In a speech last week at George Mason University, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that the department will be rewriting policies on campus sexual assault to serve survivors and the accused. “Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” she said. In the remarks, DeVos recounted the stories of young men who’d been falsely accused and whose lives were derailed by “kangaroo courts,” her characterization of school’s hearings on sexual misconduct.
For the uninformed on campus sexual assault, DeVos’s decision to highlight the young men who are falsely accused paints a picture that accusations are as much of a problem as the assault itself. In reality, her move pushes aside the focus on assault victims and survivors in favor of supporting outliers in these cases. In a climate where the leader of the free world has vilified the women who accused him of sexual misconduct, DeVos’s decision sends a chilling message to survivors that the imperative for them to report being assaulted is subservient to the concerns of the accused.
But for LGBTQ women, DeVos’s move poses its own set of challenges.
To begin with, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women face disproportionate levels of sexual assault compared with our straight counterparts. Over the past eight months, the Trump administration has walked back the rights of LGBTQ people by rescinding protections for trans students, banning trans people from the military, and, most recently, siding with a Colorado baker who refused to serve a gay couple. Together, DeVos’s decision to walk back rules for campuses and the Trump administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights push young queer women who face sexual misconduct into the shadows.
At the center of DeVos’s charge is an Obama-era guidance on Title IX, a 1972 law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in education. In 2011, the Department of Education issued a letter requiring schools to address campus sexual assault more aggressively under the law or lose federal funding. The policy required schools to institute an investigation and adjudication processes, and weigh whether an offense has been committed “more likely than not,” a standard different from criminal courts. In her remarks at George Mason, DeVos said, “The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.”
In fact, DeVos’s focus on accusations creates a false equivalency between the plight of this group and survivors. According to a 2015 Association of American Universities survey of 27 schools, roughly one in four women on campuses reported experiencing sexual misconduct or assault (though it’s worth noting that the survey’s creators have warned that this may be a misleading statistic since the schools that participated may not be nationally representative). Of queer students, three out of four reported being sexually harassed, while 9 percent reported that they experienced sexual assault with penetration, according to the AAU survey. Meanwhile, false rape accusations, specifically, are rare. Between 2 and 10 percent of all rape accusations are thought to be false, according to a report in the journal Violence Against Women.
DeVos’s emphasis on justice for the accused perpetuates the notion that survivors are unreliable narrators of their own experiences, an issue that LGBTQ women already face in other aspects of our lives. The stereotype that young queer people and especially bi women are going through a “phase” feeds into mistrust of our experiences. As a bisexual and queer-identified woman, when I’ve been sexually harassed, I’ve been told by harassers that they could “change my mind” or that they have the power to alter my orientation. Given that LGBTQ women are already navigating this sense of erasure, DeVos’s decision further invalidates our experiences.
Beyond campuses, of course, we face just-as-startling levels of harassment and assault. 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women have been raped or experienced violence from an intimate partner, compared with 35 percent of our straight counterparts, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control. For transgender people, one in two will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to the Office for Victims of Crime. As the Trump administration erases the experiences of LGBTQ people altogether, queer women who experience assault that is motivated by homophobic or transphobic bias will have even less recourse if DeVos undoes the policy.
Oftentimes, sexual assault and violence against bi and trans women is motivated by deeply entrenched stereotypes about these identities. On T.V. shows and in films, bi women are painted as overly sexual and unstable a la Basic Instinct or as moonlighting through the queer community like in Kissing Jessica Stein. Transgender women, for their part, are subject to the “trans panic” storyline. When their transness is “revealed,” at best they become the butt of the joke, like in Ace Ventura, or at worst, their identity is justification for murder, like recent comments on the popular talk show The Breakfast Club.
These stereotypes undermine the credibility of queer women who want to report an assault in an atmosphere where all survivors are already discouraged from reporting. 20 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 who were rape victims said they did not report because they feared “reprisal,” according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. There are accounts of women who received a torrent of hate and vandalism when they went public with their cases or even were blamed by their schools for being assaulted. Then, there are instances where survivors had to relive the trauma of the assault by recounting it over and over, while the perpetrators receive minimal consequences for their actions.
For queer women at colleges already facing an undermining of our rights, DeVos’s decision to walk back Obama-era policies on campus sexual assault gives even less recourse. In a climate that already blames and doubts women who report, stereotypes about queer women further perpetuate that we are not to be believed. Though an imperfect system, rescinding Title IX protections that require campuses to aggressively pursue sexual misconduct threatens to narrow the avenues that victims and survivors have to pursue justice. For queer women at schools across the country, this silences what little voice we already have at the table.