In Italy at the end of 1944, the Negro 92nd Infantry Division of the United States Army discovered two gaunt men who claimed they had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. One man was thin and blonde with a “scholarly appearance.” The other had brown skin, a slight build and an erect carriage. After two years behind barbed wire, they said, they had fled the camp and gone on an incredible journey to reach the American lines: swimming in lakes, hiking through the snow-covered Apennines, and taking shelter in barns, caves, woods and the homes of friendly partisan supporters. They claimed they dodged bullets and ate leaves to survive; they said they bore witness to the slaughter of women and babies. Their names were Reed Peggram, an African-American, and Gerdh Hauptmann, his Danish friend, and they were “ragged and near collapse from hunger and fatigue.”
Freelance war correspondent Max Johnson, writing for the Negro newspapers Call and Post, New York Amsterdam News and Baltimore Afro-American, reported this curious find. The headlines that accompanied his stories were purposefully provocative: “Negro Escapes German Camp in Italy,” “Two Scholars Flee Concentration Camp,” “How Boston Lad Studying in Denmark Escaped Nazis” and “Boy Friends Scorn Bombs, Come Out OK.” Although he reported their claims, Johnson was skeptical of Peggram’s tale, not even believing that he was an American citizen, since his “accent was decidedly British.” Another correspondent noted that Peggram claimed to have a bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard, that he spoke English flawlessly, along with four other languages, and that despite his ordeal, it was not his physical suffering that upset him most.
“One of my greatest losses was my diploma from Harvard,” Peggram said. “They don’t issue duplicates. But I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key.”
The two men refused to leave each other’s side, but it was not clear if Hauptmann would be allowed to return to the U.S. with Peggram. Johnson called their story, “a modern version of Damon and Pythias,” referencing the Greek legend of loyalty between friends. Here were “bonds of friendship so strong that even the Nazis were unable to break them.”
“If Peggram’s story proves to be correct,” wrote Johnson, “it will undoubtedly become one of the greatest human interest stories yet revealed in this war.”
* * *
Reed Edwin Peggram was born on July 26, 1914, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Harvey Thomas Peggram, worked variously as a shorthand teacher, a self-employed card writer, and, according to his World War I draft card, an artist. Harvey was inducted into the United States Army on November 6, 1917, and served overseas as a private in the medical unit between May 15, 1918, and September 9, 1919. He returned from the war “100 percent disabled,” and became a permanent resident at the Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was treated for gas poisoning, according to his family. He would remain there until his death in 1956. For all intents and purposes, young Reed no longer had a father.
In the club photographs for the 1931 Boston Latin School literary and drama clubs, Peggram’s face stands out as the only African-American there. In a class of 262 students, Peggram ranked in the first quarter in scholarship. He received several awards and obtained honors on exams in Elementary Latin, Elementary French, Elementary German, and Advanced Latin. As it has been for hundreds of years of Boston Latin graduates, Harvard was the next step.
On his 1931 Harvard application, Peggram said he wanted “to become an accomplished linguist.” He applied for multiple scholarships, stating on financial aid forms that his mother had three additional children with her new husband, “Mr. Farrar,” and that his grandmother was his sole financial supporter. He also listed his father as dead. He was accepted to the college and distinguished himself, not just as a fine student but as one of the few black students at Harvard at the time.
In 1934, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, Peggram asked Dean A. Chester Hanford for a recommendation. “He is one of the highest scholars in his class,” wrote Hanford. “Last November he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He is a thorough gentleman.” Hanford shared a copy of the letter with Peggram, who promptly thanked him. But there was another letter Peggram did not see.
“I wish to supplement my letter of May 29th to you about Mr. Reed Peggram by stating that he is a negro [sic],” Hanford wrote in his second letter. “It seemed to me that you should know that fact.”
“Thank you for your testimonial and letter about Reed Peggram,” responded tutor Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow. “I should like to thank you however for telling me that Peggram is a Negro. I should certainly have been somewhat taken aback if I had admitted a man with such a name unwarned.” Although Gow insisted this information would have no bearing, Peggram did not get the scholarship.
Peggram graduated from Harvard in 1935, magna cum laude, with the thesis, “A comparison of the personal element in Madame Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale.” Over the next two years, he would get his master’s from Harvard, study English and comparative literature at Columbia, and return to Harvard to begin work on his Ph.D. It is clear from Peggram’s letters that while there, he became infatuated with Leonard Bernstein, who would later become famous for composing the music for “West Side Story.” Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935 and was also a graduate of the Boston Latin School — perhaps the two already knew each other from high school.
One night at Harvard, Peggram and Bernstein sat side by side on a studio couch in a dimly lit room while a quartet played Beethoven. Peggram had asked that the lights be lowered because he believed that it was “more pleasant to listen to music in a room that has been darkened.” Peggram was in “ecstasy and agony at once,” sitting so close to Bernstein. Peggram requested a song from Debussy while Bernstein listened with eyes closed as if he was asleep. In a letter, Peggram would later explain that he felt, “ecstasy because you are here, and agony because I do not dare touch you, even in the dark, for fear of breaking the spell of such exquisite beauty.”
In a series of letters written to Bernstein in October 1937, Peggram referenced T.S. Eliot, Rachmaninoff, Eros and Psyche, Diaghilev’s treatment of Nijinsky, and the speech of Aristophanes in “The Symposium,” a discourse on love that says when a person, “happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment.” Leonard Bernstein’s archive at the Library of Congress only contains Peggram’s letters. Bernstein’s replies are lost, save for a few brief, devastating quotes that Peggram included in his own letters, which suggest that Bernstein rejected his overtures.
“The revelation of your letter,” wrote Peggram, “was after all, a great shock to me, and your use of the words ‘repulsive’ and ‘shudder’ an insult to the tenets which I hold sacred.” Later Peggram — demonstrating his preference for British spelling — beseeched Bernstein, “May I also request that, as a favour to me, you destroy all my letters and any other material that I have sent or given you during this regrettable incident?”
In 1938, Peggram got a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne: a chance to travel, a fresh start.
* * *
In the fall of 1938, Peggram met the person who would change his life. There is no record of how Peggram met Danish scholar Gerdh Hauptmann, who was studying fine art and painting at the Sorbonne, for the same reason that there is no written record of any facet of their relationship: They were gay, in a time when few dared to write such feelings down. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that this was the definitive romantic relationship of Peggram’s life. Hauptmann taught him Danish; he taught Hauptmann English. Within a year, he would write that they were “inseparable.”
“Recent European events have caused me to leave France for Denmark,” Peggram wrote in September 1939. “I hope you will also join your prayers to mine for humanity, civilization, and culture.”
Peggram spent the early months of the war working with Hauptmann on a 120-page manuscript, “Poems and Sketches,” a translation of the 19th century Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen. During this time, Peggram’s family and friends implored him to return to the U.S. while he still could. The U.S. State Department had already warned Americans to leave the European continent, but Peggram did not. Unable to declare his love for Hauptmann and explain that he would not leave Europe without the man he loved, Peggram baffled his family by insisting that his need to collaborate with Hauptmann on scholarly projects “richer and more profound than either of us had produced separately” made it impossible to leave Hauptmann behind.
The men left Copenhagen shortly before it was invaded by the Nazis on April 9, 1940. They fled to Paris to retrieve their luggage and made their way to Florence, Italy, where they wrongly assumed they would be safe. They spent the rest of the year stranded and broke, pleading for money from family in the U.S. who could not understand why Peggram would not just come home.
Information about Reed’s European movements are located in letters between him and Dorothy Norman, the editor and publisher of the journal Twice a Year from 1938 – 1948. “I am struggling for my life,” Peggram wrote on January 15, 1941. “If someone does not help me very soon, I shall just simply die.”
“We wish only to live, to write, to create, to say what we have to say as only we know how to say it,” he continued. “It is because we know we must do this together that we are only annoyed, rather than grateful, when people offer me a ticket to N.Y. as some have indeed attempted — without explaining, by the way, how my collaborator could ever be saved through this philanthropy.”
He assured Norman that he was not begging nor pleading. He said was merely making, “a statement of fact.”
“Two young artists of more than ordinary ability need immediate financial help in order not to perish,” he wrote. “In the name of art, of culture, of humanity in their deepest sense, this message must somehow be spread around where it will take effect at once, before it is too late.”
Hope came in the form of an inheritance. In September 1940, Peggram’s friend from Harvard, 25-year-old music student and aspiring concert pianist Montford Schley Variell, was found dead, according to The New York Times, “under mysterious circumstances” in his apartment. Lying face down, neatly wrapped from neck to feet in a blanket and sheet, Variell “had been dead for several days.” The police were not sure if he had committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. Initially, the medical examiner declared his death a suicide by gas — the cause was later changed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Variell had a will and two life insurance policies that totaled $81,000, and he left money to several heirs, including $11,000 — worth approximately $160,000 in 2018 — to Peggram. This, he hoped, would be enough to get them both out of Europe. But the money would not be released to him unless he came home — without Hauptmann — to claim it.
Despite the legal obstacles, Peggram held out hope. In a letter dated April 9, 1941, he wrote to Norman: “Just how long it will take us to reach the U.S.A. still depends upon how soon acquaintances, consuls, attorneys, lawyers, etc. can experience sudden attacks of intelligence forceful enough to make them understand that we have been living here by necessity rather than by choice. But we know that even these will realize themselves in the end.”
After this, there were no more letters. Communications between Peggram and his friends and family stopped as, according to Peggram, he and Hauptmann were taken into a concentration camp at Bagni di Lucca, less than 50 miles from Florence.
* * *
When Peggram and Hauptmann told the story of their arrest to the Baltimore Afro-American, they did not mention homosexuality. They were taken into custody, they said, because the authorities felt “a Dane has no right to be a friend of a Negro.” After several days of interrogation, the Germans decided that Peggram would be permitted to leave German-occupied territory, but that Hauptmann, as the subject of a conquered country, would be compelled to join the German army. But, as the Afro-American put it, Peggram and Hauptmann “swore that whatever came, they would not break up.”
They were held at Bagni di Lucca until January 1944, when Allied planes gunned the camp, forcing the Germans to move their prisoners to another site. Over the next few months, the two men were shifted from camp to camp until they reached Piacenza, where Hauptmann was ordered to a German work camp. He refused to leave Peggram, whom the Germans would not compel to leave because, they said, “You are American.” The scholars were put in solitary confinement as the Germans pondered their fate.
“We didn’t know how long we stayed there, but it was really hell,” said Peggram. “Just enough soup to lead a miserable existence. For months we did not see a single human being. In fact, we saw nothing that was living. Not even bugs. There was no light, no action — nothing but a great deal of time to think about what was in store for us.”
Before their fate was decided, the camp was attacked by Italian partisans, who freed the prisoners and gave them shelter. Hauptmann and Peggram spent the rest of the year with the partisans, before striking out on their own in an attempt to reach the American lines.
“They found that all German-occupied territory was a prison,” wrote Johnson. “Without passports or other identification, their lives were worth less than when they were confined.”
Peggram and Hauptmann spent weeks hiking across country, once being shot at by German machine gunners, hiding with partisan families during the day and sleeping in barns at night. At last, they reached the 92nd Infantry Division, and were safe.
“They appeared to be as happy as two kids talking about what Santa Claus had brought them,” wrote Johnson. Although the reporter was initially skeptical of their story, there seems to be no reason to doubt Peggram and Hauptmann’s account of their imprisonment and escape. It is true that there was a camp at Bagni di Lucca, and that 16 miles away was another camp, Colle di Compito, that held citizens from the U.S., Great Britain and Denmark. Prisoners were often transferred between the two camps.
Peggram told Johnson, “We are not principally concerned with going to America. We only want to go some place where we can be assured remaining together to work in peace,” but Peggram returned to the U.S. alone, several months after encountering the 92nd Division. He departed Europe on the hospital ship Algonquin from Naples, Italy, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1945. He would not see Hauptmann again.
* * *
Upon his return to the U.S., Peggram was hospitalized for four years, the result, he said in a 1950 alumni newsletter, of a “nervous breakdown.” After his release, he returned to Boston to live in a multiple-family dwelling shared by his mother and half-brother. His existence was mainly solitary.
“My own postgraduate history is no particular triumph,” he wrote in a later class note. “Either I am too lazy or too comfortable (scarcely the latter) to function as a professional translator.”
According to these missives, he spent the rest of his life singing in Episcopal Church choirs, improving the “seven or eight” foreign languages he knew, and failing to convince a publisher to accept his “antique, revised, unpublished doctoral dissertation.” He died on April 20, 1982.
In 1971 Gerdh Hauptmann published a book of poems, Declaration, in English, by a Danish publisher. One poem, “Ante,” appeared to reference his relationship with Peggram. It began:
I remember once —
we were walking together,
perhaps in a year or two, you said,
and we made plans, and discussed
whether it should be in New York
— in Paris — or maybe
somewhere in China.
We did not know then —
although perhaps we did suspect it —
that the apples would not ripen
on the trees
or the next
As you ride up the Loxahatchee River from its mouth in Jupiter, Florida, the canopy of slash pines and cabbage palms eventually starts to close in on you. Wildlife hides in the gnarled thickets of mangrove like a secret, given away by a splash only half seen from the corner of your eye. Everything about this place feels prehistoric, making its visitors feel like interlopers — the very thing this river has evolved to keep out. The turns become more and more hairpin, deceiving and disorienting you, as turtles and alligators eye you wearily before slipping beneath the murky water.
Nearly eight miles up the northwest fork of the river, a weathered, wooden boathouse juts out into the dark water: the first sign of human existence seen for miles. Alongside it is a dock that leads through a bamboo thicket into what was once the heart of wild Florida: Trapper Nelson’s homestead, zoo and jungle garden.
From 1945 through the 1960s, visitors from nearby West Palm Beach could take this same trip upriver and see Trapper’s wild menagerie. The biggest attraction, though, was Trapper himself. Known as Tarzan of the Loxahatchee, he’d wrestle alligators, trap wildcats, and dazzle guests with his infallible good looks and stories of the wild.
The most famous photo of Trapper was taken sometime in the late 1940s. He stands in front of a thatched Chickee hut, shirtless and strapping in swim trunks. His right hand rests casually on his waist, his left one wraps tightly around the neck of a six-foot boa constrictor. He isn’t smiling, but he isn’t displeased either. His expression is almost a dare.
Trapper Nelson was a man of contradictions. He loved solitude, but was a kind and affable host. He was a man who lived without electricity or running water, but read the Wall Street Journal every day. He was a primitive hunter who died just before becoming a millionaire.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Trapper’s death, and the end of his life still remains almost as mysterious as the beginning. His story is a brackish swirl of history and legend, the folklore increasingly impossible to parse from the truth. What we do know is this: on Tuesday, July 30, 1968, Trapper Nelson was found dead at his homestead from a gunshot wound to the upper abdomen. He was 59-years-old. The Martin County Sherriff’s Office ruled it a suicide, but stories still persist today about hidden treasure on his property, about a murderous brother who had a vengeance to exact, about developers looking to take control of the vast acreage he’d amassed over the years. All of which beg the question: was Trapper Nelson sick and misunderstood, or did someone want him dead?
* * *
The first thing people recall about Trapper is his appetite — which, strangely enough, is partly how he ended up in Jupiter in the first place. Before any of that, though, Trapper was born Vince Natulkiewicz on November 6, 1908 in Trenton, New Jersey.
When Vince was around 18, he, along with his brother, Charlie, and their friend John Dykas, left New Jersey to head west toward Colorado. They hunted, trapped and sold hides along the way. From there, they meandered their way to the southernmost part of Texas, where they crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. As Vince was setting traps along the river, he was arrested by a group of Federales, who thought he was likely running guns across the river to the rebel groups that remained after the Mexican Revolution.
That’s how Vince found himself sitting in a Mexican prison. For several weeks authorities debated what to do with him. They had no evidence — and they couldn’t afford to keep feeding him; this six-foot-four, 220-pound American was eating his way right through their budget.
Years later, Vince became close friends with one of the founding families of Jupiter — John and Bessie DuBois. They ran a fish camp near the mouth of the Loxahatchee, and often had Vince over for dinner. One night, Bessie brought out a large lemon meringue pie for her guests. One of them took a modest sliver for himself; Vince took the rest of the pie.
* * *
After his release from jail in Mexico, Vince met back up with Charlie and Dykas and headed to Miami. It was September 1931, and the United States was nearly two years into the Great Depression. As their boxcar slowed for a cargo stop, Vince peeked out between slats of the train car and saw a landscape he’d never imagined. The oyster beds were so thick they looked like rocky islands, and surrounding them were tide pools full of mullet fish. Farther out lay the infinite stretch of the Atlantic.
Vince was 23, and already accustomed to trapping, hunting and tanning as a means to survive. Looking out the train car at the bounties of the lower Loxahatchee, he knew only that he wanted to stay awhile. With his new home came a new name: Vince Nelson. The way he figured, people couldn’t pronounce Natulkiewicz and Vince just wanted to make it easier for them.
The three men settled by the beach, where they thatched a small lean-to and spent their days trapping and fishing. Trapping remained a viable business as furriers up north paid good money for pelts — $2 for raccoon, $15 for otter — for customers who could still afford such luxuries. Even so, money was tight, and tensions grew in the small hut. The way Vince’s brother Charlie saw it, their friend John Dykas wasn’t doing his share of the work but was still collecting his share of the money.
On December 17, 1931, Charlie Nelson walked into the West Palm Beach police precinct and confessed to murder. “Finally I’d just had enough,” Charlie wrote in his confession. After months of frustration, Charlie’s temper was on a hair trigger. During one particularly heated argument over money, Charlie reached for his gun and shot Dykas in the face. When he arrived at the police station, the weapon was still warm in his car.
Vince had been out checking his traps and never saw or heard a thing, but at the trial he did something most people presume wasn’t easy for him: he testified against his own brother. He said John was a skilled trapper and had been holding up his share of the bargain, and that Charlie was the instigator of their feud. He didn’t think John had deserved to die. Then he watched from the gallery as the judge handed his brother a life sentence.
Just after the sentence was read, Charlie turned to Vince and swore that he would find a way to kill him.
* * *
Perhaps it was all of this — the murder of his best friend, sending his brother to prison, years on the rails — that led Trapper Nelson to move up to the last crook of the Loxahatchee. Maybe he was tired, maybe he felt as murky and unknowable as the river itself, or maybe he was invigorated at the idea of doing it all on his own. No matter, he was alone now, and he settled somewhere that would keep it that way.
He planted a pineapple patch, citrus trees, almonds and guava and built an elaborate, hand-pumped irrigation system for the gardens. He spent every morning chopping firewood, using a custom-made ax because his hands were so large that he kept breaking the handles on the standard kind. It was a new life, on no one’s terms but his own. So once again, he changed his name just before his 25th birthday. From then on, he’d only be known as Trapper Nelson.
With the name came the beginnings of a legend even bigger than the man. In the local imagination, Trapper became the real-life version of Tarzan, the vine-swinging, primal-yelling wild man that Johnny Weissmuller had brought to life on the silver screen at the time.
“Trapper skinned so many raccoons, wildcats, and other game that even though he bathed … when dogs got downwind of him they would catch the scent of wildcat and bark themselves hoarse — which embarrassed both Trapper and the dog owners,” Bessie DuBois wrote in The History of the Loxahatchee.
As the stories made their way around town, more and more people’s curiosity got the best of them. Were the rumors true? Was there a man really living that far into the river jungle? Was he as kind and gentle as people said? They had to go and see for themselves.
A brood of guinea fowl roosted in the trees near Trapper’s dock and would warn him of visitors by raising a nearly intolerable racket. Trapper played right into the image his callers wanted to see, emerging from the hut with a large indigo snake draped around his neck. He’d show visitors the alligators, the surly wildcats stalking back and forth in their cages, and the snake pit that was like something straight out of a nightmare: teeming with writhing, venomous rattlers that Trapper thought nothing of reaching in and snatching just behind the jaw.
As an old Railway Express agent recalled to James Snyder in his book Life and Death on the Loxahatchee, Trapper once dropped off a cage containing an adult black panther at the rail station. It was headed to a zoo in New York, and Trapper’s only instructions were, “He’s a mean cat, so don’t pester him.”
Sometime near 1938, Trapper decided to start making some money off all these visitors, which were now coming by the boatload. With a steady hand, he painted in careful print the sign that still hangs today: Trapper’s Zoo and Jungle Garden. Admission was 50 cents for adults, 25 for children. The kids would approach cautiously and press their quarter into his enormous hand, wide-eyed with equal parts fear, awe, and curiosity at this giant figure.
Despite their initial hesitation, people remember Trapper as kind and affable. He taught local kids how to trap gopher tortoise and paid them a dime for each one. Not coincidentally, gopher tortoise stew was Trapper’s favorite food.
Business was good, and Trapper expanded both the zoo and his property line. He was buying up as much land as he could, eventually ending up with nearly 1,100 acres. He still traveled into town each day, though now by Jeep instead of rowing the seven miles each way. He’d say hello to the DuBois family, use the payphone outside their fish camp, and buy his Wall Street Journal.
“He’d polish off a box of Hershey bars and wash it down with a quart of milk,” Roy Rood, who’d worked at the DuBois’s fish camp, recalled to Snyder.
The population of Jupiter boomed after World War II, and people had more leisure time and money to spend. Boat captains brought full charters of tourists and locals up the river for a day at Trapper’s. Word of Florida’s wild man spread across the country as tourists took their stories of Trapper wrestling gators in only shorts and a pith helmet back to their cities. Soon, the celebrities came. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal visited together during their infamous love affair. Boxer Gene Tunney, Edsel Ford, and Palm Beach socialites like the DuPonts and Kennedys also made the trip.
He was a gracious host, building fires for visitors to cook their lunch and answering questions about how one could live without so many modern conveniences. They had left their air-conditioned homes to come look up-close at the alternative, at what it would be like to leave it all behind. Trapper’s life, on the outside at least, was uncomplicated, dangerous, and sexy. But then the mosquitoes came, an unfamiliar howl echoed from the bush, maybe a storm rolled in, and the visitors got back in the boat and headed back to where the river widens, leaving Trapper alone once again.
* * *
In August of 1960, Trapper surprised everyone when he returned to solitude permanently. He cut trees across the narrows to make his homestead unreachable from the river and gated the access point from the dirt road.
No one quite knows for sure why Trapper soured on his time in the limelight, but many have a guess. The population of Jupiter had nearly tripled between 1945 and 1960, and Trapper felt the squeeze of development all around him. The taxes on his land increased sharply, public health officials were imposing regulations on his camp, and developers were doing all they could to drive him out of the precious, waterfront property.
Trapper, like all of Florida at the time, was caught between a reverence for the area’s natural beauty and the inevitable wave (and financial lure) of development. He may have lived primitively, but Trapper was a businessman too, and he knew he could cash in. He sought the counsel of trusted friends and family, but the fate of the property weighed heavily on him. The man who’d trapped wildcats and rattlesnakes without so much as blinking became, for the first time, fearful.
“Have closed my camp to all the public including the cruise,” Trapper wrote to his brother-in-law in a letter dated September 8, 1960. “Now I feel a lot safer as it was a real risk in many ways dealing with the public.”
He also began complaining about his health. He told his last remaining friend, John DuBois, that he was convinced he had colon cancer. John tried to convince him to see a doctor, but Trapper didn’t trust them.
For the next seven years, Trapper withdrew more and more from old friends and acquaintances. In his letters to his sister and her husband, his tone turns from weary of development to being excited by it. In May of 1968 he wrote: “The State Park is now definitely taking steps to make me an offer on my ranch.”
Trapper had been in the negotiation stages of a deal that would allow him to stay on his property until his death and would preserve his acreage as protected state park land. It also would make Trapper Nelson a millionaire.
In late July that year, he dropped his car off at a service station for some repairs. The next day, the shop’s owner, Joe Vleck, drove the truck out to Trapper’s. Through the fence, he saw Trapper across the property. They both waved but said nothing. That was the last time Trapper Nelson was seen alive.
* * *
John DuBois knew something was wrong when Trapper missed an appointment on July 30, 1968. As much as he had changed, Trapper was still not one to skip out on a meeting. On instinct, John drove up to Trapper’s camp and unlocked the gate. The guinea fowl started carrying on, but Trapper didn’t come out to settle them down. Before he got much farther, John caught the smell and followed it to the picnic shelter down by the river. There, face down in the sand, was the body of Trapper Nelson.
“Trapper was lying on his face on the dirt floor of the Seminole Chickee type shed,” DuBois told the Palm Beach Post. “There was a hole in the back of his head.”
His shotgun lay a few feet away. A single shot had entered the left side of his upper abdomen and exited through the back of his head. The Florida heat and the animals had taken a toll on the remains.
The Martin County Sherriff’s Office ruled the death a suicide, citing a lack of signs of a struggle or footprints in the sand. They concluded Trapper had put the gun to his chest and pulled the trigger. Immediately friends and acquaintances doubted that conclusion. He was days away from becoming a millionaire in his land deal, and had mentioned being excited to use the money to travel.
Friends who knew Trapper’s proficiency with guns were baffled that he would choose to kill himself in a manner that left such room for error. Also, the shotgun had no fingerprints on it, not even Trapper’s. The Sherriff’s office had been correct in that there were no footprints — but it’s not that there hadn’t been two sets, indicating an intruder — there were none at all.
Rumors swirled about hitmen and mobsters, but one name kept rumbling around more than all the others: Charlie Nelson. A local woman named Ruby Lanier and her husband, Elzie, had been good friends with Trapper. Late in her life, she recalled to author James D. Snyder that Trapper often told her husband he thought Charlie was coming back to kill him and fulfill that courtroom promise. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, Charlie Nelson had been released from prison on November 20, 1951. The investigation into Trapper’s murder was closed before any of the detectives tried to locate Charlie.
Trapper’s family, however, thought suicide was plausible. If he felt he was growing sicker, they believed he would have killed himself before becoming a burden to his loved ones.
“I guess we’ll never know until somebody gets a little too much to drink and brags a little bit,” Bessie DuBois told the Palm Beach Post in 1974.
On August 6, 1968, a few friends and family members scattered Trapper’s ashes into the calm waters of the Loxahatchee. He had been 59 years old.
It’s been 50 years since the day John DuBois found Trapper dead, and we’ll likely never know what happened in those last moments before a gunshot echoed over the water of the Loxahatchee and ended the life of Florida’s wild man. If he really was alone that day, it would mean Trapper Nelson died as he lived: on his own terms. But was he authoring his own destiny, or had years of solitude in a relentlessly untamable jungle driven him to end his own life?
Today, Trapper’s camp is one of the main attractions in the 10,500-acre wilderness of Jonathan Dickinson State Park. The original buildings all remain, as do the gardens and cages, as permanent a fixture in Florida history as the Legend of the Loxahatchee himself. The buildings lie empty now, but with a bit of imagination you can see Trapper coming around the corner, larger than life, welcoming you with an inky black snaked draped over his chest.
The sound of voices in the corridor outside roused me from my fitful sleep. The instant I forced my eyes open, the all-too-familiar feeling of dread gushed through my body. I winced as I leaned on my arm to heave myself upright. The fresh stitches on my forearm from my most recent self-harm tugged sharply. With blurry eyes, I squinted at the clock: 10:43 a.m. This meant I had to wait one hour and 17 minutes until I could have a drink. I never drank before midday; only alcoholics did that.
This hollow feeling of dread had been with me for as long as I could remember, continually gnawing away at my insides. I tried to explain it to my dad when I was about nine years old. All I could tell him was that I felt sick and that something was terribly wrong. My dad took me to a doctor who, of course, found nothing physically wrong with me.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Robin Hood. I would strut around the garden wearing nothing but shorts and a tea towel cape tied around my neck. Grandad would chase me, hoist me onto his shoulders and spin me around like I was flying. It was one of the rare times that I would laugh with the reckless abandon of a typical child. I would grip tightly to his soft balding head and breathe in pipe tobacco and Old Spice as we spun. But as my teenage years approached, suddenly the chasing stopped. Grandad replaced my Robin Hood sword with hideously pink Sindy dolls in cocktail dresses. In his soft Birmingham lilt, he began to insist I “play quietly and sit properly.” I had no idea what “sitting properly” even meant.
As I got older, I began to understand the problem was that I wasn’t what people expected. I didn’t act like typical girls my age, and if it were left up to me, I wouldn’t dress like one either. The trouble was that as my body began to change, it became harder to find any clothes that I was comfortable in. Everything made me feel like there was too much of me. I began to restrict my food in an attempt to lose weight, but my body continued to grow in ways that repulsed me. My grandparents’ gifts started to include dresses, which I was obligated to wear when they visited. I couldn’t hide my disdain; I likely came across as a moody teenager. My grandad’s disappointment in me was evident. The gnawing emptiness was joined by an ever-growing sense of self-loathing.
When I discovered alcohol at the age of 13, it felt like I had found the holy grail. After I hurriedly swallowed a liter bottle of bitterly tart Merrydown cider, the sick feeling was suddenly replaced by a warm, soothing numbness. I felt as if I could breathe freely for the first time in my life.
* * *
I reached over to the bedside table, fumbling for my tobacco tin. My hand found cold metal, and I eagerly grabbed it, preparing to roll my first joint of the day. In my jumbled mind, smoking weed first thing in the morning was somehow O.K., even if drinking alcohol wasn’t. It wouldn’t send me into a blissful blackout, but it would at least take the edge off, enough to function until I could justify having a drink.
I stared across the clothing-strewn floor to my desk, redundant now that I was no longer studying. A few years earlier, I had begun a social work degree. I was 32 years old and it was one of many attempts to get my life together. However, it was there I started to spiral out of control, and just 18 months into the program, my lead tutor suggested that I leave and seek out some help. I hadn’t been able to work since then, and things had continued to get worse. Alcohol no longer took away the feeling of dread, it just barely skimmed the edge off it. Crippling anxiety now accompanied the empty void of despair. I had resorted to self-harming by cutting my arms, in another desperate attempt to blank out the pain. My doctor prescribed medication, and I attended counseling sessions, but the answer as to why I felt like this, or what I could do to change it, never came.
I thought I’d come close to an explanation in my early 20s when I met Denise. I was living in Eastbourne at the time and working as a care assistant in a nursing home. On one early morning shift, Denise breezed into the canteen. My eyes locked onto her face, taking in her sharp angular jawline, which framed a broad cheeky smile. My eyes traveled to her exposed and glorious hairy legs. I mistook her for a man at first and was shocked to discover she was female. Nothing ever happened between us, but the fascination I felt toward her led me to assume that I must be a lesbian. It would explain so much: the tendency to be a tomboy, my lack of relating to anything female.
I then jumped into my lesbian identity with the enthusiasm of an Olympic diver. I had my hair cut short and spiky, and I filled my wardrobe with shirts and ties of every color imaginable. For a while I felt good. I entered into a serious relationship with a woman who loved my masculine ways. However, as the novelty of my reinvention wore off, the deep empty pit of despair returned with new strength. Eventually, my partner couldn’t handle my depression, and she left. It seemed being a lesbian wasn’t my answer after all.
* * *
I inhaled deeply on the joint. As the gray-brown tinged paper burnt closer to my yellow-stained fingers, I began to feel the subtle numbness take hold. Thoughts about trying to sort out my life were soon replaced with thoughts about buying alcohol. It was the weekend; it made sense to wait until Monday to start trying to get my life together. I pulled on the nearest pair of jeans I could find from the heap on the floor, threw on my khaki baseball cap to hide my shame, and headed out.
Being around other people was an anxious and paranoia-inducing ordeal. I hurriedly bought milk and ingredients to make chili rather than just purchasing alcohol. I noticed the wine was on a three-for-£10 deal. I decided it made logical monetary sense to buy all three. Anyway, l was only buying wine as I was having chili that evening. Wine is just something you have with chili — or so I told myself.
The shop assistant did the usual double take when I replied “Thank you” in my high voice after he called me “Sir.” This was a common occurrence for me, and for reasons I could not understand, I really enjoyed it when I was mistaken for a man.
The chili remained unmade that evening, the pint of milk turned sour on the windowsill, Monday came and went.
Four months earlier, l had been discharged from a therapeutic community after completing a 12-month therapy program. There, they tried to teach me controlled drinking, which, based on the state of my life, seemed to have failed. It was clear to me that their therapy didn’t work, and I rang them up to tell them so.
“I’m not managing,” I complained to the receptionist, “I feel like therapy hasn’t helped at all.”
A week later, I met with my therapist, Gilly. Feeling at my wit’s end, for the first time in my life I was honest about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. Gilly looked up at me. A silver chain looped around the large glasses hanging from her neck swayed as gently as the cadence of her soft voice: “Perhaps it would be helpful to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”
“I’m not an alcoholic!” I protested. “If I didn’t have these issues I wouldn’t need to drink.” Despite my protests, I agreed to try it.
The following Tuesday night, I hovered tentatively at the side door of Saint Mary’s Church in Oxford. I was met by a tiny and decidedly over-enthusiastic AA greeter who dragged me inside. The narrow room was furnished with a table at the far end, chairs around its outer walls, and an oval arrangement of chairs in the middle. I wondered if the inner circle was for members only. I had imagined a musty and somber room, but this room was alive with bright smiles and laughter.
The meeting began, and as people spoke, I was shocked to hear them describing the exact way that I felt. Yet, by following a sober life and completing the 12 steps, they had managed to find a happy life. I wanted that, but I could not accept I was an alcoholic. I knew I had a problem, but I was terrified of not being able to drink at all. However, the “one day at a time” approach of AA enabled me to cope with the idea of putting down the drink for a brief while. At my next meeting, I announced myself as having “alcohol dependency issues,” making sure to differentiate myself from the alcoholics.
The following weeks were hell on earth. Without the fuzzy haze of alcohol, the outside world became razor sharp, my internal world a raging waterfall of emotions. Then, finally, in one early morning AA meeting, I stopped fighting. I suddenly found myself announcing, “I am an alcoholic.” Those four words would change everything, but not in the way I expected.
* * *
Over the following months, my life changed dramatically. I remained sober, clean, and free from self-harm. Although the inner void was still there, I had learned healthy ways to manage the pain. I had even started to believe in a future where I could finally be free of it. I embraced facing difficult issues and the healing that came from that. One problem I could not seem to shake was my eating. I knew I wasn’t fat and yet the desire to restrict food was still there. It made no sense.
After sharing my eating issues in a meeting one day, I went for a coffee with Kevin, my AA best friend. We had a surprising amount of similarities in how we each struggled with feelings of shame about our bodies. Kevin leaned in, lowered his voice and asked me if he could trust me. I nodded. He took a deep breath and then, with a shaking voice, he told me that he dressed in female clothing at home. His honesty made me voice something I had only uttered a couple of times in my life: I wished I was male.
That evening, as I searched online for some support for my friend, I discovered the vast community of transgender people on YouTube. I had some knowledge of trans women but no idea that trans men existed. I found a video timeline of a trans guy celebrating a year on testosterone. He spoke about always knowing something wasn’t right, about his distress when his puberty began as his breasts grew and his hips developed. I watched his face light up as he described his growing sense of peace in himself as his face, voice, and body had changed. I suddenly had a moment of epiphany where I understood what was making me restrict food: Keeping very slim meant my figure more closely resembled that of a boy.
But I couldn’t be transgender, I thought; I would have surely known earlier in life. I apparently had some gender issues, wanting a boyish figure, enjoying wearing men’s clothes, so perhaps I fit the term genderqueer. In that case, I could alter my appearance a little, to see if that made me feel less ill-at-ease in myself. Watching numerous videos of trans men in early transition, I noticed that most used a “binder,” a vest made of a unique material to flatten their chests. I had been squeezing into a tight sports bra for years to get rid of the unsightly lumps. I ordered a binder, telling myself that it would just allow me to embrace more of my tomboy self.
The morning it arrived, I hungrily tore back the packaging. I squeezed myself into the skin-tight material, and violently shoved my sweaty breasts under my armpits, as per the instructions. I threw on the nearest T-shirt I could find and then stood back to study my appearance in the full-length mirror. I gasped, the realization like a punch to my stomach. There I was; that was my chest the way it should be. I understood at that moment that I was indeed male. I hadn’t realized earlier because when I was growing up, the words just were not available to describe what I had been feeling. There was a name for the pain I’d been feeling all this time: gender dysphoria.
I felt relief to finally know the reason for this pain, but enormous fear about what this meant. I would have to come out to my friends and family. I would have to go through the process of gender transition, and I didn’t even know where to begin with that. Everything was once again uncertain, the future terrifyingly unclear. For the first time in my life, I felt liked and accepted by people. I was convinced that if I said I was transgender I would lose the friendships I’d made, and likely my family, too. I was so afraid of the unknown future that I considered drinking again and this time not stopping until it killed me. Better that, I thought, than to face coming out and trying to lead a sober life as a man who would never be accepted as such.
I didn’t pick up a drink, but I did sink back into a state of despair and anxiety. Every time someone called my name or referred to me as “she” it was like a blow to my chest. I wanted to scream out that I was male. I wanted to tear my skin off and show people that I am here, that I’ve been here all along, underneath, and that the pain I felt was from years of suffocating the real me. Eventually, I reached a point where the pain of continuing to deny my male identity far outweighed the fear of what people might say to me when I announced it. I knew I just had to take a leap of faith.
Being in Alcoholics Anonymous made coming out particularly challenging. Having to announce my name in meetings meant that there wasn’t a subtle way to slowly come out. I just had to do it, fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. On a Friday morning, I walked into the church hall and was greeted by the familiar buzz of voices and the smell of fresh croissants and filter coffee. I said hello to a couple of people, but I was too nervous to do anything but take my seat and wait for the meeting to begin. The part of the meeting came where members were invited to share. I took a deep breath. My heart felt as if it was coming out of my chest and I could barely keep my head still for shaking.
“My name is Finn, and I am an alcoholic,” I announced.
The usual response is to say hello back, but as this was not the name people were used to, I was greeted instead by “Hello,” followed by incoherent mumbling. I took another deep breath and went on to explain that I am transgender and would be grateful if people could use my new name and male pronouns when referring to me. The remaining 15 minutes of the meeting went painfully slowly, and I felt like I was going to throw up every one of my internal organs.
When the meeting ended, I was engulfed by a large crowd, hugging me, saying my new name, congratulating me and expressing their admiration. At that moment, I felt more loved and accepted than I ever had in my life. The joy at hearing myself referred to as “he” confirmed that I had made the right choice. As I went on to other meetings and told more people, the feeling of knowing this is right settled more deeply into my being. I moved from wishing I was a man to understanding that I already was one — one that needed a few modifications, but a man all the same.
I am now approaching eight years sober and clean, and it’s been six-and-a-half years since I announced the truth of who I am. This morning I awoke to the familiar feeling of gratitude and possibility. I jumped out of bed heading for the bathroom, and the hallway mirror stopped me in my tracks. I paused to smile back at the man with the graying sideburns and white flecks in his full beard. I made a cup of tea and settled into my well-worn desk chair, preparing for a day of writing work and university degree study.
On a rainy September morning in 1950, jazz pianist Hazel Scott stood in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to clear her name.
The publication “Red Channels” had accused Scott — along with 150 other cultural figures — of communist sympathies. Failure to respond would be seen as an admission of guilt. But her appearance at HUAC had a greater purpose than personal exoneration. She believed she had a responsibility to stem the tide of paranoia that gained momentum by the day.
She told the committee’s members, “Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem.” With the same poise she brought to the stage as a musician, she testified that “what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security.”
Chin up, shoulders back, she warned against “profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” and that continuing down this road would transform America’s artists from a “loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for America” into a “wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed.”
Speaking with a voice that simultaneously conveyed clarity and nuance, strength and warmth, she knew what she was doing. She had been rehearsing for this moment her entire life.
* * *
Born in Trinidad, Scott was raised on music. Her whole family played and her mother, Alma, an aspiring concert pianist, taught music to help make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, Hazel Scott absorbed everything she heard until one day she woke her grandmother from a nap by playing a familiar hymn on the piano, two-handed and with perfect pitch. Her grandmother woke thinking, not wrongly, that she was witnessing a miracle.
Scott’s arc was fixed in the stars from that moment on. At three years old, she played parties, churches, and gatherings. But economic opportunity was hard to come by, and when her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1923, her mother decided she and Scott would emigrate to New York City.
Scott grocery shopped, prepared meals, and handled the household’s money. When word got around that, in her house, a child paid the bills, a gang of white teenagers broke in and demanded money. Scott refused to give them any. They beat her black and blue, and Scott still refused to turn over the cash. Finally, as police sirens grew nearer, the boys ran off with her blood on their hands.
Another time, Scott was playing near the trench being dug for the subway line that would become the A train when, according to Scott, a white girl from the neighborhood who she had been playing with told her to “Turn around so that I can brush you off and send you to school.” When she did, the girl pushed her into the trench.
The workmen who rescued Scott had the unmistakable look of “fear and guilt” in their eyes. “They, too, were white,” Scott later wrote in her journal. “They had witnessed the horrible act. They were involved and they resented it and me.”
Scott resolved never to be so naïve again — nor did she allow the incident to dictate her life.
She kept playing piano, kept stunning audiences, and impressed one person in particular. The story sounds more like legend than fact, but several sources, including Scott’s journal and the accounts of the parties involved, confirm it.
German-born, wearing a meticulous goatee and a pocket watch, and steeped in the traditions of European classical music, Juilliard founder Frank Damrosch was the very model of high culture in New York City. As such, his blood began to boil when he heard someone in the audition room improvising over Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Major.” Marching down the hall to confront the blasphemer brash enough to attempt such a thing, he heard the ninths being substituted with the sixths. It was sacrilege, he thought, until he saw who was playing.
Since eight-year-old Scott’s hands couldn’t reach the piece’s intervals, she played the sixths to make it sound the way she intuitively knew it should. No one taught her how to do this. She wrote: “I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age.”
When she finished, the auditions director whispered, “I am in the presence of a genius.” Damrosch agreed and Scott was admitted to Juilliard. But her real education wasn’t in the classroom. It was in her living room.
In New York, Alma quickly became a successful jazz musician and befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars in the process. In turn, they shone on young Hazel. She sat beside ragtime legend Fats Waller — whom she called “Uncle” — at the piano, while his hands strode syncopated rhythms across the keys. Piano legend Art Tatum became a close family friend and mentor to Hazel, advising her to dive deep into the blues.
Meanwhile Hazel’s mother, Alma, bought a brownstone on West 118th Street, opened a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, and taught herself to play tenor sax. Her circle widened. Lester Young and Billie Holiday came over after hours. Young and Alma traded turns playing sax in the living room when she and Holiday weren’t gossiping in the kitchen. Holiday became like a big sister to Hazel, taking her under her wing as Hazel ventured out into the life of a working musician. In an article she wrote for Ebony, Hazel Scott recalled how, once, when “wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry.” Holiday then “stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room.” She told Scott, “Never let them see you cry” — a piece of advice Scott followed forever.
While still a child, Hazel Scott played piano for dance classes and churches. At 13 she joined her mother’s jazz band, Alma Long Scott’s American Creolians. When she outgrew the gig, her mother secured her a spot playing piano after the Count Basie Orchestra at the posh Roseland Ballroom. Watching Basie bring the house down, Hazel turned to Alma and said, “You expect me to follow this?” Stage fright or no, she played what would become her signature boogie-woogie style. The crowd adored her. From there, she took flight.
* * *
At the time, the majority of jazz clubs were segregated. Even the famed Cotton Club in Harlem, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined, had a “colored” section. Blacks and whites almost never shared the stage. But in 1938, a shoe clerk from Trenton, New Jersey, opened a different kind of club.
Cafe Society was “the wrong place for the Right people” according to founder Barney Josephson. He once said, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” It was there that Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time and became a legend, and it was there that Holiday got Scott her first steady engagement.
When Holiday canceled a standing engagement three weeks early, she insisted Scott take her place. By the end of the run, Scott was Cafe Society’s new headliner. Only 19 years old, she inherited the bench previously occupied by piano greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. But as The New York Amsterdam News reported, “Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own.”
As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.
And, she was beautiful. She wore floor-length ball gowns on stage and gazed out into the audience with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to communicate a deep knowledge of everyone they fixed upon. Like watching a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt, when Scott sang, you saw the song traveling through her, taking shape before emerging from her lips. And when she played her boogie-woogie, she grinned ear to ear, looking like self-possessed joy manifested. She was, in a word, irresistible.
Audiences flocked to see her. Fan mail flooded in. Josephson decided to open a second Cafe Society location, uptown for a swankier audience, with Scott as the marquee performer. New York’s finest showed up in droves, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who dropped in one evening for “some entertainment and relaxation,” as one reporter wrote. After the show, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Scott to join her for a late supper. Because she had already changed from her evening wear to streetwear, Scott begged off the invitation.
“I’m inviting you,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, “not your clothes.”
How could Scott refuse?
She was the reigning queen of jazz, a friend to some of the most famous names in the country, and all at just 22 years old.
Hazel Scott had conquered New York. Hollywood was next. But in a motion picture industry where people of color were usually restricted to playing maids, cannibals, or buffoons, was there room for Hazel Scott?
* * *
Nine black soldiers march down a hill to the sound of piano and drum. They are upright, dignified, ready to fight and die. Their sweethearts line the road, waving handkerchiefs and bidding their fellows goodbye. It’s 1943, and the question on the backlot is, “What should these women wear?”
The scene is from “The Heat’s On,” a patriotic 1943 musical. Scott is performing a rah-rah number called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” In conceptualizing the scene, the director intended to dress the women in what Hollywood assumed all black women would wear: dirty aprons.
Scott wasn’t having it. Her contract always included final script and wardrobe approval, ensuring she’d never play or look the fool. She told the choreographer she wanted that protection extended to the extras who shared her stage.
“What do you care?” said the choreographer. “You’re beautifully dressed.”
“The next thing I knew,” wrote Scott, “we were screaming at each other and all work had stopped. … I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.”
Neither side relented, so Scott went on strike. For three days, the studio begged and pleaded for her to return to set. But Scott would not be moved. The more the clock ticked, the more money it cost, a fact of which Scott was well aware. Finally, the studio caved to Scott’s demands, and the women appear in the film wearing particularly fetching floral dresses.
Though she won the battle, Columbia Pictures was far from conceding the war. In the minds of producers who were used to dictating to African-Americans — particularly to African-American women — Scott’s public victory was more than they could stand. In the next two years, she was given small parts in two more second-rate movies. After that, she was finished with motion pictures.
“I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” wrote Scott in her journal. “In short, committed suicide!”
She packed her bags and headed back east — where love was about to sweep her off her feet.
* * *
Scott was once again wowing crowds at Cafe Society, when she caught the eye of a young politician. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York’s first African-American congressman, pulled Josephson aside, and asked for an introduction.
“Are you really interested in Hazel,” said Josephson, who considered Scott a daughter, “or are you just screwing around?”
Powell assured him of his sincerity, Josephson made the introduction, and their romance caught fire — despite the fact that Powell had been married to nightclub singer Isabel Washington since 1933. For the next year, Scott and Powell pursued their love with reckless abandon, damned be the consequences. In 1945, he married Scott 11 short days after his divorce was finalized.
Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.
Scott was making around $75,000 a year during this time — making her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. After five years’ continued success, Hollywood could ignore her no longer. In 1950, she came to break the color barrier on the small screen.
* * *
Scott sits at the keys of a grand piano in an elegant white gown. With a backdrop of Manhattan behind her, she looks like the urban empress she had become.
“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”
Broadcast on the DuMont Network, The Hazel Scott Show was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards in living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment. As a passionate civil and women’s rights activist, the show symbolized a triumphant accomplishment. As a career musician, her program took her to professional heights known by few, assuring her place in the pantheon of America’s greatest performers. To be sure, Scott had arrived at the success she had sought since playing that first simple tune in Trinidad as a three-year-old.
And then, just like that, it all came tumbling down. “Red Channels.” HUAC. Another star tainted by a whiff of Communism.
When she stood in front of HUAC, it only made sense to speak truth to power, to stand up for what she believed in. She believed herself the embodiment of the American dream, and she spoke in its defense. In an unwavering voice she told the committee, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and project the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.”
But they did not hear her, did not believe her. And she in turn underestimated the power of fear, never having bent to it herself.
One week after her testimony, DuMont canceled The Hazel Scott Show. Concert appearances became few and far between. Even nightclub gigs were hard to come by.
Exhausted and unraveled, Scott went to Paris on what was to be a three-week vacation. Her sojourn extended to three years. To her, Paris became “the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights.” It was also “a much needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.”
She played across Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. Crowds still loved her, still swooned over her swinging classics. But it was not the same. Her spotlight had dimmed, and would never again shine on her the way it had in her halcyon days.
Eventually, Scott returned to America and slipped further into obscurity. In 1981 she passed away at 61 from cancer. Her albums are hard to come by now and her name never appears where it should, beside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and others who we think of when we think of jazz. But for a while, she led them all, until a country twisted by fear pushed her past the point from which even she, the force of nature that she was, could return.
It’s mid-January, harvest time in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The village of Alanganallur is buzzing, festive, rowdy with excitement. Today is devoted to jallikattu: a form of bull riding that is one of the most dangerous and controversial sports on earth.
In an arena in the heart of the village, wearing a neon green number 11 jersey, Vinothraj Navaneethan half-crouches behind a painted coconut stump at the bull’s gateway. His knee is strapped for support, and he’s sharp with adrenaline. He is not alone in the arena. Unlike American bull-riding, in jallikattu, each animal is released into a tangle of men who jostle for a chance at a ride.
The bull charges like a detonation of brawn and color. Behind lowered horns, his body is a hill of muscle roiling beneath a slippery hide. His hump, the fleshy pinnacle at the wither — marking him as a bos indicus, an Indian native — billows a steam cloud of decorative pink chalk or pale ash. He might glitter all over. His horns might be painted blue or ochre. He might be haloed in a burst of blossoms, like a swarm of butterflies, as the garland of flowers ringing his horns is ripped by fingers seeking purchase.
Hands grasp at him as he surges; men leap onto his back. He rises, parries with his horns, bolts, sometimes slips and falls. If he dips past the exit corridor and circles back to chop his horns at his aggressors, the packed crowd and the voice on the loudspeaker holler, “Super! Super!”
There will be another bull, and another — a new bull every few minutes. By day’s end, 571 bulls will have been launched into this scrum of riders. There will be many injuries. On this particular day, in this particular arena, there will be no deaths. But when the three days of the harvest festival called Pongal, the peak of jallikattu season, are up, at least five men will have lost their lives to bulls.
Vinoth — as the wiry, hollow-cheeked, moustached rider is known — is not nervous. At 32, he has nearly 20 years of jallikattu experience, and he’s one of the best.
But he’s focused, waiting for the right bull — the big scary one, the one whose reputation the announcer hypes in the moments before the charge. When that bull blasts through the vaadivassal — the gateway — Vinoth will lunge. He’ll enfold the bull’s hump in his arms, hug tight and try to ride out the fireworks to follow. With any luck, he’ll fall clear of the animal only after it has turned and leapt three times, or dashed out into the wide corridor that exits the field of play. If Vinoth is tossed prematurely, the triumph belongs to the bull and his owner.
A successful ride brings prizes, but Vinoth would be here even if it didn’t. Men like him have been making their reputations clinging to the backs of bulls, and breaking open their bodies in the effort, for over a thousand years — since long before a win ever meant money, foreign cars or airline tickets.
In fact, for most of their history, jallikattu tournaments have resembled lively local fetes more than glamorous rodeo spectaculars. Until recently, few outside of a smattering of southern agrarian districts took much notice.
But that was before jallikattu was outlawed, before it was saved by a massive, unexpected popular uprising. Now the ancient Tamil bull-wrangling sport is in the heat of an unpredictable renaissance.
Vinoth would be out here regardless; he would have played the last three seasons, too, if it hadn’t been for the ban. But only in a moment like this one, in which jallikattu is electrified with new political meaning, does a man like Naga Ananth, a software engineer with soft hands, decide to make his debut.
* * *
Ananth, 29, is not a bull man. He’s a Royal Enfield motorbike man, a whiskey and cigarettes with friends man, a pressed collared shirt at the office man. He dreamed of a career in the navy, but when the entrance exams refused to go his way, he settled into the busiest highway of New Indian aspiration: a career in corporate IT, an urban life.
He’s also ardently Tamil, and during the last year of Ananth’s life, Tamil “sub-nationalism” has become powerfully identified with jallikattu.
It’s no stretch to say his decision to enter the arena at Palamedu, the second of the three big tournaments of Pongal, was more about politics than sport. Palamedu is his ancestral hometown, but his family isn’t the kind whose sons wrangle farm animals, so Ananth’s jallikattu “experience” is limited to a tentative dangle from the hump of a tied-up bull.
In the medical tent with his brother Bhubhanesh, a trainee chartered accountant, he jitters excitedly as he waits for their heat of 50 ridersto be shuffled into the ring. He shakes out his limbs and flickers timorous grins. When he finally treads out into view of the thronged bleachers and the television cameras, he is kicking himself for leaving it so late.
“I’ve wasted so much time,” he’ll say later.
When it is over — and it is over quickly, without glory or incident — he posts a photograph of himself and Bhubhanesh in their yellow jerseys on Facebook. He writes this caption: “Jallikattu fever of 2017 over… thanks to all youngster[s] and people who brought back our ultimate cultural game: JALLIKATTU.”
* * *
The first legal challenge to jallikattu’s existence came in 2006. A man named A. Nagaraja, whose son was killed in the arena, brought a case against the sport to the Madras High Court. In the years that followed, various animal welfare concerns took up the petition, and the case migrated to the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi. But until 2014, the petitioners’ victories were piecemeal: ramped up regulation, restrictions, temporary halts — never yet an outright abolition.
In January 2013, Dr. Manilal Valliyate, a veterinarian and PETA India staffer based in Delhi, was sent down to southern Tamil Nadu as part of an Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI)-authorised investigative team. His wasn’t the first such delegation, but the 2013 report, says Valliyate, “was the one that really made the difference.”
Valliyate, now CEO of PETA India, had never been to a jallikattu event before. “It was horrendous,” he recalls. In the snaking, sun-baked chute leading to the gated vaadivassal stall, bulls were force-fed fluids he believes were alcoholic. Bull handlers beat animals, even bit their tails to force compliance. Inside the stall of the vaadivassal, nose ropes, laced through a tender, manmade piercing in the bull’s septum, were yanked before they were cut, and bulls reared in pain. Irritants were rubbed into the mucosa of the eyes. Bulls weren’t meant to die, but sometimes, in the chaos of it all, they did.
The jallikattu lovers I’ve spoken to don’t rule out the existence of cruelty in their sport, but they say it’s rare and aberrant; abusers are bad apples. Valliyate disagrees. Torment is intrinsic to jallikattu, he insists. “We have prey animals and predator animals. Bulls are prey animals. There is no such thing as an aggressive bull.” What passes for aggression in the ring, he says, is an expression of mortal terror.
When the team compiled their report that year, they took “more of an animal perspective,” according to Valliyate. Rather than simply indexing death and injury, their document made the case for the bulls’ psychological suffering.
Another harvest-season cycle of jallikattu passed before the new evidence was considered at the Supreme Court. At Alanganallur, Vinothraj rode better than ever. Newspapers reported that he defeated 11 bulls (he remembers 16) to claim the “man of the match” title and a brand new Hero motorcycle. He was in his prime.
And then it was over.
On May 7, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that jallikattu caused unnecessary suffering, violating India’s 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Valliyate, who was present in the courtroom that day, remembers: “The best part of the judgement was that it went beyond jallikattu. The court reiterated the rights of animals and expanded the scope of the PCA Act.” For PETA it was another forward step on a long road.
To the jallikattu aficionados, it looked like a dead end. Raja Marthandan, a bull-owner and pro-jallikattu campaigner said later, “We had no hope of jallikattu coming back, that’s the truth.”
* * *
The revival began in 2017. It was Pongal time, and at Alanganallur’s abandoned arena, students and villagers gathered to agitate against the ban. Their protest caught and spread like fire. Within days, thousands were crowding the waterfront of the state capital, waving placards that read “Ban PETA” and “Save Jallikattu.”
“I couldn’t see the beach,” remembers Marthandan. “There were just people.”
It was a turbulent time in Tamil Nadu. Six weeks earlier, the state’s long-time leader, a powerhouse of Dravidian politics and former film star, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, had suddenly died. “Amma,” or “Mother,” as she was known to her reverent fans, had no natural successor — a leadership vacuum threatened. Then, just a week after Jayalalithaa’s death, Tamil Nadu was hit by a cyclone that caused an estimated $1 billion worth of damage.
Amid uncertainty, jallikattu was a rousing symbol. Diaspora protests sprang up as far away as London. PETA’s office in Norfolk, Virginia, was picketed. But it was Chennai’s Marina Beach that would give its name to the uprising.
Eventually, the protests would fracture into violence. Fake news swirled in the crowd — some protestors declared vegan PETA the agent of multi-national dairy corporations, seeking to corner the Indian market. PETA staff, including then-CEO Poorva Joshipura, became targets of online abuse, including threats of rape, a fact which shored up Joshipura’s conviction that jallikattu represents a crystallization of toxic masculinity.
But as Marthandan remembers it, the nearly weeklong, leaderless protest had the character of a carnival. People played traditional instruments, chanted slogans, held impromptu seminars. Marthandan trucked in an unusually docile pulikulam bull named Ramu, splendid in full tournament regalia, and led him from cluster to cluster, tent to tent, thanking protestors until his voice was raspy.
By the Friday, Naga Ananth and his friends had given up on going home at all. They spent the weekend nights bedded down by the beach. The microphone roved democratically: someone sang a folk song about farming, a group of trans women extemporised on the importance of Tamilness, a couple stood and asked the crowd to name their newborn. “I felt that energy,” Ananth says, “I’d never seen Tamil unity like that, in all my decades.”
The sport appeared to swell into a metonymy for Tamil identity — something that many felt was threatened by the Hindu-nationalist-led central government in New Delhi. Lose jallikattu, some seemed to fear, and the whole tapestry of Tamil culture could come apart.
“Tamil cultural heritage is not like groceries in a basket where you can pick some out and leave some,” says Manuraj Shunmugasundaram, a lawyer at the Madras High Court and spokesperson for the DMK, a major Tamil Nadu political party. “It’s more enmeshed than that.”
That Monday, January 23, 2017, the government of Tamil Nadu passed a new law — an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, exempting jallikattu. The bull sport was back.
But one year later, something unexpected is now threatening to destroy the sport anew: its own popularity.
* * *
It’s the day after Alanganallur 2018, and Vinoth is at home with third-place certificate and a limp. “Full body ache,” he grins.
Home is a chunk of flat, pale-earthed, palm-studded country near the city of Madurai, in the jallikattu heartland. Two generations ago, the family property spanned 60 acres of farmland, but over the years it has been nibbled down to just two.
It’s a familiar story: Tamil Nadu is pulling away from the land. A 2011 census classed nearly half of the state’s population as urban; just 20 years earlier two-thirds were rural. Now the suburbs reach toward the Navaneethan house. The family no longer work the fields; both Vinoth and his eldest sister are police officers in Madurai.
But the Navaneethan clan still think of themselves as farmers; they valorise what grows on this earth, perhaps most of all the hump-backed native cattle. Five or six bulls stand tethered on the family’s two ancestral acres now, and eat up most of Vinoth’s salary. He doesn’t care.
“He is my family member,” he says, of each animal in turn.
That Vinoth would ride bulls was more or less pre-ordained. His father, Navaneethan, a six-foot-two boulder of a man with a white handlebar moustache, displays his scars like a hieroglyphic record of his own achievements in the ring. Vinoth holds his toddler nephew, Aruth, who expertly barnacles, when lifted, to the hump of a roped, young bull. Vinoth jokes that the boy must take his place. In the Navaneethan family, jallikattu is a long-haul relay race.
It’s also an articulation of identity. On this diminished farm, bull riding is an act of fidelity to tradition; an antidote to anxieties about what has been lost.
There are consequently mixed feelings about the fact that the farm outbuilding is choked with a supermarket sweep of jallikattu prizes: steel shelving units, ceiling fans, cookware, stacked plastic chairs (beneath which snoozes Ricky Ponting, the pug), three bicycles still swaddled in card and plastic. Proud as he is of his many victories, Vinoth would be happier without the trinkets, a modern addition to the sport. He says he rides “for name only — and for passion.”
But the “jallikattu fever” that surfed in on the tide of the Marina protests turned out to have commercial power, and the sponsored prizes at Alanganallur this year — including a Renault Kwik, a Hyundai, and tickets to Singapore — were more valuable than any before.
Vinoth worries that money and hype are twisting the heart out of the sport. “Inside jallikattu our unity is gone,” he says. He’s not alone in noting incipient schisms in the jallikattu community; the unifying enemy of the ban is gone. There’s a chance that the salvation of the sport always carried inside it the seed of the tradition’s demise.
* * *
Marthandan’s newest bull does not yet have a name, but naming on the jallikattu scene tends toward the predictable, so “Blackie” is a reasonable projection. His black is that dense, untarnished black that flummoxes depth perception; tethered in the shade, he looks like a stenciled ideal of a bull, the kind that the protestors wore across their t-shirts on Marina Beach.
“His bone structure is awesome,” says Marthandan, scratching the bull’s rump. His foot-long horns are “beautifully shaped; actually, perfectly shaped.”
He is not tall, but burly, with a powerful neck split into two compact loaves of muscle along a central line. His hump, high and conical, deviates from stud standard, Marthandan notes, now exercising his breeder’s eye. Strictly speaking, it shouldn’t taper front-to-back — though the hump’s shape will mitigate its competitively disadvantageous jut. A more prominent hump is easier to grab, but a tapered one is tricky to keep hold of when the bull begins to buck. And this bull should really “play” — some months ago he gored a man to death.
Although the bull is being readied for his first tournament, his regimen is gentle. He grazes a scrubby, sun-patterned paddock, is taken swimming in a nearby pond to build muscle. He eats a bespoke feed, blended of legumes, cotton-seed, and bran. He doesn’t earn his keep, and he isn’t expected to. He’s unlikely ever to win back his hefty purchase price: 1.1 lakh rupees ($1,636) in cash, with a bull-calf from Marthandan’s pulikulam stud herd thrown in.
Marthandan isn’t complaining. Like Vinoth, he’s a purist who flinches at the prospect of a commercialised “entertainment jallikattu.” Marthandan believes jallikattu has no business making good business sense.
But high prices mean breed survival. During the years of the ban, Marthandan’s male pulikulam weanlings, aged four or five months, only found a market at the butchers, where they sold for around $20. Since the ban was lifted, these arena-bound purebreds have fetched upwards of $133 — the cost of a life worth keeping.
Once, south Indian draught cattle, good for muscle but bad for milk, were valuable for their labor and the fertilizer they produced. Bull sports were secondary — “only a celebration of their might,” Marthandan explains. Then came machines and chemical inputs. Now jallikattu is the last rationale for their existence, and its potentially abrupt end risks ushering in the slower end of these humpbacked breeds. The bulls’ future is hitched to what many call an unjustifiable cruelty.
* * *
The ban has been lifted, but the court battles are far from over. Manuraj Shunmugasundaram describes jallikattu as currently existing on “some sort of legislative life support.”
PETA India and other groups have appealed the Tamil Nadu law re-legalizing jallikattu to the Supreme Court. Late last year, it was decided the challenge should be heard by the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench, which will determine whether the bull sport qualifies as a “cultural right.”
When that will happen and what the outcome will be is difficult to judge. Suhrith Parthasarathy, a lawyer who practices at both the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court explains, “There’s nothing to suggest on a reading of our Constitution that animal rights stand on a greater footing than cultural rights. Intuitively, we might feel it should be so, but you can’t get there without interpreting the Constitution in a certain manner. I hope they are able to achieve the right result. But this is a very hard case to resolve.”
Dr. Manilal Valliyate, who says that PETA’s 2018 investigation revealed unchanged levels of cruelty, is convinced that the last victory will “belong to the animals.” What “victory for the animals” means remains contested — both sides say they are fighting for the bulls.
The future of jallikattu hangs in the balance, but one thing is sure: the bull boys of southern Tamil Nadu know how to hold on tight. That said, even the best among them don’t always last the course.
I walked past the stage and sat down at the bar, the neon lights illuminating my pink teddy, shadowed eyes, and crimson lips. I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. There were a few listless customers scattered around, hunching over bar stools, and a dancer circling the pole.
I waved over a colleague, a transplant from Manchester with hair extensions that kissed her velvet garter belt. We grumbled about how slow business was until I spotted a paunchy man at the bar. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes. He was also more animated than the others.
“Do you want to try?” I asked her out of a sense of politeness.
“You go,” she said, waving her hand.
I started off light, asking about his day and his job. His smile widened across his face as my eyes met his. I silently counted to 10 and reminded myself to look away for a second – best not to terrify him. After three minutes, I transitioned to more personal questions, moving steadily through the formula I’d perfected to curate conversation with customers.
He started complaining about his recent breakup, but it didn’t feel genuine, his eyes twinkling with eagerness. I switched my gaze to the top of his nose to put a boundary between us.
I could tell he was interested in spending money, but he’d be hard work. It was time to either close the sale or walk away. He’d take advantage of my time otherwise.
“Ready for fun?” I whispered in his ear to avoid his eyes.
I didn’t bother mentioning the private rooms. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in – not this guy. So, I led him into the corner, which opened up to the club like the bow of a ship, public and safe, for one quick dance.
* * *
Before working in strip clubs, I struggled to read people’s emotions through cues like facial expressions, postures, and tone of voice in real time. I processed events after the fact with tenuous evaluation, like peeling off layers of old wallpaper. At the time, it was not something I had words to explain, so I turned the blame on myself. Whenever I struggled to understand if someone was angry or bored, I went home and berated myself for being lazy, ditzy, and dumb as I obsessively evaluated the night. I just needed to try harder to be more present, I told myself.
One time, I went to a dinner party my sister hosted. A few of her colleagues and friends sat around her table while we snacked on hummus and bread, and someone asked about my recent trip to Europe. I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon. My voice was loud, a pitch you use at a concert, not inside. I can see their faces now, wide-eyed and uncomfortable, but at the time they coalesced into one indistinguishable figure, Dave Matthews playing in the background taking precedent. Their distaste didn’t register until my sister pulled me aside and asked as kindly as possible to keep to “lighter” topics.
After dinner, we dispersed to the living room and I attempted to talk to my sister’s colleague, but I forgot to break eye contact, continuously staring wide-eyed while she spoke.
“You’re certainly a character,” she remarked, exiting the conversation. I didn’t realize until later that I’d made her uncomfortable.
I didn’t know what slow processing was then, but I was aware I felt embarrassed a lot, and lonely. Facial expressions, body language, and eye contact are the bones of communication and it’s quite difficult to build and maintain relationships without the ability to read them.
So, I meticulously designed a persona who nodded at the right time, rehearsed lines, smiled when appropriate, monitored personal space, spoke quietly. Before going out, I crafted notecards, scribbling how long to talk about acceptable topics and which to stay clear of altogether, like my period, in small talk. The persona was a mask that helped me appear to interact in the moment, but in reality I crept by, three paces behind everyone else.
* * *
I had just celebrated my 24th birthday in Australia when I started dancing. I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt. I considered a bar job, but decided to try stripping simply because it meant fewer hours.
When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: women approaching men. I was intrigued, but confused – how did they convince customers to spend money off-stage?
The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: “Go get ready in there. You get one free drink. Don’t be late for stage. No sex. No drugs on the floor.” Simple enough, but nothing on how to monetize my time. I handed over my $40 house fee and walked into the sea of hairspray and naked bodies.
Hundreds of customers came and went during the 10-hour shift, sitting on plush couches and crowding around the bar. I approached 10 guys, mirroring my colleagues’ coy smiles, suggestive body language and light conversation starters, but I couldn’t tease out who wanted to spend. All but one dismissed me.
I sat at the bar to observe, sipping my free champagne. One dancer particularly stood out with her naturally frizzy curls and tattered black bra. She wasn’t the most glamorous, but every guy she spent more than a few minutes with agreed to get a lap dance, like she had sprinkled them with fairy dust. A few times, she walked away from customers within seconds, once even waving her hand in a man’s face to dismiss him.
From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club. She was taking a moment’s respite after a dance to count her money before securing it around her wrist with an elastic band. I took a deep breath and approached her, brushing aside the fringe curtain separating the lap dance room from the bar. It was getting late, two hours before closing, and I was exhausted and frustrated. So far I’d brought in just $50, meaning a $10 profit after the house fee. I thought about packing up and never coming back, but I needed this to work out. My student loan wouldn’t magically go away.
She took one look at me and asked, “Your first time?”
“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.
She stared at me with a bored expression, so I got right to it.
“How do you know who wants to spend money?”
She turned around and outlined her lips with a beige pencil in the smudged mirror, advising in her Bulgarian accent: “I don’t always know, but here are a few things I’ve learned after five years in the industry: Don’t spend more than 10 minutes with them if they haven’t spent money. Five minutes if it’s busy. You’re not a free therapist. Make them pay big bucks if they want to dump their shit on you. Walk away from customers who want to get to know the ‘real you’ right away. They’re usually creeps.”
Before she left the lap dance area, she turned around and said, “And quit this nice girl bullshit. You sound like a child. Don’t try so hard to be someone you’re not, just be a hyped-up version of yourself.”
As she sauntered off, she looked back once more, “I’m Claire by the way.”
Her words wounded me, but I was impressed. She saw right through my mask. The rambling girl at my sister’s house was a distant memory, but, strangely, Claire must have seen who I was before I tried so hard to appear normal.
After we spoke, I didn’t reincarnate my older self, but I did carve another persona, Piper. I learned to showcase different parts of my persona based on the customer. It seemed practicing social skills paid off – I became a deft conversationalist, sometimes earning my night’s wage just from talking. I moved beyond the foundation I hid behind, laughing, smiling, and chatting more brazenly than before, enjoying eye contact with customers I trusted, dismissing ones I didn’t. Performing felt strangely comfortable, even though the job was foreign and challenging.
That conversation lasted minutes, but the advice made for a successful career. Slowly, Claire’s rules taught me how to read customers for signs of interest by attaching meaning to their words and actions, something most people learn unconsciously, but that I’d always struggled with.
The club gave me a controlled space to decipher the crinkle around people’s eyes for eagerness or raised eyebrow for arrogance, as if I was reading a script from a teleprompter. And when I was unsure, I had her original rules to catch me. Are they asking for my real name? Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.
* * *
Eventually I moved back home to New York and started stripping full time. After two years of practicing by trial and error in the world’s most social job, the tricks I learned in the club seeped into my social life outside of work, and it got easier to notice social cues and use the same formula I used with customers to make small talk with anyone.
Most people I met outside of work told me I was a great listener, unaware of how much time I spent in my room practicing the correct reactions. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I struggled, so I let very few people get close to me – better than anyone finding out that I couldn’t really socialize, that I was a fake.
Nearly two years after I started dancing, my friend Sarah invited me to her birthday party. My least favorite social situation: a dinner party with unknown people. True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous – too many subtleties to keep track of. But I hadn’t seen my friend in a while and I missed her. I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work.
The hour and a half crawled by. There were six of us around a small table. I can’t remember the other people’s faces or even what anyone spoke about. I prayed no one would ask me personal questions.
“Sarah tells me you just got home from Amsterdam,” my friend’s brother said politely, turning in my direction. His words mixed in with the background conversation and it sounded like another language. I broke out in sweat.
“I am sorry, what?” I asked.
He repeated himself. A second later the words clicked. I smiled and looked at his nose instead of his eyes while chewing over my words and length of speech, trying to offer the version of my trip they wanted to hear.
Sarah got up to go to the bathroom. I quickly walked over to her and asked: “Were people bored when I spoke?”
“Not at all. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing. But I have to go. I’m sorry, I have work.”
She looked confused as I hurried out the door. I didn’t really have to go to the club. I’d made enough that week to warrant a night off with my friends, but work felt easier than this social performance. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge.
I walked under the familiar lights to the dressing room. I squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand and painted the dark circles under my eyes. For a brief second, I wondered, Is something wrong? Surely work shouldn’t be more comfortable than a night out? But then I swallowed those thoughts and walked onto the floor to escape from myself.
I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks. The birthday was successfully buried, and I was buzzing from the bliss of escape.
I spotted a man at the bar – alone, tall, bald with a kind smile and a glass of whiskey in his hand. I ran through the formula and we connected right away.
“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.
“It’s an underrated drink.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Can I get you another one?”
Ten minutes passed. I suggested the private room and he agreed. The private rooms were where I connected with customers, sometimes in a way that was more intimate than my relationships outside the club.
There I massaged their shoulders, let them touch me, expressed vulnerability. I bantered for hours – something I was never able to do before. With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before.
“You have a strange rhythm about you,” he remarked, smiling as I cradled him. Customers who spent money like water didn’t care if I was odd; they wanted an experience. My weirdness was worth their paycheck.
After two hours, I excused myself for a moment to go to a bathroom where I got a message from Sarah: Miss you. Wish you didn’t have work. It’s not the same without you.
Below the message was a picture of the dinner crew, laughing with their arms wrapped around each other. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas.
Why am I only alive at work? Why can I give so much of myself to my customers and so little to my friends? Maybe I was just being stupid because I was drunk, but I wanted to be an active participant in my life instead of walking around confused all the time, experiencing my days after they’ve happened, passive from the sidelines. I wanted connection.
Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people. The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in.
I allowed myself just one sob before I fixed my face and performed for the last half hour. When I got home, I couldn’t get out of bed for days, my sheets disheveled with self-loathing.
Desperate for answers, I started scrolling through an online forum for women with ADHD, wondering if I might have an attention disorder, looking for an explanation. I started asking for advice, addressing some of my other issues first like getting lost in obsessive thought.
Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.
“What is ASD?” I asked.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
I scoffed, but after I read articles on how autism manifests in women, there wasn’t room for doubt – the evidence was clearly outlined in the bullet points on my laptop.
Central to autism is a difficulty experiencing life in real time. Many autistic people can’t filter out information, which makes it difficult to zone in and focus. All those years, I couldn’t read people’s cues because I struggled to cancel out the world around me. At my sister’s house, the background music, the forks scraping on plates, the blue walls, all swam in front of people’s facial expressions.
But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. The rules were clear, the distractions minimal, so I could focus and interact.
Women in the ADHD forum invited me to the group for autistic women and there I saw myself a hundred times over. Scrolling through were women like me: sex workers, performers, artists, writers, all struggling to make sense of our invisible differences in our own socially awkward, wacky, and beautiful way.
I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective. I stopped punishing myself when I got overwhelmed in conversations, stopped beating myself up when bright lights blanched out facial expressions and background noise canceled out people’s words. I took a deep breath and resisted pretending to listen and asked: “Can you say that again?” without apology. I forgave myself when I slipped outside of social norms and said something weird.
No more being sorry for things I can’t help. People would love me or not – frankly I was okay with the risk.
* * *
A few months later, I stood outside the club with a cigarette in my hand, looking over the busy highway at the deserted factories.
“Piper, you leaving?” my bouncer nudged in his Queens accent.
“Yes. I made enough tonight. I’m going out,” I said, smiling back at him.
He waited outside with me until Sarah pulled up in a rideshare.
“This is where you work?” she asked incredulously, her mouth ajar in the window of the car.
I laughed. She knew I was a stripper but had never been to the club. From the outside, it looked grim: tattered brown building on the edge of town. But it was home to me.
“I never said stripping was glamorous.”
I kept the window open as the club disappeared, letting the cold air whip my face, feeling a mixture of relief and excitement. Forums for autistic women advised pulling off masks that many develop to pass as non-autistic. The effects of camouflaging are toxic, they warned. I wasn’t sure I could go back to who I was. The rambling autistic girl at my sister’s house was dead, buried under years of performance.
“Did you have a good night?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah. I’m ready for a night off though.”
Who could I have been if I didn’t try so hard to pass? I’ll never know, but stripping provided a portal to who I might be without fear of rejection – a rare glimpse of the affectionate, brash, and funky edges of personality. But I still had so much to learn. There was vast, dormant space to grow into beyond my work persona.
The twinkling lights opened the doors to Manhattan, my body still moving from the music of the club. The possibilities of the night unrolled in front of me and I intended to savor them.
When I heard a yelp followed by sickening thuds, I rushed to the bottom of the stairs where I found my four-year-old, Brandon, sprawled on the tile floor sobbing. My nine-year-old, Devon, stood watching from the top of the stairs as I ran my hands frantically over Brandon’s body checking for injuries. My other kids rushed to tell me they’d seen Devon sneak up behind Brandon and, with one big shove, send him hurtling through the air. As they spoke, Devon began shrieking, “They’re lying on me! I didn’t do it.” I knew with icy certainty that he had.
My husband and I adopted Devon (whose name has been changed here for his protection) and his sister Kayla out of foster care when he was four and she was three. At the time, we had two other sons, Sam, who was ten, and Amias, three. Brandon, our youngest, wasn’t born yet. Even though Devon’s behavior was concerning – throwing tantrums, hoarding food, urinating in odd places, and lying – we were confident that with the love of a forever family he would overcome these vestiges of early childhood abuse and neglect.
Over the years, Devon’s tantrums grew longer and more intense. He gorged and threw up, and played with his feces. I tried one parenting strategy after another but nothing worked. Particularly challenging was his uncanny ability to “play” adults with his big, brown puppy dog eyes. Even as a kindergartener, he was convincing teachers I hadn’t fed him breakfast despite his full belly. He could switch off his tantrums at the approach of another adult, leaving outsiders perplexed by my seemingly exaggerated concerns. Once, when Devon pulled a fire alarm at school, he almost convinced even me that it was an accident. But, of course, it wasn’t. Both the victim and arbitrator of Devon’s fibs, I grew wise to his tricks.
That morning, with Brandon sobbing on my lap, I listened to Devon shrieking and slamming his bedroom door over and over. When had the tantrums of a toddler turned into dangerous rages? Brandon could have been seriously hurt or even killed. I was out of my depth. One more reward chart, one more consequence, one more month of being consistent wasn’t going to be enough. We needed help.
Over the following months, Devon received intensive outpatient therapy and was hospitalized twice. When his behavior deteriorated further he was admitted to a psychiatric residential treatment facility. He was 10. There he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a result of early childhood trauma. Although the disorder is considered rare for the population at large, many adoptive and foster children struggle with attachment issues. Due to the effects of early trauma, these kids’ brains get “stuck” in survival mode. They exhibit various symptoms, including violent outbursts, superficial charm, and manipulation in an attempt to manage their surroundings and the people around them to feel safe. They struggle to form meaningful attachments and often actively reject love and affection from their caregivers. This description fit Devon to a T, and with a diagnosis that seemed to explain his extreme behaviors, I was optimistic he would finally get the help he needed.
But after a year in his first placement, Devon had made no progress. Over the next few years, due to Medicaid length of stay guidelines, Devon bounced between psychiatric residential treatment programs, therapeutic foster care, and group homes. With each move he grew bigger, stronger, and more violent. He punched kids in the backs of their heads and stabbed them with pencils. When desperate for attention he made halfhearted attempts to hurt himself, like stuffing socks into his mouth and making paper cuts across his wrists. He attacked workers, too, even dislocating one woman’s thumb.
Devon was a boy who cried wolf. On several occasions, he claimed workers had purposely hurt him. Once, as I examined his handsome and unblemished face, I’d asked, skeptically, “A grown man punched you in the face and you have no bruises, no red marks, no swelling?” He nodded emphatically.
Other times, Devon would brazenly tell workers, “I’m gonna get you fired,” and then smack himself in the face or claw at his arm to create damning marks. His accusations were investigated while the accused workers were put on unpaid administrative leave. With no consequences for false allegations, he made them whenever he wasn’t getting his way, was mad, or just bored.
By the time Devon was 14 and at his sixth placement, Thompson Child & Family Focus, a Carolinas-based childcare and education center, my dwindling optimism had been replaced by stoic pragmatism. These programs weren’t helping Devon, but with him not living at home, at least his brothers and sister were safe.
* * *
It was a cool day in October when Ellen, the therapist at Thompsons, called to notify me that Devon had stripped naked and run around masturbating in front of staff and his peers for two-and-a-half hours earlier that afternoon. As usual, there was no apparent trigger that set him off.
When Devon called me during his scheduled phone time a few hours later, I braced myself for tiresome excuses and blame shifting:
“Hi, Mom. It’s me. Devon.”
“Ummm, I had a hard time today. The kids was annoyin’ me.”
“And that’s a reason to run around naked? That’s not an excuse.”
“But staff was teasin’ me. They was makin’ me do it.”
I’d heard enough. “That’s unacceptable, Devon. When you’re ready to take responsibility for your actions call me back.”
I hung up and he didn’t call back.
The next morning, I sipped my coffee and stewed over the years of treatment and thousands of hours of therapy Devon had received. Nothing had worked. I understood that RAD was particularly difficult to treat, but surely there must be effective therapies. Had we just not found them yet? I worried too that he’d become institutionalized – adept at gaming the system and sabotaging his treatment. Would he ever be well enough to move back home?
Then my phone rang. It was Thompsons again, this time the nurse. “I’m calling to notify you of a second incident Devon had yesterday. This one was at about 10 p.m.” I shook my head, exasperated, as the nurse continued. “He hit a worker in the eye with a plastic toy then became agitated and had to be restrained. He accidentally hit his head. We took him to the ER last night and he got seven stitches, but the CT scan was clear.” Before hanging up, I told the nurse I’d come by to check on Devon.
These calls were nothing new. Devon was physically restrained, for self-harm or aggression toward others, every few days – except during the weeks leading up to his birthday and Christmas when he hoped to parlay good behavior into more presents.
A sturdy teenager, mature enough to have the shadow of a mustache, Devon usually fought back when he was restrained. Once, when he went AWOL, workers had to restrain him on the pavement as he ran down the road. His forearms and palms were scored with bloody scratches which he, of course, claimed they inflicted on purpose. It had only been a matter of time before he got seriously hurt.
When I arrived at Thompsons less than an hour later, Ellen met me at the door. As we walked down the hall, she told me the worker Devon had injured, Mr. Myron, had a scratched retina but was expected to make a full recovery. I flushed with shame and embarrassment. Since Devon had been hurt too, they were conducting an investigation and Mr. Myron had been placed on administrative leave.
Before opening the door to the conference room, Ellen paused and turned to me. “I want to warn you, Devon’s had a rough night and doesn’t look so good.”
Devon didn’t raise his head when we entered. I pulled a chair up next to his, reached out for his chin, and lifted his face. In shock and horror, I gaped. His cheeks, normally honey-brown, were a garishly swollen purplish black under his freckles. His lips were swollen too. Red bruises dotted his throat and blood caked inside his nose. A gash near his hairline was tracked with black stitches.
Devon mumbled about Mr. Myron beating him up. My stomach churned not knowing what was true, what was exaggeration, and what was an outright lie. It was hard to imagine a worker beating Devon, but not hard at all to imagine Devon accidentally hitting his head during a restraint. I was pretty sure this was somehow Devon’s own fault, and that the investigation would bear that out, but were those fingermarks on his neck? How could that be an accident? Unsettled and afraid for my son, I insisted he be immediately transferred to a new facility.
* * *
After Devon was safely admitted into a new program I requested his records from Thompsons, and was startled to find they’d scrubbed the entire incident from his file. What was going on? It took months to get access to the findings report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), which included 17 witness statements and media transcripts of the surveillance footage. As I sat reading the report, Devon’s version of the story – once unimaginable – unfurled vividly in my mind.
That October afternoon Devon was bored, so he stripped to his underwear – always good for a laugh – and trotted into the common area. The other boys hooted as he flapped his arms like bird wings. The fun didn’t last long though because the workers called for backup to take the other boys off the unit.
The NC DHHS report referred to the on-duty workers as Staff #5 and Staff #6, but I recognized Staff #5 as Mr. Myron, a burly man with a mustache. I hadn’t met Staff #6, a woman Devon called “Miss Piggy,” and didn’t know her real name.
Sauntering to a window, Devon pulled down his underwear and shook his naked bottom at the boys outside. Barking a laugh, Mr. Myron imitated Devon shaking his own clothed bottom. Miss Piggy laughed.
“You stop it!” Devon shrieked.
In an effeminate voice, Mr. Myron mimicked, “You stop it!”
When Mr. Myron didn’t stop, Devon began masturbating. Mr. Myron took the unspoken dare – dangling his lanyard between his legs, gyrating his hips, and moaning.
According to the report, a case manager and a quality assurance specialist were watching a live surveillance feed from a nearby office and did not intervene.
Then, with Mr. Myron egging him on, Devon mimed pushing a pencil up his rectum. Would Mr. Myron take this dare? Grinning, Devon gingerly lowered his bottom flat onto the bench.
It was at that moment that Mr. Mike, Staff #7, strode in and told Devon in a firm voice to get dressed. Devon immediately complied. I gasped in relief, not realizing I’d been holding my breath while reading. Finally someone intervened on Devon’s behalf.
Mr. Mike took Devon outside for a walk to burn off some energy. After that, the evening was peaceful with dinner, phone calls home, and Devon and the other residents watching “X-Men.” Later, in his bed and unable to sleep, Devon caught his name in a few snatches of conversation from the common area. Enraged, he rushed out of his room. “You! You stop talkin’ about me!” He pointed a shaky finger at Mr. Myron, who grinned.
“Let. Me. Call. My. Mom!” Devon punched out.
“Nope.” Mr. Myron’s eyes narrowed in a Cheshire grin. “Phone-time is ova.”
“I’m gonna fuck you up, bitch!” Devon screamed, throwing a laundry basket then a trash can. “Stop makin’ fun of me!” he screeched. Grabbing a plastic art stencil, he flung it toward Mr. Myron who was now advancing on him.
Yelping and clutching at his eye, Mr. Myron fell to his knees. Blood seeped between his fingers as he growled, “I’m gonna kill that little boy.”
“Chill… Chill…” Mr. Mike intervened, leading Mr. Myron away.
Devon called after him, “And don’t you come back neither or I’ll hurt you worse.” Then, Mr. Myron bolted after Devon, who raced for his bedroom. He threw Devon onto the bed and slammed his fist into his face; then again, before Mr. Mike managed to drag him off and away. Calling for backup, Mr. Mike urged, “He’s not worth it. Think about your family.”
Mr. Myron visibly calmed. “O.K. I’m O.K.” Standing, he turned toward the door as if to leave. When Mr. Mike relaxed his hold, Mr. Myron twisted away and hurtled after Devon again. Screaming, Devon ran, but tripped. Mr. Myron shoved him into the bathroom, slamming him into the bathtub. Grabbing a fistful of hair, he cracked Devon’s head against the faucet and blood gushed from the wound. Mr. Myron’s strong hands squeezed around Devon’s throat. He couldn’t breathe. Panic stricken, he kicked his legs, but Mr. Myron was bigger and heavier. He couldn’t escape. Couldn’t breathe.
Finally, Mr. Myron was pulled away and locked out of the unit. Someone helped Devon change out of his blood-soaked t-shirt. Laying on a bench, he held an ice pack to his head and cried, “I need the police. Call the police–”
“Hush now.” The nurse patted his arm. “We’re going to take you to the ER, honey. That cut needs sutures and we’ll get you checked for a concussion.”
“I wanna call my mom first,” Devon croaked and someone gave him a cordless phone. Holding it for several long seconds, he stared at the glowing numbers before handing it back. “She won’t believe me anyways.”
Putting down the report, my hands trembled. Devon was right. I hadn’t believed him until then. How many other times had workers been unnecessarily rough when restraining him? Feeling nauseous, I thought back to the bruises and scrapes I’d seen on Devon over the years and realized this probably wasn’t the first time I’d failed him. This was just the first time his injuries couldn’t be explained away. How many times had staff smirked instead of soothed? Deliberately provoked him? If they’d been sabotaging his treatment, that would explain why he hadn’t gotten better. I was deeply disturbed, and knew there were no easy answers.
* * *
Thompsons was fined $5,000 and given 23 days to implement corrective measures. Miss Piggy resigned. The case manager and quality assurance specialist received disciplinary write-ups. Thompsons fired Mr. Myron and, only at my insistence, filed a police report. Eighteen months later, the arrest warrant has yet to be served.
These nominal penalties have not made Devon or kids like him any safer. Residential treatment facilities claim they can handle juveniles with a propensity for violence while providing them with effective treatment and keeping them safe. In truth, they’re chronically understaffed and lack effective therapeutic interventions. Layer in kids, like Devon, who are manipulative and incentivized by policies that allow them to wield false allegations with impunity. Sprinkle in a few rogue workers, like Mr. Myron, who abuse their power and lose their cool. These treatment facilities are dangerously simmering pots.
Because Devon still cries wolf, it’s nearly impossible to sort out the truth from the lies. Impossible to protect him. Our goal has always been for Devon to move back home, but as long as he continues to be a danger to himself and to his siblings, residential treatment facilities are our only option. Unfortunately, I can’t simply move him to a new facility every time he makes an allegation, because availability is very limited in these types of programs, even more so for kids who have a history of making false allegations.
Since leaving Thompsons, Devon has been in a string of residential placements and his violent behavior has only escalated, punctuated by allegations he’s being mistreated. Not long ago, he called me with a familiar refrain: “Mom, they restrained me. I didn’t do nothin’. And, they was stranglin’ me!” Hours later, the staff called and said Devon threatened to get the workers fired and twisted his shirt around his own neck to leave red marks.
I knew it was possible – I’d seen Devon do this very thing before with my own eyes. Still, I erred on the side of caution and made every possible inquiry. Witnesses – both workers and Devon’s peers – all stated that he had been the one to twist his shirt around his neck. I was told surveillance footage showed this as well. Regardless, Devon tearfully insisted the worker who restrained him had tried to strangle him. Ultimately, I had to make a tough judgment call: this time Devon was just up to his old tricks.
Or was he?
Patrick Ganio had lived to see his country invaded, its defenses smashed, and his comrades fall on the battlefield. But he had lived, and that was no small feat – not after the Allied surrender and the torturous march that followed, 60 miles inland from their defeat on the Bataan peninsula, all the way to the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Battered, wounded and starving, the soldiers who stumbled along the way were swiftly dispatched, run through with the blade of a Japanese bayonet. There would be no slowing down. To falter meant certain death.
Still, Ganio had survived. In a war that claimed nearly 57,000 Filipino soldiers and untold numbers of civilians, Ganio lived to see the dawn of the Philippine liberation. He was freed, allowed to go home to his family and rejoin the fight on behalf of the Philippine resistance. By 1945, three years of Japanese occupation were at a close, and the end of World War II was mere months away. All it would take would be one final push to effectively expel the Japanese Army from the Philippine Islands.
That’s how Ganio found himself once again in the battlefield, this time pinched between two mountain ranges on the rugged slopes of Balete Pass. Sniper fire whistled down from the peaks, where enemy fighters had barricaded themselves inside caves and pillbox bunkers. Control over Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, was at stake.
Patriotism had first motivated Ganio to enlist back in 1941, fresh out of school at age 20. At the time, the Philippines were a United States territory — spoils from its victory in the Spanish-American War — and Ganio took to serving the United States military with zeal.
His father, a poor farmer, supported his decision to fight. He had always harbored high hopes for his bright young son. Ganio distinguished himself at an early age by learning to read using papers from the local Catholic church, and when it finally came time for Ganio to start school, his father cheered him on, carrying him to class atop his shoulders. He dreamt Ganio would escape the poverty that plagued the family. Ganio would have an education, a career, a future.
But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, hit the Philippines like the opening blow in a one-two punch. Barely 10 hours later, as the U.S. scrambled to muster its defenses, the Japanese arrived on Philippine shores, ready to invade.
None of that shook Ganio’s resolve. He was convinced the Allies would win, never wavering, not even after their defeat at Bataan and his imprisonment and torture.
And yes, the war would be won. The battle in Luzon would prove to be a decisive victory, the last major battle in the Philippines and a crucial step toward Japan’s surrender. But it would not mark the end of the struggle for Philippine soldiers.
They would continue fighting for decades to come — only this time their goal was to reclaim the recognition stripped from them.
In 1946, barely a year after the war’s close, the U.S. government would repeal all the “rights, privileges, or benefits” given to Filipino soldiers like Ganio, essentially denying that they had been active in the U.S. military at all.
But as he scrambled through the rubble and brush of Balete Pass, Ganio could not know what was to come. His future, as far as he saw, was as bright as the one his father had envisioned for him. He had a career as a teacher waiting for him, and his wife had just welcomed their first child.
Amid the bloodshed and fire, Ganio could not even be certain of how the day would end. He couldn’t know that a bullet was barreling in his direction, destined for the back of his head, just millimeters from his brainstem. The war would re-shape his future in ways he could not yet comprehend.
* * *
The old man’s body contorted before her, assuming every painful position he had been subject to during his torture by the Japanese. Jimiliz Valiente-Neighbours, a Ph.D. student, was visiting Filipino veterans of World War II, hoping to answer a question: What did it mean to have served under the American flag? And now she was getting her answer, carefully reenacted before her, right down to the screams.
Five mysterious letters had launched her into this line of research: U-S-A-F-E. Valiente-Neighbours first noticed them etched on her grandfather’s grave during a 2008 visit to her family in the Philippines. As Valiente-Neighbours later discovered, the letters were a misspelling: for USAFFE, or the United States Army Forces in the Far East. No one had ever told her that her grandfather had served in World War II. That slice of family history felt hidden, and she was determined to find out why.
Before the Philippines’ independence in 1946, its citizens were U.S. nationals, and in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt made a proclamation. He ordered “all the organized military forces” of the Philippines to serve the U.S. military.
Approximately 260,000 Filipino servicemen were mobilized — soldiers, nurses, recognized guerilla units and more. But after the war, the financial obligation of that mobilization loomed large. With the Philippines on the verge of independence, the U.S. Congress started to reconsider its commitment to Filipino veterans.
In February 1946, it issued the first of two Rescission Acts, both of which denied Filipino veterans the right to be recognized as active service members in the U.S. Armed Forces. In exchange, the U.S. offered the Philippine Army a sum of $200 million. It also paid compensation to Filipino soldiers disabled in the war and kin of those who were killed — sometimes at half the rate of their American counterparts.
Ultimately, Filipino servicemen were left stripped of their pensions, educational stipends and medical care under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Just as important was the fact that the legislation seemed to negate any sacrifices the veterans made on behalf of the U.S.
President Harry Truman issued a statement re-iterating that Filipinos had “fought, as American nationals, under the American flag, and under the direction of our military leaders.” Yet, despite asserting that the U.S. had a “moral obligation” to the veterans, he signed the Rescission Acts.
As Valiente-Neighbours learned about these events, she started reaching out to Filipino veterans, and was surprised to hear some of them insist that they were U.S. citizens, even though they had never even set foot on American soil. But as they saw it, they had sacrificed life and limb for the U.S. What could be more American?
Valiente-Neighbours, now a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, ultimately met with 83 Filipino veterans. Many of them were heartbroken by the lack of recognition they received.
One leaned close to her tape-recorder and spoke to it as if talking to America itself. “I gave you my best years. You had my youth,” she recalls him saying. “And now, in my old age, you don’t recognize me.”
Valiente-Neighbours says the anguish was even more acute for the veterans who eventually immigrated to the U.S. “They could immediately see the difference in their treatment compared to American veterans, particularly their white counterparts.”
But for some of the veterans, the rejection they felt was also fueling a push to action. She remembers one veteran telling her, “I fought before, and now I’m fighting again.”
* * *
The moment Eric Lachica decided to act was the moment he saw his quiet, dignified father in a state of anguish. A Filipino sharpshooter during the war, Lachica’s father had approached the VA healthcare system for a check-up. He was turned away.
“That’s when I felt I should get involved,” Lachica says. And a few years later, at a reception inside the Philippine embassy in Washington, D.C., Lachica got his opportunity.
There, he spotted a man he recognized as a leader in the Filipino-American community: a World War II Purple Heart honoree, standing in a corner of the room, his hair conspicuously topped by a veteran’s hat.
His name was Patrick Ganio, and he had survived his near-fatal injury to become one of the most prominent activists in the fight for equity between Filipino veterans and their American counterparts.
“We fought the same war. We fought with the same lives there. There’s no reason why we should not have equal benefits,” Ganio says. To this day, he can still recite the Japanese military songs he was forced to learn as a prisoner: Miyo, tokai no sora akete…
Ganio immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, and by the time he and Lachica met, Ganio had succeeded in pushing for the passage of a law that gave Filipino World War II veterans a path to American citizenship. Lachica, a community organizer himself, was impressed, and eager to join the fight.
Together, they successfully lobbied for benefits like healthcare, disability assistance and burial rights — a bittersweet victory for Lachica, who was able to bury his father in California’s Riverside National Cemetery when he passed away in 2002.
But there was always the question of compensation: Could a dollar amount ever reimburse the veterans for the years of disenfranchisement they endured? Lachica says that was the subject of bitter debate, with some advocates pushing for an absurdly high dollar amount — and others reluctant to ask for anything at all.
Then there was the problem of getting politicians to sign on. In 2007, Lachica was angling to get the support of a rising political star, Illinois senator Barack Obama, but felt Obama was reluctant. He was venting his frustrations to a meeting of expat Democrats in the Philippine capital of Manila when a woman raised her hand. She introduced herself as Georgia McCauley — a family friend of Obama’s from his childhood years in Indonesia.
Lachica and McCauley arranged to meet again in Washington, D.C., to confront the senator face to face. And as they made their way up to Obama’s seventh-floor office on Capitol Hill, Obama himself entered the elevator and was startled to see his old friend.
“He got kind of flustered,” Lachica says with a laugh. He suspects their visit left an impression.
Shortly after his election as the 44th president of the United States, Obama signed into law the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund. It awarded a one-time payment of $15,000 to the veterans who had become U.S. citizens, and $9,000 to those who had not. Ganio considers it one of his crowning achievements: “The final conclusion of my mission,” he calls it.
But the battle was not yet over.
* * *
A bill passes, a problem gets solved. It’s a tidy narrative, but one that rarely lines up with reality, as Cecilia Gaerlan was about to find out.
Her home state of California had taken its own steps to honor Filipino World War II veterans, amending its education code in 2011 to encourage schools to teach their stories.
But “encourage” turned out to be the operative word. Nothing actually compelled school districts to follow through. So Gaerlan, the daughter of a Filipino veteran, felt obliged to act.
“I realized that nobody was going to do it,” says Gaerlan, founder of the Bataan Legacy Historical Society. “And I had to do something. I could not wait for chance to happen, especially because the veterans were dying.”
The last veterans are now in their 80s, 90s, even 100s. Some, as Gaerlan discovered, had felt pressure not to speak about their wartime experiences. The post-war years were a time to rebuild, not rehash old wounds.
Even Gaerlan’s own father, who died in 2014, downplayed the suffering he endured. As a child, Gaerlan remembers him turning his war stories into slapstick and farce, complete with rat-tat-tat sound effects for the guns.
One story began with a Japanese guard trying to steal her father’s toothbrush — he had mistaken it for a fountain pen — and ended with her father being beaten on the head. But the way her father told it, the story unfurled like comedy. “Us kids, we thought it was funny,” Gaerlan says.
Only later, as an adult, did she discover the grim reality that her father survived the gruesome Bataan Death March. “And I cried. I cried. I didn’t really know,” she says. “He never told me about these things. I never knew what happened, and when I asked him — ‘Dad, how come you never told me? Is this true?’ — then he choked up, and yeah, he broke down.”
What happened in the Philippines hadn’t been easy to talk about. It was defeat. Invasion. Torture. Nothing like the triumphant narrative that emerged from America’s World War II experience of a rising superpower that faced the forces of injustice, and won.
Instead, Filipinos had long been dismissed as Americans’ “little brown brothers” — too primitive, in the words of one U.S. president, to develop “anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.” That perspective had filtered its way into the wartime accounts Gaerlan read, some of which depicted Filipino servicemen as lazy or cowardly.
Little had been written from the standpoint of the Filipinos themselves — something Gaerlan set out to rectify. She collected their stories and petitioned the California State Board of Education to actively teach the “shared history” the U.S. had with the Philippines.
Timing was on her side. California was in the midst of revising its state curriculum, and in July 2016, it approved a plan to integrate the veterans’ stories into 11th-grade history classes. That decision will likely have wide-ranging impact. Since California is one of the largest textbook consumers in the country, changes to its curriculum are often reflected in books across all 50 states, Gaerlan says.
And Gaerlan started to hear firsthand how her work was changing the narrative for the state’s Filipino population. At one event at the University of California, Berkeley, a young man approached her to share his family’s experience. “He told me, ‘You know, my grandfather used to dress up in his uniform every April, and I thought he was so weird. But now that I know his story, I have such great respect for him.’”
* * *
Celestino Almeda has a hard time sleeping at night. He is now 101 years old, contending with arthritis in both knees, prostate cancer and other ravages of age. But as he told one judge who heard his case, he cannot rest. Not until he gets recognition for his sacrifices.
Almeda’s lawyer, Seth Watkins, believes Almeda must have been one of the first Filipino World War II veterans to apply for the compensation offered by the Obama administration. Having received his U.S. citizenship in 1996, Almeda should have been entitled to $15,000.
His was one of 42,755 applications submitted to Veterans Affairs as of December 1, 2017. Less than half were accepted. Almeda’s was not one of them.
“You know, when a person’s dignity is violated, you become resentful,” Almeda explains. He says what bothered him most wasn’t not having the money. It was that, once again, the U.S. had denied his service.
In many ways, Almeda’s case is an anomaly. Fighting the VA’s rejection is a luxury afforded to only a few. Official statistics indicate that less than 28 percent of the veterans’ appeals are granted. “There aren’t very many lawyers out there who are willing to put the time into [these appeals], because they can’t make any money on it,” Watkins, his lawyer, says.
Watkins might never have approached the issue himself, had a Filipino veteran’s case not “dropped” into his lap as a pro bono project. That first case, on behalf of a female guerilla named Feliciana Reyes, forced him to investigate how the VA evaluates Filipino World War II veterans. What he discovered was a maze of historical documents, some of which may be perpetuating age-old discriminations.
According to Watkins, the government verifies a Filipino veteran’s service by first looking for the affidavit they had to sign at the end of the war. The affidavit is then cross-referenced with a second document, an official army roster. That’s where things get tricky.
“Basically, the original rosters were lost or destroyed,” Watkins says. The VA mostly relies on duplicates or revised copies, created at a later date. For Watkins, that raised the possibility that the rosters are incomplete. But then he stumbled across a report that suggested something even more damning: some names had been left off intentionally.
The once-classified report, “U.S. Army Recognition Program of Philippine Guerillas,” explains how Army personnel determined which Filipino veterans to include on the rosters, and how practical problems, like the language barrier, resulted in incomplete records.
One of the most stunning revelations was that certain veterans were disqualified using arbitrary standards. Some U.S. personnel, for instance, held the belief that, “excepting nurses, no women should be recognized.”
Despite what Watkins sees as evidence of gender discrimination, Reyes’s appeal continues to wind its way through the courts. Watkins fears that Reyes, now in her 90s, may never get the benefits she is owed. With no living spouse, if she dies, her claim dies with her.
Watkins did, however, manage to give Celestino Almeda some much-needed resolution. Though Almeda continues to fight for the release of documents related to his case — documents he and Watkins hope will help other rejected veterans — the VA agreed to settle Almeda’s compensation claim out-of-court, awarding him his full $15,000.
It was not an admission of wrongdoing, but it was a step in the right direction. It came just as Almeda was about to go to the U.S. Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the Filipino war effort. He could now do so as an officially recognized veteran of the United States.
“I am an American soldier,” he declared in his speech, reciting the opening lines of the U.S. Army Soldier’s Creed. Though his microphone was too tall, though his feet were unsteady, though he faced some of the most powerful people in the country, his words rang out strong: “I will never quit.”
When I signed up to spend five days at queer camp, surrounded by 400 other queer people in the mountains of Ojai, California, going to church was the last thing on my mind. Jesus might be a queer witch, as one camp friend said, but my faith was a hollowed-out relic of a past life, left in the dust with a straight marriage and the dozens of friends and family that stopped speaking to me when I came out as a lesbian.
Yet, for all that I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore, here I am, in the middle of church, which is really just a bunch of queer folks who got up early on Sunday morning to read scripture and poetry in a small dining room.
“Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew. I look around the room and see gorgeous queers with piercings and undercuts and bra straps sticking out, drinking mimosas and talking and laughing and finding room for doubt and praise and prayers, all at the same time.
I was not prepared for this.
* * *
I registered for A-Camp, an exclusively queer camp hosted by Autostraddle, the internet’s leading independent media company for “girl on girl culture,” for the most obvious reason: I liked a girl, and she was going.
That particular flirtation fizzled out long before camp started, but our conversations piqued my interest about camp itself – a community that springs up in the woods, magically, for five days a year. A space where everyone just knows that everyone else is somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. For me, a femme-presenting lesbian who refuses to get an undercut or a septum piercing, or to wear most types of clothing that would register as legibly queer, the idea of being someplace where I was immediately seen, where I wouldn’t have to come out to someone new for a whole five days, sounded nearly utopian.
One of my dearest friends signed up to join me. I had other friends from Boston who were going, and a whole host of queer Twitter who I had never met in real life descending on the camp as well.
The schedule was released a few weeks ahead of time and included something for everyone. Among dozens of workshops, there were dance clinics (yes), crafting events (no), Disney Princess singalongs (hell yes), and a Dana Fairbanks Memorial Tennis Tournament (hard pass). There was a Shabbat on Friday for Jewish campers. Also of note? A Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning, hosted by Al(aina), one of my favorite Autostraddle writers, described as a service for those who were faithful, seeking, and “running from” the church.
I reconnect with my Boston friends, and it doesn’t take long for one of them – Erica – and I to end up on the subject of religion. Our conversations always go there. After all, we’re both in the “running from” church category.
“We probably aren’t the only two people at camp who are ex-fundie,” Erica says. “There are definitely more of us. We should put a meetup on the board.”
I scribble a quick note: “Ex-Religious and Fundamentalist Lunch Meetup – 1:45pm Saturday, Cabana,” and pin it to the “Missed Connections” board, where lunch meetups for Saturday are springing up.
By the time I walk into Klub Deer, the unofficial dance party of A-Camp, that night, the religious meetup Erica and I are hosting the next day is forgotten. After all, God isn’t a part of my vacation plans. Sex is.
Deer is spoken about in hushed tones, a “you have to see it to believe it.” But it’s just a party in a big room, really. Deer is held in the one room with a stage, the room large enough to fit hundreds of folding chairs for the performances that take place every night. It has high ceilings and an ugly brown carpet. Picture the lobby of a big Midwestern church. But dim the lights, pump Janelle Monáe through the speakers, and add hundreds of queer bodies pressed up against each other and suddenly, it’s a queer nightclub – which is its own kind of holy.
There’s a woman at Deer who I recognize from some workshops I’ve attended. She’s femme presenting (not my type), with glasses (totally my type), but she has this energy, a rip current that carries you under with a smile on your face.
We’re dancing and before I know it she’s kissing me, saying all kinds of things to me that make me blush, and she keeps playing with the harness I’m wearing. She doesn’t know what to do with all of my lingerie, but she bites her lip and the look on her face is, well…
Later that night, when we’re bracing ourselves in between wooden bunks in an abandoned tent, I come into her hand, and she catches all of it and says, “I’m going to return this to the earth you came from.” We walk out of the tent and listen to it all drip off her fingers into the dirt, the moonlight dancing on her skin.
Sex with language is still a revelation for me, mostly because for years I didn’t know how to express myself sexually, didn’t know how to say yes or no, didn’t know how to articulate my desire, didn’t know how to identify what my desire even was. My suppressed language was tied to God, to purity culture, to the fact that good Christian women are not supposed to have a sex drive, to the fact that, in my marriage, sex was usually not consensual. Sex was something I endured so that my husband wouldn’t sin. “Do you want me to start watching porn again? Do you want to be responsible for my sexual sin?” were explicit questions asked of me when we would go three or four days without sex.
The ability to vocalize desire, and the reality that others could vocalize theirs while asking me if it was O.K. if they touched me, if I wanted more, if I wanted it differently, is still a revelation that knocks me on my ass.
* * *
The next day, Erica and I host a group of ex-fundies in a conversation at a picnic table in the open-air cabana. There are fewer than 10 of us, and a meetup that is supposed to be 45 minutes goes for nearly three hours, all the way through the first workshop block of the afternoon.
We each introduce ourselves by name and pronouns, and immediately launch into detailed retellings of the faiths in which we were raised, of what we’ve experienced, as queer people within faithful families, of what we’ve lost.
“I’m Jeanna,” I say. “I’m a lesbian, but I grew up really conservative and really Christian, and I’ve got an ex-husband.”
“I’ve got one of those,” another lesbian in the circle says, and we laugh, looking at each other in recognition, seeing – really seeing – each other’s pain in a way virtually no one else can.
In spite of having different backgrounds – some from legit cults, some LDS (Mormon), some ex-evangelical Christian (like myself), some ex-Catholic, some ex-Muslim – everyone at the picnic table shares similar traumas around sexual purity, rigid gender roles, authority and authoritarianism, and literal interpretations of religious texts. We’re all wounded, bitter, searching, healing.
None of us are still practicing any even adjacent forms of the religions we have grown up with. All of us have issues with our natal families; many have been cut off and are struggling to find ways of staying connected. Many of us feel too hurt to even try any form of spirituality and are skeptical of the queer community’s embrace of alternative forms of spirituality. I’m one of the few who has embraced practices like tarot and astrology, but more as a form of self-healing, of rebuilding my own identity outside organized religion.
It’s hard to explain to folks who don’t grow up within the constricts of fundamentalist faith just how deep it goes in you. Clean to the bone. It’s not a belief so much as an identity – the identity. You are good because Jesus redeemed you. You are worthy because of Jesus’s sacrifice. Your primary identity is as a child of God.
So what do you do when that doesn’t apply anymore?
Saturday night, I eschew the after parties and stay up talking in the common room with my cabin mates, especially one – Lauren. It turns out that she and her partner are both ex-fundamentalists, that she grew up in the South around the kinds of evangelical churches I had.
“It’s so hard, with our queer community here,” I say to Lauren. “They don’t understand how much of a loss the church is. And of course, I don’t want that community anymore, but that was home, that was my identity. Jesus was everything, and the loss is just so total when you come out and no one here gets that unless you were in it.” It can feel like our LGBTQ community doesn’t take our trauma seriously because we should be glad to be out of the church, because Christianity is so damaging that we shouldn’t mourn its loss.
For hours, Lauren and I talk religion and God and church and family and identity, finishing each other’s sentences, starting to explain the words we’re using and then realizing we don’t have to because we’re talking to another native speaker of our own first language: that of the evangelical Christian church.
* * *
For me, sexuality and faith are intrinsically linked, because coming out and leaving the church were ultimately one and the same. I tried to keep them both, but couldn’t. I tried to keep my marriage, tried to stay straight-presenting, tried to deny my feelings for my best friend.
But I couldn’t do it.
So I gave up my marriage, but tried to keep Jesus. I tried to keep my identity as a child of God, to forgive myself for leaving my husband, for telling God and everyone that Jesus was not enough to fix it – to fix the relationship, to fix my sexuality.
I tried to attend more liberal, progressive churches that allowed women in leadership, and that didn’t think lesbians were going to hell. But that didn’t work, either.
My decision to leave my husband had declared that Jesus was not enough, and for a fundamentalist, that is blasphemy. My brain was too hardwired in fundamentalism. Every Bible verse was a tripwire. I had been raised within a framework that valued biblical literalness (to be read literally and not figuratively or with cultural context) and inerrancy (the Bible is the given, infallible, perfect word of God).
Intellectually, as an educated woman, as a woman who was, at the time, in an English Ph.D. program, it made sense to me to read the Bible within cultural context. But fundamentalism – or what some would call “brainwashing” – is powerful. Even if I could make room for the scripture to embrace LGBTQ folks, what did it have to say about me, a divorced woman? Jesus doesn’t say much about being queer, but he says plenty about getting divorced, and my faith could not reconcile that.
Within the fundamentalist framework, the divorce was the result of my own sin and inability to withstand temptation. This belief drove me to consider killing myself before I considered leaving the church.
Within a fundamentalist framework, God does not make mistakes. Within fundamentalism, there is no grace for someone like me.
So I left the church. I left Jesus, too.
* * *
It’s been five years and I’m still so angry and sad when I walk by a church. I am still mourning this part of me – that was once all of me – that was ripped away, that I had to leave like Lot’s wife, and I couldn’t look back or else I would turn to salt.
The last time I was in church before camp was for my grandmother’s funeral. I was heartbroken. Not only was my grandmother dead, but I was also fresh off a breakup with my partner of nearly four years.
My mother’s side of the family is conservative in that peculiar Midwestern, religious way, and while I knew I was loved, I had no idea how they would respond to me coming out post-divorce. My grandmother’s wholehearted embrace of me and my partner, who she actively emailed with right up until the end of her life, set the tone for how this side of the family would treat me: the same way they always had.
Sitting in church at my grandmother’s funeral, I felt numb. The familiar Episcopal liturgy washed over me without impact. The message was clearly delivered by someone who didn’t know her at all. When the time for communion came, I sat in my seat as others went up to receive, tears dropping from my eyes as I asked Grandma to understand.
After the service, my sister and I snuck out and walked to the freshly dug grave where she had been buried with my grandfather. It was dirty from its recent unearthing.
“Let’s clean this up,” I said, and my sister and I immediately set about to wiping down our grandparents’ headstone with the tissues we had in our respective purses.
Tears mixed with dirt as we scrubbed the grime off, as I traced the letters of their names so that they looked shiny and new.
After we had cleaned it up to our satisfaction, my sister and I just sat next to our grandparents, holding hands, quiet as the sun beat down on us.
I laid my head down on my grandmother’s grave and wept.
* * *
Sunday morning rolls around, and it turns out that I’m not too tired from staying up late into the night with Lauren to go to Gospel Brunch. I show up at the room dubbed the “Fishbowl” with my breakfast plate – mostly blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries – and sit at a random table.
The only person I recognize in the Fishbowl is Al(aina), the Autostraddle staff member who is leading the service.
I turn to my breakfast. The feeling of isolation in church is familiar, practically comfortable. But there is orange juice and champagne on the tables for mimosas. That’s different.
A girl at my table sits down with her plate and pauses. “Should we pray before eating?” she asks, the question seemingly directed to all of us. I pause mid-bite. I haven’t prayed before a meal in years, haven’t even stopped to consider the question.
It only then dawns on me that some folks here haven’t lost their faith yet, and have found a way to hold their queerness and God simultaneously. I knew that, intellectually, but now I really know it. Some small engine of anxiety starts up in my stomach, that gnawing feeling that maybe I don’t actually belong here.
Al(aina) is praying, and there are readings from scripture.
Why did I come here? This isn’t me anymore, I don’t believe in sin, don’t believe that Jesus is the only way to God, don’t even know if I think he’s an option on the path to God.
My mind is reeling, and practically on cue, Lauren and her partner come in and sit down next to me. I feel a little less alone because I know they’re in the same category as me, the “running from” God category, even though somehow we ended up here, in church at queer camp.
And then, something happens. Al(aina) starts reading an unfamiliar poem from one of my favorite queer poets, Natalie Diaz’s “These Hands, If Not God’s”:
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?
And wasn’t that good?
And I split open like a seed, tears falling from my eyes uncontrollably. Natalie’s words are balm and Al(aina)’s voice is rainwater. Something starts growing, or maybe something starts healing? What are these words doing in between readings from 1st Peter and Acts? It is magic, indefinable, except it is entirely definable. This is the kind of thing that used to happen for me in church, that I used to call the Holy Spirit – back when I still believed, back before I knew I was queer.
The woman I danced with is here, at Gospel Brunch, because of course she is. These people I end up being drawn to, we just smell the church on each other. Our spirits recognize each other.
The coincidence is amusing. It also somehow strikes me as poetic, because this was taken from me – church was taken from me, my faith was taken from me, for the very kind of desire we acted on so recently, even though I have found that there is more divinity in a dark tent where a woman asks if she can be inside me than in a marriage bed where a husband assumes he’s welcome.
“If you’d like to take communion, we’re going to have it,” Al(aina) says. “We’ve got cinnamon bread and champagne—”
At this, laughter.
“And there is absolutely no pressure. But if you would like to come up, come on up.”
I am out of my seat immediately, instinctually. Lauren is, too. We just look at each other, quietly, and nod.
I stopped taking communion long before I stopped going to church. To me, communion symbolized not only that you were right with God, but that you wanted to be right with God, and even when I was still trying to go to church, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. So I abstained. Depending on where I was attending that week, I passed the communion plates, didn’t go up to receive.
But I know that here, I want to. Here, no judgment. Here, safety. Here, family. Queer family, full of bisexuals and lesbians and gays and queers and trans folk and enbies and genderqueers, all of whom are coming from their own place of religious trauma or questioning or even, most remarkably to me, groundedness. All beautiful.
We stand in a circle, and Al(aina) starts the prayer chain. I hold Lauren’s hand tight, a lifeline, as people pray aloud. Eventually, the prayers make their way around the circle. Lauren squeezes my hand, signaling that she would rather not pray aloud, that if I want to pray aloud it’s my turn.
Back when I still attended church, I was never the person who passed the prayer, who declined to pray in a group setting. I always had something to say, something eloquent and moving. But here among my family, the truest spiritual family I have ever felt, I have no words.
For the first time in memory, I squeeze the hand of the person to my right, passing it on, still silent. I don’t know their name, and they don’t know mine. They pass the prayer, too, and it is as though we can feel each other’s wounds through our palms, like Christ’s palms, bleeding as we hold each other’s hands. A collection of Lost Boys.
Someone speaks up, a person who I would later learn was also ex-evangelical, the child of Pentecostal pastors: “Hi, God. It’s been a while.”
Then we start communion, improvised with champagne and cinnamon bread, passing it around the circle as we did the prayers.
When it gets around to our side of the circle, Lauren turns to me and says,
“The body of Christ, broken for you,
The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”
We’re both crying as she gives me communion, as I eat the bread and drink the champagne, representative of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I take the bread and the cup and turn to give communion to the stranger who feels like family on my other side, and I repeat:
“The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”
And for the first time in a very, very long time, saying these words does not feel false and they do not feel trite; they do not feel forced. Not because I believe, but because I feel something else – whole?
When communion concludes, the stranger to my right and I turn to each other, and we embrace for several long minutes, swaying back and forth. I still don’t know their name, but there was something there between us in spirit.
I hug Lauren. I hug Al(aina).
The woman from Deer approaches me. “Can I hug you?” she asks. Always asking, always checking in. I nod, and we embrace. And what strikes me, immediately, is the complete lack of shame – the fact that I could be in church with a woman I had sex with, outside of marriage or even any intention of a relationship, and that it was fine. That we can stand in a circle together and take communion and feel full of love and joy and spirit, even though I have spent decades hearing that nothing but the contrary would be true.
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?
And wasn’t that good?
For me, faith is an, “I know it when I see it.” Hear it. Feel it. I feel it when walking along the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I feel it when I’m on the rooftop bar of the Met Museum, sipping a glass of wine, looking out over the millions of people who somehow fit on the tiny landmass that is Manhattan.
I felt it when I was sobbing in the bed I shared with my husband – my sister lying in bed with me, holding me – as I fell apart on Christmas in 2012, when I was in the darkest deep of my coming out.
“I feel like Jesus has left me,” I said.
“I will never leave you,” my sister said.
I feel it when I take communion at queer camp, standing in that circle with Lauren and Al(aina) and the woman I danced with and so many others whose names I don’t know, but whose spirits I would recognize anywhere.
Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s something else. For now, I’m comfortable settling in the space between.