Dirty laundry

In the wake of the murders, the Northwest Network gathered to display the Clothesline Project―an art installation created collectively by hundreds of GLBT survivors of domestic violence. All evening people stopped, read the messages of strength and survival, mourned the deaths, and talked about how to make the community stronger.

On August 11 in Seattle, 29-year-old Eric Cooper and his 3-year-old son Cooper Chen were brutally murdered. Louis Chen―Eric’s partner of over 10 years and the boy’s other father―has been charged with their deaths.

In my role as the coordinator of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review, I pay attention to news reports about domestic violence homicides. This death struck me in a different way.

I had the reactions I always do when I read about someone killed by an abusive partner: sorrow for the loss to family and friends; grief at the terror the victims had to experience; and outrage that another life has been lost at the hands of an abuser.

This time I had another set of reactions too. As a queer parent, I worried that the publicity around the murder would fuel homophobic, right-wing arguments that gay men are sick or crazy, that gay parents are unfit, that GLBT families are unnatural.

I’m sure people from any community can relate to the fear that airing our “dirty laundry” will be used against us. That if we acknowledge that domestic violence happens in GLBT relationships, we’re providing ammunition to people who want to paint us as sick and deviant.

As I watched the news coverage unfold though, I think the opposite is true. I believe that naming what happened to Eric and Cooper as domestic violence helps us understand their experience. The evidence suggests that domestic violence happens at about the same rates in gay couples as in straight couples. Honestly talking about abuse in the gay community makes it possible to confront it, to respond, and to prevent it.

The gay agenda

Last month, I celebrated along with 53% of Americans when New York became the 6th state to legalize gay marriage. But while I cheered the happy gay couples, another part of my brain is ambivalent about the victory. After all, the institution of marriage has a sordid history—from sexist wedding rituals to cultural and legal ties that keep women trapped with abusers. And getting married means more housework for women and less for men.

At the same time, marriage brings benefits that LGBT folks have been denied. And full access to marriage (and divorce) removes one strand from the web of homophobia, sexism, and racism that batterers can use to control their partners. For example:

  • When a couple’s relationship is publically acknowledged and celebrated, homophobia loses its power to isolate LGBT people from the support of their family and friends. This means they have more help—both to have great relationships and when violence happens.
  • We know that child custody issues are a major barrier to leaving an abuser. And for LGBT parents, marriage means that the non-biological parent is more likely to have their parental rights recognized by family courts, schools, and health care providers.

Right wing rhetoric claims that the mere act of gay couples saying “I do” is enough to upend the institution of marriage. If only radical social change was that simple! I’m rooting for a day when we achieve marriage equality and much more—economic justice for women; healthy, equitable relationships for everyone; and public policies that support all families, married or not.

The Revolution Starts at Home

What does it mean for an abuser to be held accountable? What does justice for a survivor look like? And how do we get there?

I’ve been studying domestic violence murders for the past 7 years and have seen time and again how the legal system is profoundly limited in its ability to provide justice, safety, or healing for survivors of abuse. But focusing on the failures of the police and courts can feel hopeless, because it is not clear where else to turn. I envision that our own communities can step up to confront abusers and support survivors. Yet it is hard to imagine communities where sexism, homophobia, isolation, and victim blaming don’t get in the way.

A new book, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, is a collection of stories from people who have also wrestled with these questions. The authors are activists working against racism and homophobia. It makes sense that the people trying to figure out how to hold abusers accountable within their own communities are those that have been the least served and most harmed by the criminal response to abuse—LBGTQ folk, people of color, immigrants.

The stories bring to life both the hope and promise of community solutions to domestic and sexual violence, and how painfully difficult this process can look on the ground. In one essay, a grassroots activist group describes how they organized to address abuse by one community member toward another. Their process had all the key ingredients for justice: a focus on the survivor’s safety and healing, treating the abuser with respect while demanding real change, and directly confronting the conditions that allowed the abuse in the first place. And yet, their efforts took years, required massive energy and commitment, and they found it was hard to know whether they were making real change.

Reading this book left me feeling both excited about the creative work being done and overwhelmed with the work left to do. The efforts, aspirations, and even failures in these stories felt like a call to action for all of us working to end domestic violence. As Andrea Smith says in the introduction, “the question is not whether a survivor should call the police, but rather why have we given survivors no other option but to call the police?”

Battle vs. Love

Want to see, at a glance, a summary of the messages boys and girls get every day about our expectations for them? Crystal Smith at The Achilles Effect analyzed the words used in television ads marketing toys to boys vs. the words used to market toys to girls. It won’t take more than one look to figure out which is which.

Battle vs. love. Competition and violence for boys vs. cooperation for girls. Competence for boys vs. style for girls.

Marketers are not just selling toys; they are selling a world where boys are strong and forceful, and girlhood is much more about how you look than what you do. Whether toy manufacturers create these gendered expectations or simply reflect the values of the broader culture, the messages are powerful. The average kid watches hundreds of television ads every week, from toddlerhood through teen years.

So, how many dating violence prevention campaigns do you think we have to run to balance this out? How many posters in high schools about equality in relationships will it take? Is there any way we can prevent domestic violence when this is the landscape we’re working with?

International Women’s Day

March 8, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. In honor of 100 years of organizing for peace, economic justice, and women’s empowerment, check out these links to learn about innovative and inspiring activism happening around the globe right now.

Maiti Nepal works with girls and women in Nepal who are vulnerable to trafficking and forced prostitution. Their work includes teaching girls about trafficking so that they can avoid being tricked or lured in.

Chouchou Namegabe risked her life to broadcast the testimonies of women who had been raped by militia men in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The organization she co-founded — South Kivu Women’s Media Association — uses media to empower women and fight sexual violence.

No One Is Illegal is campaigning to change the Canadian government’s policy that allows immigration enforcement agents to enter shelters for women fleeing violence to detain and deport undocumented survivors.

And have you seen The Girl Effect video? It is a compelling vision of how investing in education for girls living in poverty can give them the tools to improve the health and well being of entire communities.

What has inspired you lately?  Share more links here. Get inspired. Spread the word. Join the movement.

A Lot Like You

Needing a break after over a decade of working against rape and domestic violence, Eli Kimaro quit her job, took a filmmaking class, and set off to Mount Kilimanjaro to film a documentary about her father’s Chagga tribe. Raised in the U.S. by her Tanzanian father and Korean mother, Eli’s ambitious project was motivated by her struggle to integrate her own complex cultural identity.

After months of filming, the footage she envisioned – village rituals, folk dances – eluded her. Instead, when Eli asked her aunts to tell her about their marriage ceremonies, they told her stories filled with brutal violence. She had no idea this was part of her family’s history – yet it resonated deeply with her own experience as a survivor of violence and advocate for other survivors.

The film that has emerged, A Lot Like You, weaves together big themes – exile and return, multicultural identity, violence against women – all told from an intimate point of view. For me, the film is a powerful reminder that when you scratch the surface of any story – from the tale of an entire culture to your own family’s history – you find stories of women’s suffering and survival. Some are hidden; some are known but not spoken; some have been repackaged as tall tales or family jokes. My family has these stories. I doubt I know one who doesn’t.

A Lot Like You raises questions for all of us – How does violence shape our sense of who we are? When we tell stories that have been silenced does that strengthen or threaten our family bonds? And what stories will we leave as our legacy for the next generation?

Truth and consequences

Weeks after WikiLeaks released thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested in Britain on charges that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.

Supporters of WikiLeaks decry Assange’s arrest as politically motivated. Of course it is. When was the last time we saw an international manhunt for an alleged date rapist?

But it is disturbing how many WikiLeaks’ defenders have completely dismissed the idea that Julian Assange may be guilty of a crime. As if it’s impossible for a guy to be admired, talented, or unjustly politically targeted AND a rapist. (Roman Polanski, anyone?) Bloggers are tripping over each other in their rush to make the usual victim-blaming, rapist-excusing arguments: she agreed to sex and regretted it later; she’s a man-hating feminist; she couldn’t have been raped because she was friendly toward him the next day.

There are also some more original arguments for why Assange should not have to face the charges against him. Like that Sweden is a bizarre, feminist dystopia where sex without condoms is criminal and courts reflexively believe women. Bloggers are deliberately using a strange-sounding English translation of the charges — “sex by surprise” — to make the accusations seem ridiculous. Even Naomi Wolf is leveraging her feminist credentials to mock the women and their “injured feelings”.

I don’t know whether Julian Assange raped anybody. But the charges against him are serious. Assange is accused of refusing to stop sex when one woman told him to, pinning her down with his body. He is accused of having sex with another woman while she was sleeping. Should he get a pass because he is a political target?

We all know these charges would never be pursued without the U.S. vendetta against WikiLeaks. But attacking the women who say Assange raped them doesn’t advance free speech. Far from it. The misogynist blustering manages to distract from the important debate about democracy, state secrets, and the limits of journalism — and empower rapists at the same time.

Princess boy

A new children’s book, My Princess Boy, tells the story of 5-year-old Dyson Kilodavis – a Seattle boy who loves dressing up in pretty, sparkly dresses – and his family’s support for him to be himself. A video of the Kilodavis family’s appearance on a local talk show has been viewed over 100,000 times. What Dyson’s family is doing is so simple, yet it has clearly touched a nerve.

Kids do all kinds of funny things, but when boys cross gender lines, adults get anxious. Why? Sometimes it comes from a homophobic fear that a boy who wears princess dresses will grow up to be gay. Sometimes they’re just worried that he’ll be rejected by peers and targeted by bullies.

I think we should worry more that when we pressure boys to reject “girl things” it sets them up to feel ashamed of important parts of themselves – the sweet, the expressive, the magical. Michael Kaufman argues compellingly that societal pressure on men to conform to “expectations of masculinity” contributes to men’s violence against women and homophobic violence.

I have four young sons who like baseball and racecars and mud. They also like tight sparkly jeans, pink cowboy boots, and tutus. They like the things that make them happy not because they are “boy things” or “girl things” but because they are fancy, or fun, or (in the case of the glitter jeans) “sooo rock and roll”. I want them to know that the sparkly things in life are not off limits to them now or ever. Boys need adults’ permission to like what they like, and they need to see grown men who embrace beauty and sweetness.

Even though he liked the pull ups labeled “GIRLS”, my 3 year old was suspicious: “Are these for girls?” he wanted to know. I told him, “Well…they’re for anybody who likes butterflies. And rainbows. And pink.” Relieved, he shouted “Oh good! I like butterflies!”

Me too.

Gay divorcees

Same sex couples can legally marry in five states and the District of Columbia. But state law allowing marriage is not enough. Without federal recognition, the benefits and protections that marriage affords same sex spouses are not portable from state to state. As several recent cases show, couples may not be able to get a divorce anywhere their marriage isn’t recognized. For LGBT survivors of domestic violence, this can mean being legally tied to an abuser with no way to divide property or establish child custody.

The right to divorce doesn’t make for feel-good campaigns about equality and love. (And when was the last time you heard anti-gay activists insist on preserving the sanctity of divorce between one man and one woman?) Yet the ability to get out of a legal marriage contract is every bit as important as the right to get in.

All of us who care about ending domestic violence need to fight for full marriage equality. We need to demand that the federal government recognize all marriages. Anything less leaves LGBT partners vulnerable.