Tell Me Again to Come Forward
I want to tell you a story in trifold.
It’s really a series of stories, but for the point I want to make, I’ll ask you to hear them in unison.
All of them are true, taken from memories within my early advocacy tenure.
The first occurred in a high school within a principal’s office.
I’d been recommended as a consultant to support this administration in addressing concerns about student safety and mental health, and was asked to sit in on a staff meeting.
I’d just completed a set of listening sessions with parents and students and was sharing my findings.
What rang loudly were three themes: students didn’t feel that their physical boundaries were respected by adults, students didn’t feel that their confidentiality was respected by adults, and students craved spaces to connect with their peers for support.
As I shared these findings around a table assembled with about fifteen female school personnel, the male principal rested his hand on my inner thigh to express his gratitude.
The second occurred at a fundraiser for another agency that served survivors of sexual violence.
I had just testified in support of legislation that more than 60 survivors had testified for, asking for more oversight of police, transparency about information from prosecutors, and the right to an advocate.
Two female executive directors were bar tending, and the audience was a mixture of advocates and nonprofit leadership teams.
In the course of about fifteen minutes three things happened back to back. I was coerced into letting a male board chair buy me a drink, I was mocked for my testimony, and it was implied that I wasn’t informed of why this legislation would be bad for myself and other survivors, and I was asked if I would interview for an open staff position. All by the two codirectors who were bar tending and in direct view.
The third occurred on a remote phone call with a web developer with my Executive Director and Program Directors in the room with me.
While discussing the status of our website being newly built, the developer paused to openly flirt with me over the conference line, being so bold as to ask me if I would go out with him.
Each of these examples I described has three things in common:
1) I was newly in a position
2) I was in a professional, public setting
3) No one present found this behavior problematic enough to intervene
I could tell you about how many times I’ve been grabbed or kissed or fondled on transportation.
I could tell you about the fine line of passing as of age to students, parents and faculty.
I could tell you how complicated it is to navigate professionalism and patterns of behavior that are triggering.
But for the purpose of where I want to go next, let me share some church specific examples.
One occasion comes to mind while coming out of a prayer service in the chapel and being cornered, literally into a corner, by a male musician for a hug that lasted over a minute.
Another occasion comes to mind when I was sixteen of a visiting man asking if he could be alone with me somewhere. Other versions of boundary crossing occurred, as they usually do.
Another occasion where while walking to church from a metro stop a block away, I was approached four separate and equally creative ways. Requests to take pictures with me, to know if I was married, to marry me, to kiss my hand, to tell me what they like about me body, deceptive openings of needing help or wanting directions that became sexually graphic.
The many occasions where I have walked with a minor and someone has approached them aggressively, like during a Pride Parade where someone got hostile when I wouldn’t let them give an uninvited kiss.
Situations where people find reasons to talk to you, and you’re not sure if that inuendo you’re hearing is there or not, whether a compliment is meant politely, and even if not, if the escalation is one you’re prepared for in that setting.
I’m outlining the frequent and non-subtle body autonomy violations and forms of sexual harassment that I have experienced, because as we saw again earlier this week, there are consequences to coming forward.
The most obvious one: losing your job.
Reverend Dr. Amy K. Butler served for five years as the first female Pastor at Riverside Church in Manhattan, and her contract was not renewed.
Simply translated, her contract was not chosen to be renewed, which in layman’s terms means that she was fired.
Why was she fired?
Well, not surprisingly, there are different stories that will circulate to answer that question, because our narratives for transitioning leadership favors the institution’s perspective.
Institutions have two choices: claim mutuality, or discredit the outgoing leader.
But in 2019 we should recognize this as the head nod it is, and feel distrustful of any version of “there’s nothing to see here”.
Nothing to see here is never nothing.
In the case of Rev. Dr. Butler, it is relevant that she is both the first female Pastor to serve at a ministry site that has a strong tie to social justice, and that she filed formal complaints of sexual harassment that she experienced.
It is not the fact that she experienced sexual harassment that institutions don’t have compassion for, it is the expectation that they have a responsibility to take her experience seriously.
The Church, as much as we downplay it, is an institution, prone to the same sin of complicity in enabling harm doers to go unchecked.
There’s a tendency to downplay the harm that one opens themselves to when you bring your experience of violence forward, both their physical person, but also their livelihood.
And connected, the credibility that a community must assign to them in order to follow their leadership.
The other often not discussed variable is how one’s holistic experiences of violence, broadly, broadly defined, affect how they experience harassment, because too many of our fears are informed by things that have happened before.
Too many of us are aware that violence is multisource, institutionally preserved, and irreconciled with our belief that we are, and are in, safe spaces.
Too many of us are seasoned at surviving violence, having that violence dismissed, and having it occur again.
I offer this blog primarily as a form of emotional release and validation, because the gaslighting aftermath that follows these moments is so intense.
The pressure to sneak into the night and take your version of what happened with you is intense, and yet, we are all being challenged to question that response in ourselves.
To see the warning sign that this is an established pattern, it is not going away, and our attempts to outrun the visibility of our missteps hasn’t kept us out of the spotlight.
How can we be held accountable for the violence that our institutions are complicit in?
What stories have been marginalized, but aren’t staying at the margins?
What leaders have we asked to bare the brunt of our avoidance?
How do we galvanize so that leaders like Rev. Dr. Butler aren’t left to heal alone?
The take-aways of this moment are so full of patterns, and one of them is our inability to take their connections seriously.
As we will keep learning, we do so at our own peril.
This is not a bell that has even begun to be rung yet.