I’ve been feeling somewhat inured to the constant grind on the soul of people coming forward with tales of their having been sexually assaulted of late. Then along comes Pamela Gay, one of the kindest, smartest, funniest people I’ve had the pleasure to work with, however briefly, and her story has such a ring of familiarity and timeliness that people are speculating that she’s the one DJ Grothe and Barbara Drescher were talking about.
And to make matters worse, Dr. Gay is the one feeling guilty here, despite having personally done nothing wrong. She’s the one facing repercussions within the community for having spoken up last year about harassment. She’s the one being targeted for further harassment and abuse, and she’s the one whose career is on the line. Because she’s the one who has breasts. Because she’s the one who spoke up.
I am just fucking GUTTED now.
With ever increasing difficulty I’ve been dealing with issues of gender related to my career. Right now, I am struggling with hearing that an event I categorized as “A drunk ass tried to grab my boobs,” is now being discussed by witnesses as, “He tried to sexually assault her in a bar while intoxicated.” I had created a euphemism for myself, and having that euphemism striped away is making me realize that I have been hiding from myself the true degree to which I have been harmed.
It turns out the talk she gave at TAM 2012, while it was almost universally lauded within the communities, had some serious repercussions — specifically, endangering Dr. Gay’s career.
I did not give this talk lightly. I suspected I’d experience backlash for daring to admit that I too am one of those women who has been touched, who has been held back, who has suffered self-doubt related to my gender. What shocked me was the form and degree of backlash. As a result of this talk I faced threat of professional reprimand. Let me state this more clearly, because I admitted that gender related comments hurt my self esteem, there were authority figures who demanded I be punished. While my direct supervisor and the dean we report to have always made me feel respected and have supported me, there were others within my profession who demanded I publicly apologize; that I be formally punished for what I said. I was asked to justify my speech and name names in confidential written documents. For one nearly fatal moment, I believed that if the people in authority knew the truth, perhaps people in power would undertake meaningful actions to make my profession better for women. And I did name names and I did use specifics … and my words were distributed widely enough that word of what was happening got back to me nearly a dozen timezones away. When I learned what was happening, I spontaneously (and thankfully silently) burst into tears. I hid behind long hair as I exited the audience of the conference session I was attending, and I hid in a foreign bathroom thinking my career was over. Three people wrote documents against me, and they named a forth complainant. No one else came forward to back me up in writing, even though for years there were those who felt fine telling me it was my gender that held me back and that when they had power they’d help me. I felt I had to get a lawyer in order to make sure my career wouldn’t be ruined – someone to find ways to use the existing guidelines to protect me. I exhausted my (admittedly small) savings. I started working more and more in isolation. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I tried to hide in my work, and that alone may have kept me going.
The story gets much, much worse.
I am sick to death of this strange need to heap more and more abuse on people who talk about the abuse they’ve received. I am tired of this injustice piled upon injustices, and I am done with apologetics made by people who claim that we’re not helping the situation by speaking out against the sort of sexual entitlement that is so entrenched in our culture that being a victim of assault is enough to endanger your career. Speaking out against this sort of perpetual cycle of revictimization is the ONLY WAY to make it less socially acceptable. Someone witnessing someone in power misbehaving should not result in a third party — the object of the person in power’s misbehaviour — having their career scuttled. The person who committed the abusive act is the one who should be most proximately punished. This isn’t exactly a wacky, fringe principle of morality that I’m evincing here. So why is it so difficult for our communities?
A reminder to those of you who think we “Social Justice Warriors” should just shut up because we’re “not helping”: this is not about indicting specific individuals out of some personal grudge. This is about fighting against yet another miscarriage of justice, and this is about the behaviours of those individuals — not the individuals themselves — being unacceptable. If these people are unrepentant about their misdeeds, if others come along and provide apologetics for them and these apologetics in any way serve to further victimize the victims of these stories, then I’m damn well going to speak up. The only weapon I have with which to fight these injustices is my voice, meager though it is. So if you expect me to shut up about people treating each other so viciously — if you expect me to stop castigating so-called “allies” for abusing genuinely good human beings with such aplomb — you’ve got another thing coming.
If this truth — that the people you’re defending have done terrible things — hurts you in any measure, then perhaps that pain will jar you into action against those specific behaviours, instead of prompting you to circle wagons.