Not too long ago I saw boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard on The Colbert Report, plugging his new book, “The Big Fight.” But you never quite get all the dirt in those funny little interviews on late-night talk shows, do you? And, to be honest, I hate boxing. (I know. That’s practically blasphemy for a Las Vegan to admit.) So… it’s understandable that I would miss the memo about one of the biggest revelations from Leonard’s autobiography. The Olympic gold medalist says he was sexually abused by one of his coaches.
But why tell? And why now?
These are the questions that dog anyone — famous or average, rich or poor — when we finally find our voice and speak the truth in the light of day. But it’s only when survivors speak our truth — reclaiming our power and our voice — that we do more than liberate ourselves. Because when we speak our truth, we shine a light into the darkness for other survivors to find hope.
When I interviewed former Miss America and incest survivor Marilyn Van Derbur back in 2004, she told me she couldn’t even acknowledge the shameful secret she kept — of abuse by her father for 13 years — until four years after her reign ended. And she only decided to speak publicly after her sister shared the family secret with the world in a newspaper article. But over time, Van Derbur realized that the power of her crown had not ended. Because being a former Miss America carried with it an opportunity to speak her truth, and in doing so, possibly help other survivors.
“If people are not going to believe 53-year-old me, how are they going to believe a child?” …”If I hadn’t been Miss America, we wouldn’t be talking,” Van Derbur said.
Indeed, when survivors speak the truth, it is an almost subversive act against so much pain, anger and shame. When we speak the truth without shame, we do something akin to “coming out.” It’s a brave act of visibility. Because to stand up and say that, yes, I am a survivor is scary. It’s scary for yourself, for those who love you. And it’s scary for society — which reflexively looks away whenever such news is shared openly in the light of day. But just as our friends in the LGBTQ community have shown us so well, visibility is exactly what this problem needs. Visibility is how a “little problem” like “wife beating” turned into international campaigns against domestic violence. When you can say you know someone who was molested, it changes how you see it. When you know someone who survived incest, it changes what’s funny in R-rated comedies. When you love someone who was sexually violated, it can motivate you in ways you never imagined.
And that’s why it’s so important for those famous folks to speak their truth. Because now we can’t say we don’t know anyone anymore.
And it works on famous people, too. Sugar Ray Leonard wrote in his book that it took seeing another famous man sharing his secret, for the boxer to want to tell his (from The New York Times):
“But last year, after watching the actor Todd Bridges bare his soul on Oprah’s show about how he was sexually abused as a kid, I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt.”
He may be best known for his fights in the ring, but for me and countless other sexual abuse survivors, this moment is the best TKO of Sugar Ray’s career.
If you, or someone you know, needs help about sexual abuse or sexual violence, you can find local resources at the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence. Here is a complete state-wide list of resources (PDF). And if you are outside Nevada, or want something more immediate or internet-friendly, try RAINN, which has a 24/hour hotline and secure and untraceable internet help system.