Last Thursday morning I received an unbelievable shock when I learned what all of Seattle would be struggling with for the weeks and months to come: three people had accused Mayor Ed Murray of sexually abusing them as teens. In the days that followed, I have struggled—both as a survivor of teenage sexual assault and as a queer person—to reconcile my own personal experience of the mayor with the man I was reading about in the paper in gut-wrenching detail.
So I did what many others in Seattle did. I urged people close to me not rush to judgement. I told the Seattle Times that people should be focused on supporting survivors who were probably reliving the abuse they had experienced. I stayed up at night hoping that the press and the mayor’s team would leave this up to a court of law to sort out.
What became obvious as the news cycle unfolded was that we have not learned from the lessons of the past. Generated from the lawsuit filed against Mayor Murray, the press shared graphic details about the mayor’s genitals, and the mayor’s team responded in kind. We learned that the mayor’s former lawyer used the details of alleged survivors’ past experiences with the justice system to suggest people who have these experiences can’t be trusted. Then, the mayor himself cited his alleged victims’ past experiences with our deeply racist criminal justice system, as if their criminal histories as adults would prove the mayor was not guilty of molesting them as teens. While Ed Murray couched his conspiracy-centered attempt to discredit his accusers in a tone of “not saying, just saying,” he has still never fully answered questions about the nature of his relationship to these men.
Within all of this, I have tried to remind myself of the things I’ve come to learn about gender-based violence, both in my capacity as a professional advocate for survivors and a survivor myself:
1. Abuse happens when there is a substantial imbalance in power between the survivor and abuser.
2. 93% of all juvenile sex abuse cases are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.
3. Abuse is tragically common: one in five girls and one in 20 boys will experience child sexual abuse.
4. Abuse is about power, not about sex.
5. False child sex abuse accusations are exceedingly rare, estimated between less than 1% to (at the highest) 10%, and are almost always related to a custody dispute.
6. Significantly fewer male sexual abuse survivors ever report the abuse to authorities.
7. Surviving abuse is messy. Survivors’ relationships with abusers are not always clear-cut, as they often love their abusers.
8. There are no perfect survivors. Survivors employ many mechanisms to cope with abuse, including substance use, running away, or getting in trouble. Survivors have lifelong negative behavioral and health outcomes.
9. Abusers hide in plain sight and are not always “monsters.” People who engage in abuse are not always the monsters we would like them to be: easy to spot, creepy-looking, or known to everyone.
I know Mayor Ed Murray and his husband. I shook Murray’s hand and made small talk with him the Monday before the news broke.
I want to believe the mayor, to believe that all the allegations against him are a conspiracy. But I also want to believe the survivors, to believe that they have struggled for decades with this pain and are telling the truth.
I’m a survivor. I know how it feels to not be believed, and Mayor Murray’s accusers’ descriptions of their alleged abuse haunt me, as if I wrote them myself. Like so many others, I am torn, vacillating between two impossible beliefs and operating on imperfect information. I have been paralyzed and terrified to say anything publicly or be seen to “choose a side” before all the facts are known.
Despite all of us desperately wanting the truth so we can simply move on, it may take years for the truth to be known. Ultimately, I still believe this is a case best left tried in a court of law, not the court of public opinion.
No one, not these alleged survivors, not Mayor Murray, and certainly not the rest of the city should be subjected to the pain, trauma, and humiliation of this case playing out on a daily basis in the press for weeks and months to come.
I know that these harms are cut from the same cloth: homophobia, transphobia, racism, poverty, and sexism. Mayor Murray points to attacks on our community as the motivation behind these accusations, something I and other leaders take very seriously. Attacks against LGBT people are real, and like Mayor Murray, I have dedicated my career to fighting them. I know that we will weather the most recent attacks together as a community, just as we always have. However, what I see here are not attacks on our community. These are accusations targeted squarely at Mayor Murray alone.
While true that LGBT people are subject to greater risk of both sexual abuse and public slander, Mayor Murray’s claim strains believability. Sexual abuse is far too common in all communities, and false accusations are exceedingly rare.
This story is not only a distraction that draws us away from the vital business of the city. It is a story about leadership and the choices we make in the face of the most withering of circumstances.
The mayor’s choice to publicly attack multiple alleged survivors—whose stories are spread out over 30 years and share multiple similarities—while simultaneously avoiding answering tough questions himself has been an ugly choice for a leader I once supported.
It is exactly these kinds of unpalatable choices that lead me to believe Mayor Murray will only continue to tarnish his reputation and the reputation of our city if he continues to mount his very public defense on city time.
Given this, I believe it would be best—for the city, for the LGBT community, for the causes he champions, for survivors, and Mayor Murray himself—for the mayor to step down and address these allegations as a private citizen.
Resources for survivors:
Danni Askini is an LGBT activist and survivor of sexual abuse.