Up until I was twenty one years old, I wanted to be a cop. Specifically, I wanted to be a Fed, working public corruption cases. I had my whole beat figured out. Undergrad in political science and criminology. Law degree. FBI. Public office. I had neoliberal Appalachian rags-to-riches legislative ambitions.

I was making waves in WVU’s political science department as a potential candidate for the Truman scholarship. I was a well-respected RA in the school dorms, and I was active in student government. I had great grades, and I was heavily involved in a political summer camp for teenagers each year — where I was developing an important and formative friendship with an FBI agent. I had roots of fond supporters throughout the state.

I was on track to be the most nightmarish version of myself.

The only reason the darkest timeline Don Saas doesn’t exist is that I have always been far too femme — both physically and emotionally and politically — to ever fit into the spaces that law enforcement invites. One of the most constant triggers of my gender dysphoria are spaces dominated by men. One of the most common ways my dysphoria manifests itself is severe social aversion. The winter of my junior year of college I locked myself up in my dorm room and didn’t leave it except to eat or get drunk for weeks at a time. I wasn’t going to class, and I failed my first class that semester.

All of my law and criminal science classes were overwhelmingly populated by right wing men, and even many of the women were on the far right (more so in the criminology department). I had never felt more intellectually isolated from my peers because I was starting to realize I was a socialist, and for the first time in my life, I just couldn’t make myself be around my political enemies. And for the first time since my mid-teens, I was becoming acutely aware of how cruel so many of the men in my life were and how scared I was of so many of them and how tough it was for me to say any of that to anyone without sounding like I’d lost my mind.

This is what happens when you transition in West Virginia in your late 20s.


When I saw L.A. Confidential for the first time in high school, Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley was my aspirational noir hero. He is the film’s hero. The film knows that Russell Crowe’s Bud is now just Ed’s heavy instead of James Cromwell’s. L.A. Confidential is noir so everyone is at least a little damned, and the film wonders if maybe Ed doesn’t just want to get ahead a little too much, but Exley is James Ellroy’s authoritarian ideal. He is calculating, “beneficent,” and daring power. He supports the ideals of policing and rejects corruption and unnecessary violence. He follows the letter of the law, but at those moments, when nobody else can do it, Exley can be judge, jury, and executioner. He’s worthy of that power. It’s the right thing to do.

James Ellroy is an unapologetic advocate for the authoritarian, neo-fascist right and a vocal supporter of the police state. He writes cop stories. Those things go hand in hand. L.A. Confidential is not a film about police brutality, although an act of mass police brutality sets off some of the film’s events. The film isn’t about how American policing upholds capitalist white supremacy, although Mexican workers bear the brunt of the film’s brutal opening violence and wealthy white thugs profit off the gentrification and forced relocation of Los Angeles’ indigenous population. L.A. Confidential isn’t about the brutalization of women at the hands of violent cops, even though Kim Basinger won an Oscar for playing a woman beat up by an angry cop. It’s a film that accepts all of these horrors as unfortunate but inevitable consequences of the job that cops — but more importantly men — must do.

Exley is okay with all of the violence he perpetrates if he gets his promotions. He is pure. Even at the end of the film, when he shotguns a man in the back, Exley believes he possesses a moral culpability for everything he’s done and everyone he’s killed and everyone who died because of his ego. The woman he sexually assaults is tender with him as he heals from the film’s climactic massacre and gets everything he wants. And that scene is assault; Kim Basinger was not enthusiastically consenting to Exley’s violence.

Exley is reformist, idealist authoritarianism that pretends it’s somehow separate from all the violence and suffering necessary to achieve its means. It accepts its right to wear the mantle of power even as it knowingly shakes its heads at angrier, messier men that make a bigger show of their cruelty than them. Exley is almost every man in middle management I’ve ever known in my adult life.


Those first couple semesters that I started failing out of school — that I did finish college when I was 28 is one of the minor miracles of my life and only happened because I finally accepted I was trans — I was stuck in a cognitive dissonance I could not escape. I was taking courses (taught by incredible, progressive women) in my criminal science courses that were explicitly emphasizing the role of contemporary policing and the prison-industrial complex in upholding white supremacy and capital. I was becoming more interested in civil rights law and penal reform than being a cop, and I was in classrooms that were full of kids that weren’t horrified. Teachers would lecture on teen sexual violence or the effects of education on recidivism rates or how invasive current law has been in regards to suspect rights and due process since the Burger court and the students that were starting to scare me the least were the ones that were unapologetically and vocally in law and criminal justice because they hated poor people and people of color and women. I could mark them. I could keep my eyes on them. The people whose skin was starting to make me crawl were the people who sat in class and either stared dead eyed because they could not bring themselves to care about the material they were paying to be taught or who seemed like maybe they had something to say but were too concerned with being polite with the right-wingers to actually speak up.  I felt increasingly tired with how quiet and complicit all of my friends in the campus’s Democratic circles were when it came time to actually do or say anything that actually mattered.

And so I started getting high and stopped going to class at all. I was getting high so I could self-medicate my anxiety and depression and crippling dysphoria, but I was also getting high as a way to sabotage my chances to be a cop. If I had a drug habit, I could never be a cop. It turned out getting high helped me relax enough to realize how much I hated cops and people that want to be cops and our society that produces the police that we actually have and that boy, I might be super queer, huh, and maybe deciding to take acid and watch Glee at 5 in the morning was a good sign that I just really wanted to be Darren Criss and get to make out with Chris Colfer (I was never nearly as interested in Blaine as I was as Kurt and boy Glee turned out to be a disaster huh). Smoking pot helped me accept how bad my social anxiety was. Thinking about my social anxiety in a serious way and about the masculine violence at the root of it helped me realize I was trans. I just wish that had happened when I was 21 too instead of when I was almost 28. It would have saved me a lot of hassle in my mid-20s.

Sadly, that lesson took a lot longer to stick. In the years that I traveled from Democratic centrism to social democracy to my more recent Bolshie leanings, I was figuring out how to deal with class, sexuality, mental illness, race, but even though I identified as a feminist, I wasn’t thinking about the oppression and violence faced by women and trans people in any serious way (even though I would later accept that I was a transfeminine victim of cishet patriarchal violence). Of all of the groups I still needed to listen to, women and trans folks (particularly the latter) were the groups I was listening to the least. And I couldn’t accept why I was so deeply unhappy and adrift until I finally listened to what they had to say.

Watching L.A. Confidential felt like watching an Oscar-winning Nazi propaganda film because it is an Oscar-winning Nazi propaganda film. It was a hedonistic, nihilistic celebration of masculine id and control. It sells a version of that fascist impulse where you get to be mostly clean and mostly better than the ruffian commoner but violence is still your birthright to claim as a man.

Men love this shit. Why do any of us talk to them?

 

 

Also, shout out to Doctor Stein, and her delightfully butch TA in her “My Marxist Feminist Dialectic Brings the Boys to the Yard” shirt. Y’all were my early queer comrade role models.

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