Of all the bizarre possibilities, one’s life sometimes gets scripted by the most ironic plot! And what seems worse, is that some of the twisted plots happen in loops (in different contexts to different people in India). Imagine you are a gay man or a transgender or queer person in an educational setting, and a (cis) woman – a person whose gender you are not even attracted to – files a sexual harassment complaint that you would least likely imagine possible. Suddenly everything seems utterly worthless. Everyone around is baying for your blood and life turns toxic.
The mechanisms and resources we create for the safety of women at workplaces and educational institutions need to be reserved for real cases of sexual assault or harassment. Sometimes, situations of perceived violence get misconstrued as real acts of violence. For example, the rejection experienced when a demand – either for sex or a relationship – is turned down, can be so real and so traumatic for that person, that it is misconstrued as actual hostility or violence. Moments of rejection impact our psyches in such indelible ways that any memory can trigger a perception of heightened violence towards ourselves or others. A kiss or embrace that was earlier welcomed can later be considered as an assault or harassment, because the person feels violated that their needs or desires were not met. Or in another instance, a conversation between two people (where the meanings are understood differently) may get re-construed as an act of abuse or hostility post facto.
Though harassment and sexual harassment differ, they tend to get conflated. Following from the earlier examples, if a (gay, transgender or queer) person who repeatedly rejected a woman’s requests for sex or a relationship, loses their temper and has an argument with the woman, or, if the meaning understood from a conversation is perceived by the woman as a violation of one’s personhood, are these instances of sexual harassment or are these cases of harassment or are they somewhere in-between? Possibly, what constitutes sexual harassment is open to interpretation and what might have been okay (or understandable) between two persons earlier, might later be perceived as violence or as sexual harassment, depending on how a person remembers or is socially expected to remember a situation. So, can perceived violence be regarded in the same manner and degree as a real act of violence? Each of these instances and contexts have to be examined before deciding who is innocent or guilty. We hope that each of these seemingly singular examples of false accusations can manifest the limitedness of the so-called mechanisms of safety.
Gay, transgender or queer persons are subject to charges of sexually harassing (cis) women. For unsolicited or unrequited advances from women, gay, transgender or queer persons find themselves victims of circumstances where they do not have any control. The false accusation, the subjection to social shame and abuse for being an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment, the onus of proving one’s not-being-guilty, the witnessing of friends or even unknown people having to take sides (for or against), and the coming to terms with one’s new found ‘reality’ are part of the fallout that the accused person has to deal with. The attack against one’s personhood, especially for harms that one did not commit, is traumatic and makes one unable to gather one’s cognitive, emotional and social resources to defend oneself.
Trauma is also experienced by lesbian, gay, transgender or queer survivors of actual cases of sexual harassment. The experience of sexual violence added with social stigma can be further traumatic and debilitating. They require a lot of courage to speak up and to subject themselves to the societal ridicule and shame that unfortunately seem inevitable.
What is often understated is the grit needed for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people to be themselves. There are different masculinities, femininities and trans identities vying to exist and often the nuances of individual struggle and hardship get subsumed under broader labels of ‘man’ ‘woman’ and ‘transgender.’
There are some questions worth pondering on while adjudicating cases of sexual harassment in institutions. Is a gay man privileged by virtue of being a man? Is a woman less privileged for being a woman? Do transgender and queer people have to fit into labels of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ before society decides who is worthy of justice? While we are conditioned to believe that all men have the same privileges and all women and persons of other genders have less of the privileges that men have, that may not always be so. How do we ensure which acts of sexual harassment and assault are real and which are perceived or imagined or can we hold that an experience is different for different people, and that its remembering is often a changing fact? Is the role of the adjudicating body solely to determine innocence and guilt? Were those bodies not imagined precisely because of the recognition of the complexity of gender and of what constitutes the ‘sexual’?
As feminists, we want to ensure equity among people of all genders and sexualities. We acknowledge that not all claims of sexual harassment are necessarily true. We are vulnerable, fragile and deserving of love and rejection as anyone else. A rejection of an offer of a relationship or a sexual act cannot be equated with the same degree of violence as a sexual assault. Any news of sexual assault or harassment triggers feelings of anger, violation and resentment in most of us. Yet, how does one ascertain that every single claim is true? Every time an innocent person is wrongfully accused or condemned, it erodes and ruptures our trust in a system which had promised hope.
While the law creates provisions for justice for cases of women who have been subject to sexual harassment and exploitation, how does one ensure that those people who have less social power do not become victims of the law? Why is it easier to accuse vulnerable gay men or transgender or queer people (who may be perceived as non-aggressive) than powerful cis straight men? What are the avenues for justice for those wrongfully accused of sexual harassment? How do false #MeToo accusations commit violence when they target people whose vulnerability and marginalisation are not visible? Why is it easier to negate the transgender identity of a person to subject them to cases of sexual harassment by categorising them as ‘men’? Are we programmed to making judgements based solely on gender lines? Is it true that all women are innocent and victims, and all men (straight, gay, cis, trans or queer) guilty in cases of sexual harassment against women? In ‘woke’ spaces, do women have more of a voice and a claim to safety than people of other marginalised groups? Within the context of university settings where students have to share common physical and digital spaces, how can the right to respectfully have access to these spaces be asserted by those from marginalised groups, including those accused of harassment even while other people (not necessarily the complainant) may claim to feel threatened by their physical or online presence? How do university spaces create mechanisms for the accuser and the accused to meet their needs post a sexual harassment complaint, going beyond the mandatory process of merely deciding who is guilty or innocent?
In an ideal world, every person is worthy of justice. Each person is singularly embedded in a social system where power is steeply misaligned along social, gender, caste, sexuality, class, and other lines. One way of exercising social power is through false accusations to deprive or destroy another. For a person wrongly accused of sexual harassment, regaining a life free of stigma and marginalisation is almost an impossibility.
So how do gay, transgender and queer people reclaim their space after a false allegation of sexual harassment?
- Suffer (or accept their situation)
- Hopefully heal with time
- Build a support system
- Make their voice heard
- Pursue justice (sometimes creatively by creating forums to voice their grievance)
This is neither enough nor fair.
It is time that educational institutions and work spaces have mechanisms to address these misalignments of power. There need to be ways to account for the intersectional and multidimensional identities of each of the persons involved, the complainant as well as the person being complained about. We need spaces where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people’s voices are heard. In times, where information is shared so rapidly, it is important that all people have an equal opportunity to share information from their points-of-view. This is almost impossible in the digital spaces where only some voices gain primacy and legitimacy. Those who are rendered vulnerable due to their gender or sexuality, particularly those who are economically and socially disadvantaged (or less powerful) and lack the agency to speak up for themselves, are more prone to allegations, social ostracism and marginalisation. We need humane spaces within institutions to examine each case in its particular context, and be respectful to all the people involved.
 Also, the laws which define these terms may vary in different countries; for example, in a sexual harassment case, the victim includes persons of any gender in the United States, while in India, it refers only to women.
Cover Image: Unsplash