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April was Sexual Assault Awareness month, and most of the time the narrative about assault gets lost in the heteronormative world. Unless we have experienced it first-hand, the images that come to mind are often stolen from the news and they are mostly man-assaults-woman kind of images. But a huge part of the LGBTQ+ community has experienced sexual assault of some form and is incredibly underrepresented. A 2020 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law demonstrates, in fact, that LGBTQ+ people are nearly four times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than non-LGBTQ+ people.
Sexual assault is, by definition, “any type of intentional physical conduct that the victim has not consented to”, and falls under criminal law, while sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, includes unwelcomed sexual advances and covers discrimination based on one’s gender and/or sexual orientation, and falls under civil law.
Sexual Violence and LGBTQ+ Communities
When a victim of sexual assault decides to come forward, it is never easy. Many fear not being believed, being pointed out as guilty, to not finding support; for LGBTQ+ people, it’s even harder as we face the risk to encounter homophobic or transphobic authorities and facing disbelief that sexual violence even affects the lives of LGBTQ+ people. But studies tend to highlight the contrary.
In a study dated 2006 called “Sexual harassment between same-sex peers: Intersection of mental health, homophobia and sexual violence in schools” it was found that lesbians and gays are most likely to suffer sexual violence as a hate crime than other minorities. For transgender people, the numbers are very high: in a study of 6.436 individuals who identified as transgender and gender-non-conforming, 51% had experienced sexual assault in school, and 6% at work; the rates were higher among people of color, which highlights the intersection between transphobia and racism. In another research, it was found that 47% of transgender people are victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, as well as 1 in 8 lesbian women, 1 in 5 bisexual women, 40% of gay men, and 47% of bisexual men.
What seems to be lacking, understandably, are the reports of these attacks. In fact, raped lesbian or bisexual women seem to come forward 11-53% of the time, while the percentage of raped gay or bisexual men coming forward is 11-45%. This is commonly due to the possibility of not being believed, but also the possible fear of coming out to the authorities.
Sexual Assault Facts
Your body belongs to you
Surviving sexual assault takes a lot of strength. In fact,
- sexual assault survivors are 13 times more likely to attempt suicide than people who have not been abused
- 40% of survivors contract a sexually transmitted disease during the abuse
- 42% of raped women expect to be raped again at some point in their life
- 4 out of 5 victims develop some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. These mental health consequences include impaired memory and concentration, difficulty in relating to others, difficulty in engaging in a relationship, anger, rage, detachment, nightmares, apathy, self-harm, suicidal behavior, sleep disturbance, and drug and alcohol abuse.
- In cisgender men, the consequences of sexual assault can include the contraction of STDs (including HIV), infertility, sexual dysfunctions, abscesses of the rectum etc.
- In the LGBTQ+ community, we are 6 times more likely to experience violence from someone who is well known to us, and about 2.5 times more likely to experience it from a stranger, compared to non-LGBTQ+ people.
What to Do If You Are Sexually Assaulted
If you are attacked and want to report the crime to the authorities, do it as soon as possible, without taking a shower or changing your clothes, in order for the medical personnel to gather physical evidence of the assault.
Remember that everyone deals with sexual assault differently, especially when survivors. Do not feel pressured to come forward as a survivor: you should do so on your own time and terms, if you ever desire to. It is helpful, though, to talk about it and process the trauma with people you trust: be it a friend, a family member or a therapist. Dealing with the post-traumatic stress can be exhausting, which is why therapy is considered a valid method to get through it.
A lot of the time survivors feel the need to connect with people who underwent similar experiences, which is why support groups are a valid option. You can find them online or through therapists in your area if you prefer to meet in person.
If you or anyone you know is in a crisis, these resources should help:
When I finally got up the courage to come out, I was living in Austin, Texas, and frequented a bar where other transpeople gathered. On one of those nights, I was seated by myself when a rugged looking man I would guess to be in his fifties sat down beside me. Within moments, he turned in his chair and placed his hand on my thigh, squeezing it tightly. I recoiled, but he hung on and began whispering, “Hey, baby. You look hot. I know you want some action?”
Before I could reply, the bartender, with whom I had become friendly on my previous visits, came over and leaned forward. “Everything okay here?” he asked.
Immediately, the man lifted his hand and turned away from me.
“OK,” I said. “For now.”
The bartender smiled. “Well,” he said, directing his voice toward the man who was pretending not to hear, “If there’s anything you need, just let me know.”
I thanked him, then turned to the man and said, “You ever touch me again, and I’ll have you thrown out of here.”
He didn’t respond.
“And I’ll see to it that you aren’t ever allowed back,” I added, whereupon he turned back to me and spat out a string of vulgar, misogynistic epithets, the likes of which were beyond anything I had ever heard. Then he downed what was left of his drink and stormed out.
That bar had a bouncer whose second job was to escort us girls to our cars. (There had been an occasion when a rejected ‘suitor’ had followed a girl outside and assaulted her.) That night, when I went home, I told my wife about the incident. “You won’t believe what happened,” I began, and then recounted the story of the assault.
She shook her head and smirked. “Welcome to my world,” she said.
Such incidents occur all too often. The issue was brought into mainstream consciousness when on November 19, 2017, Jeffrey Tambor announced he was leaving Transparent, the television show he had starred in for the past four years. The announcement came following allegations by Trace Lysette, a transwoman and one of the show’s cast members, that Tambor “made many sexual advances and comments” and, on one occasion, physically assaulted her.
I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise to members of the trans community, but the public is generally unaware that we are also targets of that sort of behavior just as much as, if not more than, genetic women. And in our case, those actions are more likely to escalate to physical assault.
The attacks come from a variety of situations and are more likely to be upon transwomen than transmen. Both are flattered when a cisgender person of the opposite gender is attracted to them. And real danger arises when a transwoman is reluctant to disclose her status, as that diminishes their feminine attractiveness to certain people. (Does he find me attractive because he ‘knows’ and that titillates him? Or am I so feminine that he doesn’t know?)
Some actively seek out the so-called ‘admirers’ who are fully aware of the circumstances and happy to play along in a kind of fantasy dating scenario. And there are some who seek acceptance on any level so long as it is seen as an affirmation of their feminine nature. (The online dating services provide abundant opportunities for risky liaisons.)
But no transman or transwoman should be a victim of sexual harassment. Regardless of how one defines themselves (transgender, transsexual, crossdresser, drag queen, she-male, transvestite, androgyne, etc.), the emerging rebellion against sexual assault needs to reflect the experience of all of us who are victims of such behavior. And it’s especially important that when it happens it is not relegated to the LGBT community’s media outlets. It needs to appear in the mainstream.
There was a time when John Lasiter convinced himself that he was complicit, that he somehow consented to the encounter.
Because it wasn’t a violent attack. A monster didn’t jump out of the bushes.
“I had a construction business, aside from my full-time job, and he hired me, hired my company, to work for him at his house, painting. That’s where it happened, at his house.”
“It was about 10:30 in the morning and I was hungry early for lunch and my co-worker went to go get us food. I was washing out paint brushes in the sink when I felt him come up behind me and just start kissing my neck.”
Even as he described the situation, after all the time that has passed, John couldn’t help but smooth out the edges of his attack. He didn’t seem to realize he was doing it, in fact.
“I honestly not once thought of him that way,” he said. “I was dating someone at the time and, let me tell you, at twenty years old I was so like that perfect angel where I’d never even think about kissing somebody else, let alone anything further than that. It was not even on my mind in any way.”
“I’m gonna be honest,” he said. “I think this is something that most people go through in this situation. I thought… I’ll just go along with it. Even though I was seriously sick to my stomach, I decided to stall him. Let’s go brush our teeth, I said. Because his breath was so bad. I wanted to stall, and so that’s what we did. We went to the bathroom. I put toothpaste in my mouth, thinking the whole time how do I get out of here?! That’s how intense it was. Like, as soon as I was alone he pounced.”
According to John, from there they moved back into the kitchen, where he had been painting. Still in a panic, he hoped that enough time had gone by, that they could perhaps agree that the moment had passed and move on with the work.
“So I started walking toward the kitchen where I was painting and grabbed a brush,” he said, “because that was my next idea, like, alright, thanks so much… that was… whatever it was. I’m going back to paint now and I remember shaking. It was the worst feeling, it was like my whole body was on fire because I just wanted to be out of there.”
“But when I got into the kitchen he grabbed my arm, not forcefully at all, it was very flirtatious — and I want to be careful and say there was no violence — but it still felt forceful, very forceful and that’s why I have to make sure that I don’t describe it as violence but it felt like I didn’t have a choice. It was light as a feather but felt like a chain that pulled me toward the couch, that was facing the kitchen because we’d moved it away to paint, and there he just started going frantically all over the place on me. And I remember thinking, this is the worst experience I’ve ever had. This is the worst sexual experience ever. Ever. And it really was and it still is.”
“He reached down into my pants, very forcefully,” he said. “I remember it hurt. Which added to my discomfort. I clearly was not into it, not even looking at him, I said ‘I wanna get back to work,’ at that time thinking, well maybe he’ll think that I’m professional. He’ll think ‘oh he’s really trying to do his job. I gotta leave him alone to do his job.’ But then he stood up and looked at me like… I felt like… it was horrible. I felt like I’d done something wrong. That’s where the switch happened, like a hatred, almost instantly. He turned his back and walked away, went back into the yard, started working, and my co-worker came in five minutes later and he was like ‘What are you doing?!’ I was still sitting on the couch, in a stupor.”
“All this time I was like ‘What did I do? What did I do.’”
Fourteen years have passed and, despite his best effort to put it behind him, John continued to relive the moment and battled internally the anger and resentment that would result.
Until the Harvey Weinstein news broke. Until we learned more about Kevin Spacey. And then Jeffrey Tambor. Brett Ratner. Louis C.K. (The list really does go on and on.)
A common reaction to undiagnosed trauma, he tried to avoid acknowledging it until he couldn’t suppress it any longer. The more he read about the high profile sexual assault cases from Hollywood, the statements of the victims especially, the more he recognized his own situation.
“When I heard other people coming out and saying the same things [on the news reports], it seems so cliché but it really is true,” he said. “I was like oh, this is a pattern that I’m seeing and this is a characteristic of these situations, and that’s exactly how I felt.”
John realized wasn’t complicit at all. He was violated.
The comedian Louis C.K., while accepting responsibility for his sexual misconduct, expressed an ambiguity in his culpability. “When you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question,” he said in an official statement. “It’s a predicament for them.”
“It seems so simple,” John said, “but it really is what turned the lightbulb on for me.”
And it’s complicated, too, because even though the gay community in Nashville has grown in tandem with the city proper, it remains small enough that you can’t avoid certain people. Especially if you want to.
“I continued to work with him for a year after that, at the other place” he said. “He was one of the managers at my full-time job, and I basically felt helpless because he so confidently treated me horribly. I drank too much at a holiday party later that year and he somehow convinced me that I did stuff that, especially at the time when I was that young, I just broke down and started crying in front of him, and that motherfucker comforted me! He said, it’s ok, John. Everybody’s a whore at one point in their life. I thought that he was telling me because he cared.
And I was like ‘I don’t remember doing that’ and then one of the owners of the company later told me, he was like ‘No you did not! You went and grabbed some Rice Krispie treats and sat in a corner by yourself.” But he [the perpetrator] literally told me that I gave… and named names and situations and said, ‘you went around and gave everybody head.’ It was horrible. It was horrible to think that it was true. Several people have told me that none of it is true.”
A close personal friend of John’s verified the incident, that John spoke of it almost immediately after it happened in 2003, and she verified as well the discomfort it brought him through the ensuing years. “I remember that John always didn’t like him going forward, and that person had caused him a lot of trouble. Any time he came up or we saw him anywhere, John always said to me something like, ‘I can’t stand that guy.” That sort of thing. It was ongoing from that time
More recently John said he was excited and honored a few years ago when he was asked to contribute to a local committee, until he showed up to the first meeting and realized his assailant was asked to join the committee as well.
“Part of me is thinking that even though it’s weighed on me for fifteen years, maybe it hasn’t even phased him,” he said, “but apparently it has enough to where these attacks continue with the defamation. And it’s really nasty stuff that he’s telling people. I haven’t touched drugs, or any kind of drug, in well over a decade, and that kind of stuff is being said and it just absolutely breaks my heart. It’s another form of abuse.”
“I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘what is your issue with this individual?’ I would say that I don’t have an issue and then they would go on to tell me that he was saying some very damaging and untrue things. The thing about it is… he forced himself on me, I pushed back, I resisted, and I’m being attacked again?!”
Still, John’s reason for talking now isn’t to settle any scores. He refused to tell me the name of his attacker. What he wants is a conversation in this community about sexual misconduct. It may seem a topic that’s beyond the pale, given our community’s historical connections to sexual liberation in general, flirtation and bar culture specifically. But the professional fall of famed Nashville publicist Kirt Webster proves two things about sexual assault: it isn’t confined to straight people and it happens right here in our own backyard.
“I know mine is not a big, fantastic story,” he said. “It’s just one of the millions that I can only imagine. But it’s worse than a fantastic story because it’s this emotion that you don’t even know how to cope with it.”
“It doesn’t have to be a violent attack,” he said. “It can be something that seems subtle and insignificant but the fact that it lingers in your mind and it turns out that it actually is a trauma for fifteen years is what the conversation needs to be now.”
“Because a violation is a violation.”
Like many people, Kathy Walsh did not realize males could rape other males until she saw the movie “Deliverance” when she was a teenager. “Pulp Fiction” did the same thing for today’s youth with its graphic depiction of same-sex rape, and the men in both movies were reluctant to come forward and talk about what had happened to them.
"Men are reluctant to come forward when they have been sexually victimized,” Walsh said.
Walsh is the executive director of The Tennessee Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence (TCASDV), which among other things advocates awareness and education about sexual violence. “I think people are less likely to come forward about their experiences with being raped or sexually assaulted by someone of the same sex because of all the taboos. I think it is very much hidden in the community.”
But men are not the only victims of same-sex rape. A woman can rape another woman.
“I think with woman to woman sexual violence that there is a real denial because we don’t want to think of females as predators. I think rape in the gay and lesbian community overall is pretty well hidden,” Walsh continued.
Rachel Cook Freeman, clinical director of The Rape and Sexual Abuse Center (RASAC), wants to help educate people as to what rape is.
“Rape legally is defined as penetration, be it oral, anal or vaginal. It does not have to be penile penetration to be considered rape. There can be woman on woman rape because there are other forms of penetration. Any other type of penetration by a finger or an object would be considered rape as well.”
According to the U.S. Justice Department, one in 33 men has been a victim of rape or attempted rape compared to one in six women. Experts say men are less likely to come forward due to fears of being perceived as weak or they think it hurts their masculinity.
“There are many extra barriers to gay and lesbian victims coming forward,” said Freeman. “Three of the biggest barriers are disbelief, denial and homophobia reactions. So many myths about opposite sex rape make the woman feel she deserved it. These myths are the same for same-sex rape. All victims have to deal with these myths. It is important to break down these myths. Rape is rape. Regardless of drugs, alcohol, being asleep…if there is not consent, it is rape.”
”We need to identify that it does happen,” Walsh said. “The more we talk about it and identify and demystify it, the more likely people will be to come forward for help. I think things like this article are important. The more we write about it, the more people will talk about it. It is also important when survivors speak out. It is so powerful because it lets people know they are not alone.”
Like opposite-sex rape, the perpetrator in same-sex rape is most of the time someone the person knows.
“You are more likely to see date rape, partner rape, or acquaintance rape than stranger rape,” said Freeman. “Also, rape can be a big part of a domestic violence relationship.”
This is not always the case, however. In December, there was a report of a serial rapist in Texas who had struck five times that the authorities were aware of. They fear there were more victims who were too ashamed to come forward. Also, there have been reports of predators using the Internet to find victims.
“We are hearing more about same-sex rape because it is often a hate crime,” said Freeman. “The rapist can be heterosexual or homosexual. The act of rape is not sexual; it is about power and control.”
“It is possible there are times people in the gay and lesbian community stay quiet longer because they are afraid to bring more negative publicity to the community,” said Freeman. “With all the myths of sexual deviancy and immorality in the gay community, it can be difficult to get people to believe that rape has occurred.”
“We need to create specific services to help the victims of these crimes,” said Walsh. “I think it is very important that people have people they can talk to.”
RASAC provides counseling for rape victims. “Every rape client we see, one of the issues they struggle with is relationships,” said Freeman. “One of the goals is to increase their feelings of trust and intimacy to allow them to have healthy relationships. Once you have been abused or raped, there are triggers that can bring back the memories. It is important to have a supportive partner to help recognize when that happens. It is important to recognize those triggers. Taking control of the situation is one way for victims to regain the control they lost when the rape occurred.”
”Rape is not biased. Rape is not gay or straight. It can happen to anyone,” said Freeman.
If you are the victim of sexual assault, you can call the RASAC crisis line at 1-800-879-1999 for help. April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month. There will be a statewide awareness event featuring David Keith, actor in such movies as “Officer and a Gentleman” and “The Rose”, on Wednesday, April 25 on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives.