On Saturday, hundreds of sexual assault survivors and their allies marched and rallied in Hollywood, Calif., for the second annual #MeToo survivors’ march and rally. From noon to 3 p.m. that day, the mostly black and brown female activists spoke, marched and made impassioned calls for justice. What made the action unique was its intersectional approach to sexual assault, focusing on the experiences of low-income women of color.
Ahead of the march, Brenda Gutierrez, founder of the #MeToo March International organization, said in an emailed press release: “We’ve all read the headlines about the rich, famous, and powerful men accused of sexual assault and harassment. What about the survivors from marginalized and underserved communities whose stories have not been told and who’ve have been forced to stay silent?” It was the voices of those women (and even some men) that were raised at the Saturday march.
So much has happened in the 13 months since the #MeToo movement gained steam after the high-profile revelations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein made headlines. Women who had spent years speaking out about their experiences began to be taken more seriously, including law professor Anita Hill, known for her testimony regarding sexual harassment by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas more than 25 years ago. Other women, who had been shamed into silence—perhaps because of the denigration women like Hill suffered through—began speaking out. Among them was Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who accused our newly minted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both in high school.
Although Kavanaugh, like Thomas, was ultimately confirmed to the top court, women have not given up on speaking out and seeking justice. The incredible electoral successes women enjoyed in the 2018 midterm races are part of a growing movement that has the power to reverberate beyond our current political moment and, in time, shape a framework friendlier to sexual assault survivors. Notably, brown and black women especially broke representation records in many states, as did Muslim women, indigenous women and LGBT candidates.
One of the rally speakers, Karla Estrada, is an undocumented immigrant registered with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She is also the founder of Undocutravelers and is an immigration paralegal. She explained to me that it is crucial for American feminists who identify with the #MeToo movement to show solidarity with female refugees in the Central American refugee caravan that President Donald Trump has so deeply politicized. “Those women are fleeing persecution, sexual violence and domestic abuse,” she said. “Where is the Me Too movement in that?”
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Estrada also addressed the disturbing way in which undocumented women in the U.S. have become fearful of reporting sexual violence with the Trump administration in power. “Our demographic is more likely to get assaulted and raped, and less likely to report it to the authorities,” she said. As a paralegal, Estrada deals with many undocumented women navigating the legal system and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. She says she has learned that “women get raped in ICE facilities, not only by other inmates, but by the agents themselves.” She related cases in which women told her, “My kid was molested by an ICE agent and they told me, ‘Why are you coming to my country if you didn’t want that to happen to your kid?’ ” Estrada says that while she has managed to find resources to help her deal with her own experiences of sexual assault, many undocumented women lack such access.
Transgender women and men, while well represented at Saturday’s event, are nearly invisible in society as survivors of rape and assault. The Human Rights Campaign cites shocking statistics, noting: “Studies suggest that around half of transgender people and bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes.” Miliana Singh, who works as the health care and transgender services coordinator for the LGBT Center, also spoke at the #MeToo march as a survivor of sexual assault. She explained that among the challenges transgender women like her face is that they’re often not allowed into women-only spaces to speak about their traumas. But the movement she has witnessed blossoming around her spurred her into action. “Everything that’s happened with the Me Too movement has really moved me to come forward, because I recently just came out about my sexual assault,” Singh said.
Another demographic that is disproportionately affected by sexual violence is disabled Americans. Engracia Figueroa who has a spinal-cord injury and uses a wheelchair, said she was assaulted when she was in her 20s during her hospital recovery. She said that disabled people are vulnerable to rape and sexual assault because “predators know their prey.” She explained that “those who are in institutions, facilities or hospitals are very vulnerable to abuse.” Worse, she said, “Many people will not even believe them” when they say they have been abused. When I asked her what justice would look like, she said, “When you’re finally able to speak out about it and not feel that humiliation, not feel that shame, the pain gets lessened—because there will never be enough compensation.” She added, “Justice is when you feel that you’re finally able to speak out, and that maybe no one else will go through it.”
Although men are less likely than women to be sexually violated, male victims of sexual violence are relatively invisible in our culture. Civil rights attorney Hussain Turk marched Saturday and spoke on behalf of the many sexual assault survivors he has worked with who are seeking justice. But he also represented himself, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “It’s more challenging for male victims to come forward,” he said. “The toxicity of masculinity tells us that we can’t be weak, we can’t be vulnerable and we can’t be victims.” Turk sees himself as part of the #MeToo movement on two levels: as a survivor and as a male ally. “As a man who has male privilege in a system that benefits from and depends on sexual violence against women and other marginalized people, I have the obligation to use the privilege and power that I have to create space and to enable other people to step up and talk about their experiences and heal,” he said.
Recording artist and social justice activist Keyanna Celina, who performed at the rally, expressed her optimism for the growing movement, saying, “This is just the beginning. I see this becoming not just a movement, but a revolution that sweeps the globe.”