The 57 Bus tells the true story of two California teens, Sasha and Richard, who meet by chance on an Oakland bus. When Richard, an African American junior from nearby Oakland High School, boards the bus and sees Sasha, a genderqueer kid in a skirt, Sasha quickly becomes the object of Richard’s misguided prank. Sasha, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun they instead of he or she, and does not identify as either male or female, wears their skirt alongside a masculine shirt and vest, which draws the negative attention of Richard and his friends. After Richard repeatedly flicks a cigarette lighter near the gauzy fabric of Sasha’s skirt (thinking it will just smoke and smolder as a joke) and Sasha bursts into flames, Sasha is severely burned and Richard is charged with two hate crimes. Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus chronicles the events leading up to this terrible crime and the healing that takes place after, but it also serves as a guidebook to understanding key LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues and concerns. Sasha is the target of Richard’s bullying because he “doesn’t like gay people,” and he assumes that Sasha is homosexual. Sasha, however, is not gay, and this frequent misunderstanding is just one of many LGBTQ misconceptions dispelled within Slater’s book. Through the writing of The 57 Bus, Slater passionately advocates for LGBTQ understanding and empathy, and effectively argues that gender and sexuality are not synonymous terms.
Gender, according to Sasha, is “the word for what people feel about themselves, how they feel inside,” and it does not necessarily align with the biological sex assigned at one’s birth. Sasha is genderqueer—meaning they question their gender—and considers their identity as agender. While other people seem to inherently know their gender identity, “Sasha ransacks their own brain looking for the file [marked Gender], but it doesn’t seem to be there.” Deep down, Sasha feels neither masculine nor feminine. Sasha’s close friend, Andrew, was biologically born a girl but now lives his life as a transgender man. “I just knew I wasn’t a girl,” Andrew explains. “I just knew that was not who I was at all.” While Andrew also has deep questions concerning his gender identity, he is certain that he does not feel feminine. Nemo, another of Sasha’s close friends, identifies as gender fluid. According to Nemo, “Gender fluid means I have the potential to be anything, any gender at any time.” Nemo, who also uses the they/them pronoun, identifies as both masculine and feminine, and as such, they “can be male, female, masculine, feminine, neither, both.” Each of these gender identities highlights the differences across the gender spectrum within the LGBTQ community.
On the other hand, sexuality, according to Sasha, is “the category for who you are physically attracted to,” which is often experienced independent of gender within the LGBTQ community. Sasha explains their own sexuality as hybrid “gray-cupiosexual.” A cupiosexual “doesn’t feel sexual attraction, but is still interested in sex,” and a graysexual “mostly doesn’t feel sexual attraction but does occasionally.” Sasha has minimal interest in sex, and their chosen sexual identity reflects this. Andrew, who keeps his trans status “on the down low” for fear of discrimination, sexually identifies as a gay man. Biologically speaking, Andrew was assigned female anatomy at birth, but his gender identity as a man means that he is also homosexual. Lastly, Nemo identifies as asexual and doesn’t “do sexual relationships”; Nemo is not physically attracted to anyone, regardless of sex or gender, and as such, they completely avoid sex and sexual relationships. Within The 57 Bus, Slater defines multiple terms for sexual attraction and identity, including homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual (being attracted to all people across the gender spectrum), and Sasha and their friends underscore the many sexual identities present in the LGBTQ community.
Of course, Sasha’s unique gender and sexual identity does not mean that they do not also experience meaningful relationships. On the contrary, Sasha and Nemo are exceedingly close and mutually fulfilled by a nontraditional coupling. Sasha is aromantic, meaning they do not feel romantic attraction, and they see little difference between romantic and platonic love. However, paired with Nemo’s asexuality, Sasha and Nemo “complement each other,” becoming the other’s “most important person.” Sasha describes Nemo as “a soul mate, maybe, but not in the romantic sense.” While Sasha is also quick to point out that they are not with Nemo simply because they both identify as gender nonbinary (gender is simply “another thing they have in common”), Slater’s close examination of LGBTQ identities highlights the diversity that exists within the gender spectrum and implicitly advocates for more thoughtful and nuanced consideration of these differences.
Gender and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Gender and Sexuality Quotes in The 57 Bus
All languages embody the obsessions of the people who speak them, and so Sasha’s language was meant to reflect the interests of people whose world was dominated by growing seasons, grains, and harvests. Instead of pronouns that disguised between male and female, Sasha’s language had pronouns that distinguished between animate and inanimate objects. The word for sun was jejz, which was also the word for day. The difference was that sun was considered animate, a being, and day was considered inanimate, a thing.
It was part of the disorienting feeling she’d had for years, that feeling that everyone except her had been issued a handbook. Samantha knew it was important to be pretty and cute, but she had no idea how to be those things, or even why she was supposed to want to be. Her body was growing curvier. Breasts burst from her chest like twin cannonballs, but they didn’t feel sexy and good, they just felt heavy. She hid them under baggy T-shirts and sweatpants and watched the other girls come to school in tiny skirts and spaghetti straps, wondered why everything was so much hard for her than it was for them.
Most of us see gender and sexuality and romance as one big interconnected tangle of feelings—this is who I am, this is who I’m attracted to, this is who I love. But as Sasha began exploring the topic online, they found that some people had developed language for combing the tangle into individual strands. In these online conversations, the word sex referred purely to biology—the chromosomes, organs, and anatomy that define male and female from the outside. Gender was the word for what people felt about themselves, how they felt inside. Sexuality was the category for who you were physically attracted to. Romantic was the category for who you felt romantic attraction to. And there was a whole array of distinctions within each category as well. It was like a gigantic menu, with columns and columns of choices.
Discovering the existence of genderqueer identity felt like discovering a secret room. All this time there had been just two rooms: male and female. Now it turned out there was another room—one that could be furnished however you wanted. The more time Sasha spent in the room, the more comfortable it felt. But the person who lived in this new room still had a boy’s name—Luke. By the second half of sophomore year, that name clearly no longer fit.
“I don’t want for people to think of me as a he, and when they say he, not only does it reinforce in their brains that I am a he, it also reinforces in the brains of the people who are listening,” Sasha explains. “It doesn’t really directly affect me, at least to hear it—it’s more like, Huh, that’s not right. And when people use the right pronoun, it feels validating.”
It was tough sometimes, watching Sasha navigate a world that didn’t even have a category for them. Occasionally, Debbie wished Sasha would ease up a little—resist correcting well-meaning relatives who said he instead of they, for example. But there was something admirable about it, too, Karl pointed out. Knowing how shy Sasha was, he admired Sasha’s newfound willingness to speak up, to stand out, to be seen.
That’s how everyone knew Richard—as the funny one, the one who made people smile. He pulled pranks like putting ketchup on people’s faces while they slept or ambushing them with water balloons when they’d just woken up. He would do anything for a laugh—put on one of his female cousin’s sexy cropped sweaters, for example, or post a selfie on Instagram of himself dressed in a bra and a wig, gazing into the bathroom mirror with a sultry expression. I’m a THOT for Halloween, the caption explained.
Sasha’s bus ride to and from Maybeck High School took an hour and involved as many as two transfers, but Sasha didn’t mind. They had always loved the bus. Loved the intersecting lines of transit routes on the map, the crisp procession of times on the schedule. In their spare time, they drew maps of new bus, subway, and streetcar lines, or read up on historical public transit systems.
“That boy was on fire, wasn’t he?” a man remarks as Sasha pushes through the back doors to the sidewalk. Behind him, Sasha’s mustached rescuer paces the aisle. “Call an ambulance,” he croaks. He goes to the door of the bus and calls to Sasha, who roams the sidewalk with a cell phone, charred legs. “You need to call an ambulance, man.”
“A passenger on an Oakland, Calif., public bus received burns to his legs after his kilt was set on fire,” UPI wrote. The word kilt seemed to have gotten lodged in the minds of reporters. It was in every report, as if Sasha had been on the way home from bagpipe practice. The Daily Mail, in the United Kingdom, even illustrated the report with a photo of a kilt, explaining a kilt is “the national dress of Scotland.”
“What I want is for people to be confused about what gender I am,” Sasha explained later. That didn’t happen too often—people tended to see Sasha as male. So it was a nice change to be seen as female.
The fire was becoming a more distant memory, even though Sasha still wore compression stockings. “Apart from some scars, I’m all healed, basically,” Sasha said. It was hard for people to believe it, but Sasha didn’t feel traumatized by what had happened. When the physical pain faded, the emotional pain did as well.
“I don’t really feel hated, Sasha explained. “Especially since after I was attacked, the whole world was supporting me. I felt like one person hates me—maybe.”
“We do not understand your actions,” Debbie went on. “But we also think that hatred only leads to more hatred and anger. We don’t want you to come out of prison full of hate. Following the incident, communities near and far affirmed Sasha’s—and everyone’s—right to not be harassed or hurt or bullied for how they dress, or whether they are gay or trans or agender. We truly hope that you will gain some understanding and empathy in the years to come. Maybe sometime in the future you will be the one coming to the aid of someone being bullied.”
“Actually,” [Andrew] said, “I’m starting to identify a little bit as—I don’t even know the word I want to use yet. I like androgynous. I like genderqueer.” What held him back? Fear. Fear of other people’s judgements, their questions, their hostility, their fascination. “Because I fall neatly within the binary, I feel comfortable right now,” he explained. “But if I were to radically shift my appearance in a way that more androgynous, I don’t know how comfortable that would be for me. I mean, I’ve already been asked enough questions about my genitals. I’m just done with that.”