Grace Tame will not be defined by darkness. The 26-year-old Tasmanian is a self-described optimist who finds beauty in nature and solace in salty sea swims. Her piercing blue eyes light up when she speaks on issues she’s passionate about, and soften when talk turns to her boyfriend and tight-knit family. She’s a keen runner who entered her first marathon last year, and won, and a talented artist who toured the US as comedian John Cleese’s illustrator. And she’s a survivor of child sexual abuse, whose courageous advocacy helped overturn oppressive “victim gag laws” in Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and earned her the title of 2021 Australian of the Year.
“I get frustrated when people only want to focus on the negative details – tell me about your rape; take us back to your darkest moment,” she says as we chat on a rainy Thursday after the marie claire photoshoot. “When there’s all this rage and widespread shock, we can get stuck in a cycle of darkness – and that’s not productive.”
Tame’s mission, rather, is to shed light on the ugly realities of child grooming and sexual abuse – to break through the walls of silence that have allowed corrupt cultures to thrive. “Together we can end child sexual abuse; survivors be proud, our voices are changing history!” she declared in a heart-pounding acceptance speech for her national honour on January 25, as the room erupted in cheers and tears. Since then, she’s become Australia’s woman of the moment, dubbed an “inspiration”, “force for change” and “instigator of a revolution”. In the nine days before we meet she’s given four keynote addresses in three different cities, appeared on two panels and spoken on TV, radio and podcasts – exhausting under any circumstances, let alone when prompted to recount personal trauma. “It’s not always easy to talk about this stuff,” she admits. “But I’m incredibly grateful for the platform. I’m just here as a representative of a community that’s been marginalised and stigmatised for far too long.”
Community has been at the centre of Tame’s cause since she first reported her own abuse. Raped repeatedly as a 15-year-old by her 58-year-old teacher, it was the safety of other young girls that ultimately drove her to speak out, first to another schoolteacher, and then to police. “I knew my abuser had done it to other girls – he’d told me about them,” she says, the disgust in her voice still thick. “I knew this didn’t start with me, but that I had the potential to end it with me, and to protect his future targets.”
Years later, Tame discovered that an archaic Tasmanian law prevented her from self-identifying as a sexual abuse survivor, and she started fighting for a court exemption. Her legal case became the catalyst for the #LetHerSpeak campaign, created by journalist and sexual assault survivor/advocate Nina Funnell (in partnership with Marque Lawyers and End Rape on Campus Australia). Seventeen brave sexual assault survivors, including Tame, lent their stories to the cause and lobbied for law reform.
In August 2019, Tame won her individual right to be named from the Supreme Court of Tasmania, and in April 2020 the state’s gag law was overturned. It was nearly 10 years to the day since Tame’s abuse had begun.
“It’s terrifying to do something in the face of evil, but what’s more terrifying is not doing something” – Grace Tame
Today she is modest – even blunt – about how she found the strength to spearhead the movement, and to speak out on issues once deemed unspeakable. “For me it’s just a no-brainer ... It’s terrifying to do something in the face of evil, but what’s more terrifying is not doing something,” she says. “There’s so much more potential suffering to come from doing nothing.”
Since then, Tame’s tenacity has set off a rippling row of dominoes around the country. Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a male colleague in Parliament House (since then a string of further allegations of sexual abuse in politics have emerged); teenage girls are sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault; and tens of thousands of women and men have marched to demand an end to gendered violence and inequality.
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