by Princess Harmony Rodriguez
A popular cultural myth is that education is the great equalizer, but how can educational institutions fulfil that role if, along the way, people of color, women, and queer people aren’t able to survive the journey towards getting it? Higher education oftentimes re-traumatizes survivors of gender-based violence, victimized in the process of getting their degree, by invalidating our stories and denying our experiences.
Over the course of the past few years, the campus anti-violence movement has been invigorated, with more survivors coming forward, sharing their stories, and working to make their campuses accountable to survivors and their loved ones. It’s undeniable that this movement is necessary – the academy remains a hostile site of oppression for people of color, LGBTQ people, and women. Yet, our campus anti-violence movement still lacks the critical element necessary to transform universities from places of rape culture and racism to places of safety: QTPOC voices and leadership.
There are survivors all over the country who are seeing the movement take place all around them and are rising to claim justice which is rightfully owed to them. In this sea of survivors clamoring for change, there’s a media focus on a particular type of survivor: a cis, white (or white-passing), heterosexual woman. Those of us who don’t fit into those particular boxes aren’t given the same treatment or attention as the “ideal” survivor.
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When I talk about the “ideal” survivor, I don’t simply mean a white cisgender heterosexual woman. While that’s a part of it, respectability politics play a central role in what makes someone “ideal” to the media and to some in the movement. The patriarchy has always delivered the message that there are “innocent” people who get raped and are worthy of dignity but that there are others who are deserving of rape or cannot be raped. Typically, people who were date raped, trans women, and women of color have fallen into the category of “other”. There are many who believe those lies, and many more who believe that the only legitimate form of rape is that perpetrated by a stranger. However, survivors are not all the same; there are many survivors who don’t get to have their story heard, because they don’t get the space or attention to tell it.
Even what makes one a survivor is different between each person. Not every survivor in the movement was raped. Some were stalked, physically, verbally or emotionally abused in relationships, sexually harassed at school, work or on the streets, or had other horrifying experiences. Our movement is diverse because the people in it are diverse and because our mission requires it to be diverse.
While the campus anti-violence movement has been led primarily by enterprising and intelligent people all across the spectrum of race, sexuality, and gender, one of the primary weapons for change has been the media. From websites like Feministing and Jezebel to networks like MSNBC, the movement to fight rape culture on college campuses has been featured on almost all forms of media, and received so much attention that even the White House was forced to respond with a campaign for survivors, Not Alone, and one for anti-violent men, It’s On Us.
While classic activism, such as rallies and teach-ins, are very useful in this movement, they aren’t always enough to make universities change. The media, on the other hand, is the most helpful and useful weapon because it has the power to share our stories with the world and threaten the university’s brand. Unfortunately, the media also helps shape the problematic image of the “ideal survivor”. Sometimes reporters ask to hear survivors’ stories, including my own and those of other QTPOC survivors, and then reject our stories upon hearing who and what we are. We must always remember that the media shapes the narrative and, in doing so, shapes the movement. We can celebrate those true allies we have in the media, because there are quite a few, but we must also challenge media which is destructive and hurtful.
The movement to fight gender-based violence on college campuses is a movement that requires the voices of all survivors to be successful, not just the “ideal” survivor. If the media is successful in shaping the narrative of the movement to fit the patriarchal views of rape and gender-based violence survivors, then the movement is doomed to fail. In order to be in true solidarity with all survivors, it’s necessary to start centering QTPOC experiences of gender-based violence in the academy. Equally important is holding accountable those supposed ally journalists who (knowingly or unknowingly) ignore QTPOC and other survivors considered not “ideal”. If you know that a member of the media frequently ignores survivors of color and queer survivors, call them out on it. Someone who perpetuates myths and erasure isn’t an ally to this movement. If anything, they are what we have to challenge and fight against.
Many of us joined the campus anti-violence movement because we experienced the pain of institutional betrayal. When our university ignores or punishes us after we report gender-based violence or harassment, our movement and community should not betray us as well.
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Princess is an afro-latin trans woman, survivor of childhood and adult sexual violence, creator, otaku, and anti-violence activist. Her writing has been published on The Feminist Wire, Feministing, Black Girl Dangerous, Know Your IX, and FeministaJones.com.