Now that Sasha Fleischman is home from the hospital, some people in the gender-questioning community are wondering if the 18-year-old whose skirt was lit on fire will become a spokesperson for “agender” people near and far.
“Any survival story is amazing,” said Mia Macy, a vocal outreach coordinator for Transgender San Francisco. “But I hope they can get out there and shine a light on a subject that is new to the public. I think this is the next civil rights issue of the LGBT movement.”
How Fleischman will handle the lingering limelight is still uncertain.
But in the teen’s first public interview on Thanksgiving, Fleischman did say being lit on fire – and having the word “agender” thrown into the national media – has been a life-changer.
“It's really weird,” Fleischman said from the family’s Oakland couch, legs wrapped in gauze and covered in antibacterial cream. “I'm not used to being in the public eye. It's a big responsibility to be a representative of the whole nonbinary gender community. I hope to be able to inform people about the whole spectrum.”
Conversely, there are those who are worried that putting too much light on the issue could sensationalize something that is a personal, and private, choice.
“It’s a big responsibility to be thrust in the national limelight,” said Danielle Castro, community mobilizer for The Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at the University of California San Francisco. “As queer adults, I think we need to help Sasha heal from this traumatic experience first. But if Sasha is interested, I know a lot of us would be supportive.”
The Bay Area community and beyond came out to support Fleischman by wearing skirts and hanging rainbow ribbons around Oakland after Fleischman’s skirt was set on fire during an AC Transit bus ride on Nov. 4. A 16-year-old Oakland High student – later identified as Richard Thomas – was charged with setting the fire. Thomas was charged with a hate crime and as an adult, because an officer wrote that he was “homophobic.” But his attorney, William DuBois, maintans Thomas meant the act only as a prank and can’t even spell the word homophobic.
Fleischman was wearing a skirt that day - and most days - because the teen identifies as agender, which means that a person doesn’t feel either male or female. Many, like Fleischman, like to be referred to as “they,” a purposely confusing word to show others what it feels like to be confused by gender. Others like to be called “it” or “ze.”
Fleischman had been questioning “their” identity for the last few years, researching terms like “gender queer” on the Internet. But in January, Fleischman’s friend lent “them” a 6th-grade hand-me-down skirt for the regular “cross dressing” theme days at the liberal Maybeck High School in Berkeley.
“They were really comfortable,” Fleischman said about the skirts, adding that "their" parents initially weren’t so hot on the idea, worrying about their son’s safety as a skirt-wearing kid born with the name “Luke.”
And so, Fleischman, in a non-aggressive way, started asking people to start referring to him as “they” and “them,” something his father Karl Fleischman, said he tries to honor, but sometimes forgets.
Fleischman showed poise and maturity in speaking about what happened on the AC Transit bus three weeks ago and shared “their” thoughts on how the alleged attacker should be treated – not with vengeance.
“I think it was a really dumb thing he did,” Fleischman said. “You should really know better than to light someone's skirt on fire. You should be able to realize this is not some funny prank. But I don't want to be too harsh. People do dumb things, especially when they are teenagers.”
As for politics and the podium, Fleischman isn’t sure what will be in the future. The teen is hoping to get into MIT to study linguistics and computers, and in the short term, just to catch up with friends again on Monday at school.
One thing is for sure. Fleischman won’t be wearing pants.
“I'm going to keep wearing a skirt,” Fleischman. “That's something I'm not going to give up. It's a big part about who I am.”