As both President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial carry on, one of Weinstein’s dozens of accusers will show up to the State of the Union address to help correct the power imbalance behind both of these cases, if only by a little. It took Rowena Chiu a long time to get here: Over 20 years passed before she could finally feel safe enough to speak up.
On Tuesday night, she will join Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark to help advocate for the BE HEARD Act, which aims to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.
Chiu, who became Weinstein’s assistant in 1998 in London, says he attempted to rape her in a hotel room before she got away, which was the start of many years of secret trauma. On the second anniversary of the #MeToo movement, she told her story in a soul-crushing opinion piece in The New York Times, writing about the power dynamics between Weinstein and herself and how they worked in his favor: gender, race, seniority, and wealth. Chiu also contributed her story to the recent book She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.
“Where the BE HEARD Act resonates with me is the intersectionality between racism and sexism, the power imbalances,” Chiu told Refinery29. “It resonates with me that it’s working to extend an equal playing field to bring equality to many workers who are being ignored and underrepresented.”
Clark is the lead sponsor for BE HEARD, or the “Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination” Act. The first legislation to address workplace sexual harassment and assault after the start of the #MeToo movement, it was introduced in 2019 and has the support of many Democrats — though no Republicans yet.
BE HEARD is a sweeping piece of legislation that includes a call to end the tipped minimum wage, acknowledging that tipped workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. It also calls for extending the sexual harassment protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to employers with fewer than 15 workers, who are currently exempt.
“Having Rowena here with her powerful testimony to these incidents and the way these legal tools were used against her, knowing what this did to her own life, her own health, her own agency, is the real reason I wanted her to come,” Clark told Refinery29. Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by more than 20 women, is part of the culture that kept Chiu silent for so long, she added. “There is something about the State of the Union and looking this president in the eye and saying, ‘You cannot erase us.’ The truth is close, and we’re here to bear witness.”
Another key part of BE HEARD is that it would ban companies from making workers sign mandatory arbitration clauses when they’re hired and certain types of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). In her New York Times story, Chiu described the harrowing experience of being pressured into signing a restrictive NDA after the incident with Weinstein, including being made to stay in an office overnight “with the barest minimum of food and drink” for the negotiations. The NDA kept her “from speaking to family and friends, and made it extremely difficult to work with a therapist or a lawyer, or to aid a criminal investigation. Chillingly, it also required us to identify anyone we had already spoken to,” she wrote. When she went public, she essentially broke her NDA. Weinstein, who has claimed they had a consensual “six-month physical relationship,” has threatened to sue her for this, she wrote.
“NDAs are often used as legal tools to isolate survivors,” Clark said, pointing out that pressuring survivors to stay silent can keep other survivors who have been abused by the same person from speaking up.
Members of Congress, as well as the president, regularly bring guests to the State of the Union to draw attention to a certain piece of legislation or a cause. In 2018, at the height of the national conversation about sexual harassment and assault, several members of Congress invited sexual assault survivors and women’s rights advocates. Clark brought Anny Gonzalez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who had experienced sexual harassment at her job.
Chiu won’t be the only survivor who has been in the news attending the State of the Union as the guest of a lawmaker. Courtney Wild, who has accused the late Jeffrey Epstein of sexually abusing her, will be a guest of California Rep. Jackie Speier. She will be there to support the Courtney Wild Crime Victims’ Rights Reform Act of 2019, a bill that would require prosecutors to notify sexual assault victims of developments such as plea bargains in a case before making charges.
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