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Gender Non-Conforming Youth and Sexual Assault

By Shannon Wyss

Reprinted with permission from the newsletter of Men Can Stop Rape

Taylor graduated from a public, coeducational, Midwestern high school in the late 1990s. Although she had some similarities with most other teens, she was also different because she was an out-of-the-closet and very butch dyke. She wore baggy pants, leather jackets, and a chain connecting her wallet to a belt loop. She hung out with guys, skaters, Goths, punks, and freaks. And like many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, Taylor survived sexual assault. At fourteen years old, she was raped by an older boy, a rape that became a public event when another teenager saw what was going on and called others to watch.

Unfortunately, like most instances of anti-LGBTQ sexual assault, Taylor's rape happened amidst ongoing violence from her peers. Other students constantly stared at her, she was called names, and boys tried to force themselves on her sexually. And as is also common in homophobic physical attacks, Taylor was assaulted by multiple perpetrators: on her fifteenth birthday, three boys beat her with a belt on her buttocks and between her legs. She has named this experience not only a physical attack but also a sexual one. Like a great many other gender non-conforming youth who are punished for their difference, Taylor lived in continual fear. She responded by putting on a front of being hard and willing to fight at the slightest provocation. To numb her physical and emotional pain and in an attempt to make herself be the kind of girl that others expected, she resorted to substance abuse and to unsatisfactory sex with boys. Ultimately, she became so depressed that she tried to commit suicide. While Taylor survived, others are not so fortunate. It is estimated that one-third of all completed adolescent suicides are done by LGBTQ youth, and gender non-conforming teens are among the most likely to attempt to kill themselves.

Taylor's story points to the desperate need for groups in the field of rape prevention to incorporate into their work the lives of butch, effeminate, transgendered, and genderqueer teenagers. Organizations of feminist men can look to Taylor's teen years to learn how assaults may spring from a combination of sexism, homophobia, and genderphobia: Taylor might have been spared, for instance, if her peers had been more accepting of her refusal to be closeted about her sexual orientation, to dress and act in ways that we deem "appropriate" for female-bodied teens, or to sleep with the boys who wouldn't take "no" for an answer. As it stands, innumerable youth like Taylor - young people who will not compromise their integrity or their identity - suffer emotionally, socially, physically, and sexually because of the bigotry of the students they meet everyday.

Organizations like Men Can Stop Rape have the opportunity to play a unique role in educating high school students about gender non-conformity. Volunteers can also have a deep impact by showing gender non-conforming youth that there are adults who care about them not *in spite of* who they are but *because of* the uniqueness and remarkableness of their gender identities.

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