No hatefulness required

8 Nov

On Monday, Richard Thomas set Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire on an Oakland city bus ( By the time Sasha, with the help of two other bus passengers, put out the flames, he had sustained second and third-degree burns.

Why would Thomas do such a thing?

By his own admission, because he saw a boy wearing a skirt. To clarify: while Fleischman appears to many people to be a boy, they (the pronoun Fleischman prefers) identifies as agender: neither male nor female. (I know that sentence can be hard to read: that’s how deeply embedded our binary thinking about sex and gender is. Our language relies on masculine and feminine pronouns to fit every person. When they don’t, it’s not a fault of the individual; it’s a limit of our language to name human identity and experience. Still, it’s not easy trading in old habits of mind for new ones. The good news is that language is ours to make: we create, preserve and evolve it. And with practice, we can forge new ways to name–and ultimately reshape how we think about–gender and sex.)

Given his own admission of what motivated him to set Fleischman on fire, Thomas is now being charged with a hate crime. But even as this case meets the legal requirements of “hate” pretty clearly, Thomas’ mother still wants us to know that her “son is not a hateful person. He’s not homophobic. He’s a kid. Kids joke around. I think he will learn his lesson. He’s very remorseful. I’m sorry for it.”

To which I can only say: you don’t have to feel hate to commit it. You can feel disgust. You can feel confusion. You can feel indifference. You can feel nothing much at all because you just don’t register the person in front of you as human or worth caring about it.

So I’m not interested in who Thomas is or how intentionally hateful he is. I’m concerned about what he did and the fact that he gave himself permission to hurt another person.

Wishing Sasha a speedy and full recovery.

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