Culture & Conversation Human Rights

#MeToo: Addressing Sexual Assault and Abuse in Social Justice Movements

Tina Vasquez

"Power always attracts abusers. We need to stop being surprised when it happens."

When Alejandro saw #MeToo spread like wildfire across social media, he thought it wasn’t for him. 

Ten years ago, a Black woman named Tarana Burke initially launched the movement to create space for survivors of sexual assault, particularly women of color. Burke has largely been erased from the current iteration of #MeToo, which emerged as more than 80 women accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault. On Facebook, Alejandro—whose name has been changed at his request—saw the hashtag only being used by women to talk about the abuse they suffered at the hands of men, but as a queer undocumented immigrant, he too had been raped and abused by men.
 
“[I saw] a lot of [cisgender], queer men getting called out for using #MeToo without acknowledging their privilege. I knew the conversation wasn’t for me, and at the same time, I saw queer men dismissing the fact that other queer men also experienced abuse, violence, and rape,” Alejandro told Rewire in an email. “It triggered me the fuck out because it did happen to me.”

While the two queer, undocumented immigrants who spoke to Rewire for this story used #MeToo to discuss sexual assault, abuse, and silencing, their participation in the hashtag raised larger questions for them about the ways the criminal justice system and social justice movements—two things often working in opposition to each other—somehow both manage to fail the most vulnerable people.

In a Facebook status accompanied by the hashtag, Alejandro, who has been a prominent member of the immigrant rights movement, shared that a little over a year ago, while he was drunk, a “community member” who was his partner had sex with him, resulting in an HIV diagnosis. Alejandro refrained from saying he was raped in the Facebook post and even refrained from that language the day the incident occurred. He now understands what happened as nonconsensual and calls it rape.

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Alejandro pressed charges against the person, who is an aspiring immigration attorney. In retaliation, the person called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Alejandro in hopes of getting him deported. A difficult legal battle ensued, with Alejandro eventually deciding to drop charges for several reasons: He believes in restorative justice; he didn’t have the resources or emotional capacity to continue the case; and harm reduction, for him, meant not dealing with law enforcement directly. Even as the victim of a crime, he feared deportation—an increasingly common concern, especially under the Trump administration.

There was also the fact, Alejandro says, that law enforcement officials openly mocked him, telling him that gay undocumented immigrants have made a practice of “lying over abuse” for the purpose of “getting papers.” What was being implied by law enforcement officials was that Alejandro was attempting to falsely obtain a U Visa for victims of crimes, which is both legally difficult to obtain and incredibly emotionally taxing for those who choose to participate in the arduous process.

For undocumented people, it’s like walking a tightrope, Alejandro said: Going to the police can lead to more trauma, more pain, more detainment, more deportation.

Local groups and organizers working at the intersection of queer and immigrant rights didn’t support Alejandro when he shared his story, he says. More often than not, they didn’t know how to respond to an allegation against a member of their own community.

“How do we offer better support systems to stop being complicit to violence amongst each other? How do we heal?” Alejandro said.

In the immediate weeks after the assault, Alejandro said he stopped reaching out, stopped going to therapy, and “became a chronic alcoholic.”

“Little by little, it ate my insides, and deterred my ability to love myself,” Alejandro said. But, as he shared in his Facebook status, he has spent the last few months “collecting” himself—and participating in #MeToo was part of that process.

“My [Facebook] status was cheaper than my therapy, and it was liberating,” Alejandro said. “I’ve been dealing with this trauma for over a year and to me, it was healing to tell my truth.”

For the most part, Alejandro says the response to his participation in #MeToo has been positive. He received many messages from other undocumented people who shared that they too were HIV positive or that they too had been abused by their U.S. citizen partners. He also received “love and understanding.” Some friends, who were concerned by Alejandro’s behavior around the time of the assault but didn’t know the details, now finally understood. After his participation in #MeToo, they made their presence known to him. Some even took him dancing, one of his favorite and most freeing activities.

Alejandro’s assault and the steps he’s taken to process what happened have raised larger questions for him, primarily about why queer men seem to have a hard time addressing their own toxic masculinity and why social justice movements are so ill-equipped to address abuse within their ranks.

Alejandro told Rewire that “almost every single relationship” he’s been in has involved violence and that social justice circles are “well-versed” on things like abuse. Yet abuse continues to to be improperly addressed when the accused is a beloved community member. 

“I believe that in order to find liberation, we need to invest in community healing and stop asking for women to do all the healing for us,” Alejandro said, adding that rape culture and toxic masculinity are subjects that women have long tackled alone without the help of queer men. When queer men of color in a relationship inflict violence on one another, not only is there an emotional cost to each, Alejandro said, but it also leads to the incarceration of more men of color.

Alejandro hopes that by sharing his story, he can convince others to invest in their own healing. He also wants people to recognize that in social justice movements, especially those comprised of marginalized people who carry trauma and lack resources to address it, it’s possible to be friends with someone who is both a perpetrator and victim of violence.

“I believe masculinity is so fragile in gay communities that we have to portray a strong and resilient personality” while internalizing and never addressing trauma from past relationships and family, Alejandro said. “We normalize our abuse, and I believe I have abused other partners as well. I’ve been on a journey to understand how I can be a better human being.”

These are issues Nadia Navarro is also struggling with too. The queer, undocumented activist participated in #MeToo, but didn’t share her own personal stories related to sexual assault or harassment. Instead, she used the hashtag to discuss her experiences of finding out that people she considered friends had been accused of committing sexual assault.

“I’ve seen way too many women and/or queer people talk big game about consent and then turn around and sexually assault people,” Navarro—her professional name—wrote on Facebook in a public post. “I’ve seen way too many feminists speak passionately on the issue of sexual assault and then give their friends the benefit of the doubt when they are accused of it …. But mostly what I’ve seen is people just pretending they didn’t know or that it wasn’t ‘that bad’ because admitting their friend was a predator was too overwhelming.”

Navarro said three different people she considered friends have been accused of assault and in the past, she has been partially complicit in protecting the accused. Using #MeToo to discuss how women and queer people in social justice movements can also be abusers has been challenging, she said, because she knows that women do not commit a majority of assaults. There’s also concern about propagating the popular trope of queer people as predators—a narrative not helped by actor Kevin Spacey, who recently chose to come out after being accused of assault by actor Anthony Rapp, who was 14 at the time of the incident.

Navarro told Rewire she is “especially sensitive” about this trope, but just because it is less common does not mean it is any less of a problem, or any less insidious when it is excused.

“It is rampant enough in my community that I have only ever personally known predators who were women and/or queer,” Navarro said. “I feel like we queer folk get very defensive when anyone in their community is accused of sexual assault, especially if they are activists and are ‘useful’ to the cause. This creates a contradiction where community leaders protect predators ‘for the greater good’ at the expense of queer victims of sexual assault, thereby creating a violent space for queer people/survivors. It makes me livid that they don’t see the cognitive dissonance.”

This system replicates the violence feminist movements claim to want to dismantle, while also silencing victims. Navarro told Rewire she has encountered instances in which victims were outright told not to publicly name their abuser “because restorative justice means leaving the abuser room to grow and learn.”

Like Alejandro, Navarro believes in real restorative justice—the community approach to justice in which the victim and offender mediate a restitution agreement, but not if it’s at the expense of the victim.

“Revolutionary language” can get twisted, Navarro said, and used to suit the movement’s motives or weaponized by the abuser against the victim.

“Social justice communities protect their predator activists the exact same way Hollywood protects its predator producers or writers [or actors]: They are admired, they are brilliant, they are useful, they ‘bring more good than bad to the table.’ We just think we are different because we think we’re ‘the good ones,’ but everyone thinks they’re the good ones,” she said.

Given that the restorative justice model can be exploited—and that three friends have been accused of sexual assault—Navarro has developed her own steps for holding people accountable. First, she said, she confronts the person immediately, and not with the intention of getting “the other side of the story” or helping them. The goal, she said, should be to let them know you’re aware of what they’ve done, and it won’t be tolerated.

But talking about it isn’t enough, Navarro said. Depending on the victim’s wishes, the next step is imposing social consequences—and that doesn’t necessarily mean publicly shaming them, which can reveal or draw unwanted attention to the victim. Social consequences can mean personally cutting ties with the person or, if the person is in a position of power or influence, ensuring they are removed from those positions.

Navarro said the framework for properly addressing sexual assault exists, it’s just a matter of actually following through with it and applying it to everyone—”male feminists, queer activists, [and] women of color organizers.” The activist said she also wants to see organizations put protocols in place for dealing with potential sexual predators in their leadership.

“This is the sort of thing you have to prepare for, because it’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when,'” Navarro said. “Power always attracts abusers. We need to stop being surprised when it happens.”

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