What emerges at low tide

Queer history is all around us, even if it is obscured from sight.

When my partner, T, and I pulled into the parking lot near Pillar Point on the California coast, the sky was still midnight blue. I was surprised to see we were alone; I’d expected the parking lot to be swarmed already, a squeaking flurry of rainboots and aurora of headlamps as other visitors hurried out to the rocky shore near the end of December, during an unusually low tide. But it was just the two of us amid daybreak’s unspooling fog, which blurred the hard edges of the horizon. The lot was so resolutely empty that I peed in the port-a-potty with the door wide open, afraid of being trapped inside the squelching dark. I watched T adjust the plastic bags knotted around their feet and under their shoes, and then we trudged toward the dirt path that snaked around Pillar Point Harbor and toward the tidepools.

 

As we walked, the sun conjuring more and more horizon, T and I spoke of what we hoped to see at the tidepools: anemones, crabs, and, if we were lucky, the electric sherbet fringe of a sea slug called the opalescent nudibranch. I kept looking over my left shoulder, not in fear of a stranger but to see if the fog had lifted enough to reveal the harbor itself. By the time we’d reached the tip of the bluff, time to turn right and descend on the exposed reef, I looked back to the harbor to see nothing — only a veil of fog.

I admit I was rubbernecking. I wanted to see the stretch of beach where someone had died, or, rather, where their body was discovered in the sands — stabbed, beaten and strangled — on the morning of Nov. 26, 1983. Decades later, the murder still unsolved and body still unidentified, they’d become a cold case, known as Pillar Point Doe. I did not know them, was never alive when they were alive, but ever since I’d learned about their case, I thought of them occasionally and wondered about their life.

The day Pillar Point Doe died, they were dressed casually — yellow capri pants and a turtleneck, adorned with a silver-colored cross necklace. They wore a bra with foam padding, fishnet hose and two pairs of underwear. Despite their obviously feminine presentation, the medical examiner deemed them male, John Doe #83-26, and the police released sketches that showed a man. So, for 35 years, their identity remained an enigma.

 I’d read all I could about the unknowable gap between a person and their bones.

I learned about Pillar Point Doe while reporting a story about a debate in forensic anthropology over whether it is possible, or productive, to infer a victim’s race from their skeleton. I’d read all I could about the unknowable gap between a person and their bones, how often and how long people can stay unidentified, and the many reasons why — the limits of technology, the presence of bias, the vanishing nature of the past. And I came across a story about the Trans Doe Task Force, which researches the cases of missing and murdered people who may have been queer or trans. The task force had taken on the case of Pillar Point Doe and commissioned a new forensic sketch, imagining a young person with ruddy lipstick and smoky eyeshadow. They used a genetic genealogy kit to track down Pillar Point Doe’s next of kin, tracing their family from Wales to Utah, until they came across a high school yearbook photo that looked just like Pillar Point Doe. The team gave Pillar Point’s birth name to the police, who have declined to release it. 

Around that time in the fall, T and I booked tickets to fly home to California — our first visit since the pandemic started. I had never gone so long without visiting the Bay, and I desperately wanted to see the ocean again. After years of living in New York, busing to city beaches, I’d grown to love the gentle warmth of the Atlantic. But there was nothing like the Pacific, whose crashing waves and chilling waters made me feel vanishingly small. I wanted to take T tidepooling, to see the glassy pools of life caught between land and sea that had helped me fall in love with the ocean and all that teemed inside it. 

I hadn’t tidepooled since childhood, so I Googled all the best spots in San Mateo, cross-referencing them with the tide chart for the week we’d be in town. One spot seemed perfect, a rocky reef near an Air Force station that was “something of a holy grail for nudibranchs,” according to a blog I read. I knew the slugs were hard to spot, shrouded by strands of seaweed and often no bigger than an almond or even a grain of rice. But it wasn’t until I plugged the spot into my phone on the drive over that the name registered. Pillar Point: a harbor, a beach, a parking lot, a grave.

An opalescent sea slug, Hermissenda opalescens.
Matt Knoth

When T and I reached the reef, I saw the tide was low but not as low as I’d hoped. Many of the rock pools remained submerged, obscured by gleaming water. The tide appeared too high to have trapped any nudibranchs, or at least any that we could find. But what we did see astounded us: beetle-green anemones with pinwheeling tentacles, veined starfish clinging to rock, the pleated plates of a chiton. Whorled pearly shells lurked in every crevice, housing moon snails or hermit crabs — the only way to tell was to watch and wait to see how they moved. We identified everything we could — sunburst anemone, keyhole limpet, red rock crab — but many creatures’ names eluded us. Oily ribbons of kelp gleamed in the morning sun, and we left with the rising tide. The fog had lifted too, revealing the entire harbor, which was unremarkable when compared to the reef, just tiny waves lapping a scythe of sand. I don’t know what else I expected to see; of course, there would be no marker or memorial. We trudged along a trail by the harbor that disappeared into a green fringe of succulents. Wanting to leave no trace, or at least not step on anything living, T and I turned around. When we got back to the parking lot, I slipped off my bagged shoes to find the ocean had rendered my feet unrecognizable, wrinkled pink like a brain.

I didn’t tell T about Pillar Point Doe until we left the parking lot. At the time, no moment felt appropriate to casually disrupt our day of wonder and slime with such an old tragedy. Enough trans death and trans trauma had happened in this decade, in our own lifetimes, and I suppose I wanted the moments we had with nature to feel precious and unspoiled by the real world. A time outside society, a time only for joy. 

But so much of the queer history we have is inseparable from tragedy. We learn that people existed through records of arrest, incarceration and invasive medical studies, all of which remember people by criminalizing or disordering their queerness. Sometimes these records are our only opportunities to remember. 

I suppose I wanted the moments we had with nature to feel precious and unspoiled by the real world.

The truth is that many of the living things we saw on the reef that day were surrounded by dead ones. Half of a rock crab, tossed between two gulls. The cracked shells of sea urchins. Smashed and opened mussels still adhered to rock. However idyllic the pools appear to us, they are rugged, extreme and constantly changing worlds. The creatures that make a living between water and land must adapt to drowning and drying out, holding fast amid crashing waves. Life on the reef is precarious for anything not evolved to survive it. Perhaps this is why the opalescent nudibranch, born without any defensive toxins, steals the stinging cells of its prey to defend its own soft body on the reef. We cannot change how we are born, but we can change the way we live.

I have yet to see a nudibranch at Pillar Point, but I know they are there. A quick skim through iNaturalist reveals a scrolling grid of the bright shimmering sea slugs living in these waters — creamsicle-colored clown nudibranchs, flame-feathered aeolids, nubbly and kumquat-shaped orange-peel dorids. They were there, brilliant and gleaming and safely hidden, obscured from our sight.   

Sabrina Imbler is a staff writer at Defector Media, an employee owned sports and culture site. Their first book, HOW FAR THE LIGHT REACHES, is out December 6 with Little, Brown. Their chapbook, Dyke (geology), is out with Black Lawrence Press.

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