June 25, 2021

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on the bill she’s worked 10 years to pass

The military’s failure to address sexual assault is an ongoing and widely recognized problem: Of the estimated 20,000 sexual assaults against service members in 2018 (the most recent numbers from the Department of Defense), only about 200 ended in conviction. And the problem has actually gotten worse, with rates of prosecution and conviction going down over the last few years.

Why is it so hard to do right by military survivors? And how can we make the armed forces do better? Brittany Packnett Cunningham sat down with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand this week on UNDISTRACTED to talk about the New York Democrat’s 10-year campaign to ensure more accountability for military sexual assault—and why justice may finally be on the horizon. (Trigger warning: This episode discusses sexual assault.)

A candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Senator Gillibrand has represented New York since 2009. And after years of pushing her colleagues on the issue, she now has bipartisan support for the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which aims, among other reforms, to move sexual assault cases out of the military’s “chain of command” and over to independent prosecutors.

Packnett Cunningham and Gillibrand dug into why the military’s prosecution of sexual assault cases has worsened, what needs to change, and, of course, whether the senator will run for president again. Highlights of their conversation:

Sen. Gillibrand on what needs to change: “We have done a terrible job in actually prosecuting these cases. The percentage of cases moving towards prosecution is going down. The percentage of cases that are ending in conviction is going down. And so under no measurable is the military getting this right. And so we’ve been asking to take the decision making of whether to prosecute these crimes out of the chain of command and give it to trained military prosecutors who are unbiased and professionalized.”

Sen. Gillibrand on how the current system is biased: “We know there’s bias in which cases go forward on sexual assault. And we know there’s bias in prosecution and punishment of Black and brown service members. They’re up to 2.6 times [more likely] to be punished than a white service member. So you need this reform for both plaintiffs’ rights and defendants’ rights—to fix the bias in sexual assault cases and fix the bias against Black and brown service members.”

Sen. Gillibrand on the urgent need for justice: “When I sit down with service members who have been brutally raped and then denied justice by either being disbelieved or being directly retaliated against, it truly breaks my heart because these are men and women who will die for this country…And justice is absolutely something that’s part of our Constitution, our democracy, and something we believe in. And for them to be denied justice, I think, is an outrage.”

Sen. Gillibrand on her political future: “Well, I certainly hope I get the chance to run for president again someday. I loved it. I had such a wonderful and powerful and inspiring opportunity to learn from people all across the country to develop a different set of skills—and greater strengths.”

Listen on Apple Podcasts,  SpotifyStitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.


The Meteor is guided by our collective; here’s what founding member and producer Ginny Suss is up to this week.

“Hi, I’m Ginny Suss and here’s a taste of what I’m into right now.”

I’M WATCHING RESIST, the new documentary about the Resistance Revival Chorus [of which Suss is a co-founder] that just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. It explores how our chorus came together, and various other choruses that have popped up around the country following our toolkit. The way these women come together and raise their voices in the spirit of protest is inspiring.

Also, Pose, the final season. This show is giving me life. It’s not only shining a light on trans issues, uplifting Black joy, and feeding us some serious dance moves, it’s also revisiting ACT UP’s incredible AIDS activism and art of the 80s and 90s.

I’M LISTENING TO This Joy! The Resistance Revival Chorus’s album is out now on all streaming platforms. Plus, get your limited-edition RED vinyl.

I’M READING The Overstory, by Richard Powers. It’s by far one of the best novels I’ve read in the past 10 years.

I’M FOLLOWING adrienne maree brown. Her writing is transformative, including her ideas about Pleasure Activism, and her study of Octavia Butler’s works is genius.

I’M DOING LESS Sleeping.

I’M GETTING MY JOY FROM Music, friends, sunshine, and water.

Ginny Suss is a producer, content creator, documentary photographer and founder of Ginny Suss Productions. She is also a founder of the Women’s March, OkayAfrica, and the Resistance Revival Chorus.