Dear Domestic Violence Advocates: It Happens to Us Too

Dear Domestic Violence Advocates,

I am writing to you to ask for your help. I am so thankful that all your hard work has resulted in such great visibility for survivors of domestic violence. It is true that domestic violence is no longer a closed-door issue. It is widely recognized and I cannot seem to escape the media coverage of this important social issue. The sports world has been shocked by the stories of Jerry Sandusky, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Kane and so many more. The entertainment world has seen continuous stories, from celebrity perpetrators such as Bill Cosby to victim's who have gone public like Ke$ha. The religious world has continued to face reality with religious authority figures engaging in sexual misconduct and cover-ups. Even the political world has not been immune to the violence.

All of this visibility only reinforces those words that you have been telling us for years; domestic violence truly can happen to or be perpetrated by anybody. I come to you for help, because I am pleading that you take a closer look at these words. The truth is, I am one of you -- an advocate. I am also a survivor of sexual and emotional abuse. I work with you every day; I attend meetings with you and sometimes even serve as a resource to you. Being one of you, I take part in conversations before they become public. One of these common conversations in particular has motivated me to ask for help, to challenge you and to plead with you to take a harder look at the message that domestic violence does not discriminate.

The conversation I am talking about is always prompted by the question: "how do we get men to start utilizing our services?" Immediately upon hearing the question, my stomach turns, my heart races and my palms become sweaty. I know what is coming, I am about to be used as the token male advocate. Unfortunately, I don't identify as a man -- but you make the assumption anyway. I think to myself: "how long will it take for us to include transgender and non-binary individuals, if we are still working on including men in our services?"

Inclusion takes a lot of work. It takes updating policies like your non-discrimination policies to include not just sex, but gender, gender identity and gender expression. It takes trainings and improved practices such as allowing client the right to gender and pronoun self-determination or improved safety planning specific to the individual's identity and support system. It takes having a diverse range of gender and sexual identities represented in your agency's literature, displays and staff.

As advocates who work every day to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable and empower every survivor, we need to make our services inclusive. Not simply by putting a sign in your window, but by proactively providing services to survivors of all gender and sexual identities. We need to speak out against bills like North Carolina House Bill 2 that directly discriminates against transgender individuals based on false stereotypes rooted in the hypersexualization of femininity that take the accountability off of sexual predators.

While this legislation aims to portray transgender individuals -- specifically transgender women -- as sexual predators, the reality is we are much more likely to be survivors of sexual assault. In fact, 64 percent of us are sexually assaulted at some point in our lifetime.

Unfortunately for many of us who aim for inclusion, we have to start from the beginning: domestic violence 101. The truth is, the domestic violence that queer and trans individuals face is very different from the domestic violence that cisgender heterosexual individuals face. To truly serve this population, advocates need to understand that and include that in their career long learning.

Transgender individuals often have the validity of their gender questioned as a tactic of emotional abuse. I recall being told, "you do give off a male vibe," in an attempt to justify my struggles. Others have had their hormones and other transition related medicine withheld from them by their partner in an attempt to control their behavior. Perhaps the most challenging part is that many of us in the queer and trans communities have the same support system.

The abuse does have similarities. My abuser harassed me with seemingly endless text messages going as far as offering to pay me to be with her. That type of harassment happens in all kinds of abusive relationships. Others are told nobody else will love them. Some have had their job security threatened by abusers. These threats are usually by telling the survivor that they will out them to their employer, but it is a very similar tactic that many heterosexual/cisgender survivors have experienced.

I tell you this not to criticize the work you do, but to give you honest feedback to improve the services that we are dedicated to. The time is overdue for truly inclusive services and for educating ourselves on how these issues impact different groups. It is time that "all are welcome" becomes more than a sign in your window. Inclusivity takes education, self-reflection and an undying willingness to change. I hope you are willing to do the work.

___________________

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.