Amanda Nguyen is the first person to label herself a nerd. During her internships at NASA Headquarters, when she was 18, the California native worked on the Grand Challenge Asteroid Redirect Mission to calculate the orbital dynamics of near-Earth objects. For fun, she collects meteorites and travels to Florida to witness rocket launches. (She’s seen six.) While studying government at Harvard, she played classical piano and researched exoplanets with the Smithsonian.
It was also during her time at college that Nguyen was raped. Traumatic as that was, because of some arcane laws on the books in Massachusetts, three years on she must travel to Boston from her home in Washington, D.C., every six months to fill out paperwork that prevents her rape kit from being destroyed. “In Massachusetts, evidence is kept for only six months, and authorities are not required to contact the victim before they toss kits out — even though the statute of limitations is 15 years,” she explains. “I am being re-victimized by a truly broken system.” Had her rape happened in Michigan, for example, her evidence might have been among the 10,000 tested kits that, as of March, resulted in the identification of 729 serial rapists and 36 arrests. “Justice is dependent on geography,” she says.
So Nguyen is redrawing the map. Hours after she submitted to the humiliating medical examination and was met with enigmatic legal hurdles, she took to her computer and fired off an email to any public servant with a published address. She asked them to help her canvas the 50 states for laws that best supported sexual-assault survivors and reframe those edicts as civil rights. That one email led to the formation of Rise, a loose collective of lawyers, students, activists, financial advisers, and even politicians with the goal of passing a comprehensive Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. Among the logical liberties the bill calls for: providing rape kits at no cost to victims; keeping the evidence until it’s no longer admissible in court; informing survivors of any DNA matches and toxicology reports; alerting them before a kit is destroyed.
The legislation written by Nguyen, now a deputy White House liaison to the State Department, found strong support from New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen, a long-time champion of women’s rights. Senator Shaheen shaped the bill for federal adoption, and it passed the Senate unanimously on May 23. “Amanda is very courageous,” Shaheen says. “She is taking the position that something so awful should never happen to anyone again.”
The Twitterati agrees. A former colleague of Nguyen’s, now at Funny or Die, put together a satirical skit of supervillains pillorying the existing laws, which Judd Apatow tweeted the day after the legislation was introduced. Two weeks later, Patricia Arquette posted Nguyen’s Rise petition on change.org to her Twitter account. “This happened faster than we imagined,” says Nguyen from her Chinatown apartment, which is decorated with hand-drawn, glitter-embellished cartoons of her personal hero, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (“the Notorious R.B.G”), and a scale model of a Saturn V rocket ship that the aspiring astronaut is building. Nguyen was not going to quit until the patchwork of unequal state laws were tossed out and replaced with improved, codified federal rights.
Her persistence paid off. The House voted in September, and on October 7, President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, S.2163, into law. “It’s time people realize that survivors have rights, and Rise is offering a way forward,” Nguyen says.
Now Nguyen can turn some of her free time to her other priority. “I am determined to find my own planet,” she says. If the youngest White House liaison on staff can get a rape law passed, surely an exoplanet is within reach.