News you can relate to

Some stories that caught our eye this week:

How Men Can Help End Domestic Violence “It’s also our responsibility to talk about this issue and teach others what a healthy relationship looks like. It doesn’t matter how you start that conversation. What’s important is having the courage to do it.”

Argentina: hundreds of thousands of women set to protest against violence “This violence is trying to teach us a lesson, it wants to put us back in a traditional role into which we don’t fit any more,” says Cantabria. “It’s not a specific blow by a specific man against one woman in particular, it’s a message to all women to return to our stereotypical roles.”

Domestic Violence Shelters Are Turning Away LGBTQ Victims “Transgender women had a particularly tough time finding services that wouldn’t slam the door in their faces, but gay, bisexual, and transgender men also reported that domestic violence shelters for men rarely even exist.”

A lion’s share of outrage

Photo by Arno Meintjes
Photo by Arno Meintjes

Poor Cecil. By now I’m sure you’ve heard about how Cecil the lion met his sad and painful end. I don’t know what kind of person thinks this kind of violence is fun. I wonder how that dentist from Minnesota treats the humans in his life, but this post is not about him.

It’s about us. I am struck by how many people—on social media, mainstream media, the water cooler—are so vocal about their disgust, shock, and condemnation of the murder of Cecil the lion. Not because their outrage isn’t justified. This was a terrible act. But there is a lot of terrible violence happening right here in our communities every day that I think deserves at least an equal amount of outrage. Some are angry that people are quick to condemn Cecil’s death but not so willing to do the same for other atrocities happening around them. I can respect that anger. And it isn’t an either/or situation. We should be both outraged by what happened to Cecil and about black lives cut short, women and girls being raped…I could go on.

So if you’re feeling that anger, that outrage about Cecil—good! I’ve got five more things that we should muster up that same outrage for:

1) Women of color dying in jail cells—Sandra Bland, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, and many others.

2) The 35 women on the cover of NY Magazine coming forward about being sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the empty chair that represents so many other women and girls who are sexually assaulted every day.

3) The dreadful conditions that exist in Family Detention Centers and the continuing struggles of immigrant women and children who flee violence in their families and countries.

4) Transgender women are being killed at alarming rates.

5) Thousands of women across the country and here in Washington State are being abused by partners who promised to love them.

Last week my fearless coworker Tyra Lindquist had some excellent thoughts about how to fight injustice. Today we are talking about Step 1: Pay attention and get fired up. If we can do it for a lion, we can do it for each other.

From the Supreme Court to the WNBA

ruthshirtLast week I was eagerly anticipating the gay marriage arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court. I even bought this shirt because I’m a big nerd who could listen to Nina Totenberg on NPR recount Supreme Court arguments all day long and I’m a big fan of justice. But when I went to check my news feed, I saw the news of the domestic violence arrests of engaged WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson instead.

I know that abuse happens at the same rate in same-sex relationships as it does in opposite-sex ones, but some folks are thrown off by this. The media had a hard time figuring out how to talk about it. ESPN reporters published their email chain debating how to cover it: How could they report on this in a way that holds the abusive partner accountable and calls for the WNBA to treat this as seriously as other sports leagues have recently promised to do, without feeding into the myth that women are just as abusive as men? Yeah, they didn’t come up with an answer either.

Here’s the thing—power and domination over others is a part of our culture and it rears its ugly head in a lot of different places. We are seeing it in the police brutality in Baltimore and around the country, in the wage gap between races and genders, and in the anti-LGBT backlash to marriage equality. With all this institutional violence it’s no wonder we see abuse in personal relationships as well. Straight or gay, it happens. Not exactly the kind of equality I was hoping for, but one we must recognize and address.

Striving to improve personal behavior is not the only work to be done to end violence in relationships. We have to work on institutional violence as well.

Really America—this again?

It’s State Legislative Session season! While we are working here in Washington to strengthen Protection Orders and secure paid sick and safe leave, others are dealing with something entirely different: Bills that codify discrimination. From Arizona to Georgia to Missouri, states are introducing legislation that would allow businesses and employees to refuse goods and services to those they feel live contrary to their religious beliefs.capitol-building

My dear home state of Georgia is trying to pass a bill with one of the broadest scopes of any of its counterparts. It could not only mean state sanctioned discrimination for the LGBTQ community, but also that women would have a tougher time accessing contraceptives and other family planning services.

Growing up in the South, even 20 years after Jim Crow laws, the lasting effect of these laws was palpable. I can still see today how the rhetoric and treatment of African Americans during that time influences my parents (and many others). Wasn’t that a lesson learned, America? Can we take a moment to reflect on how discrimination breeds hate and violence, and then choose to not go there again?

But what about religious freedoms? After all, the justification behind most of these bills is an outcry about religious liberties being infringed upon. Freedom of religion is an extremely important value to protect. But I don’t buy the argument that it justifies denying someone else their rights or basic dignity. Rev. Emily C. Heath outlines how we can determine if our religious liberties are actually at stake.

To me, these bills feel like a call for superiority for a particular group—not freedom. The messages they send, if they become law, will seep into our communities. Harmful messages about LGBTQ individuals, women, and any other group that might face discrimination because of them. They will worm their way into our lives and our relationships eating away at love, respect, and understanding. It’s one (bad) thing when our lives are invalidated and demonized by individuals. It’s another (even worse) thing when our government says that they think that discriminatory behavior is totally cool.

Love, respect, understanding. These are the things that will strengthen our relationships and dissolve violence. Part of me becomes deflated when I think about these discriminatory bills, but a bigger part of me is actually hopeful. I think they are an indicator of change and are the growing pains that happen before something beautiful emerges.

Geeks making a difference

One of the things that I love about anti-violence work is that anyone can do it, anytime, anyplace. You don’t need to have special training or education to start addressing the issue (though I’m always impressed by and thankful for those folks who’ve gone deeper in their learning).

Case in point: cons. For those who don’t know, cons are fan conventions, most frequently focused on things like comics, gaming, sci-fi/fantasy, etc. Probably the most well-known con is Comic-Con in San Diego, but we have several cons right here in our own backyard, like Sakura Con, PAX Northwest, and GeekGirlCon (full disclosure: I am a volunteer staffer for GeekGirlCon). Cons are a fun way to connect with others who share your geeky interests, show off your cosplay, and maybe even meet some of your favorite artists/designers/actors/writers/etc.

hollaback-coverUnfortunately, cons—like the larger world—can often feel unwelcoming and sometimes even dangerous to women, to LGBTQ folks, to people of color, and others. A little bit of internet searching will bring up plenty of stories and history that I won’t go into here, because what I really want to focus on is what people are doing in response—actions people are taking to make things better!

HollabackPHILLY partnered with artist Erin Filson to create the anti-street harassment comic book Hollaback: Red, Yellow, Blue. They use the comic in workshops addressing street harassment, as well as starting conversations about harassment at cons and in the gaming community.

Con or Bust helps people of color/non-white people attend sci-fi and fantasy conventions, with the goal of increasing ethnic and racial diversity at these events. While this work may not seem to some folks like it is directly addressing harassment, it actually makes a big difference to have larger numbers of folks who are typically underrepresented.

WisCon, GeekGirlCon, and BentCon all took a slightly different approach: they decided to make their own darn cons, focusing on feminism in speculative fiction, women in all aspects of geekdom, and queer geekery, respectively. This type of DIY convention helps create safer spaces, and the effects of those safer spaces often ripples out into the larger, more mainstream cons.

Author John Scalzi wrote about why he won’t attend cons that don’t have anti-harassment policies. He used his influence as a popular writer to take a firm and principled public stand. Not only that, he opened it up for other individuals and organizations to co-sign on his policy—to date, well over 1,000 people have co-signed.

I know these examples are just scratching the surface; please share any additions (or other thoughts) in the comments below!

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.

Bring your gay game

Jason Collins made history when he became the first male player of a U.S. major league team to come out as gay. Cue media blitz. Some reactions were, of course, angry and hateful. Some said, what’s the big deal? Women Jason_Collins_2012_3athletes have been coming out for years. And a great many others, including a lot of straight men, showed lots of love and support for Jason.

And THAT, my friends, is why this is such a big deal.

Yes, it’s true that women athletes have been coming out for years. Martina Navratilova came out in the middle of her career in 1981(!). This year’s top WNBA draft pick, Brittney Griner, came out with barely a media mention (which is enough for a whole other post on sexism). The Atlantic writer Garance Franke-Ruta nailed it when she said “Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshiped as exemplars of traditional masculinity.” Ah, yes. That ‘traditional masculinity’ which dictates that men are tough, rugged, strong, (which of course implies that women are not) and like their intimate relationships to be with women. I think much of how we’ve defined traditional masculinity is harmful to our relationships, gay or straight.

There have been remarks about how inspirational Jason Collins must be to kids out there struggling with their own sexual orientation, but I think his action does so much more. He has given us the opportunity to shift our perceptions of what it means to be manly. Posts like 17 Moments When Jason Collins was Super Gay do just that. He has helped us acknowledge that we can love who we want to love and be who we want to be without the pressure to fit into a box that is not at all the right shape. And when our communities support us to be comfortable in our own skins, we are better equipped to forge happy, healthy relationships.

I married my partner

I married my partner of 20+ years December 9th, at Seattle’s joy-filled city hall. Families, friends, and friendly strangers gathered to cheer on the newly married couples as they descended a grand staircase. It was quite a party.

Getting married is an ambivalent thing for me, as I have been shut out of that institution for a long time. And I’ve seen the very painful, dark side of marriage in my professional life. Let’s face it, the history of marriage is one of women giving their bodies, emotional support, and physical labor to men. And still to this day, this idea and the support it gets in society narrows women’s choices and harms children—in some marriages. So why would I want to participate?

Photo by  joseanavas
Photo by joseanavas

It’s complicated, because marriage is complicated. Our society uses marriage in multiple ways: as a symbol of love and commitment; as a way to access certain legal rights; and to define an economic relationship and expectations. And, historically, as a way to enforce gender roles that give men/husbands the upper hand in decisions about money and priorities in the family. At the same time, marriage is evolving, and extending marriage to same sex partners is part of a long history of changes we’ve made to marriage so that it reflects our current reality.

Since I’ve been in my relationship for over 20 years, getting married didn’t carry quite the same weight as it did for my parents. They were excited to live together for the first time, be independent of their parents, and finally “go all the way.” Um, that all happened a long time ago for me. What motivated me was something my parents and straight friends didn’t give much thought to: having protections and rights that only come with marriage. I wanted to be ensured I could be at my partner’s side if she should end up in the hospital; have the ability to make medical decisions if she were incapacitated; and know that if one of us dies, our assets will transfer smoothly to one another. Marriage makes the legal world out there safer for us and our daughter. So our marriage was a pragmatic decision.

But I was surprisingly moved as well. I think I had willfully ignored all the ways in which marriage symbolizes positive things in our culture: love, hope, the caring and kindness between people. My jaded cynicism was tempered by the joy that broke out when the voters legalized marriage equality. Watching LGBTQ couples celebrating their marriages gave me more hope for all of us, because it happened in spite of the challenges a homophobic culture places in the way of LBGTQ people creating healthy relationships.

For that reason, I think my marriage and other gay marriages may have something to teach everyone. They are part of the ongoing evolution of marriage from a system of ownership and entitlement to an institution that nurtures healthy love, human potential, and beloved community. As a very wise friend of mine (who married her beloved of 40 years) says, “everyone benefits and is honored by extending civil rights for all, and from recognizing and embracing the power of love and justice.” We are all uplifted when we extend dignity to those who have been denied rights.

Of course, and very importantly, the other thing that gay marriage gets us is gay divorce. This is a good thing because no community is immune to violence, control, and just plain old dysfunction. Ending a complex and long term relationship requires assistance, protection, and justice.

I’m happy to be married. I am moved to have my state and city celebrate and recognize my relationship and those of all my LGBTQ friends. I am relieved to have the rights and protections that come with marriage. And I’m glad to know that if I should need it, I can get a divorce as well. Because no one’s marriage should take away a person’s ability to make their own choices, follow their dreams, or protect themselves and their children.

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 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?”