On Oct. 8, the conservative-laden Supreme Court will consider three pivotal cases that could strip away LGBTQ people's workplace rights. Housing Works, an organization that focuses on HIV and housing, has called for a civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court that day.
Just two days before the Oct. 8 hearings is the one-year anniversary of the swearing-in of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. Kavanaugh is a man whose age, race, and, broadly speaking, class privilege matches some of the teenagers and young men who were the agents of gendered bullying, sexual harassment, and violence in my adolescent life.
As the October dates approached -- and as the painful memories of my past started to re-emerge as they had one year ago -- I wanted to turn my anger into action and learn from those who took direct action against the Supreme Court.
A gay man who participated in the massive, 600-person civil disobedience at the Supreme Court in 1987 told me about the heroics of quite ill people in the pre-treatment era of AIDS. The protest was against the 1986 ruling saying gay adults did not have a right to privacy.
I kept wondering: What does it mean to find your voice and confront those whose choices harm you and your community, sharing painful life experiences -- yet the harm continues? What does it do to us when our agonizing stories of discrimination and violence fail to sway the dominant power-holders from taking steps that can create more harm?
I reached out to some of the women of Positive Women's Network -- USA (PWN), who raced to Washington, D.C. last year to angrily confront politicians supporting Kavanaugh. What do they recall -- how are they feeling about their actions -- a year later?
'Senator McConnell, Do You Always Turn Your Back on Women Like This?'
Around this time last year, I was coming home from Oakland, where I'd been visiting and working with Naina Khanna, Positive Women's Network's executive director, a woman who also angrily confronted politicians supporting Kavanaugh. [Disclosure: I am a founding ally of PWN and work closely with the organization.] As I was heading to New York City, Khanna was preparing to go to Washington, D.C., while raising money for others to do the same.
Soon after, I saw video of Khanna and other women of color confronting Sen. Mitch McConnell in an airport, doggedly refusing to let him be separated from their hard-hitting questions.
The clarity, persistence, and dignity of these and other women at Congress in those intense days is like a gust of wind that pushes me forward. To this day, I watch that video when I need to feel energy and the drive to go on.
But ultimately, Kavanaugh was sworn in as a member of the Supreme Court -- a lifetime appointment. So how does it feel today for the women who took those bold actions?
"Even Though Kavanaugh Won the Confirmation, I Also Won by Showing up and Opposing"
When the opportunity was presented for PWN member Jessi Mona Cartwright to travel from Houston to D.C. to join the movement to oppose the Kavanaugh confirmation, she cleared her calendar.
"Even though Kavanaugh won the confirmation, I also won in activism by showing up and opposing the confirmation … Looking at Kavanaugh [during the televised hearings], as sickening as that was, and to hear his privilege, reminded me that I have a voice and I need to stand up, speak up, and always, always fight back to the systemic injustice that is endured by many," she said in an email. "As Kavanaugh sat with a scowl on his face, I put a smile on my heart to know I could and would be a voice for the voiceless, the truth of my own power that I have within me!"
She said it felt good to be able to protest on the steps of the Supreme Court and dart into the House of Representatives and senators' offices. "Like minds working together to execute our voice of dissatisfaction," she explained. "No, we did not get what we wanted. [But] we got to speak loud and clear to what we did not want."
It wasn't just those who opposed Kavanaugh who were on Capitol Hill that week. When Cartwright encountered a young black woman who was with a group wearing "Women for Kavanaugh: black women and white women!" T-shirts, she chose to engage in dialogue.
"I [asked] why she had the T-shirt on and what was there to support?" she explained. "She did not believe the doctor that actually testified against him for the sexual assault, because [she said] the doctor didn't have her story together, there were too many gaps in her story."
Cartwright shared her own story of surviving rape, explaining how details can become foggy after many years. "You're not there yet," she told the younger woman. "And until you get there, you just would not understand."
Disclosing her age, she told the younger woman she would never forget that the assault had happened on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
"I can get no more specific than that," she noted. "Trauma, rarely if at all, doesn't allow the total pain to be recalled in the mind of the victim, no perfect recollection. If I had to tell my story, there would be gaps in my story too, but that doesn't negate the fact that it happened. It definitely happened."
The woman in the T-shirt didn't "really have anything to say after that," Cartwright added.
A year after the events in D.C., Cartwright said she recalls the activities fondly, in distinction to the day-to-day fear she says she holds as a bisexual black woman, explaining that "living around so much entitlement and privilege is traumatizing me with fear of who's next. What's next? Fearful to drive anywhere! Like I don't even want to go outside! The discrimination within my LBGTQ [community] and dealing with the conservatives, the privilege, the entitlement, and the judgement is nerve-racking!"
'I Became Almost Violent … I Felt Defeated. I Literally Wanted to Beat All Men Till I Was Tired'
Cristine Sardina, M.S.J., is director of the national Desiree Alliance, which advocates for the human rights of sex workers. Her email signature reads, "If you don't know your rights ... You don't have any."
But that doesn't mean it was easy to exercise those rights in Washington, D.C., as public buildings began to lock out protestors, or easy to live through the trauma of reliving memories of rape. Even after she got back home, she explained to me in an email, it took a while before she felt she had undone the trauma she experienced that week.
Her recollections show the rapid pace of protest during those days, as well as run-ins with those who supported Kavanaugh's nomination, inside and outside Congress. Sardina said she and other members of the Desiree Alliance stormed McConnell's office to protest Kavanaugh's lifetime Supreme Court appointment. Law enforcement cut off access to these politicians' offices.
"Protesting in the senate buildings and tunnels [which connect the House and Senate office buildings] produced an array of Kavanaugh supporters: elderly women, children, young white males, all sporting 'We support Brett' T-shirts/hats/buttons," Sardina said in an email. "We even had a run-in with an Uber driver who was ultra-misogynistic, asking us if 'we had real jobs' and dropping us off blocks away from our destination point."
She continued, "Watching the Kavanaugh hearings with my sister, who was gang raped as a teenager, and triggering memories of my rape at age 13, the D.C. trip flipped my fucking lid! I became almost violent and screaming out at every boy and man that walked past me, 'You're all Bretts!' I felt defeated. I literally wanted to beat all men till I was tired."
'The Experience Has Made Me More Determined to Stand Up and Speak Up'
Olga Irwin, a PWN member, said that, though she was arrested outside Sen. Rob Portman's office, her arrest took two hours, because Portman "did not want the media to see an invited guest that was in a wheelchair get arrested."
"The experience has made me become more aware of how the slightest thing in government is so important to watch, and to find out how it impacts all, and [made me] more determined to stand up and speak up," Irwin said.
'It Was a Very Raw, Very Emotionally and Mentally Draining Experience'
"For me, the Kavanaugh protests were a really strange time and experience," Jennie Smith-Camejo, PWN's Florida-based communications director, told me via email. "There was something incredibly personal about the nature of what we were protesting."
She notes that, like so many women, she's faced sexual harassment inside and outside the workplace. It took over a decade to recognize that one such experience, which she blamed herself for at the time, was actually sexual assault.
In contrast to the protests to save the Affordable Care Act, there was ultimately no "win" that happened here, she explained, despite the often-painful sharing of so many traumatic memories.
"The protests involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people -- most women, but also of other genders -- sharing some of their most traumatic memories in hopes that it might prevent another abuser from being placed in a position of incredible power -- arbiter of what is and is not legal, what is and what is not a crime, and how people will be held accountable for their actions. It was a very raw, very emotionally and mentally draining experience."
Camejo called the protests an "incredible show of force in the form of vulnerability," and added that Sen. Susan Collins' decision to vote for Kavanaugh was "not just another blow, but a betrayal."
"I think my biggest takeaway was that we can show up in force, bare our souls, and still be completely ignored because those holding the power refuse to listen to their consciences," she concluded. "A lot of people showed up and were vulnerable and kicked ass, and it wasn't enough, and now he's in power forever and ever."
United in Anger and Trauma, in Our Dignity
ACT UP's preamble said we were "united in anger" to end the AIDS crisis, and I've thought a lot about the power of that anger.
But now, I'm thinking about "united."
PWN is the first national membership and organizing group that has united women and people of trans experience who are living with HIV. It can be bumpy at times, but a baseline of unity and capacity to struggle together is what can help us make it through, and help us heal when we face trauma -- be it new, recalled, or vicarious as we witness the trauma and post-traumatic suffering of others.
Empowerment and re-traumatization can be symbiotic forces in our lives and bodies as we come together to fight. It can really hurt. But when we do it as we, it can break our isolation to be with others who have common experiences.
United in anger and trauma. That's the power of a network, the power of an affinity group, the power of a movement. United means that sometimes we win together, and sometimes we lose together, and in doing so, we hold firm to one another's dignity. And sometimes that's all we have.