Trigger alert - sexual violence details below, could be triggering to some readers.
If you know me, you know I’m not shy. Of course there are things that make me nervous, but that seems to just be proof that I’m a human being. I’m not shy though. When we first meet, we can talk. Really talk. This moment isn’t any different at all. I’m only twenty-one years old, but I’ve already decided I don’t have anything to hide.
My name is Zac and I’m a survivor.
After I say that, the first thing to come into my mind is middle school. This is a time that no one I know looks back on fondly. Gym class was the worst part of it for me. I always feel like I’m not supposed to just jump to the saddest part of a story. But what am I supposed to do if the story is only has sad parts? Middle school P.E. meant changing in a freezing cold locker room with a dozen other boys. While most people could look straight ahead or only at their own bodies as they changed clothes, I wasn’t really given that opportunity. I remember one boy, not quite as tall as me, so thin his ribs protruded from his body; his shoulder bones stretched his skin thin. He’d stand behind me while I changed, leaning toward me, his mouth close to my ear.
“Why do you act like that?”
“Like what?” I’d ask back. It was a genuine question. I didn’t understand the problem; I still don’t understand the problem.
“Why do you act like such a faggot?” A little spit from the last syllable on my cheek or my earlobe.
People understand why I dislike the word faggot, but they don’t understand why it makes me sick to my stomach. Maybe this will make it a little clearer. Because what followed his fucked up question was something I didn’t talk about for years. I’m always scared it doesn’t sound that bad. Where the need for people to validate my pain or past trauma came from, I’m not sure, but that feeling often looms when I speak about my childhood.
That lanky kid suddenly wasn’t the only person behind me. One more, two more, three more. And they came closer, pressing themselves into me. There were hands between my legs, a knee against my ass, hands against my throat… It’s hard for me to understand even now that no one ever helped me. If they saw it, if we made eye contact, they’d slam their lockers closed and flee the locker room. I wish I could just flee the locker room. Because even after they were done groping and taunting me, I’d keep my eyes clenched close and listen to them leaving. Their sneakers squeaked toward the exit in unison together, laughter like punches in the gut. I swallowed every slur in small gulps. My face red as fuck. No other way to describe it.
It’s hard for me to understand why I didn’t help myself.
I was too nice to throw any punches. Too nice to speak except to whisper stop stop stop stop. Because this happened all the time – every single day in my gym class. I was asked “Do you like that, faggot?” or “Is that what you wanted, you fucking queer?” or “Does that feel good? Fucking sick.”
It has taken years, but now I use “queer” as a term for my identity. It’s a word that is empowering and beautiful and complex. Just like people are, I guess. Not people like these. They really don’t deserve any opportunity. I mean that with all of my strength even after all of this time. They don’t deserve a single fucking opportunity from me.
It wasn’t what I wanted. Two years before this all happened, in fourth grade, I was called a “faggot,” pushed down by a group of boys my age while I was running, and I broke my wrist. I wasn’t ready then, either. And years later in 2009, my second semester of college, I wasn’t ready to be raped. Rape is a loaded word to me. I sometimes feel like I can’t claim it because although it took me too long, I was able to make him stop. Maybe “rape” is a word that should be assigned to something worse than what happened to me...but I feel like that’s impossible to measure. And when he was inside of me having used no lubricant, with his hand over my mouth, his drunken eyes glazed over, I used that word in my head. No one was home then, but if they had been, I question whether or not I would have been able to ask them for help. That would be a different kind of exposure right then. If I’d been found, face in a frozen expression, naked except for the comforter beneath me I’d been gripping tighter and tighter – maybe I’d have felt even worse. He left behind a cloud of the stench of alcohol and sweat. It stuck to my bedroom and the hallway.
Afterward, I lost the word “rape” somewhere in my throat and chest and rib cage and knees. It took a long time for me to find it again. It’s hard to remember where I found it, but once I did, some kind of healing begins.
My strategy has always been to talk nonchalantly about the things that have happened to me. I talk lightly about all the terrible things in my past – sexual abuse, horrible bullying, rape, and all of the other times I felt as though no one gave me the opportunity to give or not give my consent. But here I am to try a different strategy – for the first time in awhile. After all, I’m a survivor. For me to become a survivor and remain a survivor, I have to be willing to be malleable like my mind and emotions are. I’m alive and trying.