The first summer at my new church, “Ray” filled in as guest preacher during our pastor’s vacation. Because of PTSD, I was still hyper-alert to any possible danger. I had chosen a church with a gay pastor for this reason. So when straight, married Ray stepped into the pulpit, I vowed to keep my distance. But how could Ray know this? He approached me after the service to say hello, and his friendly, respectful greeting triggered a state of near-panic. It was days before I could even talk about it to my therapist.
Now we learn that Mayor Bob Filner apparently sought an invitation to a meeting of the National Women’s Veterans Association of America (NWVAA) in San Diego, most of whose members are military sexual assault survivors. At that meeting, or perhaps at several meetings, he groped or made verbal advances to at least eight women. According to a CNN report, NWVAA president Tara Jones said, “He went to dinners, asked women out to dinners, grabbed breasts, buttocks, the full gamut.”
What I survived was nothing like rape, and I was thrown off-balance by a simple friendly greeting. Bob Filner knew these women had survived sexual assault by men in power, and he — a man with immense power — forced much more than a friendly greeting on them. He left a voicemail for three-time military rape survivor Eldonna Fernandez, telling her he was in love with her and asking her to dinner. He asked Army veteran Gerri Tindley to talk about her rape, rubbing her back and moving so close to her that she “nearly fell off the couch” trying to avoid him. If an innocent greeting could retraumatize me, what did Filner’s groping and sexual language do to these women?
Bob Filner built his political career partly on his service to military veterans. He surely knows the statistics on sexual assault in the military. He must know that victims of sexual assault can lose their ability to resist unwanted advances. (Survivor “Louise” explains why revictimization happens.) Did Filner advantage of this knowledge to meet his own needs, without regard for how it would harm these brave women?
The good news: NWVAA has rescinded the lifetime achievement award they were to have given to Mayor Filner, and has disinvited him as keynote speaker for their August gathering. Exposed and publicly rebuked, he is unlikely to cause further harm to these women.
The other good news: Guest preacher Ray and his wife have become trusted friends and colleagues. If Ray noticed my earlier distress, he responded with pastoral grace. For that, I am thankful.