“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.” Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
I hope this is the last essay that I’ll ever write about the Canadian literary scene and sexual harassment. I never wanted to write about sexual violence in the first place. It isn’t exactly what I thought about when I was a little kid, dreaming about being a writer: I wanted to write fantastic adventures set in imaginary worlds full of magic, not depressing personal narratives set in this one.
Yet here I am, with this story to tell. It isn’t magical or enthralling. It is not even sensational, as we have come to expect sexual abuse narratives to be in the era of #MeToo and seemingly endless Canadian literary scandal—there are no famous people named, no formerly-beloved authors to cancel forever. The celebrated Transformative Justice activist and writer Adrienne Maree Brown says that “trauma makes weapons of us all,” and I do not want this story to be made into a weapon to serve someone else’s agenda. I do not want to speak for “survivors of sexual violence” as a political class.
This story is just mine.
Two years ago, before I had any books published—which is to say before I was a “recognized” Canadian writer—I was approached for collaboration by one of the most celebrated queer authors in the country. Like many closeted queer and trans people before me, I had grown up reading this person’s work. My younger sister still credits them for opening her eyes to the reality of societal homophobia and transphobia. I still believe that they are, at least in part, responsible for making it possible for people like me to even consider becoming writers.
I was excited and flattered when this writer started taking an interest in me, having seen some of my work online. A colder, more calculating part of me—the survival instincts that come with growing up trans, femme, and racialized in a hostile world—also realized that it was now fashionable in progressive circles to show public support for trans women of colour artists, and that we both stood to gain from a professional partnership.
I have never been that wide-eyed ingenue character that people like to imagine when they think of victims of abuse. I imagined I knew what I was getting into, and that was true in a way. I am not surprised by anything that happened.
I will gloss the lurid details, because I don’t owe anybody that. Trans women are always being shoehorned into other people’s tragic or titillating or monstrous narratives. Suffice it to say that when I finally met this famous queer writer, they behaved in a way that was unpleasant, but not shocking or physically violent. They disclosed intense personal information in our first meeting, while I did the bulk of the work and gave them some emotional support. They criticized and screamed at me when my work on our collaboration was not to their satisfaction.
Later, at a literary event, they proclaimed that they were flirting with me. Later still, in a room full of other artists, they announced—totally unsolicited, apropos of nothing—that they wanted to “suck a lady cock” while staring me dead in the eye. No one else said a word. Maybe they didn’t hear. Maybe they didn’t think it mattered. I wasn’t sure I did.
So we went out our separate ways, this famous queer writer and I. We stayed “friends” on social media, but I never heard from them again. I spoke to a mentor about it, an older woman writer, in private, and then I moved on. I chalked it up to just one more distasteful thing a trans girl’s gotta do to live in this world. I did not feel traumatized by it. I have been raped, and sexually terrorized, and this was not those things. Like many women, I have lived through worse.
For two years, I carried this memory with me as my own literary career blossomed and the #MeToo movement swirled up around us. To live in a community of queer and trans people, as I do, is to be constantly exposed to stories of abuse and crisis—the combination of systemic marginalization and collective trauma makes us both vulnerable to exploitation and volatile in response to conflict. Now it felt as though the entire world had been engulfed within that echo chamber of trauma and violence, a raging cacophony of cries of pain.
As more and more women writers around me began to tell their stories of being exploited, violated, or simply badly treated by men in literary circles, I grew confused. Was I supposed to do this too? Did my story “count” if I had just shrugged it off at the time? If it had been only verbal, not physical? Or had I only brushed it off because I’d spent a lifetime internalizing the belief that there was nothing I could do about being treated badly by white people, more important people, people who held the power to help or hurt me? That I had to roll with the punches and take what I could get in return?
The cold, calculating part of me whispered, The rules are different now. The tide has turned. You have been holding this story like a venom in your heart, and you could release it now and destroy them for making you feel small. Do you want to?
I am not a perfect little victim, nor am I a shining example of the revolutionary survivor. If I were a mythic archetype, I would more likely be a witch on a deserted island, hair full of brambles, her fingers stained with the juice of poisonous berries and sacred herbs. I have hurt people, and I have been hurt. Sometimes I struggled to tell the difference, because that is the nature of trauma and abuse.
I am committed to a path of nonviolence, and I do not believe in punishment as a principle. Wounds do not heal wounds. The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. I am sure that many people in both progressive and conservative communities would disagree with me. I am not responsible for their beliefs, only my own.
I didn’t want to ride the wave of the Me Too moment to get that famous queer writer “cancelled” (and I am not even sure I could have; libel lawsuits remain a possibility in the Me Too era, and the world is not quite so credulous toward indie trans women of colour writers as it is for white, cisgender movie stars). I did not want to receive someone else’s idea of “justice”. I also did not want to be silent.
A few months ago, I reached out to a small network of women and femme-identified friends and mentors that I trusted. With their advice and their support, I prepared myself. This small, vital group of people I trusted helped me work through feeling “crazy” and the fear of being painted as such.
I was afraid, you see, that the famous queer writer would find some way of hurting me for speaking up, even if only in a private forum. Their artistic and community connections run deep. It is not hard to discredit a “crazy trans woman,” to make her disappear from a social scene.
That is why it took me two years to write the famous queer author a letter telling them how I had felt and why their behavior had been inappropriate.
They wrote me back almost immediately. They told me that they were sorry for making me uncomfortable, and that they had not intended to do so. They said that they remembered their “cock sucking” comment as being quite different from what I had remembered, and that it had not been a proposition. They went on to express further regrets about their behavior, but denied any prurient intent. They asked if they could do anything to make me feel better. They asked for my forgiveness.
In the past year, we have heard so many stories like mine, on a wide spectrum of the scale of harm. Yet it seems like the current paradigm offers only two possible outcomes: The first is the total discrediting of the survivor and absolution of the accused. The second is total social ostracization of the accused and supposed vindication of the survivor. Neither leaves room for the complexity of real life, for a continuing relationship between the survivor and the accused (if desired), or for the transformation of an environment of fear and suffering into something else.
In other words, we are offered an impossible choice.
In a climate such as this, we can only do the best we can with the options that are available to us, in accordance with our values, as best we can. I chose to do what I did because I still care about and value what this writer has given to our community, because the hurtful interactions were not so terribly severe (in my perspective), and because I had people to help me figure things out.
Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone wants or believes in the same things as I do. This story, and the conclusions I draw from it, are only mine. I offer them as an addition to the greater narrative, not as a judgement of anyone’s choices.
There are some, I am sure, who would say that the apology that I received was not the apology I deserved. That may be so. I could have asked for another, I suppose. But I didn’t want a second apology, tailored to my specifications. I wanted the apology they had to give.
I realize now that for me, it was never really about apologies anyway. What I needed to know was that what had happened was wrong, that I wasn’t helpless, that I had a voice and the support I needed to use it.
I needed to know that I had choices—the choice to speak or not speak, to forgive or not to forgive. I do not forgive them, to be honest. They saw a young, easily exploited person, and they treated me like something to be used, like I didn’t really matter. Now they know that they were wrong. Now, they will think twice about how they treat women, regardless of what they have and haven’t apologized for.
I can live with that.