Or, Why My Writing Has Been Disrupted So Long
On the 17th of September, 2019, Jacquelyn LaRonde, a trans woman who had been accused of having sex with a minor, was finally acquitted, after a struggle that took two and a half years and took a brutally high toll on an innocent woman and quite a lot of other people.
Just to set the stage: Jackie is in her late forties. She has known she was a woman for as long as she could remember, but found little support. That took second place for some time to a disabling physical condition, several badly degenerating discs in her back (thanks to early efforts to be properly masculine and playing minor-league hockey, and a successful computer store that involved repeatedly moving huge old pre-flatscreen monitors, and being a passenger in a bad car accident). This has left her in increasingly severe chronic pain for well over a decade. Despite that, having finally transitioned so she could be her own true self, she was happier, and was finding ways to cope with the pain that allowed her to reduce, though not eliminate, the very strong painkillers that she’d been prescribed. She was active as vice-chair of the local Pride committee, and had found a part-time job at the local branch of the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association), among other things helping young trans people understand, offering them support and answering questions. Her honesty made her popular with them. She felt happy and productive, and there is nothing better for chronic pain and the depression that comes creeping in with it. That doesn’t mean that her pain was no longer there, because even the strongest pain meds only dull it, but it gave her a reason to get up in the morning and a way to distract herself from it. Being such an extrovert, it made her feel more energetic, being around people and getting involved as CMHA’s representative on several committees and working groups. When politics tore apart the Pride committee, she and I and the chairman Daryl managed to pull together a parade and an event in the park afterwards, and we did it in three weeks–and people needed it, it was just after the Orlando shootings. Life settled into a fairly comfortable state: two adult women, one physically disabled, one with severe anxiety and depression, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with three elderly rescued cats, supporting each other and each doing what the other couldn’t, with money often tight but usually not impossible.
On the first of February in 2017, the morning after Jackie had spoken publicly on behalf of CMHA at a LGBT film event, two Kingston police officers showed up at the door. Jackie and I were still having breakfast, after which she’d finish dressing and catch the bus to CMHA. She hadn’t even had her morning meds yet. Within minutes, with no explanation of what she was being arrested for, she’d been handcuffed and spirited away. I barely managed to stop them at the door with a drink and her morning meds, and to shove the bag with her prescriptions into the hands of one of the officers.
I spent the rest of the day with no idea what was going on. I did mention that chronic anxiety, but I think anyone would have been frightened. I found out later that they’d tried to arrest her at work first, and that the press had mobbed CMHA for the next couple of days, disrupting normal function of the office. This is, remember, a mental health organization, mostly run by volunteers who often have had their own battles, and there is still a serious social stigma against seeking help for mental health. The director had to lock the door for two days.
They took a woman with severe chronic pain, who can’t stay still for more than a short time without needing to move, all the way from Kingston to Toronto with one short break in the middle to transfer her from Kingston care to Toronto’s. That is, at best, a three-hour drive, without considering Toronto’s traffic.
She was questioned while in excruciating pain. She was offered, during her 24 hours in custody, only one thing to eat: an egg salad sandwich, after she had told them that she had a life-threatening anaphylactic allergy to eggs, requiring an Epi-pen, which was of course taken away. Several statements made struck her as transphobic, whatever the intention actually was. And she was not given her evening pain medication.
I got a call the evening she was arrested from a chaplain or something of the sort associated with the whole system, explaining to me that if I wanted to get her out, I would need to be at the courthouse at ten o’clock the following morning.
We have no car. I couldn’t drive it if we did. I had no idea how to get there. I started screaming for help, and a wonderful pair of friends, the Pride chairman and his husband, stepped in. They came to pick me up at four o’clock in the morning, having already driven 45 minutes to reach me, and we went to Toronto.
That morning, she was forced up and down a flight of stairs not once but twice, from the holding cells to the courtroom. Without her cane, which was of course taken away. A single flight of stairs is an obstacle for her on a good day, even with her cane. She was accused of, over a decade earlier, having had sex with a girl in her early teens, with the encouragement of the girl’s mother. (Technically, Sexual interference with a minor, and Sexual intercourse with a minor.)
She was released to me, with a variety of conditions, on the understanding that I would pay $2000 (nearly two months’ disability income for me) if she violated any of the terms. And we took her home–in pain and in shock. I have no idea how she would have gotten home to Kingston from Toronto without friends to help, but then, without friends to help, I wouldn’t have been able to be there to get her out, and I shudder to think what her pain levels would have been like.
That was only the beginning. We got home, exhausted, only to find that the local paper had printed a small article about her arrest, which included her old name and her photograph. It said “accused.” Apparently, quite a lot of the population cannot tell the difference between “accused” and “convicted.” Innocent until proven guilty? That became a joke.
She had to delete social media accounts, and went into virtual hiding, afraid to leave the apartment. Many people in the community know her on sight, and she was terrified of what they might say–or even do. Quite a lot of Kingston’s Pride “community” was instantly willing to believe the worst, spewing venom and insults freely. Many of the members of a local trans organization, for which Jackie had been a facilitator, were equally quick to respond by turning on her. One member claimed, on Facebook, that Jackie had admitted to part of the charges, which is a blatant lie. All in all, an enormous number of people, for whose sake she had been devoting an enormous amount of time and energy on many projects, many of whom we thought were friends, did not hesitated to treat her as a proven child molestor… all on the grounds of an accusation, and with absolutely no idea of the details or the backstory.
You want the backstory? Here it is. Jackie is openly into BDSM. (So am I, for that matter. We’re both also pansexual and polyamorous and pagan… got a problem with any of that?) There is nothing illegal or unethical about consensual sexual activity between adults, kinky or otherwise, casual or otherwise. At a BDSM event many years ago, before she transitioned and before we met, she met a woman, and they decided to play together, with Jackie as the top. They kept chatting by email. Shortly before they were to get together the second time, at the woman’s house, an email contained scenarios involving the woman’s daughter. Creepy, but Jackie took them to be fantasy, similar to the varied erotic fantasies she had disclosed in the past. (Have you looked at what gets into erotic fiction? Seriously? An enormous percentage of it is illegal or impossible, but no one has any intention of actually trying to act it out.) She was horrified when the woman and the woman’s boyfriend (who had not previously been mentioned!) basically invited her to have sex with the daughter. Being outside the city proper and having no way to get home that late at night, she feigned being sick and went to bed alone.
Let’s get this clear right now. Jackie has endured things in her own childhood that constantly make me marvel at the fact that she not only survived, she grew up with a powerful streak of altruism and fair play, and a sense of humour as well. There is nothing on this planet that would make her inflict damage on a child. She knows what it feels like too well, and has cared about too many people who have also gone through that kind of hell.
Catching public transit back to the city the next morning, she called CAS and reported it–anonymously, because of her employer and because she was struggling for custody of her own daughter (whose American mother solved it by returning to the US with their daughter, preventing Jackie from having any contact for many years, but that’s another story). Obviously, she refused any further contact with the woman.
That was in the early 2000s.
So, back to the present, and an extrovert terrified to leave the apartment, and bleeding badly from the betrayals by people she had believed were her friends. That said, we discovered that we did have some genuine friends who never doubted and never wavered in their support. And I’m saying “we” deliberately because I got part of the fallout just because I refused to hop on the bandwagon. I was as thoroughly gagged as she was: where I would have liked to scream in rage and defend her against the slurs, we both had to bite our tongues and choke it down, because it could prejudice the case against her if we spoke out.
She resigned from her job, obviously, to protect CMHA, and also resigned all other positions. For her excellent service, the CMHA board kindly gave her two weeks’ pay, but obviously she couldn’t continue to work there with the accusation hanging over her. The kids she’d been working with were devastated. So was her boss, who had come to count on her presence and skills.
Her health deteriorated very rapidly. The depression that comes secondary to chronic pain skyrocketed back to the near-suicidal levels it was at pre-transition. She developed severe anxiety attacks. Being mostly isolated made the depression worse. Her weight climbed, because of the lack of exercise. Had I not been there to go get groceries and take care of things like that, I honestly think she might have let herself starve rather than going out to face people even in a store. With her weight up and the loss of muscle, her pain began to climb again, exacerbating the depression.
And the visits to Toronto started.
I did mention that we don’t have a car? That we’re both living on Ontario disability benefits?
Monthly trips to Toronto from Kingston, for months, while they established a bewildering array of evidence on both sides, always demanding more. Tell me, do you still have a 15-year-old functional hard drive around that could be examined? Could you give details of exactly what your movements were in a narrow window, fifteen years ago? Not generally where you were living or working, but exactly where you were and who you had met and who you spoke to and what regular events you were at on which nights? Trying to reconstruct everything was a nightmare.
It also cost an insane amount of money. Train to Toronto the night before, so she could actually be at the courthouse on time bright and early and not in brutal pain from travelling, so paying for a place to stay overnight, and the train back the next day–or, several times, she had to stay two days. We used the bit of money I had inherited after my grandmother’s death, removing any chance of using that for a few things I’d have liked to buy. We used nearly all of my emergency fund for feline vet visits. We felt terrible about it, every time, but we gratefully and humbly accepted help from friends who certainly didn’t have unlimited funds of their own but who wanted to do whatever they could. We cut back on virtually everything, trying to keep up. And the financial cost doesn’t even begin to touch what it cost her in pain, every train trip, every night spent in a bed in the kinds of places we could afford, or what it cost her in anxiety every time she had to go back for another day of that, or the several days it took her to recover from each trip. I don’t know any way to quantify that. I can’t even describe it. All I know is what condition she was in, every time she came home.
And then, in the fall of 2018, they finally decided that it was going to trial after all, and they set the date for… June 2019. No trips over the winter, but also, no resolution, just months of waiting in limbo. How do you make plans for the future when you don’t know whether you HAVE a future? How do you do anything beyond just drag yourself through the day when your world might end in just a few months, and there’s nothing you can do about it? Yes, the break from constant trips gave us a chance to build up a little bit of money, but the trial was scheduled for two solid weeks, in Toronto, right in the middle of tourist season. A couple of day-trips to Toronto for meetings with the lawyer were unavoidable, since some materials could not leave her office. And what on earth was she going to wear, when very little in her wardrobe actually fit her anymore?
Over the winter, we also had some feline health issues, and seriously, not going to just not take a sick cat to the vet. That would be cruel, and we love the three of them too much to just let things go. But have you looked at vet prices lately?
So, at this point, Jackie’s weight is higher than it has ever been in her life. She can no longer use her cane–her pain is so bad that she’s back to using a walker again, which she had previously needed but had been able to abandon when her health improved post-transition and while working. She’s depressed, having anxiety attacks, and sees no future. I’m constantly stressed and struggling to keep things as normal as possible, but I’m slipping just a little farther every day and trying (in vain) not to let her know that. I can’t write novels with any intentions of releasing them any time soon. I can barely talk to my friends online, and I drop the ball several times in maintaining and managing a website where my best friends (generally not techie-types) hang out. My weight is up too, because I’m just too tired to go out walking for pleasure like I used to–and also, I’m afraid to pull money from the budget for a new pair of running shoes. I’m scared to death of what’ll happen to all of us if transphobia and “the victim is always truthful and accurate” wins over actual events. I’m not even the one who was accused of anything, and I’m suffering too. And in what way are three innocent elderly cats, two of them finally safe after rough early lives and one who was raised as an orphan by us, deserving of having their lives disrupted?
Even her lawyer’s life is affected by now. Legal Aid complained to her that she was spending too much time on the case. She insisted that it was a complex case and couldn’t be handled quickly. They cut her off, eventually. She continued to handle everything, donating the time, covering expenses out of her own pocket. Friends are affected, and my family (Jackie has none to speak of), all trying to support us, all worrying about us, and that includes good friends who aren’t in the same country or on the same continent.
Jackie managed to get a room in one of the university dorms, since they rent those out when there are no students over the summer. We hit several thrift shops, and a couple of friends donated clothes, and a local organization called Dressed for Success helped, so after I turned up some pant legs and such, she had enough presentable clothes to wear. The results of her previous playful habit of dying her hair creative colours had long since worn off, and a local hairdresser cut it to something short and easy to manage.
Two weeks, every day in court, every night back to her room to call me just for some contact with home. A quick trip home on the weekend in the middle, which cost physically but she needed it badly emotionally.
And then, at the end of that… she was told that the actual verdict would be delivered in mid September. Another two and a half months in limbo. We had hoped to spend the later part of the summer celebrating.
One more trip to Toronto, to be there bright and early on the 17th of September. The lawyer told her, “If it isn’t an acquittal, we’re going to appeal it, we have solid grounds for that.” I waited at home next to the phone. Many friends waited for news, sending whatever wishes or prayers their various belief systems frame fervent wishes as.
She sent me a one-line text. Acquitted on both charges. And called me, not long later, halfway laughing and halfway crying, but then, I had tears running down my face, too. After two and a half years of misery and doubt, it was over. The judge spent 22 pages spelling out why there were no grounds for believing beyond reasonable doubt that Jackie had ever done anything wrong.
I refuse to speculate over the reason Jackie was accused. Fifteen years on, a woman who was appallingly abused as a child could certainly make an honest mistake. I wasn’t there and I’m not her. But whatever the reason, that accusation effectively sentenced Jackie to two and a half years of unofficial punishment and self-imposed house arrest. The whole experience cost a phenomenal amount of physical pain, anxiety, health, money, the loss of job and “friends,” the emotional distress of being the target of vicious and unfounded attacks, and possible future difficulty with jobs or volunteering if anyone googles her name. It cost me, too, just for refusing to abandon her: my anxiety and depression are worse, my bank account is empty, my health is poorer, and I no longer feel any connection to the city where I have lived my entire adult life–or any confidence that being innocent means that, at least in Canada, the system will keep you safe. It cost her wonderful lawyer, who found the case difficult and disturbing but believed in Jackie. It cost everyone who has supported us. It cost the kids at CMHA a sympathetic and experienced mentor, and the city as a whole a dedicated and resourceful and altruistic woman who will, I think, be rather reluctant to devote herself anytime soon to the people who were so quick to turn on her.
It’s over. She can come with me to the local Farmer’s Market on Sunday without anyone starting to scream that there are kids present. She can go where she wants and know that if anyone recognizes her and says anything, she can just tell them, “I was acquitted,” and walk away. People will have opinions. They won’t all agree with the judge. But their opinions don’t matter. They don’t know the whole story. The judge, who does, saw through all the confusion and contradiction, and gave Jacquelyn LaRonde her life back. Now, it’s just going to be a struggle to regain lost ground. But this time, we know who our true friends are. Anyone quick to judge, quick to hate, isn’t worth spending more time or effort or thought on. Not with a future to look forward to!