Private First Class Kaylie Harris was only 21 when she took her own life after allegedly being sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.
Kaylie’s mother, Carey Harris, was informed that earlier this year, 10 days after her daughter came out as a lesbian on Facebook, she filed a sexual assault complaint against a fellow service member. She was placed in counseling and under a do-not-arm order and received a protective order keeping her alleged attacker away from her.
But then, the military removed Kaylie from the do-not-arm list and let her come into contact with her alleged rapist once more. Her mother says the encounter left Kaylie reeling. Just days later, she bought a handgun and died by suicide.
The military currently has no hate crime laws, but now, Carey Harris wants to see that change so what happened to her daughter never happens again. “I asked them, ‘did this man know that she was a lesbian?’” Harris told USA Today. “And they said, ‘Oh, absolutely… everybody knew.”
While her attacker’s motivations aren’t known, Kaylie Harris had previously discussed concerns about sexual assault in the military and the military’s treatment of LGBTQ+ troops. Her recruiter assured her the military was doing more to protect women and that LGB troops no longer faced discrimination.
Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military, said this case is a part of a larger culture.
“The military talks a lot about suicide prevention and supporting survivors and LGBT troops, but their action rarely equals the words they use,” he said. “There still is a culture of disbelief when survivors come forward and an attitude that even if the survivor's allegation is true, 'they should just walk it off.' Too many of these cases end in tragedy like this one, in part because of the military's failure to keep offenders away from their victims.”
Because Kaylie cannot serve as a witness, obtaining a hate crime conviction would be extremely difficult, according to Eugene R. Fidell, a military law expert at New York University Law School.
He said it’s also unlikely the military will add a hate crimes provision, as that usually requires more than one example of bias.
Now, Harris is left without her daughter, and possibly, without any recourse. “[The military] opened it up for the gay and transgender population to come in but you don't have a way to protect them,” she said. “That's not right.”
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at (877) 565-8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at (866) 488-7386. You can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.