Author’s Note: I use the term “survivor” to describe myself. I am aware that not everyone who has been victimized by sexual violence identifies as a victim or a survivor. I am a firm believer of people using the language that they feel most comfortable with when discussing their personal experiences and identities.
I am a survivor of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape—too many times to count.
I was raised in rape culture, and taught that I have no agency over my body and my being as AFAB, fat, queer, disabled, poor, mentally ill, and someone who started puberty at a younger age than most of my peers—though I experienced harassment and assault even before puberty when I was seen by the world as a vulnerable, little girl.
I was groomed to believe that others have innate permission to comment on my body and being with both disgust and sexualization, that they were allowed to lay hands on my body without my consent, without consideration of my humanity or personhood.
I was taught that due to my body and being, I should be flattered with any attention thrown my way.
At the same time, even before I grew into my queerness, I was taught alongside my peers that being LGBTQ+ was bad and predatory, despite evidence to the contrary considering that my childhood harassers and assaulters were overwhelmingly cisgender, heterosexual, white, boys and men. I was rejected by friends in school when they decided I was a “lesbo” and considered a sexual predator—this was even before I knew I was queer or what being queer meant.
I wasn’t taught consent. I wasn’t even taught enthusiastic consent until I was well into my 20’s and beginning to engage more visibly with the queer community. I was groomed to accept that coercion was part of engaging in sexual relationships, it was normalized to the point that it was always easier to go numb to what was happening and dissociate from the situation than it was to continue to fight off advances.
I learned that it was easier to hide or disappear from a party than it was to fight someone off when they became too sexually aggressive. I learned to never be the last to fall asleep, and that if you did fall asleep curl into as tight a ball as possible. I was also groomed to accept the lies that rape culture tells—that sexual assault and rape were my fault, that I was asking for it, that others who were assaulted and raped were asking for it. I believed the lies that rape culture told, that women and girls who wore revealing clothing, who drank too much around groups of men, and who passed out at parties were asking for it. I didn’t learn the value of going to or leaving a bar or party with friends until I was drugged at a bar one night. It was not my fault. It was never the fault of those women and girls either.
I have never reported my harassers, assaulters, or rapists to the authorities, but I have sought out survivor services that have empowered me to talk about being a survivor. While I have spoken out about my experiences being victimized by sexual violence, I usually keep the details secret, even from my closest friends. Not necessarily because I want to, but more so because even though we live in the time of the #MeToo movement, survivors are still stigmatized by rape culture. I don’t want to ever have to answer questions about what I was wearing, what I was doing, what I was drinking, why I was where I was, or why I was with who I was with. I especially never want to be asked why I didn’t do enough to fight back, why I didn’t call out for help, why I didn’t go to the hospital or the police or seek out emergency care.
I don’t need to explain myself to anyone, because it is not my fault that I was assaulted or raped.
My grooming, conditioning, and subsequent victimization are not unique to me, and my accounts of assault and rape are not unique to people who share my identities or people who do not share my identities; my situation is not unique because we live in a culture in which sexual violence is not only tolerated but in some cases is seen in a sense as a rite of passage. By definition, rape culture is the social acceptance of sexual violence. Due to stigmatizing victim-blaming associated with being a survivor of sexual violence, many people never share their stories, and never seek survivor resources. The silence of victims helps shield people from facing accountability for sexual violence. Rape culture discourages victims (and survivors) from speaking out, not only out of fear of being subjected to gaslighting (i.e., not only is the survivor not believed, but they are made to believe that they are at fault), but also out of fear of being socially rejected for speaking out—especially when they are victimized by people with wealth, power, fame, or any other significant social status. Survivors who speak out against the wealthy and powerful are often met with further victimization through threats, assault, rape, and possibly murder. This is one example of many as to how rape culture is sustained and weaponized in community.
Sexual Assault & Law Enforcement
When a victim of sexual violence reports their experience to the police and/or emergency services, they are subjected to the full violence of rape culture by being examined, poked, prodded, asked questions, asked those same questions again, asked those same questions in a different way again, asked to recount what happened in full detail over and over and over again, all while having no say in what happens to the person/people who victimized them. Survivors are given no agency over their case(s) and are not asked what justice looks like for the person/people who victimized them. This is a lot of trauma to go through considering only a very small percentage of assault and rape cases result in successful prosecution. Many of us saw this play out in real time with the case of Brock Turner.
Despite knowing why victims of assault and rape overwhelmingly choose not to report their trauma to the police or other authorities, and that a very small percentage of sexual violence cases are prosecuted, the question of what to do about sexually violent people often comes up in discussions of defunding the police and prison abolition. Nonetheless, the discussion about how to deal with sexually violent people in the context of defunding the police fails to recognize that even when rape cases are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, prison is definitively not rehabilitative. This is glaringly obvious considering that prison rape is talked about more as a joke than as the serious reality of incidences of sexual violence in prison, committed both by those who are incarcerated and by prison employees. Incidences of assault and rape of incarcerated people are not taken seriously because many people believe that it is an acceptable consequence of being incarcerated. Prison rape jokes are also inherently anti-LGBTQ+, reinforce anti-LGBTQ+ stereotypes, and normalize the dehumanization of incarcerated people.
Compared to the cisgender, heterosexual community, particularly cisgender, heterosexual men, LGBTQ+ people are significantly more likely to be the victims of sexual assault rather than the perpetrators. Additionally, LGBTQ+ incarcerated folks are more likely to be assaulted and raped than cisgender, heterosexual incarcerated people. Trans women who are forcibly incarcerated in men’s prisons are especially vulnerable to sexual violence while incarcerated, though trans women are also vulnerable in women’s prisons and subjected to sexual violence by incarcerated people and prison employees. We also know that due to societal stigma and ostracization, some LGBTQ+ folks, specifically those who are multiply marginalized due to race, class, gender, and immigration status, are forced to find ways to survive through illicit means—means which put folks more at risk for entering the prison system, more apt to face harsher sentencing, and more likely to be victimized through sexual violence.
My experience growing up being taught to think that LGBTQ+ people were predatory is not unique either as there has been a decades long anti-LGBTQ+ campaign that falsely equates being LGBTQ+ to being immoral and sexual predators. And while marriage equality and anti-conversion therapy laws have helped combat the false belief that LGB folks are immoral and sexual predators, these falsehoods are still used by anti-trans propagandists to portray trans folks, specifically trans women, as sexually violent. The success of the falsehoods perpetrated by anti-trans propagandists has contributed to violence against trans women, just as the myth of LGB people as predatory also contributes to violence against the LGB community.
Despite the low incidence of sexual violence committed by members of the LGBTQ+ community, harrassment, assault, and rape still occur, even by people who are deeply involved and revered in our community.
An Open Secret
Lex Allen was a beloved figure in the Milwaukee LGBTQ+ community. They were an artist, entertainer, activist, and so many more things to their community. They were even the literal face of the Diverse & Resilient Colors in Bloom campaign that focused on self-love and resiliency, with billboards, bus ads, and a music video that they were commissioned to create. Due to Lex’s social capital as an entertainer and their visible advocacy and activism within the LGBTQ+ community, as well as in relation to their identities being Black and openly queer—identities that are all too often harmed by rumors of predatory sexual behavior—it was easy for some of those closest to Lex to dismiss talk of sexual assault as rumors and attempts to discredit their character. While there were others who kept Lex’s behavior as an open secret; something that everyone knew about but that went unaddressed. Lex’s behavior operated relatively unchecked until several survivors took to Instagram in January and created an account titled lured_by_lex_allen and shared their accounts of sexual violence ranging from harassment and assault to rape. The goal in telling their survival stories appeared to be to hold Lex accountable for their actions, in community, outside of the prison system.
These survivors took a risk in conveying their experiences being victimized by someone with significant social capital, power, and status, and it was undoubtedly traumatizing for everyone in the community. And it was effective, as many in the community were quick to act to hold themselves accountable for dismissing talk of Lex’s behavior as rumors and slander, and to work towards holding space for survivors, while also examining their own complacency in the situation.
In the aftermath of Lex’s behavior being exposed, and after losing their manager, their Colors in Bloom campaign, and nearly all of their social capital, they took to social media with a carefully crafted post of an apology of sorts that uses the language of social justice but falls short of taking accountability for their behavior. In their post they immediately attempt to discredit the survivors by referring to them as “people from [their] past” (creating distance from Lex’s actions) and referring to the incidents as “experiences with me that have left them feeling hurt and harmed.” It doesn’t matter how long ago sexual violence occurred and they were hurt and harmed—this language paints their stories as a matter of opinion or feeling rather than actually recognizing the harm of sexual violence. Even if Lex truly believes that the incidents were consentual and/or doesn’t believe their survivors, the language they use seems to purposely detract from the accounts of sexual violence by dismissing them as a difference of feelings. And in the next sentence they continue to center themselves through the go-to language of subverting accountability by seeking to “educate” themselves more and to share what they learn in community. They continue to center themselves by focusing on how it has impacted them even calling it a “struggle” and sealing it with a seemingly insincere, “I’m here with an open heart and open ears to learn and listen.” Nowhere in this statement does Lex admit to causing harm nor do they apologize for their actions, which may have to do with the very real threat of social media accounts moving from the worldwide web to the courtroom—even though none of the survivors’ accounts reflected a desire for Lex to face carceral punishment. Lex also does not center the needs of the survivors, and seems to passively imply that Lex themself was a victim of miscommunication and misunderstanding consent, all while using the language of social justice.
If Lex is truly committed to transformative justice they would be working not to center their own needs, but looking to find ways to support the community that do not give them any social benefit. If Lex was committed to trying to understand the survivors they would not prioritize releasing a statement that looks to absolve them from accountability. And also, transformative justice is a difficult and unfamiliar process for most people, let alone for someone who inhabits multiple marginalized identities that impact the way they are held accountable and the violence they may be subjected to by being labeled a sexual predator.
Unfortunately, Lex’s situation is not the only recent example of survivors using social media to share their stories and try to hold individuals in the community accountable for the harm they’ve caused.
In these Covid times I have seen several people take to social media to share their stories of survival of sexual violence, both in the LGBTQ+ community and in the cisgender, heterosexual community, as a sort of reckoning echoing the momentum of the #MeToo movement. And it has been both remarkable and excruciating to see the lack of coordinated community-led efforts to hold people accountable for the harm they’ve caused and disrupt the cycle of sexual violence. This issue is personal to me, not only as a survivor, but also because I have been hurt deeply by people I was in community with who have been exposed as having committed sexual violence—some whose violence was also an open secret. I do not know how to resolve the hurt that I feel in my community or how to move forward with accountability and repair. I do not know if it is possible to repair the harm that has been done. This is most likely because the process of transformative justice is not intuitive, it is not easy, and because we are conditioned to resort to punitive measures of accountability through the prison system/prison industrial complex and there is no one-size-fits-all path to accountability and transformative change. And accountability needs to be a community effort, with everyone in the community—including victim(s) and offender(s)—all working toward justice and change. But in the absence of coordinated accountability processes, how can we work in community to dismantle rape culture and hold people accountable in the LGBTQ+ community for the harm that they have caused.
LGBTQ intimate partner violence (IPV) & accountability
Although sexual violence committed by any member of the LGBTQ+ community is less common than in the cisgender, heterosexual community, sexual violence in the LGBTQ+ community does happen. And considering the many different ways in which rape culture, anti-LGBTQ+ propagandists, and the prison system inflicts more indiscriminate harm on the community, it behooves us to work within community. We need to find ways to identify and combat rape culture and incidences of sexual violence, and to create systems of accountability that work outside of the prison system and give agency to survivors. How can we work together to support survivors, keep survivors safe, and center their needs in healing? Is it possible to hold someone accountable in community and commit to protecting them from unjust harm? What responsibility does the community have in ensuring their safety in the accountability process? Do they deserve protection from harm? What responsibility do survivors have in ensuring that accountability includes being mindful of the safety of people in our community who commit sexual violence?
Like many people exploring transformative justice for incidents of sexual violence in community, I have more questions than answers, as holding someone accountable for the harm that they cause is no easy feat, and I am no expert. I have not been able to move past the stage of social rejection of the offender and warning others of the risk of victimization by the individual through “whisper networks,” but this is not a sustainable practice, and it does not work to change rape culture or the guarantee that the person won’t commit sexual violence again. There is no way to force someone to be accountable for their actions, or to make a genuine and sincere effort to repair the harm they’ve caused. However, not addressing sexual violence, not rejecting rape culture, and not working in community to find ways to hold people accountable won’t make the problem of sexual violence go away or prevent further harm from occurring. We need to believe survivors and support survivors—including survivors of historical sexual trauma who end up victimizing others—and find ways to give survivors agency over their healing. We also need to find ways to prioritize protecting our community from further harm by recognizing how different aspects of a person’s identity, as well as the wealth, power, privilege, and fame that they hold affect how they are, or more often are not, held accountable. We must actively work to reject rape culture in favor of a culture of consent, body autonomy, fighting the stigma of predatory behavior in the LGBTQ+ community by recognizing that incidents of sexual violence inflicted by a member of our community is not representative of all people who share that identity, and work toward community accountability and collective healing through transformative justice, as well as other paths toward healing that are identified by survivors.
Practice enthusiastic consent
A reminder for everyone: Enthusiastic consent and communicating with partners is essential for any relationship—but especially for navigating sexual relationships. There is no acceptable sexual situation in which consent can be completely subverted—even in the kink community folx know that consent is essential to any play, regardless how experienced the folx involved are, and regardless of participating in scenes that play on fantasies of sexual violence. It is also important to recognize that consent can be revoked at any time for any reason.
To my fellow survivors: It was never your fault. I believe you. I see you. You don’t owe anyone your story, but your story deserves to be recognized.
To those who have victimized others and wish to change (and those who are protecting them): Accountability starts with you, and does not depend on the person/people you victimized or your community to absolve you from your acts of violence. Your behavior must change in order to move forward, but you must also recognize that some people will not be able to forgive you. Transformative justice cannot be rooted in seeking forgiveness and absolution, but rather it must be achieved through at least a personal recognition of wrongdoing and concrete action steps that you are willing/able to take to repair the harm you have caused.
Resources for LGBTQ+ Survivors
Rape Crisis Center Serving Dane County, the Rape Crisis Center provides services to survivors (and their family and friends) of all forms of sexual violence, including recent sexual assault, past sexual assault, incest (past or present), sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation.
Room to Be Safe Diverse & Resilient’s statewide anti-violence program serving survivors of intimate partner, sexual, hook-up, and hate violence. Their program is designed to advocate for and work with survivors of all violence for individual counseling & advocacy, information & referral, safety planning, and support for LGBTQ communities in Wisconsin.
Freedom, Inc. Freedom, Inc. has advocates who help victims and survivors of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and/or sexual assault get the help they need. These services are confidential and free. Who they help: Low- to no-income Black and Southeast Asian women, girls, and LGBTQ+ people in the Madison area.
Resources on accountability, transformative justice, and surviving sexual violence
- Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories From the Transformative Justice Movement edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice by adrienne maree brown
- Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture by Nora Samaran
- Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather by Shawn Potter
- Love with Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse edited by Aishah Shahidah Simmons
- Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators by Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan
- Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture edited by Roxanne Gay
Stories and statistics on incarcerated LGBTQ+ people
- LGBTQ People Behind Bars: A Guide to Understanding the Issues Facing Transgender Prisoners and Their Legal Rights by National Center for Transgender Equality
- Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith
Jill Nagler is serving their second term as President of the Board of Directors at OutReach where ze has brought a focus to issues of racial justice and representation in the LGBTQ+ community, including co-founding and facilitating Reading Antiracism: An OutReach Book Club.