Luke “Sasha” Fleischman, 18, has a friendly smile and likes wearing a skirt. They (Sasha’s preferred gender pronouns are they, them, their, and it) were born biologically male, but identify as agender. On November 4, Sasha fell asleep riding the bus from their Berkeley, California, high school on the way to their home in Oakland. When Richard Thomas, 16, got on the bus, he lit their skirt on fire. When I heard about Sasha, I wanted to rush to their aid and protect them.
Their experience brought to mind my own. Fifteen years ago, when I was thirty-two, I was visiting a friend in a small town in New England. Cars lined either side of the street, but when I left her house, I was the only person walking up the road. How perfect that midsummer July afternoon seemed. I felt embraced by the warmth of friendship as well as the air's warmth—80s, without humidity, the sky a cloudless blue. As I strolled, I admired my well-defined calf muscles, earned from years of running, swimming, and biking. I felt good about how I looked in my azure nylon shorts and lilac T-shirt, a green knapsack slung over my right shoulder.
A popping noise jolted me out of my reverie. Must've been a car backfiring. I continued walking. Then another noise thundered into my eardrums and slammed me against a parked car. Glancing toward the sky, I saw that an orange-red fireball replaced the perfect blue; the 80-degree temperature flared, burning my face, neck, arms, thighs, and legs. As for my clearly visible muscles, the factory's explosion wiped me out physically that day. I had to learn to walk again.
Richard Thomas has “stated he did it because he was homophobic.” Defending his client, attorney William Du Bois denied that he was homophobic and called the incident a “prank.” It is not a prank to inflict pain on another individual. Sasha has second- and third-degree burns because of Thomas. After I suffered second-and third-degree burns, it took almost three years to get my physical stamina back and seven years to regain my emotional equilibrium, the feeling I could walk or travel without worry of another explosion. Even now, sometimes when I hear a car backfiring or I get a whiff of the acrid odor of smoke, my heart races, my head whips around and my eyes dart, searching for the fastest escape route.
Sasha’s story bonds me to them because of their burn injuries. My accident, like the hate crime’s impact on them, changed my life in an instant. The explosion stole my freedom to walk unharmed. In the same way, Sasha’s right to express theirself was violated. Like other gender fluid youth, they have the right to feel unthreatened in their body. We all have that need for safety.
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