterly broken today, and even in Baltimore I feel like I’m back hiding in a Redlands orange grove from a pickup truck that is hunting for me and wondering why and how I’m going to write a paper about Hegel or some shit like that.
I want the generation that comes after this to never feel this feeling.
*Photo of Rahne Alexander and Kristen Anchor by Joseph M. Giordano