Sexual assault survivor Grace Tame, 26, from Hobart, has been named 2021 Australian of the Year for her bravery in shining a light on child sexual abuse, trauma impacts, and the warning signs of grooming.
Grace is the first Tasmanian to win the top gong in the awards’ 61-year history. She rose to prominence via News Corp’s #LetHerSpeak campaign which in 2019, took her legal case to be able to publicly self-identify as a rape survivor to the Supreme Court of Tasmania, and won.
At the time, it was against the law for many sexual assault survivors in Tasmania to speak out under their own names due to an archaic victim gag-law. The legal victory then helped pave the way for the campaign to overhaul oppressive victim gag laws across the country, and another 16 sexual assault survivors have received legal assistance via the campaign support since.
At an emotional awards ceremony on Monday night, Grace said the win was “for all survivors of child sexual abuse” adding that she would use the year ahead to focus on “education as a means of prevention”.
“Discussion of child sexual abuse is uncomfortable. But nothing is as uncomfortable as abuse itself,” she said.
“I lost my virginity to a paedophile. I was 15, anorexic. He was 58, my teacher. For months he groomed me, then abused me every day: Before school, after school, in my uniform, on the floor. I didn’t know who I was.
“Publicly, he described his crimes as ‘awesome’. Publicly, I was silenced by law. Let Her Speak helped give me a voice. Campaign creator – Nina Funnell, campaign partners, the 16 other brave campaign survivors: thank you.
“Together, we can redefine what it means to be a survivor. Together, we can end child sexual abuse. Survivors, be proud. Our stories are changing history.”
Grace also shared a memory of the abuse, and talked about the need to believe survivors when they disclose what has happened to them, saying we can all play a part.
“I was abused by a male teacher. But one of the first people I told was also a male teacher. He believed me,” she said.
“I remember you towering over me, blocking the door. I remember you saying, ‘don’t make a sound’. Well hear me now, using my voice, in a growing chorus that will not be silenced.
“We do transform as individuals, and we do transform as a community … I know who I am. I’m a survivor.”
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AMAZING GRACE: HOPE IS INFINITE
In an exclusive prerecorded interview with Nina Funnell, the journalist who created the #LetHerSpeak campaign, Grace shared more of her journey and what she plans for the year ahead.
She said that in the past the abuse had taken a toll – including leading to self-harm behaviours, prescription drug and alcohol abuse, and unhealthy relationships – but that she had been extremely fortunate to be surrounded by support.
“Hope is infinite even when you don’t feel it,” she said. “It is there in the people around you, it’s out there in the universe. It exists.”
A PREDATOR STRIKES
In 2010, at age 15, Grace was hospitalised while suffering from anorexia which had been triggered by a recently resurfaced memory of abuse. She confided in her 58-year-old maths teacher, Nicolaas Bester.
“I disclosed to this man that as a six-year-old, I was molested by an older child and that involved being asked to undress in a closet and then molested,” Grace said.
“He then introduced the actual sexual abuse by recreating that scene that I had described to him of my childhood trauma.”
Bester locked Grace in a cupboard at Hobart’s elite St Michael’s Collegiate Girls’ School where he taught, before sexually molesting her for the first time.
He also groomed Grace by exposing her to movies which “glorified relationships between younger people and much, much older adults such as The Graduate”, and isolated her from her medical team telling her she could “beat” anorexia on her own.
“The grooming process is complex, it involves targeting the victim, gaining trust, filling a need, isolating them, sexualising the dynamic, and maintaining control,” Grace said.
“He would tell me the things that he perceived I wanted to hear, like, ‘you are beautiful, you don’t need your mother, you don’t need your father. You can beat your illness on your own. You are so intelligent’.
“He would be showering me with praise, putting me up on a pedestal. But if ever I got too much confidence or I was building enough strength to potentially see the abuse for what it was, he would take me down, he would just tear shreds off me.
“I remember I was really upset and I asked him, ‘do you think I look fat?’ And he looked me up and down. He said, ‘you could do with some more exercise.” That comment was made immediately following a rape on the school grounds.
Despite the psychological manipulation and abuse, at age 16, Grace bravely reported the rapes to the school, and following that, the police. According to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it takes most victims an average of 24 years to tell someone — if they tell anyone at all.
“I remember very earnestly saying to the policemen, just don’t tell my mum and dad. That’s indicative of how naive I was,” Grace said.
On arrest, Bester was found to be in possession of 28 pieces of child pornography. He was charged with sexual offences against Grace and eventually sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail.
Then, in 2015, following his release, Bester bragged on social media that the abuse had been “awesome”, adding that men across Australia would be “envious”.
He also gave a lengthy media interview about the crimes, painting himself as the victim. Grace, meanwhile, was completely unable to respond due to the archaic sexual assault gag-law which silenced her.
“Everybody else was able to speak. My offender was able to speak. Journalists were able to speak. I was the only one who was not allowed to speak publicly about my own case. It was cruel,” Grace said.
#LET HER SPEAK: THE CAMPAIGN IS BORN
In 2017, while living in the USA, Grace contacted Sydney-based journalist and sexual assault survivor advocate, Nina Funnell, hoping to tell her story.
When Funnell learned of the gag-law she was appalled.
“I pitched #LetHerSpeak and then spent three months designing the media and law reform strategies to underpin the campaign, also working closely with Marque Lawyers and community campaigning group, End Rape On Campus Australia, to learn from their expertise in campaigning,” Funnell said.
At launch, Funnell profiled over a dozen survivors from across the country, explaining their reasons why survivors should be able to go public.
“This was important, firstly to humanise the issue and second to show that survivors are a diverse group of people. There’s not one face, but many.”
In the meantime, News.com.au’s senior legal counsel, Gina McWilliams began the process of applying for Grace Tame’s court order to exempt her from the Tasmanian gag-law.
“That ultimately involved filing an application and two supporting affidavits,” McWilliams said, “and since Grace was overseas, it took some time to get those documents together”.
Another legal problem also surfaced, requiring Marque Lawyers to perform additional work in order for Grace to be able to speak freely.
Finally, in 2019, the application was successful.
Soon after, Grace flew back to Australia to film her story and on August 12, 2019, she went public for the first time.
Since then Grace has used her story as a powerful platform to raise awareness about child grooming and the impacts of trauma.
The talented runner has also won a marathon in her home state of Tasmania, where she now lives, having relocated back to Australia when COVID-19 hit.
“I owe so much to the people around me,” Grace said. “I am who I am now and I’m sitting where I am now having this conversation with you because I have been supported every step of the way on the excruciating steps and on the big happy leaps.”
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
The gag-law, however, remained unchanged. “Once Grace got the court order and was able to speak, it certainly helped with the campaign’s visibility and exposure” Funnell said.
“But hashtags don’t change laws, and there was still a heck of a lot of work which needed to be performed behind the scenes to get the government to move.”
Other survivors also began contacting the campaign partners requesting legal help to obtain their own court orders and a GoFundMe was set up to assist with legal costs.
Finally, in April 2020, the Tasmanian gag-law was overhauled. Three months later a similar gag-law in the Northern Territory was also amended following an earlier launch of the #LetHerSpeak NT campaign.
Ironically, however, in that same window of time, the Victorian government had introduced a new victim gag-law which prohibited all sexual assault survivors in that state from speaking out in cases which had resulted in a conviction.
“It didn’t seem credible at first,” Funnell said. “But sure enough, literally thousands of Victorian survivors had lost the right to be named overnight.
“This included dozens of clergy abuse survivors from Ballarat, some of whom had been speaking out for decades and could each face up to four months jail if they continued speaking out.”
The campaign held emergency meetings and in August it relaunched under the title #LetUsSpeak Victoria.
Over $85,000 was donated to the campaign fund set up to support the survivor’s legal work, and a further 12 survivors from Victoria received legal assistance to be able to tell their stories via Marque Lawyers to be able to tell their stories through the campaign. The Victorian government eventually reversed the gag on living survivors.
“We’re really proud of that work,” Funnell said. “To date we’ve change four laws across three jurisdictions.”
As for Grace, she says she will use the year ahead to empower other survivors and focus on education as a means of prevention. She also has a message for all survivors in the wider community: “It’s not your fault. It never was your fault. You’re not to blame. The shame is not yours. You’re not alone. We believe you.”
To donate to the #LetHerSpeak legal and campaign fund visit the GoFundMe.
Nina Funnell and Kerry Warren were jointly awarded the 2020 Walkley Award for Public Service Journalism with Lori Youmshajekian for their work on the #LetHerSpeak series. The campaign was created by Nina Funnell in partnership with news.com.au, Marque Lawyers and End Rape On Campus Australia.