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Killing The Messenger

April 22, 2009

Everyone I know followed the Angie Zapata murder trial and until now I have had nothing to say about it. In part I’ve just been busy, but also in part I feel like I haven’t had anything to add. There so many great trans folks blogging, and plenty of blawgers, and lots of people who followed the trial more closely than I have.

Now the verdict is in — a top count conviction. The trans panic defense failed. And with the verdict, and the disclosures in the final days of testimony, I feel like I have a thought to add. Ray Allen Andrade killed Angie Zapata in an attempt to kill a part of himself.

There’s not much more that we can do for Angie, and there’s nothing that we should do for Ray. She is already dead. He can never undo what he did, and will spend the rest of his life in jail. I don’t think it’s likely that I could say anything to offer comfort to those who loved and lost Angie. I don’t want to say anything that will offer any comfort to her killer. But I do think I can say something that might help the next Andrade look in the mirror and just might keep the next Angie alive.

You can’t kill a part of yourself by killing someone else. (Nor, as many people have learned, by repeated severe intoxication, self-injury, prayer or denial. Ted Haggard and Larry Craig, that means you.)

Here’s what we learned towards the end of the trial. First, we learned that Andrade went to traffic court with Angie 36 hours before he killed her. Because she had not legally changed her name he must’ve heard her birth name there. This refuted the defense notion that he snapped immediately upon learning the Angie had been assigned male at birth. Second, we learned that Angie regularly disclosed her trans status to men who expressed an attraction to her, which happened a lot. Third, we learned that a vibrator was recovered that had only Andrade’s DNA on it, in amounts probably inconsistent with only skin contact, and probably consistent with anal insertion. Fourth, we learned that Andrade had visited bisexual chat rooms on Mocospace.

The first and second of these, in terms of the trial, were probably the most important pieces of evidence. They just about flat refuted the defense theory. To put it bluntly, the only way a jury could acquit after hearing that would have been to decide that Angie deserves to die simply for being a trans woman and having a cis male boyfriend. She didn’t fool him and he wasn’t surprised. He knew he was dating a trans woman, and he had plenty of time to process that before making a conscious decision to beat her to death. The jury wasn’t confused about that.

I am more interested in what the third and fourth things say. Each of them is independently subject to multiple interpretations. Lots of folks use vibrators that use tells us very little. That Andrade played with his ass or had his ass played with does not necessarily imply even his own preference, let alone his orientation. Plenty of people do things that their partners enjoy but that they themselves could take or leave. Even if it was Andrade’s personal preference to have his ass played with, plenty of het folks do that.

Likewise it is not necessarily true because and Andrade was looking in bi chat spaces that he was bisexual (or gay, or pansexual, or omnisexual, or any other construction). I won’t even try to shorthand the entire discussion here of orientation as identity versus orientation as descriptor of behavior.

However when the several pieces of information are put together, they produce a rather cohesive picture. We all live in a culture that is transphobic, trans-misogynist, misogynist and homophobic. Ray Allen Andrade was steeped in this culture. Yet there he was with a trans woman sex partner. There he was taking a vibrator in his ass, getting blow jobs from a trans woman. He didn’t know what that said about him. It seems like he thought it did or might make him something other than het. He liked Angie, he liked sex with Angie — but he couldn’t accept what he thought that meant about him.

Individual solutions are almost never a complete, and usually not even a good, substitute for dealing with structural issues structurally (abstinence only advocates, read that sentence again). While I do think Ray Allen Andrade is accountable for acting on the messages he absorbed in the way he did (and the jury agreed), the more important change is to change the society. As long as this culture makes excuses for violence against women, against trans folks, and against trans women in particular, and as long as this culture makes it very high-stakes for a man to contemplate the label of his sexual and affectional orientation, we will keep seeing the same acts of violence.

But still, even in this world, ordinary people expected different behavior from Andrade. He could have gotten freaked out about what his relationship with Angie Zapata meant in a lot of ways, and he chose the absolute worst, the single most wrong and tragic one.

Imagine for a moment that Ray Allen Andrade had written to an advice columnist and said, “please help me figure this out. I’ve always thought of myself as a straight guy, but I’ve been dating a trans woman. She sucks my cock, she puts a vibrator in my ass, and it’s really hot but I’m really freaked out. Does this make me bisexual?”

If the advice columnist gave him any shit, we would be writing ringing defenses of this guy. We would be all over the columnist. We would defend the guy’s right to define his own orientation, defend his relationship with his partner, tell him not to listen to what anyone else said and wish him well.

That’s not the path that Ray Allen Andrade took. Instead, he beat Angie to death. She was a light in the world, and he extinguished her and took her away from everyone who loved her.* There is nothing more that can or should be done for him — not because his attitudes can’t change, but because he can’t fix what he has broken. I believed, and I hope I never lose the capacity to believe,that this one would go the right way (but I won’t tell you I didn’t hold my breath). And it did. The jury came back with a top-count conviction, recognizing what he did and respecting Angie’s personhood – her most basic human right not to be murdered.

Why was Andrade so mad? He killed her and then some; like he was trying to kill her a whole lot. He didn’t just find out. There was no surprise. That wasn’t the evidence and it wasn’t what the jury believed. So why the overkill?

Autumn Sandeen at Pam’s House Blend gets at it in her post about her own homophobia as a young closeted trans woman. Externalized self-hate. He hated that part of himself. The part of himself that liked Angie so much; the part that got so hot when he was having sex with her. He wanted to expunge that part of himself, to tear it out or cut it out of snuff it out. But he couldn’t. So instead, he literally killed the messenger, the woman who showed him that part of himself.

You can’t kill a part of yourself by killing someone else. The next Ray Allen Andrade needs to know that. Whoever and wherever you are, come to grips with your fear and desire. Gay and lesbian folks have spent years and shed tears in reparative therapy trying to pray away the gay, but it doesn’t make them any straighter. BDSMers are often told to examine or reprogram themselves until we don’t want to do what we want to do, and that’s not going to make us any less kinky. (Or we’re told to kill ourselves. No shit! Someone really said that!**
In a world of six billion people, there are a lot of cis men who are attracted to, or have been attracted to, or will be attracted to trans women. I won’t tell these guys what to call themselves. [Edited: even framing it this way implies that sexual orientation becomes debatable in some way around trans folks that isn’t true generally, which was wrong on my part — see comments] But I will tell them to come to terms with it. I believe the sea of prejudice around us is changing, but never fast enough, and we all have to live in it and take responsibility for what we do, even as we’re a product of the larger society. That means that we, all of us, need to be able to look in the mirror and say, “this is who I am.” Whatever we do with that information will be a hell of a lot better, for us and everyone else in the long run, than pretending that the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable are some other person’s responsibility.

*I chose this construction because I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that when we are gone, we live on only in the memories of those whose lives we touched. Nothing we do matters to Angie Zapata now, but only to her loved ones and her legacy, and to the world that the rest of us live in now.

**For a blog where BDSM versus radfem is a frequent topic, see Let Them Eat Pro-SM Feminist Safe Space. Trinity and I disagree pretty regularly, but she and her co-bloggers are smart, prolific and write well.)

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2009 10:43 pm

    Incredibly well-written, insightful, and most importantly – real. Thank you so much for your thoughtful words.

  2. Rebecca permalink
    April 23, 2009 9:27 am

    In a world of six billion people, there are a lot of cis men who are attracted to, or have been attracted to, or will be attracted to trans women. I won’t tell these guys what to call themselves.

    How classy.

  3. April 23, 2009 12:34 pm

    Rebecca, what I meant by that is that my knee-jerk reaction is that a man who has only women sex partners, whether cis women or trans women or both, is het … trans women are women. But then (1) that kind of elevates the importance or desirability of the het label; (2) it sort of assumes the binary; and (3) anyway I have no special right to attribute an identity to other people based on their gender performance and sexual and affectional orientation. I think what I wrote in that sentence came across very differently than how I meant it, for which I apologize.

  4. Rebecca permalink
    April 23, 2009 1:39 pm

    …it elevates the importance of the het label to respect a trans woman’s identity and accept that a man attracted to a woman is in fact straight? Why is a man’s attraction to a woman like me a desirable time to make implications about gender binaries – especially when this is in the context of the *murder* of a binary-identified trans woman?

    You have no special right to attribute an identity? You effectively implied that it’s up for debate – you already did.

  5. April 23, 2009 1:48 pm

    Fair enough; even addressing it that way implies that it’s of special importance here, which it isn’t. I screwed up. I apologize.

  6. Rebecca permalink
    April 23, 2009 11:43 pm

    Thank you.

  7. radicalyffe permalink
    April 24, 2009 1:00 am

    I think that discussion of how cis men who date trans women negotiate their identities is an important thing to bring up in feminist spaces. Sure, for most binary identified trans women its not even a question – their man is straight.

    Most of the world doesn’t see it as that cut and dried though, and *that* makes it difficult for those men. They do need to come to grips with however they choose to ID… straight, bisexual, queer, homoflexible, whatever.

    We can’t make transphobia go away by insisting that people who date trans folk are 100% straight or 100% queer regardless of how they identify. Questioning one’s identity is a very important aspect of self development, and whatever triggers it, its up to that person to negotiate it, not randoms on the internet.

  8. April 24, 2009 9:35 am

    radicallyffe, I did see Rebecca’s point that raising this issue in the wake of a binary-identified trans woman’s death was misplaced, and the way I framed it was susceptible to the read that I was contesting the meaning or application of het to het-identified cis men who are dating or have dated trans women who identify us unqualifiedly female. And that was not the reading I meant, and I thought that Rebecca was right that raising it in this context in particular seemed to put that particular identity up for debate and not others.

    What you’re talking about is really part of a larger discussion, and I agree that it’s interesting and important. How do we negotiate orientation around a binary that lots of people attack, lots of people misapply, and lots of people don’t fit? That, to my mind, is the broad question. I’ve had wanted to post something for a while about this, and how it impacts folks I know — for example, a couple of women I know who have at times identified as dykes and dated trans men and then cis men (and frankly I don’t think I can see past my own privileged suppositions to do that without messing it up); or about BDSM and cross-orientation play and what it means for identity (talking BDSM is always safer for me, since I am a BDSMer I always know I at least can speak for myself).

    But none of those are issues directly raised by Angie Zapata’s death and this probably isn’t the post to use as a jumping off point to it. Maybe I’ll post something more appropriate to that conversation.

  9. radicalyffe permalink
    April 28, 2009 12:13 am

    Yup, point taken.

    I’ll be looking forward to your post, because its a very important topic.

    I think that making one’s own identity dependent on the identity of someone else is a big problem.

    My best mate is a trans man who identifies as ‘queer’, rather than male or female… he only ever id’s as a man for political reasons (he’s an activist). His wife identifies as a straight woman, but says that he’ll always be a lesbian to her… and they are both ok with that.

    I’m dating a trans woman who id’s as a lesbian. I id as anything (and everything) on the spectrum between fag and dyke… but if I call myself a faggot in front of other trans folk, its immediately a problem! How dare I call my girl a MAN… never mind that my grrlfriend understands, and gets it, and knows that fags and dykes fuck all the time. Hell, if I’m meant to remain unthreatened by her sexuality, she’s gotta be unthreatened by mine right?

    None of these relationships would function if our own identities relied on the stable identity of our lovers. And what happens if your identity changes, but your lovers doesn’t? And what about genderqueers? Are their partners still homosexual/heterosexual?

    The thing is though, men are raised to believe that their sexuality and even their gender is entirely dependent on fucking a woman. You aren’t a *man* until you lose your virginity… to a WOMAN. Their manhood can be undone in an instant through contact with a man, or even one who might have once been a man.

    Aaaanyway… this is far too long. 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your thoughts about the contruction of our sexual identies.

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