Recently, the national transgender rights organization I work with was asked to present multiple workshops at a conference dedicated to preventing and responding to violence against LGBTQI+ college students. The event included five full-day pre-conference intensives—one was on a widely-used, evidence-based program to train campus bystanders to intervene in situations of domestic and sexual violence. I quickly built attending that intensive into our contract, and looked forward to participating. But by the end of the first four hours, I was in tears.
The training was good—professional, well-thought-out, well-paced—but it was missing something crucial: I couldn’t see myself or any of the people I work for in it.
With but one split-screen exception, all of the scenarios and stories during the intensive were about women assaulted by men. There wasn’t a female perpetrator in sight. There were no lesbian or gay couples. There were no images that looked like the person might identify as non-binary. Even the bystanders were frequently portrayed—completely unnecessarily, I’ll add—in heterosexual relationships.
I could not make myself finish the training. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more upset I became. Although I felt personally dissed—this was an LGBTQI+ conference, after all!—when I was able to move beyond navel-gazing, I realized the problem was much worse than I had initially thought. What this program is teaching LGBTQ students and their peers on the many, many campuses that are using it is that violence against LGBTQ students is not worth noticing.
This omission contributes to the well-documented problem of higher rates of sexual and intimate partner violence (IPV) against LGBTQI people and the lower willingness of these victims to access healing and justice services.
Firstly, it teaches any LGBTQ individuals in the audience that the violence against them only “counts” as violence if they are a non-transgender woman assaulted by a non-transgender man. Some of these programs are a mandated part of college admission, adding an underlying sense of agreement on this point from the institutions students are now part of. As a result, LGBTQ people may not identify what happens to them as a crime—instead, they may view the abuse or misconduct as a “normal” part of being LGBTQ, something they need to learn to live with just like they must live with societal homophobia, biphobia or transphobia.
Erasing LGBTQ identities from anti-violence work also teaches bystanders to not notice or label as sexual assault or IPV what happens between men and women in same-sex relationships, relationships in which at least one member is transgender or any relationship in which a woman is the perpetrator. As a result, bystanders and others—including service providers—cannot and in some cases will not recognize, let alone intervene in, much of the violence that affects LGBTQ individuals.
Most immediately, these kinds of omissions teach LGBTQ individuals who do recognize they have been the victim of sexual assault or IPV that whoever sponsored the training and education program—be it a campus sexual assault program, rape crisis center, domestic violence agency or even an LGBT group—isn’t going to help them, as that program does not even recognize that they exist. As a result, LGBTQ survivors will shy away from accessing the healing and/or justice services that they need, and will be more likely to use other coping strategies—like alcohol, drugs, non-suicidal self-injury or risky behaviors—in order to deal with the trauma on their own. Most importantly, that means that LGBTQ survivors will continue to live with the pain from the violence they experienced, and suffer with it in isolation.
We must all do better to include LGBTQ stories in our anti-violence work. To continue to refuse to do so is to continue to do actual harm to some of the most vulnerable communities in the field.