Thank You, Mr. Vice President

An open letter from It’s On Us Student Advisory Committee Member Harry Lewis to the Vice President on the 22nd Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.

Lady Gaga with It’s On Us Student Advisory Committee Member Harry Lewis and It’s On Us activists at the 2016 Oscars. Harry is a junior at the University of Delaware. He is the president of Men’s Action Network, a group that helps educate men around healthy masculinity in the fight against gender-based violence.

Dear Vice President Biden,

I had a difficult time thinking about how to begin this letter. As the semester moves into high gear, I took some time to think on the anniversary of the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, a law which you authored and helped to pass originally twenty-two years ago, I was acutely aware of the millions of voices, lives, and experiences that pave the platform on which I stand.

It is likely impossible to estimate the number of people whose lives have been impacted by this legislation. I think often about the power of words, which are themselves a series of letters, strung together to form paragraphs and ideas which have the power to change people’s lives. More remarkably, they often have the power to save them.

The Violence Against Women Act is one of the rare and beautiful bodies that does the latter. From providing funding for community programs that help educate citizens about violence prevention to the establishment of a federal rape shield law, VAWA was groundbreaking in the protections it afforded the most vulnerable Americans.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks on the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, at the National Archives, in Washington, D.C. September 9, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

In its most recent incarnation, those protections were extended to members of the LGBT community, Native Americans, and undocumented immigrants — all of whom are at increased risk for sexual violence. Amidst fierce partisan debate over whether or not these survivors merited such protections, you and so many others continued to fight for the dignity and rights of all those who needed assistance.

Sexual violence, as we both know well, is chillingly non-partisan. It does not care what political party you belong to, or what initiatives you supported. It affects individuals across the gender, sexuality, class, and racial spectrum. It makes sense, then, that supporting survivors should be non-partisan as well. But as many months made so painfully clear, it often is a source of deep division. We see powerful politicians who undoubtedly know someone who has felt the pain of survivorship place values on individual experiences. Who deserves our support? Our money? Our healthcare system, our legal aid? Who deserves our compassion?

The answer, of course, is everyone. Everyone deserves our undivided attention, our unflagging support, and the full scope of our resources. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, what color your skin is, who you love, or how much money you make. Every single American deserves the resources they require as part of their healing. Making that statement shouldn’t be an act of political courage, although it is. It’s simply the right thing to do. The Violence Against Women Act, for its part, helps to make that ideal a reality.

I know first hand how painful sexual violence can be. At fifteen I was raped by a close friend, two days before Christmas. I didn’t understand what had happened to me for years. I couldn’t explain why I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, why I was so angry and hurt all the time. It wasn’t for another two years that I discovered that what had happened to me was a form of sexual violence. I felt the stigma of being a male survivor, and of being a gay survivor.

I channeled my pain and my vulnerability into activism. I began to speak out about my experience and share my story with others. What became devastatingly apparent the more people that I talked to was the fact that so many individuals who I met had also gone through their own pain. Sexual violence is so common, so pervasive, that the weight of that knowledge threatened to crush me.

But one of the beautiful things that I’ve found in doing this work — time-consuming, draining, vulnerable work — is the strength in others. Our mere survival, our existence, is a powerful statement in the face of a culture that threatens to destroy us. The strong people in my life have taught me lessons about presence, tenacity, and determination. Every strand of my DNA is embedded with the courage of my mother and her mother before her and her mother before her. I have the men in my life who have taught me the value of compassion and grace, of vulnerability and authenticity. They are the ones that we do this for.

When we met at the Academy Awards this past February, I met your wife, Jill, and daughter Ashley. I saw the great care and tenderness you exhibited towards them and all of us that night. One on one, I felt an immediate sense of connection to you. Perhaps it was our shared affiliation with the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!) or our passion for holding men accountable for their actions and teaching effective methods of bystander intervention. But I think that it was our joint understanding of the power of individual voices, joined together, to make change in our world. That’s a power you harnessed through creating the Violence Against Women Act twenty-two years ago. That’s a power that I am, at twenty, just beginning to understand.

Perhaps one day I will have a husband, and maybe we will bring some children into this complicated world. And if I do, I will raise them with the knowledge that they live in a country with leaders that continue to give voice to the voiceless, to bestow power to the disenfranchised, and to fight for those who have no fight left to give. I add my voice to a chorus of millions, soaring in gratitude, for all that you and those nameless, voiceless people who have impacted both our lives have done to make this world a fairer, better place.

Yours in solidarity,

Harry Lewis