“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Aboriginal elder and activist Lilla Watson
June 9, 2017
By Jimmy Meagher
We all have many identities. I am openly queer, but I’m also white, a man, the son of working class parents, a brother, a boyfriend, and a social worker. These identities make me, me, and they influence the ways I experience the world. Every person has multiple intersecting and overlapping identities. And these identities don’t disappear in the context of intimate partner violence. A survivor’s social location, power, and lack of power can affect how they are treated by an abusive partner.
In the domestic violence prevention and intervention field, we talk a lot about power and control. (In abusive relationships, one partner uses a variety of strategies to assert and maintain power and control over the other.) And in social work, we talk a lot about power and privilege. (As a white, cisgender man, I unjustly benefit from advantages and access to resources that others do not. Even being afforded the chance to write this article is a product of privilege.) These two separate but interconnected ideas are foundational to my work with survivors.
When meeting with a survivor who comes to Safe Horizon for help, I must not (even unintentionally) further disempower the survivor by shaming them, making decisions for them, or telling them what is best for them. I love doing this work because I love working with survivors, hearing and honoring their stories, supporting them, partnering with them to think through options and resources, and creating a space where they can decide for themselves what will help them to achieve safety, security, and success.
I have worked for Safe Horizon since 2008, and I have met with many survivors who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, questioning, transgender, and gender non-conforming. For many of these survivors, their abusive partners used their sexual orientation and/or gender identity to further isolate or control them. Some survivors feared being outed, some feared being arrested by the police, some feared deportation, some worried that they would no longer be able to access the queer spaces they called home, and some hid who they were when they went into shelter out of fear of being assaulted by other residents. LGBTQ survivors, especially QTPOC (queer and trans people of color), face stigma and multiple barriers to safety.
Safe Horizon tries to create a safer space for LGBTQ survivors by training and supporting staff around LGBTQ cultural competency, the necessity of using inclusive language, and the unique and diverse needs and obstacles facing LGBTQ communities. Safety planning and counseling for LGBTQ clients is not one-size-fits-all; we must take the lead from each and every client when safety planning and providing support. When meeting with a survivor, we must also remain mindful of the language we use and refrain from making assumptions about their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. The quickest way a counselor can make a survivor feel unsafe and unheard is to misgender them or their partner.
None of us will ever be truly free until we are all free. As we learned with Pulse, it is still a radical act to live openly queer and proud in America and in this world. And it is still a radical act for LGBTQ folks to come together to dance, to celebrate, to live, and to love in public. Additionally, we must not lose sight that the Pulse terrorist attack was perpetrated against the LGBTQ community on a night advertised as “Latin Night.” It was an attack not just on LGBTQ people, but on LGBTQ people of color.
We are living in a country where at least 11 transgender women have been murdered since the beginning of 2017. So often we only hear about trans women of color in the media as victims of murder and abuse. The murder of trans and queer people, often at the hands of an intimate partner, is a travesty and a crisis, and it must end. Survivor work is not just about the point of abuse. It is about ensuring that queer and trans people, especially QTPOC, can thrive, achieve success, and live up to their full value and potential.
We must work together, all of us, to make our homes, our streets, and our communities safe for everybody, not just some. We must stand behind and alongside survivors of intimate partner violence and all other forms of crime and abuse. We must stand behind and alongside our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, gender non-conforming, queer, and questioning siblings. Let us shine a light on hate and violence in all their manifestations. Let us center the voices of the most marginalized and the most powerless. Those of us with power, especially white people, must find ways to decenter ourselves so our choices, our stories, and our voices aren’t the only ones being heard.