It’s National Coming Out Day!

390x420_ComingOutDay-KeithHaringtPerhaps in this age of increasing support for gay rights, marriage equality laws, and the oh-so-popular Ellen, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a need for this day anymore.

But it is needed.

We talk a lot about community and relationships here, on this blog and in the work we do throughout the state. Part of what makes a relationship healthy is integrity, right? If you’re not able to be your full, honest self due to safety concerns or worries about being cast out of your community, what kind of relationship is that? Not much of one, in my book.

Being out actually relates quite intimately to domestic violence. Abusers will often use sexuality and gender identity against their partners and threaten to out them to their families or employers. This is particularly the case for trans women and men: someone who has transitioned may not have told their employers about their past (partly because it’s really none of their business, but also because they may be fired because of it). Additionally, abusers may use their partner’s identity as a way to belittle and humiliate them (“you’re not a ‘real’ woman, no one else would ever want you” or “I know you’ll just leave me for a man”).

When you consider the disproportionately higher rate of unemployment AND higher rates of domestic violence (and all other forms of violence) for trans folks, particularly trans women (and even more particularly, trans women of color), you can see how this would make someone feel trapped in an abusive relationship.

Although the reality is that some people need to remain closeted for their own safety, coming out is still a powerful, vulnerable, and important act. Coming out helps put a human face on issues like  homophobia and transphobia. Coming out helps create a domino effect, allowing more and more people to be an integrated, authentic part of their communities.

Dodging bullets

I’m just talking about me here. My experience. Not what I think happened to you. Or what I think you, or your town, or our nation has experienced on the whole. I’m just talking the highlights of my own life. With guns. And it’s all bad.

Gun #1

Photo by Geraint Rowland
Photo by Geraint Rowland

It’s eerie that I had this post almost done when I caught sight of the picture and story on the front page of the New York Times. This could very well have been about me or one of my siblings in the 1960s. The loaded gun my dad kept in his dresser drawer—artfully hidden a few layers down in his handkerchiefs and boxers—was like a magnet to us kids. We knew we were not supposed to go anywhere near that dresser, never mind the gun. What is it about children’s can’t-stay-away-from-it-because-it-scares-us-so-much? My brother told me he got that gun out and handled it once or twice.

Gun #2

When I was in my mid-20s, several friends and I went through a cowgirl phase. Hats and a six-shooter. We drove out to the Capitol Forest outside of Olympia, with some guns we owned or borrowed, and fired at targets on a hillside. I had some kind of semi-automatic handgun. I was baffled by how hard it was to pull the trigger and the kickback was fierce, but the shocker came when I was lowering the gun. About halfway to the ground, the tiny pressure of my finger on the trigger from the weight of the gun fired it again. I remember feeling like I had a bomb in my hand. “Amateur” you think—but check out this story from Christine Gentry (via This American Life), who was a teenager who knew better.

Gun #3

This is the story of a domestic violence murder-suicide that happened in my immediate family. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write about it. It would be traumatizing to tell, and to read. And in many ways, recounting the details of this particular story is unnecessary because the story has been told over and over again.

Gun #4

This took place ten years ago. My two teenage neighbors poached a deer in the woods by my house. It was out of season, so they confessed to their dad. But they said that they shot the deer in the Capitol Forest (yes, the same). Aw, shucks, Dad. But that was the wrong confession. My next-door neighbor heard the shot, and another neighbor saw one of the boys bloodied from the deer. It was clear they shot it in our neighborhood. I was mad, not about the deer but about them shooting guns near my house. And I was unimpressed by the dad’s response, which seemed to be belief that his naughty boys (wink wink) shot the deer in the Capitol Forest. I called on the phone and asked the boys to come over and talk to me. They came over and sat at my kitchen counter. I said, I know and you know that you shot the deer next door, and I know you’ve duped your family with that Capitol Forest story but it’s not true, so let’s just move on. I love you two and I love all my family and everyone around here who wanders around in the woods. And I would not be able to live with myself if I did not talk to you about NOT shooting guns around here. What if you accidentally shot someone? I would just die if that happened. So don’t shoot guns around my house. Heads hang—okay. Hugs all around. Now go.

Gun #5

And we’re back full circle to my dad’s loaded guns. Fifty years later and these guns were still lying around loaded. He kept one next to his bed. Even as he became blind from macular degeneration, and demented from age and alcohol, he still insisted that he had to have these guns to protect my mom. I knew that if I took them away, he would freak out and might muster enough brain cells to buy another. One day, when my mom had him out for the day, I arranged with a gunsmith to meet me in my garage, where I brought the guns. He disabled them. People always say “oh, he took out the pin,” like there’s a pin. Maybe there’s a pin. I don’t know and I don’t care—what I watched him do was take the guns apart and, with a tiny little rotary saw, cut an internal mechanism so the guns would never fire again. I returned them to where I found them.

The day came when my dad broke my heart, along with his hip, and left his home in an ambulance never to return. He had never noticed that his guns were dead. Which is the best this daughter could do for her beloved mom and dad.

When I really stop and think about it, I realize I’ve been dodging bullets my whole life. How about you? Just for a moment, stop talking about laws and theories and rights. Just stop. Wait. Think about it. Your own experiences—not “I heard about a guy,” or “I saw on the news today…” but what actually happened in your life with the guns around you. Let’s start a conversation there.

Gut check

Photo by VIUDeepBay
Photo by VIUDeepBay

Last summer was the fourth year my family spent a weekend at Jewish family camp. It’s a great experience that I look forward to. Campfires, talent show, crafts, folk dancing, learning and building community, all on the shores of Puget Sound.

Last year was all those great things once again. But I also had an unsettling experience that I’ve been thinking about since. One of my boys had a tough time in the kids program. He is a sensitive kid, and the stress and stimulation of camp was more than he could handle. He was agitated and needed help to calm down. The children’s program director—who was also a teacher at a local synagogue’s religious school—stepped in.

The way he handled the situation was spectacularly unhelpful. It was like a textbook of what not to do to de-escalate a kid. Over several conversations, his responses ranged from inappropriate to absurd. He ranted about being in charge. He was self-absorbed. He warned my kindergartner not to “start fights he couldn’t finish.” It quickly became clear to me he did not have the skill or emotional maturity for the job he was doing. I wondered how he could have kept his job as a religious school teacher if this was how he handled conflict with kids and parents.

I recently learned that this program director, Lydia Katz (pronounced L’Dee-ah), is in prison on child molestation charges. He admitted to having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl he taught in religious school. According to news reports, the sexual abuse went on the same summer he spent with us at camp.

When I heard the news I was shocked but not surprised. I started rethinking what I saw and didn’t see, what I did and what I should have done.

The charging papers described Lydia as a “dynamic and charismatic individual who is able to easily engage with youth.” One way of seeing him was as flamboyant, fun, youthful, outside the box. Another was as narcissistic, immature, manipulative.

Sometimes we do exactly the wrong things to protect our kids from exactly the wrong people. A friend’s preschooler came home recently from a “safety” presentation convinced that “strangers will murder you, your sister, your parents, and your dog.”

Telling kids to fear all strangers is a useless message. And the flip side of that message is downright dangerous: you can trust all adults who you “know.” It is not that trusted adults are likely to be abusers, but abusers absolutely are likely to be trusted adults. (90% of teens who are sexually assaulted are hurt by someone they know. That number is even higher for younger victims.)

The world where only strangers and monsters are unsafe is a fantasy. As much as I may wish I could teach my kids a simple rule that would keep them safe, in the real world they need to develop independent judgment about who to trust. I try to talk to them about the complex process I use to gauge whether someone is safe or trustworthy. I explain why I decided to open the door for this stranger, but not another. Why I chose this neighbor’s house as the place they should go if they need help. When I will talk with someone on the street, and when I just keep walking. Even as young kids, they have to make these decisions all the time, and I want us to practice together.

Now we have the chance to reflect and practice as a community. I’m sure I was not the only one who noticed Lydia was immature and had terrible boundaries. What did we think that meant at the time? What do we see now, with the clarity of hindsight?

This is not about assigning blame. This is gut check practice.

It takes practice—even as an adult—in part because our gut reactions are not pure. We all internalize a lot of garbage that can be hard to filter out. My oldest son once wanted to know, “is it racist if I don’t like someone who’s African American?” My first answer was no—assuming you’re not rejecting a person because of their race, you can dislike whoever you want without being racist. Of course that is true, but I told him he also needs to know this: racism can gum up the works of your intuition. Unconscious negative messages can interfere with your gut feeling about the person in front of you. You can develop strong and reliable intuition by being aware of your feelings and talking about them.

Lydia is a mixed race, Black and Jewish, gender bending young man with a large personality and a big dramatic streak. Some of the news coverage made it sound like that was reason enough to be suspicious of him. But being uncomfortable is not enough to identify a problem. You have to figure out if you are uncomfortable for the right reasons. Racism and homophobia can serve as dazzle camouflage—a cloud of confusion that an abuser can use to hide in plain sight.

It is important for kids to know that the adults in this situation know exactly what happened, without euphemisms or ambiguity. Being confused leaves too much room for excuses, minimizing, and victim blaming.

I will tell my kids this: Lydia did not deserve the trust he was given. He had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. He sent her “romantic” messages. He used the trust he had as her teacher to his own advantage. He put his own desires ahead of his responsibility not to hurt her. He knew it was wrong and he knew it was illegal. He lied about it and he asked her mother to keep it secret. If you had a feeling that Lydia was not okay, you were right. That gut feeling was right. Remember what that felt like, and practice trusting that feeling. Let’s talk about what you can do when you have that feeling again.

I knew this day would come

My 15-year-old daughters reached another milestone yesterday. Experiencing street harassment at the bus stop is not something I wanted to commemorate. I knew this day would come, and I dreaded it. If someone we knew demeaned their spirit or sense of safety, he or she would not be welcome in our lives. But how do you take on the commonplace attitude that men are entitled to comment on women’s looks at a bus stop or during a presidential speech? One of the men said, among other salacious remarks, “oh, if I was 25 years younger, I would have you.” I hate that ownership language. And besides, why would he assume that my daughter would have him? It is one thing to have a theoretical discussion about the objectification of women, but it is quite another to have your kids wondering if it is more risky to get on the bus or to walk back home.

My twin daughters, raised in the same environment, reacted very differently to the harassment. One said “you can’t show them that you are scared.” The other was more unnerved. Another woman at the bus stop yelled out “What did you say?” which made my daughters feel less alone. (Bless you bus stop ally.) teen-girls

I didn’t want to end the conversation with my daughters feeling powerless. We talked about noticing people around you, hanging back if you are uncomfortable, going into a store—really trusting your gut if something feels off. Don’t be afraid to yell out that someone is bothering you. I also had to tell them that this will probably happen again, and it is not about what you are wearing, how old you are, or what you look like, it is about being seen as less than a whole person.

At home, I talk about building a beloved community with each other, among our friends and neighbors, and in my work. How do we build a beloved community that is a big enough tent that this wouldn’t happen again? Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback, thinks we can end street harassment by  documenting each incident and sharing it with the world to shame harassers and build public understanding about the harms of it.

One of my daughters asked for a ride today instead of taking the bus. I gave her a ride, but I also told her that I don’t want her to be afraid to take the bus. I still have some work to do to help repair her sense of self.

Other people’s business

Two of Ariel Castro’s neighbors are being held up as heroes for helping Amanda Berry escape his house after being imprisoned for over a decade. Not to take anything away from these guys, but seriously. When a woman is screaming for help and trying to break down a locked door, it doesn’t take a hero to recognize that the situation calls for action.

What’s heroic is taking action when the situation is not so clear. We’ve now heard that over those years other neighbors saw disturbing signs and called police. So why didn’t those attempts lead to their rescue?

I know from my work studying domestic violence murders that a call to the police is often not the solution. Many of the police calls prior to these murders played out just like what Ariel Castro’s neighbors described. Cops show up to a scene, knock on doors, ask questions. They don’t find evidence of a crime. Maybe they suspect something more is going on, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they write a report, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they follow up later, and maybe they don’t.

There is plenty of room to criticize the police response. But we cannot let that be the whole story. It is naive to think law enforcement can protect us from every evil, and it is dangerous to suggest they should try. Do you really want armed agents of the government empowered to break down your front door because the neighbor saw something suspicious?

The answer is much more complicated, and requires more from all of us than a 911 call. When you see a woman pounding on a window looking like she needs help—go ahead and call. But don’t stop there. Better yet, don’t start there.

Domestic violence murders have something else in common with the horror that unfolded on Seymour Avenue: deep roots. Ariel Castro had a long history of brutality against women and was apparently a victim of sexual abuse himself. His violence had scarred generations even before the kidnappings. Charles Ramsey got it right, talking about his decision to run toward the screaming and the locked door: “It’s just that you got to put that—being a coward, and ‘I don’t want to get in nobody’s business’—you got to put that away for a minute.” Getting to the roots of this kind of violence means putting those attitudes away for good.

Keeping pets safe keeps people safe

A few weeks ago, I shipped one of our In Her Shoes training kits to an animal shelter in California. In my year and a half of doing product sales, I’ve never seen an order from an animal shelter. As a big-time animal lover (seriously, don’t ask me about my dog unless you want alllll the details), I was curious. Turns out they have a special program (the Animal Safehouse Program) for fostering the pets of domestic violence survivors, giving their furry friends a safe place to stay so their human can get safe. The animal shelter is planning to use the training with other shelters and animal control officers, who often witness domestic abuse. Many studies have shown that dogshelterabusers also abuse pets as a means to control, punish, and frighten victims.

This warms my heart to no end. Many domestic violence shelters do not allow pets—which is understandable—but that’s often a deterrent for someone worried about their pet. When I think about the connection I have to my dog, I know there’s no way I could ever leave him behind.

If you love animals and want to help support survivors, you can do something to make a positive impact in your community. Does your local domestic violence shelter allow pets and/or work with animal shelters to coordinate services? Does your local animal shelter or veterinarian have a temporary foster program for survivors of abuse? Find out and get involved!

One of the things we have to fear is fear itself

sandy-hookPart of the experience of parenting these days is the constant background noise of worry. News and social media, endlessly fascinated with danger, feed a steady stream of warning about the perils waiting for our children.

After the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, that low hum of worry turned up to full-volume fear for parents across the country. I felt it too, the gut wrenching, full body chill that comes with imagining the worst. But honestly, I was not afraid for my kids’ safety. I know that violence in schools is very rare and that by most measures kids are safer now than ever.

What I did genuinely worry about is the impulse to react to our fear and vulnerability with ever-increasing “security measures.” Armed guards in schools, more locked doors, fingerprints and background checks for parents.

I’m not naive about violence, but my experience has shown me that we can’t keep danger on the other side of a locked door. I know my children live in a world with abusers and rapists. I know that some people do terrible things to children. I know that I can’t tell by looking which man in the park or on the bus would hurt one of them if he had the chance. Just like I don’t know which guy at the gym or which little league dad is beating his wife at home. I live in a neighborhood where it is not uncommon to hear gunshots. Yet I believe that most of the violence is committed inside locked doors by people who belong there.

When it comes to protecting kids from harm by the people they trust, increased “security” is worse than useless. It actually makes our kids—and all of us—less safe. Tight security undermines connection and community—the very things that are most important to kids’ safety, health, and happiness. This letter from a mom to her child’s preschool points out how. My kids’ school, like many, held a meeting for parents about students’ safety in the days after the Sandy Hook shooting. Some of the concern, of course, was about school security, sign-in procedures, etc. But I was grateful that most of the focus was on how to re-commit to strengthening our connection as a community. Resisting fear, breaking isolation, looking out for each other—safety from the inside out.

Are my daughters safe online?

As a parent of teenage daughters, I worry that being on the internet itself, and especially Facebook, is leading them to make unwise decisions. Like other parents I know, I said “If you want Facebook, I need the password.” But I often wonder―am I understanding what I read? Do I know what is really going on? And when do I talk to them about what I see? I know my daughters crave their privacy even on Facebook, and don’t want any reminders that I am hovering. I want them to have safe, respectful and positive relationships―everywhere they go―is that too much to ask for?

Dr. Danah Boyd studies how youth use social media. I found her recent article “Cracking Teenagers Online Codes” to be both troubling and reassuring. Using social media in and of itself does not put kids at risk — “Teenagers at risk offline are the same ones who are at risk online.” There is a strong fear of sexual predators online, but the reality is that most sexual abuse involves someone our children know, trust, or love. Issues of bullying, homophobia, teen dating violence, suicide, and substance abuse are around, and we need to talk to our children when we see it on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else.

Here is what I found to be most reassuring in the article: “Teenagers absolutely care about privacy . . . like adults, they share things to feel loved, connected and supported . . . teenagers are the same as they always were.” They are using the internet to check out new ideas, see what other kids are thinking about, find someone to relate to. They are trying to relieve the alien teenager feeling. Okay, so even if my daughters’ online lives sometimes feel like a barrier to our connection, I just have to be brave and ask about what concerns me―and keep asking. If I listen with a lot of patience and silence, maybe one or two questions or concerns will slip out, and I will be there ready with love.

Unplanned Parenthood

I was an accident.

My mother would never say that, but let’s face it. My older brother was hell on wheels as an infant and when he turned 6 months, I can’t imagine my mother thinking “oh, wow, I’m getting good at this―I think I’ll have another!”

But 9 months later … ta-da!

That was 1953. I know that unplanned pregnancies were a big part of my parents’ generation, but I kind of assumed by now they were ancient history. Wrong. I just read that 65% of pregnant women surveyed said their pregnancy was unplanned.

What sparks my interest in this whole thing is Traci’s great post from last week and, serendipitously, a visit from a dear friend. I’ll call her Suzie.

She’d just been to visit her niece―let’s call her Kelsey. Kelsey is in her mid-20’s and lives with her fiancé who’s in his late 30’s. Things sound bleak. Kelsey slapped her boyfriend on the butt and he “spanked” her in retaliation leaving bruises and mass confusion. Another time he choked her when they were arguing. Kelsey was asking Aunt Suzie if she should stick with the plan to get married.

Um ….. NO!

Even if Aunt Suzie can’t persuade Kelsey to call off the wedding, they have got to have a heart to heart about the pregnancies. Kelsey has been pregnant twice―neither one intended (at least on her part). She miscarried the first, and terminated the second. It sounds like it’s time for some Aunty-strength advice about getting stealth birth control.

There are countless private battles going on behind closed doors where women are fighting for their sexual health and reproductive autonomy. But each battle is part of the larger war on women’s sexuality, family planning, and access to contraceptives. At least we’ve had one win: the Obama administration just decided to require health insurance companies to cover birth control.

But WE have a lot more work to do. Luckily, the accident of my birth has me here now doing just that.

.com vs. the boy/girl next door

Remember the first social media site you heard about? Did you sign up? I didn’t. In fact, I assumed that only creepy people socialize through their computer. And now, I’m one of the millions on Facebook.

Remember when you first heard about online dating? Did you sign up? I didn’t. Again, I was filled with assumptions about who would resort to that. And now, some of my closest friends are in a relationship with someone they met online. Still, I think for many of us our internal dialogue goes something like this:

Online dating

 Getting set up through friends

Stalker. Period. Oh, they live just down the street, awesome!
Oh, a techie. Cyber stalker. They are so smart and funny…sigh.
They mentioned sex in their profile. Yikes, I better stay away. They want to get to know me!
They want to fall in love. Creepy. Oh, I’m in love. <3 xoxo

 

We talk a lot about how to be safe when dating online. But why do we assume that meeting someone this way is more risky than when a friend sets us up? Stalkers and abusers aren’t just lurking online―they live amongst our friends as well. That great guy your friend has known for years could be a great friend to her AND end up stalking you.

Poll your friends: have any of them been stalked or abused? Ask them how they met that person. Let me know what you find out.