The man who abused me was someone close to my family. I was still in diapers when he started. He was very affectionate and made it clear to me that I was his favorite. We would go everywhere together. He doted on me and gave me gifts. I didn’t even recognize what was going on was abuse because it felt so loving. But, he was a really sick man. He would cry and cry if I didn’t kiss him long enough. I was always responsible for his emotional wellbeing.
I was at odds with my self and my body growing up. I couldn’t understand what was going on with me. I was hearing all this truth about God at the Christian school I attended, but it felt like dichotomy, like here’s this truth, but here’s your reality. I was vacant and sad without really being able to tell why. I just thought I was a weird person that couldn’t fit in and like there was something wrong with me. I never felt like a child; I always felt like an adult. Looking back on the sexual abuse now I can remember times where I felt like I was hovering over my own body, like being in the corner of a room looking down on my little girl self. I think God used that as a self-defense thing. I was sexually abused until I was 10 years old. When my abuser moved to New York I remember feeling devastated, which of course makes me angry now because it was good that he left.
Years later it all came to a head. I was so unhappy. It was my freshman year of college and I was going off the deep end, but couldn’t figure out why. One night I OD’d on my antidepressants and ended up in the hospital. I didn’t tell any of my family about it, but the next night my sister called me out of the blue wanting to talk. She had been doing street ministry the night before when a couple of Christian hippies in a van stopped her and said, “There is some abuse in your past. Do you know someone named Dean*?”
After my sister and I talked on the phone that night, a whole slew of buried memories came flooding back to me. We called my mom and I told her everything. Over the next couple months we contacted an attorney. The statute of limitations was running out and he was now living in a different state, so it was going to be really difficult to prove anything. He initially denied everything and agreed to take a polygraph, which he failed. At that point, I decided to confront him in person and flew to New York. At first he confessed, but once I was gone he minimized and denied again. I was 18 and we settled out of court because we were told that was the best thing we could do. I thought it was important for his wife to know, so I told her everything. I’ll never forget her response: “Oh honey, something like that happened to me when I was little too. You just get over it.”
I feel like the emotional betrayal was just as bad as the physical because for a long time, he was the one person in my life that I thought actually loved me. I can’t explain what that did to my ability to trust myself when I realized it wasn’t love, but abuse. In fact, that’s still the part that continues to mess with me; I still have trouble trusting my own judgment.
I started counseling after that, but it didn’t make it better. For a while, it plunged me into the depths. I was falling apart and it seemed like God didn’t care. To me, He was the angry thunderbolt God ready to strike me down at a moment’s notice. I had spent most of my life doing everything right because I believed it would make me good and better, but it was all works and striving. So, I got to this point where I said, “screw it!” I started drinking to the point of blacking out. I threw my virginity away on a guy I wasn’t even attracted to. I slept around and had lots of random hook ups. Soon, I ran out of my basketball scholarship money, so I went to work on a cruise ship. I ended up engaged to a guy I met there. Then, two weeks before our wedding, he called it off. I was devastated and spiraled out of control. I came home and got myself entangled in a toxic relationship. I knew it was wrong, but I could NOT get out of it. The only thing I can compare it to is how a drug addict must feel; you know the truth, but you just can’t stop. So there I was, on the verge of becoming an alcoholic, suicidal, and in a relationship I just couldn’t quit. I remember sitting in the bathtub one night, crying my eyes out and yelling at God, “You’re going to have to give me something to pull me out of this, otherwise I’m going to die!” Three days later I found out I was pregnant.
That’s when I moved in with my mentor from my parents’ church. She and her husband took me in and cared for me. People around me were telling me to get an abortion, but that was never an option for me. God had given me that baby as a gift. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to. I finally ended that toxic relationship and had Tristan when I was 24 years old. That little boy has the love of Jesus in him. It’s almost like you can see where God has kissed him.
I got hired on at the YMCA and gradually got healthier. My son and I eventually moved into our own apartment in Tacoma and it was really tough. I was a single working mom and a time came when I couldn’t pay my rent. I was only making $800 a month and rent was due the next day, but I didn’t have it. I was too humiliated to ask for help, so instead I tried selling things left and right on Craigslist. Then my basketball coach from college called me up out of the blue. She was passing through Tacoma and asked if she could stop by. She knocked on my door, handed me an envelope and said, “God told me to give this to you.” I opened the envelope to find $500, exactly what I needed to pay my rent.
It wasn’t long before I met someone new. Matt and I went on a couple dates and he really seemed like he had it together. After about 4 months of dating, my son had a horrific seizure. By the time the paramedics reached us, he had been seizing for a full 30-minutes and had turned blue. I was so scared. I remember asking one of the paramedics if he was going to make it. He just looked at me very seriously and said, “I don’t know.”
Is this how it’s going to end? Why would you think you deserve to be happy, Kaeley? This is what you deserve! Angry thunderbolt God raged on in my head. By the time we got to the hospital, Tristan had fallen into a coma. They said if he came out of it in the next ten hours or so, he might have a chance. Matt and I stood next to his hospital bed and prayed. Then suddenly Tristan opened his eyes. He was going to be okay! In the next few moments Matt took off his hat and asked me to marry him. It was an emotional whirlwind. I said yes and soon after we eloped. Three days after we got married, I got pregnant.
A month later, Matt lost his job and things went sour fast. We were both dealing with our own unresolved issues and some of his blindsided me. I had my daughter on Christmas day and he left me for another woman by February. I spent much of that time on my face on the bathroom floor, asking God for help because I didn’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, I had to get to that place because I can be so thickheaded at times. Looking back I see that the more time I spent there, the more clearly I saw Him. When you’re empty, you realize you can’t rescue yourself and that’s when God shows up.
Not long after Matt left, I totaled my car. I skidded out on a gravel road, hit a telephone pole, and all the windows shattered. I was terrified to turn around and check on my kids. When I did, I saw them both sitting in their car seats completely covered in glass, but neither had a scratch on them! I broke down again. God, I just lost my husband. I don’t have good insurance, and I have no money. Please help! I prayed “fish and loaves” over and over again. The next day at work some random lady walks into my office and says, “You don’t know me, but God told me to give this to you.” then hands me an envelope. Inside, I find $1,200. Every time I have felt abandoned by God, He has shown up. What He has been saying to me has become very clear: “Here’s what you need. You asked, so here I am.”
Over the next three years working at the Y, I got three promotions including being promoted to Communications Director. My role was to foster trust through transparency with our members; to always make sure nothing hit them by surprise.
In March of last year, my boss handed me some documents from our attorneys and told me to familiarize myself with them because I would soon be pitching them to our members. In reviewing the materials, I quickly realized that the Y was moving towards a new policy where people could use our locker rooms and bathrooms based upon their expressed gender identity rather than their biological anatomy. In short, a man could walk into the women’s locker room and no one could question him because it would be considered discrimination.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, a lot of things about this new policy concerned me. I know firsthand how predators work. A locker room or bathroom full of women and young children could potentially be a huge gold mine for them and here the YMCA was asking me, their communications director, to make this sound good for our members? I couldn’t do it. I scheduled a sit down meeting with my boss and explained my concerns. I told her my whole story about being sexually abused as a child. I wanted her to see this policy from the eyes of a victim and how it could potentially put others in danger. After hearing my story she simply said, “Kaeley, every time I feel conflicted about it, I just tell myself I’m being close-minded. You’re a strong girl. You’re not so weak that you can’t do this. That’s not the Kaeley I know.”
I asked to appeal to the CEO, but my boss told me that he would do whatever she told him to. I talked to our safety and risk manager, but he told me this was the direction the YMCA needed to be going anyway. I spent the next few months trying to fight this from the inside. Everyone I asked for help seemed to turn a blind eye. I felt like I was running around screaming “The sky is falling!” but everyone was rolling their eyes and telling me to shut up.
Then came down the executive decision to NOT tell our members. “Let’s not make this a public awareness campaign. Let’s keep this quiet and on a need-to-know-basis.” But other people’s kids and wives are not our social experiment. What if I’m showering in the locker room (which is really hard for me to do already) and turn around to see a dude there, but had never been warned that was even possible? That’s a huge deal! That’s a need-to-know thing!
You see, the Washington State Human Rights Commission was using the YMCA to spearhead this new policy, but the Y wasn’t telling their members. Their plan was to sneak it into legislation via committee until it was cemented into place legally. Then, if anything ever came up down the road they could say, “We’ve had this in place for so long and there haven’t been any incidents!” But it didn’t work out that way. In November, a lifeguard at the YMCA in Puyallup saw a man walking into the women’s locker room. The lifeguard confronted him, but the man responded he had permission to enter. A bunch of parents were watching their kids in swim lessons and witnessed the whole thing. Needless to say, they were outraged. They contacted the media and it exposed the whole scheme. After this happened, I decided I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. I had been sitting on a series of documented violations of our code of conduct from our own management. I also had a stack of emails detailing how they purposefully lied to the staff and members about never wanting to keep them in the dark. I presented my 50+ pages of documentation to the board of directors. I really felt that they had heard me, but their ultimate decision was that I could resign with severance if I kept my mouth shut or be fired. I chose to be fired.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been speaking to the senate in Olympia, rallying people, and communicating what’s going on so that no one is in the dark. I’m basically a political activist, which is never something I had any aspirations of being. My primary function is to encourage people to speak up who might not otherwise do so.
I’m reclaiming my identity as a sexual abuse survivor. Locker rooms were a really hard place for me already because my dignity, my sense of ‘my own body’, and my personal space had been violated. Boundary setting for survivors of sexual abuse is a really difficult thing. I don’t need to explain why it’s not okay for someone with male anatomy to see me naked in the shower. I can draw that boundary and still be a loving person.
People are afraid to speak up about the transgender locker room/bathroom policy because they’re going to be called a bigot, a hater, or a transphobe. But that’s just a bully tactic. When people started calling me those things because of my stance, it brought me right back to being five years old. My abuser would say things like, “You don’t love me anymore because you won’t let me do X, Y, or Z”. Being called names because I’m standing up for myself and what I believe in feels eerily familiar.
Truth is, I never thought this would be my soapbox issue. I know too many loving people in the transgender community to ever intentionally put myself in a position where I feel like I’m fighting them. I don’t have any ill will towards those individuals, but this is a really dangerous agenda. It has already been exploited and abused by sexual predators since it’s been put into place.
I am passionate about speaking up for survivors of abuse. It’s not only that they could be abused or violated by predators sneaking in under these horrible loop holes, it’s also their privacy and their right to draw boundaries without being called names and ridiculed for it. So many abuse victims do not speak up because their voices were stripped from them. My abuser always told me, “This is our little secret”, which gave me a profound sense of shame.
A part of my healing has been realizing that I’m called to speak. I want to help people to not be afraid of their own brokenness or their own mess. Your past doesn’t disqualify you. If you know what is true, you’re not only qualified, you’re called to speak out and be a light. So, speak the truth and see what happens. Even if people try to shut you up, when God has something for you, He’s going to get it done.
*Real names have been changed due to legal agreements.
Photography by Ivy and Tweed