By Kel O’Hara
Equal Rights Advocates 2019–2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow
“For me, Queer Justice is not about being punitive. It’s about being transformative. It’s about creating space for healing and accountability for the sake of growth and resilience.”
I came to law school with a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do, but no real sense of how to do it. I got involved in anti-violence work and undergrad as a Title IX activist, and then I went on to become a certified rape crisis counselor at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Those two experiences led to me wanting to do civil legal support for sexual assault survivors, but that area of the law is really underdeveloped.
My two-year project is the first in the country to reimagine what it means to support queer and trans student survivors whose access to education has been affected by sexual violence.
When LGBTQ students experience violence, they are afraid of making a mistake. They’re afraid of going through the investigation and reliving a traumatic experience alone, while also trying to advocate for themselves. For me, Queer Justice is not about being punitive. It’s about being transformative. It’s about creating space for healing and accountability for the sake of growth and resilience.
I want our schools to be able to look that truth in the face and support their students who are hurting.
When I think about the face of my project, I think about all the people I wasn’t able to help. My partner was assaulted in college, and their school threw out their case because the investigator didn’t think they could be raped by someone of the same gender. It changed the course of their life, starting with the way and made it that much harder for them to finish college. When they talk about what happened, they aren’t angry at the other person. They’re angry at the school for not doing anything. Being denied that recognition of harm and support was traumatic in and of itself. And that didn’t need to happen.
I want our schools to be able to look that truth in the face and support their students who are hurting. Genuinely supporting kids who have both harmed and been harmed is a chance to encourage a more empathetic and thoughtful culture.
I think all student survivors, not just queer ones, are looking for validation from a Title IX process. They want someone to say, “This is real. This happened. You were hurt, and you deserve support right now.” For queer and trans students, it can be particularly validating to get that support from another queer trans person. As an advocate, my biggest role is making those students feel heard. Like someone cares about their well-being. Like they have more opportunities to grow and learn in relative safety. Like queer and trans youth have a champion, no matter how scary the world is.
I hope people continue to support this work because queer and trans lives matter. These kids deserve the chance to grow up into the people they want to be.