Katherine’s Story

“Being a survivor feeds everything I do.”

Katherine Gilyard is a journalist, writer, activist, and a survivor of sexual violence.

After being sexually abused at age 6, Katherine suppressed her traumatic memories, a common response for children who experience sexual abuse. It was not until 10 years later, during a 10th grade book report, that she began to process what happened to her.

For her assignment, Katherine read Speak, a novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson that follows a high school student who was sexually assaulted. This began to bring up painful memories of her past.

“We had to present the book reports and I realized, ‘I don’t know how to talk about this. I can’t even give a synopsis of the book and just be okay.’” Katherine’s English teacher noticed something seemed off and asked about it.

Katherine then disclosed the abuse for the first time. Her teacher responded supportively and honestly.

“She asked about when it happened and told me she had to report it if I was still in danger. When I told her the details, she walked me through my options… Her talking through it with me was the first form of support I received.”

 

Two years later, as a freshman at Howard University, Katherine was sexually assaulted by a stranger who trespassed into her dorm room.

Afterwards, Katherine immediately contacted her friends, who came over to her dorm. One friend got the director of the dorm, while another called the police.

“The dorm director asked me, ‘Well, what’s wrong with you?’ I told her, ‘A man just came in here and raped me,’ and she said, ‘What? How did that happen?’”

The rapist was able to enter Katherine’s dorm because no one was working the front desk to check IDs and no security guards were on duty during the daytime.

Despite this, Katherine says the dorm did not change security coverage in the weeks that followed and that she never received an apology or any form of accountability from the school.

The lack of empathy from authority figures only continued in the hours that followed the assault. City police came, and Katherine’s dorm was swirling with professionals following procedures. For hours, Katherine sat in shock.

“I was just sitting on the bed, my pants not pulled all the way up; I had not moved.”

Police and dorm staff carried on around Katherine without acknowledging or explaining things to her. After six hours, Katherine was finally taken to the hospital. At this point, however, she was frustrated and ready for it to be over, so she declined having a forensic examination.

“I was so sick of people touching me and not explaining things to me… If I didn’t feel so forced, or if someone had explained it to me, then I would’ve had the exam.”

Insensitivity from the police made Katherine averse to working with law enforcement. Fortunately, the investigation ended quickly with the police arresting her assailant.

Katherine’s mother was very supportive during this process. She travelled to Washington, DC, where Katherine was in school, and stayed with her during the grand jury investigation. Afterwards, she took Katherine home to Georgia.

While in her hometown, Katherine’s mother took the family to church. During the service, when the pastor asked for testimonials, Katherine’s grandmother disclosed the assault to the congregation. In response, the pastor identified Katherine and asked for the women churchgoers to line up and hug her.

“It was an all-Black church and about 65 Black women filed in line in front of me… I was just trying to not turn around and yell at my pastor or my grandmother… They began all whispering things to me and I was forced to start listening. After a while, women came up to me and told me, ‘The same thing happened to me,’ or, ‘I’m so glad you told somebody; I never told anybody.’ It wasn’t loud or for anyone else to hear, but it was between us at that moment.”

Disclosure after disclosure, Katherine was overwhelmed by how prevalent sexual abuse was in her community.

“At least 45 women from all walks of life—from older people, teachers, people in government, to their own children—shared stories of how they had been affected by sexual abuse. They shared, ‘It was my uncle,’ or ‘It was my dad,’ and many of them were still with these people.”

This experience, while incredibly difficult, was pivotal to Katherine’s advocacy. “Everything I have done since, I have done with their experiences in mind.”

Currently, Katherine is training to become a victim advocate, and she hopes to start a nonprofit one day for women of color who survive sexual assault. She is passionate about sensitivity training for professionals interacting with survivors across all industries.

“The first person at the scene should not be further traumatizing the survivor.”

Her passion for greater sensitivity, in part, comes from her own negative experiences with the legal system. As a young survivor, she found the legal process to be intrusive and often retraumatizing. She was frequently contacted by the attorney for her own case and the cases of other survivors who had been assaulted by the same assailant.

“Every semester, I would get a call from the Assistant U.S. Attorney [who handled cases in D.C.] with an update that would totally derail my life.”

When preparing to leave for a study abroad trip to Senegal, Katherine was suddenly contacted by the attorney who informed her that, due to a change in judges, the trial date was being moved forward. When she said that she had a conflict because of her study abroad, she was told she could not leave the country.

“‘Inconveniencing me’ was the biggest understatement… They would drop these life-changing updates on me with such ease.”

Over the course of six years, Katherine was constantly at the mercy of a legal system which did not treat her with any consideration. She missed out on multiple opportunities, such as the study abroad trip, job opportunities, and other travel plans. She also left school.

“At any moment where I was trying to find healing or create some sense of normalcy for myself, my life would be derailed and I would have to start over… My life in between that time wasn’t even my own.”

Present day, Katherine is back in school while working as a journalist. Writing about public health, she finds herself drawn to certain stories: ones of people in need.

“Being a survivor, I think it helps me connect with people. It makes me more thorough in my reporting; I’m constantly aware and looking for stories.”

In her healing journey, Katherine has found it most helpful to be kind to herself and to allow space for her anger.

“Throughout that whole criminal justice process, I was really angry… but I didn’t allow myself to get angry. I regret that I didn’t show up for myself then… I’ve realized that, in a way, getting angry was my taking back some control.”

Now that she has found her voice, Katherine uses it to advocate for survivors in many ways.

“Embracing that side of myself that speaks up about the things that need to be addressed has allowed me to stick up for myself and for others.”

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“Until I’m on the other side of the Earth, I’m striving to make this world a better place for survivors and to make this process a lot less lonely than it is.”

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