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Boise woman says transphobia likely triggered her attack at the downtown library

110122gp_libraryattack.jpg
City of Boise
A Boise man is charged with three felonies, including an assault at the Boise Downtown Library

The mid-October arrest of a Boise man, accused of assault including the use of his vehicle as a weapon, garnered plenty of media attention. A short time later, he was also accused of burning a Pride flag that had been flying outside a Boise home.

But what was not widely known at the time of the arrest of Matthew Lehigh, was that his first alleged assault was on a transgender woman at her workplace – the Boise Downtown Public Library.

“This was a transphobic act, that it was inspired by transphobia,” said June Meissner. “And we have a big issue with transphobia in our culture right now. And there's a lot of people sort of drumming up more transphobia.”

Meissner visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the incident, the support she has received from friends and colleagues and her frustration that Idaho law prevents the incident from being considered a hate crime.

“I think it's time to add the words.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. This is what we know: A Boise man is behind bars, charged with five felonies ranging from aggravated assault to arson. You may have heard of this report. Initially, we heard from police that he had used homophobic slurs, used his vehicle to target a couple of his victims. He was also charged with burning a Pride flag that had been flying outside of a Boise home. But there is more to learn and we're going to do that this morning. Let me introduce June Meissner. June is going to spend some time with us for the next few minutes. Joon, good morning.

JUNE MEISSNER: Good morning.

PRENTICE: You work at the Boise Library?

MEISSNER: I do. I work at the downtown Boise Public Library.

PRENTICE: I think that might be a really good place to start. What a unique time to be working…. at any library… when libraries are quite frankly threatened by a certain group of folks who want them to operate differently.

MEISSNER: Absolutely. It's a major issue and it's kind of an impasse in librarianship because we have these sort of core values of librarianship, such as equity of access and intellectual freedom, privacy, confidentiality. What we're trying to do is provide resources for people. And it's not always up to us what information people need. We provide access to information. And, you know, there's this, as you said, this sort of the small but vocal population that have this sort of quixotic campaign against libraries. And I think it's probably pretty closely connected to a similar campaign against public education as well.

PRENTICE: I would like to learn, along with our listeners, about an incident that involves you. And this was in early October.

MEISSNER: October 8th.

PRENTICE: So, what can you tell us about what happened?

MEISSNER: Well, I was working in the library that day; and we were getting close to shutting up the library for the day. And so, I was going around and picking up books and pushing in chairs and checking on people and seeing if there's anything that we could do to help them as we're getting to the last few minutes of the day. And somebody that I hadn't met or interacted with before came up to me.  I said something like, “How can I help you?” This person….as soon as he got close enough, he mumbled something quickly about demons and then tried to punch me in the face. I immediately kind of threw my arm up to block it and ended up catching that punch in the elbow. So, thankfully, I wasn't badly hurt. And then I kind of kind of ran off. I was running off. This person was shouting, :You don't belong here…” using F-slur. I don't know if you want me to use that during this interview.

PRENTICE: I think we get it.

MEISSNER: But he shouted, “You don't belong here…[F-slur]. You need to leave here. Next time I see you here, I'm going to cut you.” So, I ran away and then kept my kept my distance from him and let our security staff know that that this had happened. And one of our security staff followed him outside and met up with him out there. And then he tried to run over our security staff as well. So that was he incident. And we followed up with the police. And then a few days later, I heard about some other incidents with the same person and the incident where he tried to run over some other people on Americana.

PRENTICE: And again, you had never met this person before? You couldn't identify this person at the time?

MEISSNER: Correct.

PRENTICE: Is it your sense that when he said…, well, how did you take it when he said “You don't belong here?”

MEISSNER: I mean, it was….I'm six- four. I'm a very tall transgender woman. I stick out. I think of myself as a very visible transgender person. So, when this person approached me and started using those slurs and threatening me, it was pretty apparent right away that that's what was going on. I don't know. It's a really unfortunate thing that this is happening. And I don't think trans people should have this happening anywhere. And I don't think that, you know, we should be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe or unwelcome, especially at a public library. I mean, everybody should feel that they are welcome and safe and secure at a public library.

PRENTICE: Well, we know of the police response to this, which is to say an arrest. But can you talk about… well, let me ask it this way: Can you speak to the support that you are getting from friends….and, I'm hoping, colleagues.

MEISSNER: Yeah. That part's been amazing right away. You know, a lot of people are reaching out and offering me support, telling me that, you know, they care about me. And it's been really great, and it's been really affirming. And I value it a lot. And I feel really welcome and supported at work.

PRENTICE: It's a pretty good bet that there may be someone listening who feels as if, on occasion, there's a threat to who they are or where they are… and maybe even feel as if they're alone sometimes. And to them, you say what?

MEISSNER: That threat is real. It's out there in our culture and it's something that we all have to address together. And I think that it's important to be safe and it's important to look out for each others’ safety. But it's absolutely worth it. I mean, we have to build our community. We this is how we build community. This is how we come together and support each other… as much as it can be scary at times. It's absolutely worth it.

PRENTICE: Can you talk about that choice… that choice of doing the right thing - instead of saying. No, I don't want to go through this, I don't want to talk to anyone.” But instead said, “Yes, this is unacceptable.”

MEISSNER: Being part of the queer community in Idaho… you know… from time to time, things happen around here… you know, instances of violence that will come to the public attention. The one that sort of springs most to mind is the murder of Jo Acker at the mall. And one of the things that's very striking about that for me as a trans person is that that the media will talk about… we'll talk about these instances of  violence. But the issue of transphobia, and how that plays into the motivations behind this violence doesn't really get talked about as much. It might get a mention somewhere in there, but it escapes the attention of most of the media. And so, when I saw the initial articles that talked about the arrest of the person who attacked me in the library and it said he punched me in the arm and called me a homophobic slur, I think that there was something missing in there for me - that this was a transphobic act, that it was inspired by transphobia. And we have a big issue with transphobia in our culture right now. And there's a lot of people sort of drumming up more transphobia. And I think that it's important to address that. And it's something that I think was not being addressed.

PRENTICE: I think we should also remind our listeners, some people may ask, why would this not be a hate crime? Well, Idaho code says, “malicious harassment targeting includes a person's race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin.” But targeting someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity is not included in Idaho law.

MEISSNER: I think it's time to add the words.

PRENTICE: June Meissner works at the Boise Public Library. For every day, to you and your colleagues, thank you for what you do.  And for this particular morning, thanks for giving us some time as well.,

MEISSNER: Thank you very much for having me. Thank you for this opportunity.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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