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Gabrielle Union learned who her “people” truly were after being raped

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Kayleigh Dray
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NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 09: Actress Gabrielle Union attends the Opportunity Network's 11th Annual Night of Opportunity at Cipriani Wall Street on April 9, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/WireImage)

Gabrielle Union was forced to “redefine” her sense of community after being raped, as many of her friends and family found it difficult to understand what she was going through.

Gabrielle Union may have found fame starring in the likes of Bring It On, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That, but the actress is every bit as well known for her tireless activism work, too.

Earlier this week (9 April), Union was honoured for her contribution to The Opportunity Network, a charity that works with students from underrepresented communities to help them achieve their college and career goals.

Speaking at the 11th Annual Night of Opportunity Gala held in New York City, Union did her best to explain why this charity in particular is so important to her.

“When I was raped at gunpoint, one of the most lonely and debilitating experiences of my life, I had to redefine what it meant to be a part of a community because my ‘people’ didn’t have a ton of experience with rape survivors,” she said.

“So I had to expand my idea of what and who my people were. I needed a different kind of support. I needed different opportunities, opportunities to heal and then the ability to want to continue living.”

Union continued: “I’m just trying to help steer other people in the right direction.

“You are right to feel that you haven’t been given all the same opportunities as your peers or some of the other kids out there, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the road for you.

“Through programs like the one we are celebrating here and so many others, we are recognising that. We’re not going to sweep it under the rug, we’re not going to turn a blind eye to it to just tell you to just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. We know that there’s a lot more to it and we’re going to try to address all of the issues.”

Union previously opened up about her journey from victim to survivor in her 2017 book, We’re Going to Need More Wine, in which she recounts how – in the summer before starting her sophomore year of college at UCLA – she was raped at gunpoint by a stranger in the Payless store where she worked.

“I was damaged,” she writes, adding that the emotional impact of the assault was like an “infection you can’t treat”.

“After I was raped, I didn’t leave my house for a whole year unless I had to go to court or to therapy. 24 years later, fear still influences everything I do.”

Union, in a separate interview with Oprah Winfrey, adds that “it wasn’t long before I became uncomfortable with feeling like a victim” – particularly as she realised how it impacted the way her ‘people’ treated her.

“Once I noticed that people will let you stay in that woe-is-me state for as long as you want. There were some so-called friends who came by after my attack, not to comfort me or offer support but to gawk at me, to gather a first-hand account of what I looked like or how I seemed so they could gossip to their friends.

“I started going to counseling because I wanted to move on. Therapy helped me ask myself, ‘Who in my life is going to encourage survivorhood, not victimhood?’ Suddenly, a light went on. I realised I had been keeping people around even when deep down I knew they were bad for me. I had overridden myself.”

Union credits the Santa Monica-UCLA rape treatment centre for saving her life – and says the community of survivors she met there helped put her on the path to healing. It is for this reason that she continues to “keep talking” about her own experiences, because she wants to make sure that others know they aren’t alone.

“I have to keep talking out because people feel like they’re the only ones,” she told E!.

“They feel like are on an island by themselves; they feel like they are screaming into a hurricane and nobody is listening and I am just trying to say, ‘I’m listening. I hear you. I’ve been there, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.’”

Union added: “What we are able to share is a sense of community of survivors and we are just doing our best, but that we put one foot in front of the other. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and that’s the importance of sharing the stories when you’re ready.”

If you have been subject to sexual assault, call 999 to report it to police.

Information and support can be found at nhs.uk, gov.uk and rapecrisis.org.uk.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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