This article has been authored by Neelanshi Gupta, a first year student at NLU, Delhi.
April 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of “Sexual Assault Awareness Month” (SAAM). SAAM's main objective is raising consciousness, by increasing the visibility of both the teal ribbon which is a symbol for sexual harassment awareness and the context behind it. SAAM has put a greater emphasis on prevention by focusing on neighborhoods, workplaces, and college campuses. These campaigns address how individuals and groups can prevent sexual harassment by modifying attitudes and fostering respect before it occurs. Sexual assault is not limited to age, sex, place, race, colour, or religion; therefore, it becomes imperative that awareness is raised all over the world and is inclusive enough so as to reach out to each person on the gender spectrum. Ending sexual harassment requires a collective effort and responsibility from the whole society. It becomes easier to effect social change once we accept this idea.
History of SAAM
The origins of this movement can be traced back to the civil rights revolution in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, when campaigns for social reform and equality gained momentum. Activists for equal rights started to question the status quo, despite the fact that open discussion of the realities of sexual harassment and domestic abuse was scarce at the time. During this time, Black women and women of colour led the charge. Advocates like Rosa Parks operated at the intersections of racial and gender-based violence (a framework that advocate and Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined years later in 1989 as "intersectionality”. Wide social activism around the issue of sexual assault continued into 1970s, bringing with it, support for survivors and heightened awareness. The first rape crisis center was then founded in San Francisco in 1971.
Advocates had been organizing events, marches, and observances related to sexual harassment during the month of April, often during a week-long "Sexual Assault Awareness Week," even before SAAM was first observed nationwide in 2001. Sexual violence coalitions were surveyed in 2000 by the newly launched National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Resource Sharing Project. They polled organizations to find out what colour, symbol, and month they want to use for sexual assault awareness events. The findings revealed that the movement's supporters favoured a teal ribbon as a symbol for sexual harassment awareness, and thus, SAAM was born.
Sexual Assault and Its Impact on the LGBTQIAP+ Community
Sexual violence affects people of all ages and backgrounds, including LGBTQIAP+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/ Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Pansexual, etc.) people. Lesbian, gay, bisexual people and transgender individuals experience sexual harassment at equal or higher rates than straight people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). LGBTQIAP+ people face higher rates of poverty, stigma, and marginalization as a group, making them more vulnerable to sexual harassment. They are more likely to be the victims of hate-motivated crime, which often takes the form of sexual harassment. Furthermore, the ways in which culture hypersexualizes LGBTQIAP+ people while also stigmatizing their relationships leads to intimate partner violence fueled by internalized homophobia and shame.
Transgender people and bisexual women face the highest rates of sexual harassment within the LGBTQIAP+ population. Sexual abuse is common in all of these groups, and it often starts in adolescence or early on in childhood. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47 percent of transgender people have been sexually harassed at least once in their lives. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that American Indian (65 percent), multiracial (59 percent), Middle Eastern (58 percent), and Black (53 percent) respondents were the most likely to have been sexually abused in their lifetime. Survivors of sexual assault in the LGBTQIAP+ community often face high levels of discrimination on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity while interacting with medical professionals, police, shelters, etc. According to the same survey, one in five (20 percent) respondents who were incarcerated in a jail, prison, or juvenile justice centre in the previous year were sexually abused by facility employees. Furthermore, 17 percent of respondents who stayed at one or more homeless shelters in 2014 were sexually harassed because they were transgender. In the NCAVP 2009 report on hate violence, 50 percent of people who died in violent hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQIAP+) people were transgender women; the other half were male, many of whom were gender non-conforming. This just happens to be the available recorded data but there are millions of individuals in the LGBTQIAP+ community who are not able to report such incidents due to fear of social rejection, lack of legal protection, intense homophobia and becoming further vulnerable to these hate crimes as repercussions of reporting it.
Experiencing Self-Hatred, Shame and Guilt
People who are transgender have a gender identity that differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. The term "trans" is frequently used as shorthand for transgender people. Gender stereotypes are profoundly ingrained in society, and alleged violations of the majorly accepted norms are often met with hostility. Gender nonconforming children and teenagers face ridicule, bullying, and alienation as a result of their gender identity. Given how they are different from how they are perceived by the society, trans children grow up with an inherent feeling of alienation from their family and peers who are unable to understand or make them understand their feelings. This alienation that trans children experience often leads them to dissociate from their environment and isolate themselves as they are unable to resolve the disconnect of their anatomy and their feelings.
Such feelings often take up the form of shame, guilt and betrayal which makes them all the more vulnerable to exploitation which includes bullying, transphobia, sexual harassment and sexual assault among many others. Several trans individuals, according to clinical literature and biographical accounts, feel or have experienced stigma and guilt for reasons related to their gender identity at some stage in their lives. Due to their lack of conformity to culturally defined concepts of maleness and femaleness or masculinity and femininity, transgender people can internalize gender norms and expectations, leading to shame and self-hatred; this is termed as “internalized transphobia”. It is often characterized by low self-esteem, rejection, discrimination, negative view of self, loathing one’s self, victimization, etc., which takes on a toll on the individuals’ mental health. Not only do the trans children have to experience growing up and adolescence in an alienated manner, and in confusion but also have to suffer bullying, sexual abuse, guilt, and shame.
Facing Legal Challenges
Sexual violence against transgender people may be part of a larger anti-transgender hate crime or be related to other demographic factors including race. Unfortunately, there exist little to no legal protection for the trans community in most countries. In a Joint UN statement on Ending violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people the UN member states called for impressive action in this direction but what exists in reality is that just 96 countries, according to the new Trans Legal Mapping Report released by ILGA World, have processes in place to enable trans people to legally change gender. However, only 25 are said to be free of “prohibitive requirements.” which refers to certain requirements which are too burdensome to carry out and quite possibly discourage individuals from identifying as a transgender. That implies that in at least 47 UN member states, it is illegal to change your gender. The ILGA has categorized 37 countries as having laws which are de-facto criminalizing and discriminating against the trans community. Transgender individuals are often prosecuted under anti-gay legislation, as gender identity and sexuality are conflated in many countries without legal gender recognition. Therefore, reporting an incident of sexual assault/ sexual harassment or any other hate crime becomes impossible as they are not recognized in their country so as to even afford protection from the law. As consensual same-sex acts between adults are not legal in more than 70 countries, it implies that since their gender identities are being conflated with anti-gay laws, transgender people are facing the same punishments.
It’s been a year since being transgender was declassified by the WHO as a disease marking it as major breakthrough for the transgender community. Although legal gender recognition rights have stalled or regressed in Guatemala, Hungary, Mongolia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay since the last edition of the Trans Legal Mapping Research report in 2017, with the potential for deterioration in India and Nepal. Hungary also became the first nation to block and take away legal recognition provided to the transgender community by replacing “sex” with “sex at birth” in their official documents. In these kinds of cases, not only the authentic identity of an individual is taken away but they are left vulnerable to exploitation with no law to even report the incident much less any law in place to protect them.
In India, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement, decriminalized homosexuality which ignited a ray of hope in the LGBTQIAP+ community but with the passing of The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 this hope was shattered as the law prima facie seems to be in good faith but its intricacies are problematic to the transgender community. It requires them to approve their self-perceived gender identity by a government official to be legally recognized which hurts their right to self-perceived identity and right to privacy. Sexually abusing/assaulting transgender people is now a crime punishable by a six-month to two-year prison sentence in India. Whereas, when a cisgender woman or infant is sexually exploited in India, the punishment can be as harsh as a life sentence or, in some cases, the death penalty. The fact that crimes against transgender people are punished less harshly reinforces the notion that trans lives are expendable and of lesser importance.
However, all is not lost as there are some countries taking forward action to protect trans rights and trans individuals form further brutality than they have already experienced. For example, Argentina now has the most trans-friendly legal climate in the world thanks to the country's gender identity law. Trans individuals are now able to legally alter their gender and identity without the need for court consent or surgery under the new legislation. Argentina's new trans rights are only the latest in a long line of LGBT-friendly laws that include marriage equality, same-sex adoption, inclusive military service, and nondiscrimination policies. Countries like the USA, India, UK, and other Asian or European countries who have given some freedom to their trans citizens need to expand the horizons of their laws to also be more inclusive and acknowledge the hate crimes that they go through so as to protect them and put them on an equal level with their cisgender citizens.
It is no secret that the LGBTQIAP+ community is treated as second class citizens in their countries sometimes often suppressed under draconian laws in the name of politics, religion, and society’s perspective. This often leads to their exploitation due to the shame, guilt, and self-hatred they go through but there is a need to work together to solve the problem of sexual harassment in the LGBTQIAP+ culture. Yet, as a society, we seldom discuss how sexual violence impacts us or what our community's specific needs are for preventing sexual harassment and helping and caring for survivors of sexual violence. Taking inspiration from countries who are working towards this objective is a starting point for others; making laws more inclusive so as to afford protection to the LGBTQIAP+ community is necessary and imperative.