It is disappointing – but not surprising – that even accusations of sexual assault do not transcend the entrenched tribalism of American political discourse. Even in the age of #MeToo, when it seems sexual predation is finally having its day of reckoning, the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh have been filtered through red and blue prisms. In this time of hyper partisanship, even sexual assault is reduced to a partisan weapon—as evidenced by the crwod cheering President Trump as he mocked Dr. Ford at a Mississippi rally.
Republicans walk a precarious tightrope. Many have tolerated Trump’s behavior in the interest of broader, long term goals – chief among them, tipping the federal judiciary to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, they are still cognizant of the lessons from the “Year of the Woman” in 1992 following the Anita Hill fiasco and acutely aware of polling numbers moving against them prior to the midterm elections. They have to be careful in how they counter Ford’s accusations so as not to appear too calloused toward women while sustaining the enthusiasm of their base.
That base is made up primarily of Christian conservatives who have remained President Trump’s most loyal supporters. Their energy is critical to counter the predicted blue wave on election day and Kavanaugh’s confirmation is critical to their galvanization. Likewise, Christian conservative leaders who want to remain beloved and influential among their flocks have to speak strategically about the sexual assault allegations.
For these admittedly partisan reasons, their rhetoric toward Ford has ranged from churlish to dismissive to accusatory. Christian conservative leaders like Franklin Graham, Richard Land, and Pat Robertson carry the water of the Republican Party by attacking her in a way Republicans on the Hill or seeking election wouldn’t dare.
Christian conservatives like Graham chide Ford for not coming forward sooner or dismiss the accusations as ancient history. Roberts and Land dismiss Ford as a Democrat political operative. Kavanaugh’s own testimony echoed these presuppositions of a partisan agenda against him.
But these attacks demonstrate precisely why victims of sexual assault do not share their stories. They fear not being believed. They fear judgment. They often wrestle with internal feelings of shame and guilt. Their silence is the logical result of these fears,which are amplified by the collective shrug or finger wagging of conservative Christian leaders. But this pain is exponentially amplified for LGBTQ sexual assault survivors.
There are many parallels between revealing a sexual assault and coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming. They fear coming out because of internal conflicts, or they fear they won’t be believed and their intimate authentic revelation will be dismissed as trendy or just a phase, or differently after they reveal their truth. In so many ways, the fear that silences is the same, even if the catalysts are distinct.
A few years ago, CNN anchor Don Lemon unceremoniously came out as gay. A little while later, he also revealed that he had been molested as a child. Immediately, Christian conservatives seized on both revelations and conflated the two. He was gay because he had been molested, they claimed. This is a common canard of anti-gay activists. They profess they are not hateful because homosexuality is a developmental defect. Sexual abuse causes gayness, which can then be “cured” with “conversion” therapy.
This conflation makes it doubly difficult to come out as gay and a victim of sexual assault. Those who need to tell both truths fear inadvertently confirming an anti-gay talking point. They fear having their worst fears confirmed about themselves. They fear hearing their sexual orientation and victimhood derive from some deep personal deficiency that must be corrected.
We know these two things are different. Being a survivor of sexual assault and being gay are two entirely different things. Both, however, require a trusted loved one to listen, to believe, and to empathize. For this reason, the response of Donald Trump and Christian conservative leaders to Dr. Ford’s accusations are doubly hateful, doubly closeting, and doubly dangerous to LGBTQ young people. They inform survivors of sexual assault not to bother telling their truth because they will be dismissed as irrelevant, mistaken, or worse, at fault. They also tell LGBTQ people to stay silent or worse, seek quack therapies, because the abuse is used to confirm there is something damaged and in need of fixing. They perpetuate the pain of many LGBTQ people already struggling to disentangle their identities and their experiences. And they send the very dangerous message that political outcomes trump personal pain while ideology supersedes empathy.
We are all waiting to see if much has changed since Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas almost thirty years ago. We hope things are different for women and there are many signs that times really have changed. But for young people growing up in deeply religious households and unsure of how to be themselves, we know not enough has changed. We have to realize that the messages of Evangelical leaders are doubly insidious and then be careful in our own response to compassionately and precisely disentangle and counter both.
It is difficult, but essential, to be an advocate while making these critical distinctions.