Sarah McBride wasn’t sure if she could do it. She wasn’t even sure she should. She watched that Sunday in October as her Twitter and Facebook feeds filled with stories from survivor after survivor — accounts that would eventually stir the conscience of a nation that had long refused to reckon with its culture of sexual violence. After a restless night contemplating whether she was strong enough to lift the weight of silence, she gathered her courage and tweeted those devastating words: “Me Too.”
Until that moment, McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and the first transgender American to address a major party convention, had only disclosed her sexual assault to a few people. She said she stayed silent for years because she feared she wouldn’t be believed.
“There’s this baseline level of disbelief that survivors of sexual assault writ large face,” she said. “And then there’s this extra unique barrier that transgender people face around this notion that … we are somehow so undesirable that people wouldn’t sexually assault us, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of both who transgender people are and how sexual assault works.”
While the perception of the LGBTQ community is that of increasing visibility and acceptance, especially during Pride month, it is a population that continues to face discrimination that makes it more vulnerable to sexual violence.
LGBTQ people face greater risk
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found nearly half of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in 10 was sexually assaulted in the past year. Overall, people who identify as LGBTQ are at greater risk of sexual violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
• 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, compared with 35% of heterosexual women.
• 37% of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, compared with 29% of heterosexual men.
• 40% of gay men and 47% of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21% of heterosexual men.
Left out of Me Too
While McBride found Me Too personally empowering, she said other members of the LGBTQ community felt their experiences weren’t reflected in the conversation. Some gay voices helped launch the movement — Anthony Rapp led the charge against Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual misconduct — but Me Too headlines were largely dominated by the stories of white, wealthy, straight, cis women.
There was a feeling when Me Too exploded, McBride said, that the people “most at risk of experiencing sexual assault and sexual violence” weren’t as included as they should have been. The stories given most attention followed a formula: A prominent female survivor and a powerful male perpetrator. Many felt these stories were elevated at the expense of poor survivors, survivors of color, disabled survivors and non-binary or queer survivors — people whose identities put them at greater risk for sexual violence.
“Queer people … around the world who are also chiming in — we have to pay attention to them, too,” Me Too founder Tarana Burke, who started the campaign more than a decade ago to raise awareness about sexual violence among women of color, told USA TODAY in October.
Discrimination adds to risk
Experts say reasons for the disproportionately higher rates of sexual violence are complex. What’s clear is that discrimination makes LGBTQ people inherently more vulnerable, said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“Bias and discrimination end up equaling secrecy and alienation, and when you don’t have support systems … that often creates risk factors that people who inflict harm on others are seeking out,” Houser said.
A queer teen who is shunned by his family and community is a more likely target for a sexual predator. A transgender person struggling to find employment is more likely to be homeless, which increases the risk of sexual victimization.
Riley Dawson (from left), Averi Holt, Abbey Wagner and Sam Legendre-Davis share their coming out stories.
The CDC’s risk factors for sexual violence also tie in to risks for the LGBTQ population:
• Alcohol and drug use (sexual minorities have higher rates of substance misuse and substance use disorders than heterosexuals, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse)
• Homelessness (in a survey of agencies helping homeless youth, 40% of the youth identified as LGBT, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA)
• Lack of employment opportunities (in many states, anti-LGBT laws in enable legal discrimination in hiring and in the workplace)
Myths about LGBTQ people are also important to understanding the disproportionate rates of violence, Houser said. For example, 46% of bisexual women have been raped, compared to 17% of heterosexual women and 13% of lesbians, according the CDC.
“Bisexuality is seen as a curiosity, and the way it is oftentimes presented, especially in pornographic connotations, is constantly willing, like you don’t say no to anyone,” Houser said. “I think you end up … running the risk of men in particular making assumptions about not being turned down and feeling entitled. … If we’re going to fetishize sexual assault against bisexual people or trans people and turn it into entertainment, we’re going to have a hard time taking it seriously.”
Sexual violence against LGBTQ people can also be a dimension of hate.
“If you have a person who is expressing disdain or wanting to dehumanize another person for having a different … identity other than being cisgendered or straight, sexual assault can be used as a punishment,” Houser said.
“Corrective rape,” when a straight person rapes an LGBTQ person in an attempt to punish them or change their sexual orientation, is an example of hate-motivated sexual violence.
“It’s the most personal violation you can perpetuate against somebody without murdering them,” Houser said.
Barriers to getting help
Discrimination also means LGBTQ survivors are less likely to seek help from police, hospitals and rape crisis centers. Some worry about being “outed,” and many worry about being discriminated against further. In 2016, 39% of LGBT survivors interacted with law enforcement following an incident of intimate partner violence, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Seven percent said the police were hostile and 12% said that the police were indifferent in their interactions.
McBride, who says she was sexually assaulted during her junior year of college in Washington, D.C., six months after coming out as transgender, didn’t report her assault to police and shared the incident with very few people. She said she remained silent not only because she worried people wouldn’t believe her, but also because initially she wasn’t sure what she believed herself. McBride said she had internalized transphobic messages about her self-worth, at one point thinking, “You’re lucky he’s even interested in you.” She also worried speaking out could harm the LGBTQ community at large, by reinforcing myths that LGBTQ people are “overly sexual.”
To combat sexual assault, states must have comprehensive anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, McBride said.
“We need to know that we are safe and protected from discrimination in accessing the kind of services, care and support that every survivor of sexual assault deserves,” she said.
Sexual violence is a too common experience, especially for women. But not every element of it is universal. There is much that LGBTQ survivors of sexual assault share in common with straight, cis survivors. And there is much they do not.
“[We need to be] taking seriously the entire spectrum of abusive and inappropriate behavior, which is one of the benefits of the Me Too movement,” Houser said. “We … can be inclusive for everybody. It’s not just how do you define this act. It’s really about what kind of behavior do we want to tolerate around us. It’s bad behavior. No matter who the victim is. It hurts all of us.”
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