“How many stories do you have to hear before you believe survivors?” I asked Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last Tuesday.
His answer? Deafening silence.
His bodyguard repeatedly pushed me out of the way, even as McConnell paused to shake the hand of a white man beside us.
I am the executive director of Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN), a national network of women and transgender people living with HIV — but you may know me as one of “those people” who followed McConnell through Washington, D.C.’s National Airport last week, as seen in a tweet that quickly went viral. I, and others like me, confronted McConnell and other politicians in airports and offices and elevators earlier this month because they refuse to meet with the people whom they allegedly represent.
What happened at the airport that afternoon is only one part of the story. Last Friday morning, I was among dozens of sexual assault survivors of color who occupied McConnell’s office during the cloture vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, chanting, “We do not consent! No more rapists in power!”
Friday afternoon, I was one of six people arrested in the Senate gallery and detained by Capitol Police for seven hours for disrupting Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) speech affirming her vote for Kavanaugh, as we attempted to make a desperate, last-minute appeal to her humanity and her own experience as a woman who has certainly survived patriarchy.
I will do it all again whenever and wherever I’m needed ― and I am not alone. As a woman of color living with HIV and the daughter of immigrants, I want to make it clear: There are tens of millions of us with a lot of skin in the judicial game. Women. People of color. LGBTQ individuals. People with disabilities and chronic health conditions. Low-income folks. People born in other countries who have made the U.S. their home, or who hope to someday. We understand that our rights hang in the balance and, for many of us, our lives are literally at risk. We are survivors not just of sexual violence, but of entire systems designed to harm us.
This is no exaggeration. The Supreme Court has the power to interpret, uphold and enforce laws in ways that ensure our democratic and human rights ― or it can entrench privilege and power for the already privileged and powerful. That’s why our message to Sen. McConnell was not just about surviving sexual violence. We also reminded him that he and his cronies are the past. We, in all our diversity and rage, are the future.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a wealthy, upper-class white woman, is a respected professor at Stanford. She was disbelieved, mocked, and threatened with bodily harm after she publicly announced that she had been assaulted by Kavanaugh and after bravely baring her trauma in front of the world. Dr. Ford still cannot return to her home due to continuous death threats. She was not only mocked by the president at a campaign rally, but 50 Senators, including five women, voted to confirm Kavanaugh anyway, in what was the smallest and most partisan margin for a Supreme Court confirmation in 130 years.
I watched Saturday’s vote from the Senate gallery. There are no words to describe how painful it was to witness survivors of sexual violence screaming about their trauma, asking to be heard by the most powerful, mostly white male decision-makers in this country ― and being physically dragged out of the gallery by security as the vote went on. Business as usual.
For centuries, we have watched these institutions promote and protect rich white men. Kavanaugh is the epitome of privilege, entitlement, and impunity ― yet Trump has cleverly turned him, and others like him, into “victims” in this story. What’s more, by elevating someone accused of sexual assault to the highest level of power, the GOP sent a very clear message that sexual violence is no big deal.
“We will not sit down and shut up. We will keep screaming. We will continue to confront our elected officials wherever we encounter them. We will not be dissuaded by the police or fines or jail time. We have a brave, bold vision for the world we want to live in and of what justice means to us.”
This is how institutionalized sexism works. When white women buy into it, they are also complicit, in a painful reminder that their solidarity lies with whiteness, rather than as joint survivors of patriarchal and racist systems designed to silence our truths.
Ask yourself: How would Ford have been treated if she had been poor, Black, an immigrant worker, a person living with HIV or any combination of the above?
As women, transgender people, Black and brown people, low-income people, immigrants, and people living with HIV, we know that the institutions that claim to “serve and protect” us answer to the powerful, elite few — like the 50 senators, representing less than half the country’s population, who voted to confirm Kavanaugh. We refuse to allow this corrupt and destructive status quo to remain.
So, we will not sit down and shut up. We will keep screaming. We will continue to confront our elected officials wherever we encounter them. We will not be dissuaded by the police or fines or jail time. We are survivors, not just of sexual violence, but of an entire system that was designed to keep us “in our place.” We are accustomed to fighting for our lives, and we have strength in numbers. Most importantly, we have a brave, bold vision for the world we want to live in and of what justice means to us. More women of color are running for office than ever before. We are working together, in the streets and in the halls of power. We are mobilizing our communities to vote and to make sure those in power hear us. We are the future, and Nov. 6 is coming.
Women living with HIV are five times as likely to experience sexual assault in their lifetimes as the general population. They are twice as likely to face intimate partner violence. Yet in some states, they can actually be prosecuted and imprisoned for “exposing” their rapists to HIV without disclosing their status if they are assaulted. For these reasons and others, Positive Women’s Network started a Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV, which will be observed for its fifth year on Oct. 23. For more information, head here.