A few months ago, I read an article in New York Magazine about an African American transgender woman whose face graced Clairol hair dye boxes for many years. Tracey “Africa” Norman was also a model for Vogue, Essence, and Avon. Hardly anyone knew she was in fact born a male. For many years she concealed this truth.
The NY Mag article was a long, in-depth, and well-written one that gave readers an inside look into Norman’s incredible life and career. It opened with the line,
“Tracey ‘Africa’ Norman always knew that the question wasn’t if she’d be found out, but how long she could go undetected.”
I couldn’t imagine having to live life this way. Being born biologically male and feeling as though I was a woman. Living as a woman, and then having to hide this from everyone, in fear of my truth being detected one day. Especially in an industry where the norm is to undress and dress in front of fellow models, fashion designers, and photographers. I empathized with Norman and grieved for the great turmoil she must have felt her entire existence.
As expected, the comments section at the end of the article was filled with praise:
“Amazing!” “Inspiring!” “Wonderful!” “Thank you for your candor and bravery!”
One person mentioned other comments from “bigots and racists” but NY Mag moderators must have deleted those because I could not find any.
What no one talked about, however, was a heartbreaking admission halfway through the article:
Her first sexual experience was at age 5, when she was molested by a teenage boy who lived down the street. “I didn’t mind,” says Norman. “I went back a few times. I was very young. I didn’t know any better.” What bothered her more was finding out that a friend of the boy’s was hiding in the closet, watching. “I got mad because I thought it was personal,” she says. “That’s when I first got my experience of being called a f**.” But the insult didn’t exactly register with her. “In my head I was straight and I only liked men.” And in her head, she was a woman.
Let’s read that again, in case you skipped over it like everyone else seemed to: Her first sexual experience was at the age of five, when she was molested by a teenage boy who lived down the street.
Innocence lost. At the tender age of five.
I felt a pang in my heart. This hurt and sadness quickly turned into shock and disbelief that no one was talking about this. It was mentioned and the article moved right along, as did everyone else who read it.
I wanted to scream.
Nearly six months after I first saw the article on NY Mag’s website in December 2015, I haven’t forgotten about Norman. While others marveled about her amazing career, beauty, and the overcoming the odds as a black transgender woman, what I couldn’t get over was a child who had been taken advantage of and abused.
Let me be clear. My thesis today is not surmising what makes a person transgender. I opened with Norman’s story because her disclosure of abuse—and the lack of reaction to it by readers—demonstrates how we as a society have become completely calloused regarding the sanctity of a child’s innocence.
Why am I taking this so personally?
For one, my son is seven years old. He knows absolutely ZERO about anything sexual. We don’t do sleepovers. We are diligent about protecting him from the onslaught of sexual images and messages on the TV, movies, commercials, magazines, and billboards. We don’t just consume whatever the movie and marketing industries throw our way. Just a few days ago, we were driving down an industrial street and I spotted a huge billboard for a strip club about a quarter of a mile in the distance—displaying a scantily clan woman (to put it the least descriptive way I know how).
I turned to the backseat and said to my boy, “Son, close your eyes! Don’t open them until I tell you.”
He complied and said, “Why, Mommy? Why?”
“Trust Mommy and I,” my husband chimed in from the driver’s seat.
After we passed by the strip club, a half hour discussion ensued. “There was something that was not good for our eyes and our soul,” I said. When he pressed further, I explained, “There was a picture of a woman who needed her privacy, honey.” We talked about, as we have many times before, images and things that are not good for our mind and spirit, and how Mommy and Daddy’s job is to protect and teach him to make good decisions about these things as he gets older.
I don’t have time in this post to explain how and why we do this, but if you are interested here and here are terrific articles that expound a little more on the subject.
If you would like to criticize me for being overprotective, you can talk to me when we live in a world where boys/men don’t rape and hurt girls/women. Until then, I will continue working hard to raise a son who honors, respects, and protects women—an uphill battle in this confused, hypersexualized culture.
Going back to Norman’s admission of being molested in the article, I thought about how I would feel about this being my own son, who was five just two short years ago. My son was even more innocent than he is now. It would rip my heart to shreds! I would feel this way about this happening to ANY child.
What Happened to My Mother…
I think a major reason why I’m passionate about the loss of innocence is because I remember vividly the day my mother told me she had been physically and sexually abused by her own father from ages 10 to 15. We were parked in front of a therapist’s office, waiting to go in and have a group session with her (it’s the only one I recall) and she shared this sad news with my older sister and me. I must have been eight or nine at the time. We were out of our seat belts, still in the car, standing behind the driver’s seat where she sat. We wrapped around arms around our mother’s neck and sobbed.
I did not fully understand the extent of the abuse at that young age, though she explained more to me as I became an adult. I just know I felt a huge sense of loss and sadness that something so terrible had happened to my mom. Especially when she was only a couple of years older than I was at the time—and at the hands of someone who was supposed to take care of and protect her.
[Photo by Kiran Foster on Flickr]
My maternal grandmother passed away in her 40’s when my mom was just a child, leaving my mom’s biological father to raise eight children, one of whom had special needs. So my mom’s father, who had already been physically abusive, moved down the line from her oldest sister and finally to her with unimaginable sexual abuse.
Even now, with children of my own, I look at what my mom went through with new eyes—and deeper sorrow.
I imagine her as young girl who just lost her mother, and how horrific it must have been for her to be raped by her father. And to be silent from ages 10-15 until one of her sisters finally told someone at school what was happening to them, and their father was finally arrested and put in prison.
I wish I could go back in time and rescue her—or at least to send a message to her teachers, her friends, that something was not right in her home and that they should check it out. But I can’t. It’s an awful feeling to have. But thankfully, God is bigger than sin, crime, and tragedy. Despite everything that happened to her, my mom believed God was always watching over her, protecting her from death. And since this happened to her, my mom was fiercely protective of my sister’s and me when we were growing up. She is strong. She doesn’t put up with anything. She was a single mom and had boyfriends throughout the years, but we always knew that we most important to her. She told us no man was ever allowed to lay a hand on us. We always knew if that anyone had ever hurt us, we could tell her. She would believe us. And she would fight for us. We knew because she told us. Often.
My mother always made sure we knew we had a voice. Thank God for this! Sadly, a devastating number of children are not so fortunate.
Secrets of the Voiceless…
Somehow in this debate about transgender bathrooms, with President Obama issuing “guidelines” for all public schools nationwide to follow—or risk losing federal funding—the voice of children has been lost. The voice of adults who suffered trauma and sexual abuse as children—like the women in this video—has been ignored.
[Photo by Wassim Loumi on Flickr]
In the New York Magazine article, Norman said he “didn’t mind” being molested at age five, but that he “didn’t know any better.” So I infer from this that he didn’t tell anyone at the time. The secret was kept safe. He remained silent.
Then at age six, Norman’s father—who had tried to make him less effeminate by getting him boxing gloves and hitting him on the side of the head—left the home.
How can we ever know the devastating consequences of innocence violated and innocence lost?
Isn’t the innocence of a child something sacred?
Could it be that we, as adults—in all our cynicism, corruption, and tendency to sexualize everything—have forgotten this altogether?
I believe most people agree that children should be protected, and yet the actions of our culture betray this belief. Many think it’s funny when a movie shows a child swearing like a grownup in a Martin Scorsese film. We don’t bat an eye when children’s fashion is aimed at sexualizing young girls more and more. Through television, movies, even cartoons and video games, and easily accessible pornography on the internet, children are being exposed to sexually explicit content at an earlier and earlier age. What’s worse, children are being abused at a younger age. (I have stumbled across several articles over the years that made me want to vomit and wish that I had never read them in the first place.)
We pride ourselves in being so “evolved” as a society, but we still haven’t found a way to protect children from abuse. We make sex education a priority in school, but we don’t educate children in school about what inappropriate touch is and what to do if someone abuses them. We’re so quick to say that is a parent’s job, but we have crossed the line so many times in the school system. It’s a double standard. It doesn’t make sense. Why not make sure that every child knows he or she is valuable, important, has a voice, and shouldn’t be abused or exploited?
Instead, heartbreaking statistics remain unchanged due to our ignorance and inaction:
- 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
- Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
- During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.
We ignore the approximate 600,000 victims of sex trafficking in the United States alone. People who are literally someone else’s slaves. Who have no basic human rights at all. But we’ve skipped them and moved on to free people’s rights of sexual and gender expression.
Inclusion Over Safety?
So how do all these frustrations and thoughts I have been struggling with relate to the transgender bathroom debate? I acknowledge that transgender individuals are not the threat. They have probably been using the bathroom for the sex with which they identify for as long as public restrooms have existed. Some say this has only become a problem because people tried to legislate this issue. It has now become the policy of businesses like Target and our national public education system—as President Obama just a few days ago issued a decree for all public schools nationwide to allow students to use the bathroom matching their gender identity.
[Photo by Sylvar on Flickr]
“Citing Title IX, the letter [signed by officials from the Departments of Justice and Education] says the school should not require a medical diagnosis, nor should they demand documentation reflecting the student’s gender identity before taking steps to protect transgender students – ‘even in circumstances in which other students, parents, or community members raise objections.’”
Why is this kind of bonkers?
For one, when my mom remarried when I was nine years old, I began writing my stepdad’s last name as my name on all my schoolwork. He was my dad. Plain and simple. I was now a “Villegas.” Or, so I thought. One day my teacher asked me why I was writing a different last name on my papers. She was aware my mom had gotten married, and asked if my stepdad had legally adopted me and if my name had been legally changed. The answers to those questions was “no,” so I had to go back to writing my legal last name on my schoolwork. As a fourth grader, I couldn’t change my last name without going through the proper channels, but if I was a fourth grader today and wanted to change my gender, I could do so without any medical diagnosis or documentation. Amazing.
Second and more important, a policy is being enforced with ZERO way to weed out those who are disingenuous and those who mean harm. We are opening a door with no way to PROTECT children. Many of whom are growing up in broken homes, in sometimes horrific circumstances…many of whom have been sexualized or exposed to pornography at a young age… many of whom have been abused…many of whom may be in the foster care system…many of whom may have been rescued from violent or war-torn countries through international adoption—who are surrounded by confusing circumstances in a culture that refuses to protect them or draw a line in sand.
The letter from the Obama Administration’s Departments of Justice and Education stated,
“As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students to ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex,” the letter says.
Whether transgender individuals having to use a bathroom opposite of the sex he or she may identify with constitutes discrimination—and the constitutional role and boundaries of the executive branch of our government—is a whole other topic for another day.
What’s important to discuss today is that this issue has been vastly oversimplified and framed as “inclusion” and “human rights.” Opponents are just “uncomfortable,” or worse, characterized as bigots and haters.
Many of us have LGBT friends or family members and we love them. We don’t want them to feel excluded. We would not want to feel excluded if we were in their position. But what many fail to see is that however simple something might seem, there are always deeper issues and ramifications.
So we have to ask ourselves these questions:
Does the need for inclusion trump the need for safety?
Is an inclusion policy worthwhile if it opens the door for perpetrators to harm women and children?
Is inclusion worthwhile if no guarantees can be made to protect our most vulnerable members of society?
Here are three examples in Toronto, Chicago, and Seattle where this new course has already taken a disturbing turn. People say it’s never been a problem before, but we’ve never had this mandate before either.
We don’t live in a utopia where everyone follows the rules and does what’s right.
Jared from Subway is a horrific case in point where a consumption of child pornography gave way to a desire to exploit and violate children not just in front of a computer screen, but in person. It’s terrible but it’s true.
Bad guys find loopholes and vulnerable places to target victims, and I think we may have just kicked the door open for them.
What We Can Learn from the LGBT Movement
What if child rights and abuse victim advocates had been as strategic at coming out into the light, mobilizing, and advancing their cause in politics and media as the LGBT movement has been in the last 30-40 years?
How different would the world be today?
How different would we look at the bathroom/locker room/privacy issue of our time?
Instead, secrets are kept to allow abusers to continue to abuse. As Norman said, children “don’t know any better.” So they become manipulated, taken advantage of, confused. Secrets are kept to hide the victim’s shame with each passing year.
They walk around like you and me—all the while carrying an awful secret. A secret the adults in their life often fail to discover until it is too late, as in the case of Norman and my mother. A secret that parents and the school system fail to help guard against through education about improper touch and what to do if victimized. So these victims become silent sufferers—save for the small percentage who find their voice to pursue prosecution and fight for the rights of other victims.
Oh, and children don’t vote, so it seems few lawmakers are concerned about enforcing laws to protect them.
Yet look at what the first sentence of the Preamble to our Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
ALL members of the human family have inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights—including those who struggle with their gender identity and including women and children. We have to find a solution to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. And as it stands, this open door bathroom policy fails to do that.
Maybe it’s time for survivors of child abuse and their advocates to rise up. To come out into the light. To somehow garner the courage to stand up and speak out. To let their voices be heard, so that lawmakers and the rest of us begin to take their rights into consideration.
***Here are two great resources on how to talk to your child about sexual abuse, how to protect them, and how to respond if abuse has occurred:
Five Steps to Protecting Children for Abuse
Body Safety Rules for Children