Editor’s Note: Out of respect for the privacy of some of the people depicted in this story, the defendant and the victim’s names have been changed. All usernames altered. All identifying details erased.
Deputy District Attorney Allyson Ostroswki begins her second day of cross-examination. Her tone is casual as she poses her first question, “In addition to having a vagina you also have what you describe as a small penis?”
The defendant, Jackson Wilson, looks up from his wheelchair. He nods his head, “Yes.”
Wilson is intersex, meaning that he was born with sex organs that do not fit a binary notion of the male or female body. He presents as male in court, wearing a pale, yellow, collared shirt, sporting a shaved head and using masculine pronouns. While Wilson’s sexual orientation — which gender or genders he’s attracted to — isn’t explicitly addressed during the trial, it’s acknowledged that Wilson has had both male and female sexual partners. In his sexual relations with men, he regularly identifies as female and sometimes alters his appearance to fit a more feminine gender expression, wearing makeup and a hairpiece. During these encounters he often goes by the nickname “Unique” and his partners refer to him using she/her pronouns. Wilson was previously married to a woman, with whom he has children, but for the past four years many of his sexual encounters have been arranged through sex adds on Craigslist and discreet communications on the mobile messaging app, Kik.
All of that shouldn’t matter. But it is relevant to the matter before the court — that Wilson is accused of attempted murder.
On January 25th of 2018, Wilson got into a car with his frequent sexual partner, Luis Garcia. When they got out of the car minutes later, Garcia had been shot five times — bullets pierced his bicep and abdomen and severed his left index finger. He staggered to the cement sidewalk, blood soaking his t-shirt, while Wilson fled the scene. An ambulance took Garcia to the hospital where doctors performed surgery that saved his life. Wilson was arrested two weeks later after Garcia gave police Wilson’s Kik username and home address.
Garcia testifies that Wilson got in his car, pulled a gun on him and said “Sorry, I have to kill you.” Wilson testifies that Garcia was the one who pulled the gun. He claims that he knocked it out of Garcia’s hand and shot him in self-defense.
What matters in this case is what happened in that car.
But the car isn’t getting much time in court. Somehow the crime itself has been buried under the glitz of pornographic spectacle. Prosecutor Ostroswki clicks her heels on the courtroom floor as she reads explicit messages from usernames “cumtasteme,” “yummyhoneynut” and “pussysowetwet” about sucking, fucking and threesomes. Garcia takes the stand for four days and is fervently questioned by Public Defender Rhonda Haymon about the details of his anal sex with Wilson. The defense and the prosecution reference a still shot from a video of Wilson masturbating in which his genitalia are visible. Both Wilson and Garcia are subject to eviscerating embarrassment. The defendant is exposed as being intersex and both are out-ed as having had sexual relations with men.
The shame both men feel from the notion that they engaged in homosexual sex is visceral in the courtroom. While the topics and sex acts explored in this trial may feel ripped from the college syllabus of a genders studies class, we’re worlds away from campus. There are no rainbow flags here, no glitter and no pride parade.
While Garcia is on the stand, he is adamant that Wilson is a woman. He recounts their first meeting in which he claims he initially was put off by Wilson’s masculine appearance but explains that he agreed to sex when Wilson showed him “her” breasts and vagina. Wilson is equally dodgy about his encounters with men. When the prosecutor defines his companionship with Garcia as a “relationship,” Wilson interjects defensively: “It wasn’t a relationship, just a sexual relationship.” He testifies that his family knows that he is intersex but not that he sleeps with other men. At least, not until now. Because now Wilson has been forced out of the closet.
In front of his family members. And strangers in suits. And a jury. And a judge. And me.
I feel uncomfortable watching the proceedings. It’s not the content. I’m bisexual and familiar with fluid sexuality and gender identity. What bothers me is that sitting in the gallery makes me feel complicit in publicly outing these men. And at times, the spectacle of the courtroom makes me feel like I’ve come to gawk at a freak show.
To be fair, the vocabulary of the court was respectful. Notably, no one used the term “hermaphrodite” during proceedings, which can be considered offensive to intersex individuals because the word implies that they have two sets of full and discrete sex organs, which is a mischaracterization of their anatomy. But the sheer quantity of explicit content seems more tactical than relevant. Intimate details are used to rattle the victim and defendant in hopes that they might accidentally reveal a piece of information that can be used against them. It’s difficult to excuse the fixation on sex that overshadows the reason why we’re here: the crime in the car.
And there was no fucking in the car. No sucking. No threesomes. No explicit messages. No masturbation. No anal.
Just two men. One gun. And five bullet wounds.
Jackson Willson was found not guilty on all counts. Afterwards the foreperson of the jury reported that jurors did not believe the defendant’s story, but they didn’t believe the victim either.
Looking back on the trial, I feel for Luis Garcia. I’m concerned that the spectacle won out; that the raunchy nature of the circumstances muddied the jury’s perspective on whose testimony was trustworthy. After all, the relationship between sex and morality is a sordid historical spider-web, one in which virginity is shrouded in virtue while promiscuity is persecuted as a sin. Despite society’s progress towards sex positivity the stigma of non-marital and non-heteronormative sex lingers.
Perhaps the jurors couldn’t see the forest through the pornographic trees.