Trigger Warning: This essay discusses memories of molestation.
On August 31st, the world said goodbye to legendary soul singer, Aretha Franklin, in a beautiful homegoing that paid tribute to her remarkable life and legacy. While the funeral brought generations together in celebration of The Queen of Soul, it unfortunately wasn’t without controversy due to the behavior of others.
Following Ariana Grande’s moving rendition of Franklin’s hit, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—a performance that was personally requested by the Franklin family—Grande was joined by Bishop Charles H. Ellis III. It was then that the Bishop and Grande shared a seemingly casual embrace. However, Bishop Ellis’ hand remained on Grande throughout their time on the pulpit, moving higher and higher until it rested on the pop star’s right breast.
Video of the event quickly went viral, showing Grande’s surprised expression and open discomfort at the prolonged contact. Viewers immediately took to social media to express their anger and frustration. In response, #RespectAriana started trending on Twitter.
Many shared how familiar this situation felt: a man in a position of power conveniently places his hands on a woman, making her uncomfortable but allowing himself enough deniability to dismiss claims of inappropriateness.
The fact that the person who committed this transgression is a man of the church doesn’t seem unusual either, especially in light of ongoing accusations of sexual assault in the Catholic and Evangelical churches.
But not everyone who witnessed the assault considered it to be an assault. The argument was made that Bishop Ellis was simply being “too friendly” toward Grande and perhaps that friendliness went too far. Ellis told the Associated Press, “Maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar but again, I apologize.”
Some viewers put the blame entirely on Grande for the incident, citing the short cocktail dress she wore during the service as the reason for Bishop Ellis’ public harassment. (Never mind the fact that what is worn or not worn is never an invitation for sexual assault.)
On top of blaming Grande’s dress for the assault, jokes were also made at her expense, which, in effect, made light of an already publicly traumatizing situation. Among the insults, Luke Cage star Mike Colter tweeted and deleted a message about the Bishop “shooting his shot” at Grande by groping her—obviously ignorant to the pain that unwanted touching can cause a woman.
Regrettably, this onslaught of unsupportive responses and ridicule isn’t new for anyone who has experienced unwanted touching. I should know.
For me, it happened when my elderly grandfather began oh-so conveniently grabbing my chest whenever I would help him up out of his chair. There was already a history of sexual abuse accusations against my grandfather that my family excused and buried as the exaggeration of children’s minds. My family did such a good job making us forget about these stories that I didn’t consider him to be a threat at all.
So when he first grabbed and squeezed me, I was so shocked that I convinced myself it didn’t happen. It must have been an accident. He was trying to stabilize himself; his feet were swollen and he probably wobbled a bit. It was an accident. Don’t think about it.
But it happened again. A lot. When I went out of town to visit my grandparents alone for the first time, I didn’t have many options for escaping. I avoided my grandfather while I was there, hoping my grandma and aunts wouldn’t ask me to help care for him any longer. As uncomfortable as I was, I was a child and could not do anything about it.
That was until I saw him grab one of my younger cousins. Knowing that he was violating me was one thing, but seeing the confusion and shame on the face of my little cousin broke something inside me.
A large Hispanic-Mexican family, my grandmother’s house was over run with cousins, and I realized that meant more victims for my grandfather. After confirming with more cousins—some heartbreakingly young—that they experienced the same violation at his hands, I felt ready to tell someone.
I didn’t want to stress my grandmother and I was worried that the language barrier between her Spanish and my English would be too strong. So while my parents were away, I decided to tell my favorite aunt. She had always been like a mother to me; I knew she’d understand and offer me protection. But her response was nothing like what I thought—and hoped—it would be.
My aunt was shocked and in disbelief. She told me that I must be mistaken. He’s old, she said, and that’s the reason for it. His eyesight is poor—“Sammy, he’s practically blind!”—so he couldn’t have seen what he was doing to me. Secretly, I think she recalled all of the past, buried allegations from the girls he’d hurt before.
When I argued, insisting that he groped and fondled many of us, it turned into a condemnation of my clothes. I was barely 13 and had just started expressing myself through how I dressed, so she blamed the cut of my blouse or the tightness of my jeans or the length of my skirt. I was hurt but not surprised. Since my cousins and I were little girls, my family told us to dress modestly: “Keep your dress down.” “Don’t do that; you’ll show your panties.” “Don’t wear that around your tios y primos.”
And I know this isn’t exclusive to my upbringing alone.
As little girls, we were warned by the older generation not to become victims. But when we were victimized, that same generation denied us our pain. When I saw Bishop Ellis grope Ariana Grande on live television at the funeral of feminist legend Aretha Franklin—and I saw folks on the internet blame Grande’s dress and the Bishop’s “friendliness” as a man of the church—I was painfully reminded of the severity of our abuse, of how my family blamed our own molestation on us, of how they pretended it didn’t happen.
The older generations and their gaslighting tactics are obvious to us now because our generation isn’t afraid to talk about what has hurt us; we loudly say, “Me too.” My grandfather died soon after these assaults and—nearly 20 years later—discussion of him as anything other than a saint is still taboo in my family.
But that’s not the way it should be. And we can’t let it be that way for Ariana Grande, or for any woman or girl, or for anybody. Our generation and the ones to follow will acknowledge pain and hold our abusers accountable—no matter who they might be.