In the spirit of the holiday, I’d like to talk to you about one of the most haunted places in the United States. It’s actually not far from where I grew up! It’s called the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. There’d normally be parties and costume balls there right now, but I’d like to talk to you about the history of that place for a moment.
It was a place of unspeakable horrors and human rights abuses. It was horrifyingly overcrowded and held the “mentally ill.” We all know how that story goes, right? Originally built with the best intentions, it quickly became overcrowded — its 250 person maximum repeatedly exceeded and overcrowded. First it was 500 people over. Then by the 1950s it was 10x over the capacity of people it was meant to hold. The design of the building was meant to be kind to the mentally ill, but the design of the building was no match for the cruel designs of our society.
People who couldn’t be controlled were being locked in cages. Sanitation wasn’t even a consideration anymore. Paint was peeling from the walls, people were lacking food. Patients slept on the floor, often without furniture or heat. Those who couldn’t be controlled were locked in cages. The site was the home to over 4,000 experimental lobotomies many performed by Walter Freeman. In this overcrowded, under sanitized, cold, dark skeleton of good intentions, over 4,000 people deemed to be mentally ill were lobotomized with an ice pick. People died due to the procedure. People died due to the conditions. Good people. People who needed help and people who just wanted to live as themselves.
This is a horrifying part of our history in how we deal with mental health, and being an LGBTQ+ person was definitely considered a mental illness. The shell of this old building is now used for ghost tours, dances, and costume contests. It is a distant part of our history — except it isn’t.
This facility was forced to close in 1994. I was born in 1988. I was 6 years old when this long-running human rights abuse factory was deemed unworkable. Let me repeat. I was 6. This is where I grew up. As an adult, I toured this facility, dressed in costume a costume from a TV Show but also wearing another costume: masculinity. I was actively, theatrically performing my duty as a “man.” And places like this were why. I was, and had every right to be, terrified of the ghost of this place as I toured the grounds. If I’d been born ten, fifteen, twenty years earlier I could have been one of those victims. And yet the forces that turned this facility from a well-intentioned place of health to a dungeon of abuse and death — those specters still haunt me every single day.
I see that same spirit possessing every house with a Trump sign out front. I feel the chills every time I see a thin blue line on a car or the door of a business. The haunting is present in every suspicious comment about “biological sex.” The people who built this horror show favored science over kindness, and look what they did. Every time a friend or family member suggests that I have no right to be worried that society means me harm, I know that it is that spirit speaking through them.
Every trans person is haunted by the knowledge that any one of us might become the next sacrifice to this spirit that’s possessed so many of our towns, school boards, feminist circles, colleges, churches, legislatures, and homes. We see that spirit in the eyes of every person who looks on us with suspicion. We hear it in the voice of politicians who say we’re mentally ill. We read your comments on news articles and Facebook and we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the spirit has you, too.
The asylum is haunted, perhaps, but our culture is still possessed.
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