Being Transgender In The South: An Interview With Jacie Leopold, Victim Turned Activist
Updated on March 11, 2016, 4:14p.m.
On December 14, 2014, Jacie Leopold, 33, a trans woman from Hot Springs, AR, was the victim of a hate crime after an attack that took place during a holiday party thrown by her previous employers The Back Porch Grill. Leopold has since been the victim of mistreatment and discrimination by the local police department as well as local attorneys who refused to take her case and advised Leopold taking legal action.
Due to the sensitivity of the situation, we had to respect the space needed for Leopold and her legal counsel to figure out what was best for the case, otherwise the story would have been broken much earlier.
Ms. Leopold explains, “I had worked there for four years. I never once experienced any hostility directed at me from anyone that I worked with. You have to remember that these were people – racism, and homophobia aside – that I was working with up to six days a week, between nine and ten hours a day. It was almost like family.”
Living in conservative America, Leopold lived in constant fear of being outed as a trans woman. Leopold said she often witnessed her employers making homophobic comments and discriminating against people with disabilities. For Leopold, the message very clear: diversity is not welcome in this space.
“I was terrified of them finding out, but they figured it out on their own. Every single day that I worked there, there were homophobic and transphobic jokes. The cooks would often go into the dining room to make fun of LGBTQ or even handicapped people. The first person to find out was a waitress. I had gone to get my hair styled at a local salon, and to my shock, found that one of our waitresses was working there. We had a brief discussion about her not telling anyone at work. She seemed genuinely concerned for my safety as well and agreed that they would not be able to understand and would most likely cost my job.”
After coming out to her mother at the age of thirteen, Leopold was told to never speak of her true gender again. Leopold was very familiar with the idea of silence in exchange for safety. However, with hormone replacement therapy, laser hair removal, and the feminization of her look, Jacie knew that it would not be possible to keep it a secret for much longer. Beneath the shapeless kitchen apron, her breasts began to develop, and the edges of her voice became smoother. Her coworkers began giving her compliments regarding her appearance, which alarmed Jacie. At the time, Leopold had been presenting as masculine for her safety.
On the evening of the December Christmas party, Leopold was struck and knocked unconscious by a male coworker who had a history of fighting and violent assaults. He has yet to be prosecuted for any crimes. Leopold was left with two breaks in her nose, a shattered orbital floor in her eye, and a fracture in her skull, as well as a huge oral laceration, massive swelling, and bruising.
She recalls, “When the police officers were taking my statement, I did not know the last name of the guy who initially hit me and knocked me unconscious. I began to describe him to the two police officers. One of them cut me off and finished the description of him, and I agreed that was him. They said they knew him well, and he was notorious for this sort of thing.”
Leopold went to the police with her father later on after the initial report. To their surprise, no report had been made by police. Jacie and her father were shocked. Not only that, but her former employer had their lawyer contact Jacie with a threat of legal action if she did not keep quiet about the attack.
Transcribed below, is the conversation between Leopold and myself over the course of a week via phone, email, and social media.
Wear Your Voice asks, “How has the legal system failed you? How did it feel when your employer turned your assault around on you? In which ways has the system been working for you?
JL: “The police officer involved in the case never arrested anyone. To my knowledge, they never even questioned anyone who was at the scene, which was horrifying to me! Considering the obvious damage to my face which can actually be seen and the list of broken bones in the medical report, I know that should have been a priority. The investigative detectives should have obtained and examined my records to make further decisions. They did none of these things. Then, I received a letter in the mail from the owner’s attorney claiming that I had waited seven months after the Christmas party and made all of this up. They told me that if I did not stop speaking about them, and more specifically stating what had happened via Facebook, they would seek all legal remedies allowed by law against me.”
WYV: How did that make you feel?
JL: I immediately shut down. I was feeling helpless. I had been severely beaten, and now I was convinced I was about to be sued for it, as well. I had no one to turn to, and the legal system was no help to me at all. In fact, in the midst of all of this, I had purchased a used car for cash. Shortly after, I was struck by an uninsured motorist. The police officer who responded was very uneasy and uncomfortable with me. He left the scene of the accident without providing me with any information or paperwork. He gave the driver of the uninsured car a citation for having no insurance, but refused to give her one for failure to yield.
WYV: What did you do after that?
JL: My father and I repeatedly went to the police station, and we were given the runaround each time. We went to court for restitution for the damage done by the lady who hit me. The judge told us she couldn’t do it because the police report was not properly filled out. He apologized for the situation and explained that despite not being able award us restitution for my car, he felt it was owed. It could only be done after the police officer who issued the citation for no insurance corrected the report. We went back to the police station, where we were met by another officer, who told us that it is not illegal for them to choose not to issue a citation for an at-fault accident, and that in this particular case, they had chosen not to do so. To top that off, he told me that they did not owe us an explanation.
WYV: Do you feel as though you were being discriminated against because you are a transgender woman?
JL: Yes. At this point, I had over $6,000 worth of medical bills from being beaten – no arrests, no justice. After all of that, I was left with no car and no chances of getting restitution. I really feel like the police department was singling me out and purposely denying me assistance. At that point, I knew I had no protection and nobody looking out for me. It can be terrifying being a minority in a southern town that often shows open prejudice towards me.
WYV: Has your family been supportive of the process of transitioning? How have they supported you while you seek justice?
JL: My family has been very supportive, which was surprising. Even now they will tell you that a few years ago, they would not have been. Some of them had previously been openly homophobic. It changed as they watched me transition, going from depressed and withdrawn to being a happy, smiling, productive person. They no longer have to worry about my previous issues with depression and violence against myself.
This entire process has opened their eyes and hearts to the LGBTQ community. My father has been my number one advocate. When I was assaulted, he came into town from out of state. He was immediately at the police station asking questions and providing information. He met with the judge, as well as the sheriff in order to look for answers. He has managed to stay close and highly involved throughout all of this. Even when I would get scared and shut down, he was still going to the police department and asking them why they had not done anything.
WYV: What can your local community do to help you?
JL: They can use all of this information that I have made public to raise awareness of transgender individuals in all forms of everyday life. They can take the time to learn that we do exist as everyday people, just like them. They can start offering us equal treatment. Hopefully, laws will be made to protect us against hate crimes and discrimination from our local police department. They can help to raise awareness.
WYV: What can the LGBTQ community and allies do to help you? What kind of labor can we offer to help?
JL: I will not say so much as to what they can do because I’ll never expect anything from anybody. What they have been doing is showing their support by rallying around me. They have been writing to politicians and to the police department. They have offered guidance, legal assistance, and legal advice. They have been right behind me every step of the way. At times, they have been my voice when I had none. And at other times, I have been their voice in bringing awareness to situations like this. That have not just affected me, but also so many other transgender and LGBTQ individuals who have been assaulted, murdered, bullied, or driven to suicide.
I need people to realize that I am no different from them. I am just a normal person. I have a lot of goals and aspirations in my life. I spend a lot of time working on my culinary skills and with my family, including my dog Lucy, who is my “kid.” Hopefully, they can respect my privacy, as well as that of my family. If there is something that they wish to give to us, let it simply be their support.
WYV: What do you feel that society can do to prevent violence like this? Do you feel like the core of this behavior is transphobia or overall misogyny?
JL: I believe that transphobia has been a huge factor in my particular story, but misogyny has been there, as well. An example would be when I was told that I would not get any fair treatment from a jury and that people would blame me and say that I put myself into a dangerous situation where this could happen to me, which makes it my fault. That is the oldest line from “the book” – almost every woman who is a victim of a violent crime hears the same thing! What I honestly think could help to stop this type of violence is education and to stop victim-blaming women. People are less likely to hate what they can understand. Creating understanding means that they must be educated, and they meet or know a transgender person. They need to be able to put a real face with the issue and humanize us. Otherwise, we just become another statistic or a punchline in a bad joke. Other people need to realize that we are their neighbors, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends. We are just people trying to make a living and enjoy life, just like everybody else.
WYV: What role has social media played in your pursuit of justice? How has it affected your life and changed your situation, if it has?
JL: Social media gave me a voice. I turned to social media, not as a last resort, but because I honestly had already given up and I just felt the need to say my story out loud. To my surprise, thousands of people from all over the world listened to me. Then they began to speak up for me. They became the voice I did not have in my community. They have brought my situation to light and increased awareness of trans issues. They have given me Matt Campbell, who is one of the best lawyers in the state, as well as put me into contact directly with organizations such as the ACLU. They have written to state officials who have started to respond and react. I owe a lot to social media and my followers. They have given me hope that I did not have before. They have truly shown me humanity.
WYV: What would justice look like for you? What things do you need in order for this to be “over” and for you to be able to find the closure that you need in order to emotionally and physically heal?
JL: Closure for me would mean not just be that I got ”justice” for myself. The medical bills are outrageous and continuing to grow with different treatments for my injuries. There should be a consequence for all of these actions. Hopefully, people will use my situation to place a protection order and laws into my community that will stop this from ever happening again. Hopefully, it means that nobody ever has to go through what I have been through. The local police department must be educated on how to deal with transgender people. That would bring me closure – simply knowing that everyone is safe.
Jacie Leopold is still actively fighting for justice but wants to return to her normal life doing what she loves most – running a kitchen brimming with soul food and spending time with her loved ones. While Arkansas does not have state hate crimes, there are still federal hate crime laws in place which can be employed to bring her assailants to the fullest extent of justice. You can help support Jacie by supporting her medical and legal fund, as well as becoming a contributing member of trans education initiatives in your community.
Follow Jacie on Twitter at @JacieLeopold and spread the word with the #JusticeForJacie hashtag.[adsense1]
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