Monday, November 07, 2016

On This Date In ISBL History: A Young Man Was Set On Fire For Wearing A Skirt

As I am in Oregon helping my Dad recuperate from knee surgery, I thought I’d do something I’ll call “On This Date In ISBL History” and repost some things from back when the blog was new, and newish … this was originally published November 7, 2013:

I’m a person who loves seeing, meeting, speaking to people who are different from me; well, except for wingnuts … wingnuts make me nervous. But I love people who don’t look like me, or sound like me or dress like me. I mean, if I wanted to see versions of myself all day I’d sit in my bathroom taking selfies forever.

And having spent so much time in San Francisco — where diversity is everywhere — and Miami — where conformity is the norm — I find myself wishing for someone who looks different. 

Last Spring, in Smallville, I saw a young Black man with long, straight, gorgeous blond hair — think Cher in the ‘Believe’ video — and a couple of folks with me remarked about how odd he looked. I said I liked it; I mean, he didn’t look like anyone else in Smallville and he had the balls to walk through a small Southern town with that gorgeous — albeit not natural — hair.

I celebrate diversity; some folks wanna burn it down.

This past Monday, in Oakland, California, Luke Fleischman was coming home by bus and apparently fell asleep during the commute. Another young man, a 16-year-old boarded the bus near Oakland High School and took a seat. A few moments later the young man walked over to where Fleischman was sitting and lit his skirt on fire.

Startled, Luke tried unsuccessfully to put out the flames, as other passengers rushed to help. The driver stopped the bus a short distance away when he became aware of the attack, and ordered everyone off the bus.

The suspect was taken away by Oakland police, on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and mayhem and could face other charges. He was identified as the attacker through surveillance video on the bus.

He set a man on fire for wearing a skirt.

Fleischman, who also goes by the name Sasha and does not identify as male or female but rather as nonbinary gender — a term covering any gender identity that does not fit within the gender binary — is in stable condition at the St. Francis Memorial Hospital burn unit in San Francisco, but is going to need massive skin grafting and a long recovery period.
"My son considers himself agender. He likes to wear a skirt. It's his statement. That's how he feels comfortable dressing." — Debbie Fleischman
She said Luke had been riding the bus home from school, oftentimes wearing a skirt, for the past year and never had a problem. Luke had told his parents two years ago that he did not want to identify as a man or a woman, and became politically involved in the issue of nonbinary gender; he gathered some 27,000 signatures on the Internet in hopes of catching President Obama's attention to the subject.

While police investigators are still sorting out a motive, Debbie Fleischman wonders whether it was a prank gone seriously wrong, or something darker, a hate crime.

All because he was a man in a skirt.

And what does that hurt? Who does that hurt? How does what one wears, or how they style their hair, or how they speak, or love, or worship, or live, hurt anyone else?

I often make a small joke when I see people arguing, repeating what Rodney King said after the LA riots of the 90s: Can’t we all get along? Is that so hard? I mean, it was a young man in a skirt. I would have thought him cool and brave and daring and different. I never would have seen him as a target. 


In November 2014, a year after the attack, a judge sentenced 17-year-old Richard Thomas of Oakland, to seven years in prison on for setting Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire.

A plea deal in the case was reached when Thomas pleaded no contest to charges of felony assault and inflicting great bodily injury.

Fleischman’s family pushed for Thomas to be tried as a juvenile, but he was charged as an adult; an aggravated mayhem charge, which had a hate-crime enhancement that carried a sentence of up to life in prison, was dropped.

Prosecutors said Thomas targeted Fleischman because he was wearing a skirt, and Thomas’ attorney described it as a prank gone terribly wrong. Thomas stayed in juvenile hall until he turned 18, at which time he was transferred to prison.

After recovering from second and third-degree burns to his legs, Sasha Fleischman started school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.