Fighting for Survivors of Sexual Assault: A Trans Perspective
By Jay Wu
Last year, NCTE Deputy Communications Director Jay Wu was invited by the National Women’s Law Center to represent NCTE on a panel at the Women’s Convention in Detroit: “Fighting for Survivors of Sexual Assault in the Age of Betsy DeVos.”
In light of a new proposal from the Department of Education that would disempower survivors and make it even harder for them to seek justice, as well as credible reports Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually abused women, we are proudly running Jay’s remarks again as they become newly relevant.
Good afternoon. My name is Jay Wu. I’m the Communications Manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., and I’m a survivor of sexual violence on a college campus. I was heavily involved in advocacy around sexual assault while I was in college.
While I haven’t been as involved in the last three years, I was invited this July to be one of a group of survivors who told their stories to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and tried to persuade her not to rescind the Title IX guidance on sexual assault.
The guidance was rescinded just a few months later.
I’m here today because sexual assault disproportionately affects trans people, queer people, and people of color — and I’m ready to get back to making a lot of noise about it.
What additional or overlapping challenges have LGBTQ survivors faced in schools, and how did Department of Education guidance empower students to defend their educational rights?
Obviously, sexual violence is far too prevalent across the board, but our research indicates that a disproportionately high number of trans people are survivors of sexual assault. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, we found that nearly half — that’s 47 percent — of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.
We also found that transgender people are reluctant to report assault to institutions, including schools, because they’re rightfully concerned about experiencing further humiliation or discrimination because of being trans — all on top of the fears that all survivors face.
The Department of Education’s guidance laid out clear recommendations for how schools could make sure that survivors and trans students could do what they’re in school to do — learn.
Similarly, a majority of trans people wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking help from the police in any situation — and that figure is higher for trans people of color. We know that mistrust of police and the criminal justice system is why it’s all the more important for survivors to be able to seek support from their schools.
The Department of Education (ED) guidance around sexual assault and trans students laid out clear recommendations for how schools could make sure that survivors and trans students could do what they’re in school to do — which is learn. When the guidance was in place, students and families had the backing of the federal government while advocating for themselves.
With that guidance rescinded, schools feel less of an obligation to listen to student advocates, meaning that students have to struggle with whatever discrimination and trauma they’re facing, spend time and energy advocating for themselves, and be students.
Even with the guidance in place, many schools were still struggling to do right by survivors of sexual harassment and assault. What impact has the rescission of these guidance documents had?
As I said before, schools now feel less of an obligation to do right by their students. Title IX sitting on the books by itself, or even the guidance coming out, was never how we made material progress on the ground — progress happened because advocates made it happen, and the guidance helped students do that.
Now that the Department of Education has removed policies that help schools help survivors in favor of policies that re-traumatize survivors, it’s going to be harder than ever for students. Some schools aren’t going to backtrack — but some administrators will feel like they don’t have to take survivors seriously because of what the federal government is telling them. The law hasn’t changed, but student activists who are already tired and burned out are going to have to work even harder.
How are national advocacy organizations fighting against bad policy, and equipping the public to do the same?
I’m going to talk both about how trans students are treated and about how survivors are treated, because those populations obviously overlap in some places, and because ED is failing these populations in similar ways when it comes to enforcement of Title IX.
We’re recognizing that we’re going to have a very difficult fight at the federal level, so our strategies include going local and going to the media.
NCTE recently launched two storytelling programs — Voices for Trans Equality and Families for Trans Equality — that promote the stories of ordinary trans folks and their families around the country. We need to hear the stories of how people have been failed, and we also need to hear the stories of how things have been done right. We need to counter the lies that the general public is hearing from the federal government.
We have to fight on multiple fronts at once.
Storytelling and advocating on the local level may not change Secretary DeVos’ mind, but it will make sure that survivors and schools and school districts know what survivors’ and trans students’ rights are, so that we can mitigate the material impact on survivors and trans students as much as possible.
Obviously, we’re also going to continue doing what we can on the federal level. We’re going to make sure as many people as possible submit comments when ED opens up a public comment period about these issues, and we’re going to keep making noise where we can. We have to fight on multiple fronts at once.
What do you think are the most damaging misconceptions people have, and how can we all disarm these misconceptions and shift attitudes in our communities?
We need to be careful about how we talk about sexual assault. It is true that many perpetrators of sexual assault are men, and many survivors of sexual assault are women. And it can be very useful to talk about sexual assault as a “women’s issue,” especially when we only have a few minutes or 140 characters to get our message out. But that can be complicated for me and for other survivors who aren’t women.
When we frame sexual assault as a “women’s issue,” it can contribute to silencing people who don’t fit into the male perpetrator/female survivor framework. We need to have room for talking about women who commit sexual violence, and we can do that while acknowledging that in general, women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted. We need to have room for talking about men who are assaulted, and we can do that while acknowledging that men have privilege because they are men. We need to have room for talking about non-binary people in sexual assault advocacy — and in general.
On another note, opponents of transgender equality peddle a narrative of transgender people being predators. In fact, we’re assaulted at astronomically high rates. As I said before, nearly half of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This number is already astronomically high, and the compounding effects of other kinds of discrimination led to this rate increasing drastically for various populations. For example, we found that 48 percent of Latino/a trans people had been sexually assaulted, 53 percent of Black trans people had been sexually assaulted, and 61 percent of disabled trans people had been sexually assaulted.
What actions should everyone be prepared to take on this issue?
Very basically, listen to survivors. Recognize which survivors are being heard and which aren’t, and do what you can to lift up the voices of those who aren’t being taken seriously. We all need to hold schools to the basic standard of making sure that students can do what they’re in school to do, which is learn. We all need to talk with schools about how to rectify the culture and practices that lead to sexual assault, mistreatment of trans students, and barriers that countless other groups of students face.
Everyone should also be prepared for a public comment period in a couple of months. NCTE will be providing resources that allow people to submit comments to the Department of Education about their views on Title IX as it pertains to survivors of sexual assault, trans students, and those who fall in both categories.
Keep an eye on NCTE’s School Action Center to learn about our latest calls to action.
If you or a loved one is a survivor of sexual assault and in need of support, please visit RAINN for a list of national and state resources.