Why the Lambs Remain Silent
A #SurvivorStory by Jonathan
“The college years will be the best years of your life!” That is what everyone told me, and I do mean ‘everyone’: my parents, teachers, guidance counselor, friends, and the list goes on. The anticipation of leaving home and moving into my college dorm at Hofstra University, five hours away, was all I could think about for months leading up to the big day. I had received advance notice of who my ‘suitemates’ would be a month prior and even though I was a gay young man, I truly believed that my new roommates would accept my homosexuality given the more liberal area of the country I had chosen as my college destination.
At first, the brotherhood I thought we were all sharing was everything I had hoped it would be. Our suite was the ‘go to’ room until all hours of the night and while I was lacking sleep, I was meeting new and interesting people whom I would soon call my friends. During the first two weeks of the semester I was living the dream, but all that changed seemingly overnight and suddenly my dreams turned into nightmares.
It all began with slurs like ‘faggot’ and ‘bitch’ being shouted at me by the two guys in the other room in our suite and it progressed quickly to physical attacks, some minor and some not, when they were high or drunk or sometimes just because they ‘felt like it’. There were the middle-of-the-night bed jumping incidents that targeted both my roommate and me, as well as multiple attempts by one of them to intimidate me with a cigarette lighter, successfully burning my skin twice, yet luckily unsuccessful in trying to light my hair and clothes on fire (thankfully I was quick enough to grab his wrist and jump out of the way). During one of these attempts, another student who was in the room at the time had to push him away from me, making sure he backed off, at least for the moment. On another occasion the same suitemate stabbed me in the leg with my roommate’s letter opener and because he seemed to find this quite funny, tried to do it again as I jumped out of his way, yelling “PLEASE STOP” and threatening to report him to the RA (it was after this point that my roommate and I started locking our door at night … my roommate has his own nightmares from these two suitemates, but that isn’t my story to share).
Unfortunately the physical and emotional abuse did not stop but, in fact, became more frequent. Two different incidents were caught on camera, and one even posted to SnapChat (although Public Safety had no legal authority to confiscate these cameras). While suitemate #1 was slapping me across the face, suitemate #2 was videotaping it. Amazingly, even though I know of several people who saw this video, and actually witnessed other abuses, no one would speak up when questioned by Public Safety. The final straw occured on October 20th, just halfway through my first semester in college, when suitemate #1 tried to force me to take my roommate’s car (without permission) and drive him to work. I adamantly refused, which seemed to trigger his temper as he began yelling and screaming at me to do as he asked (this was the second act that was videotaped as suitemate #2 and two friends that were with him at the time found it ‘entertaining’). I quickly went into my room and locked the door. After reflecting on the living situation and my own mental and physical safety, knew I had to speak out — continuing to share a suite with two bullies and abusers was just not an option anymore.
The next few days are a blur as I spoke to the RA, then to the Asst. Dean of Residential Life, then to the Public Safety Officer, and finally to the Title IX representative. Everyone was supportive and kind and I really felt that everything was going to be okay. That feeling didn’t last, however, as I quickly realized that Public Safety had ‘emailed’ my roommates, as well as other ‘witnesses’ that I had listed in my complaint, and asked them to come down to speak to them later that day. Somehow I had pictured a situation in which each would be contacted individually and in person and brought down to the Public Safety office to give his statement. Instead the email gave them all a chance to corroborate their stories and to ‘threaten’ those who they worried would not stick to their script (I have first-hand knowledge of this as I overheard one of the witnesses involved being threatened).
From that point on, I knew I wasn’t safe. While I was offered ‘emergency housing’, I could go there with just an overnight bag, and mentally I was not prepared for the isolation and loneliness that was already creeping into my body. I decided to stay in a friend’s dorm (on the couch in his living room area) for a few nights until something else could be worked out, but that didn’t last when his suitemates asked me to leave, indicating that they just didn’t want to be involved in the ‘situation’. I found myself an outcast even among people I considered friends (who, incidentally, mostly lived on my floor as that is how we were socialized upon arrival). In tears, I called my mom and she begged me to get on a train home. Without hesitation, I knew this was the right decision for me to make. I consider myself lucky to have had understanding professors who agreed to work with me to complete the semester from home … I am grateful for their support.
Without the videotaped evidence or the acknowledgement of the abuse by witnesses, Hofstra’s resolution was to basically ‘do nothing’. Like most institutions, protecting itself is paramount to protecting those they serve. I was not prepared for this as I truly believed that Hofstra would protect not just me, but future victims from the abuse of these two bullies. Admittedly, maybe I was naive in that having grown up in a relatively open and liberal area where I could be myself without fear of harm, made me view the college environment through the same lense. So many tragic stories that I had heard about ‘coming out’ didn’t apply to me and while I empathized, I couldn’t relate to the same extent. Now, reflecting on my experience, and the actions I chose to take versus those I chose not to take, has opened my eyes. Although I could have filed criminal charges against my abusers, I decided that this would not be the best course of action given the emotional trauma that a long drawn-out case could present. Instead I transferred to another university, closer to home, and prepared to move forward without holding on to the past (or at least that was the intent), but like many others who have survived abuse, moving on isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I’ve been an activist for several years and have always felt that justice should prevail. Not filing criminal charges made me feel weak and hypocritical … how could I preach to others if I wasn’t going to push this to the limit myself? I slowly began to understand how victims felt and understood how difficult it was for them to face their abusers in court, or in any setting, as many did not have the freedom or luxury to just relocate to a new location and start over. The silence of these victims became deafening in many ways as I realized that their motivation for keeping quiet was so often misunderstood. Many believe that victims remain silent because they blame themselves or at least take some level of responsibility but I see it as so much more than that now (although victims do often assume blame that is not theirs to own). And while the emotional trauma of re-living the abuse also heavily factors in, it is society’s judgement that impacts me, and likely others, the greatest.
The term ‘victim’ implies weakness and vulnerability, like a lamb, that few are proud of and one that most are embarrassed by. In order to change the perception of society towards those that are victimized, we have to change the conversation to help make victims appear as strong and powerful as they are, instead of powerless. We have to help victims become the fearless wolves rather than the fearful lambs. The #MeToo Movement has opened up this conversation for victims of sexual harassment, but even more than that, it has helped all of us who have been made to feel ‘less than’ by giving us the courage to start speaking up. It is now up to us to keep this movement and conversation alive. We have to recognize that it is not just the bullies or other perpetrators involved in the abuse but also the institutions that serve to protect them, just to save their own reputation at the expense of a human being. While I continue to meet with a therapist every week to deal with the side effects of this experience, the greatest therapy for me is my newfound mission to help change the way we think and talk about victims. I refuse to be silent any longer and will share my story with everyone who will listen, not to show my vulnerability but rather to show my strength and the power to take back my life.