Photo: Orin Zebest
AUSTIN, Texas – On Monday, February 20th, as part of the 20th Annual Barbara Jordan National Forum (BJNF), the LBJ School of Public Affair’s Pride Policy Alliance hosted a training workshop on identifying and interrupting domestic violence in conjunction with SAFE Austin, with an emphasis on intimate partner violence and sexual assault specifically within the LGBTQ community. The BJNF is an annual weeklong event designed to honor the life and legacy of former congresswoman, distinguished public servant, and UT professor, Barbara Jordan.
The theme of the student-led 20th annual event was “Emboldened Public Service: Challenging Wrongs for a Just Society.” Based on Dr. Jordan’s remarks at “The Johnson Years: LBJ: The Differences He Made,” a symposium held in 1990, this year’s forum centered on the topic of righting wrongs and our civic duty as public servants to challenge injustices.
“If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority.”
The workshop facilitator, Maisha Barrett, a community education training specialist at SAFE, opened the workshop by establishing the space as a safe learning environment and making sure we felt comfortable with the potentially triggering material. Ms. Barrett went on to underscore some of the more salient aspects to identifying and interrupting domestic violence among the LGBTQ community. Some red flags mentioned were noticing your friends or family isolating themselves, getting frequent calls or texts from their partner, changes in routines at school or work, or frequent “accidents” and injuries. One of those most important aspects to identifying domestic violence in the LGBTQ community is recognizing that LGBTQ people are legitimate victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and they often fail to report for fear of discrimination. Maisha stressed that often the best way to interrupt domestic violence is to help the victim learn about resources like SAFE Austin, so they can remove themselves from danger. Too often friends or family intervene in direct or confrontational ways and risk escalating the situation. An example of a safer method was the “palm pass,” a handshake designed to pass a small business card with SAFE Austin’s contact information. These cards were widely distributed at the talk.
Maisha went on to discuss how domestic violence impacts different groups in different ways, highlighting what could perhaps be termed the “take away” message from the workshop – domestic violence and sexual assault within the LGBTQ community, especially queer people of color, are often erased from the collective consciousness by the media, as well as by our own passive indifference. “Being LGBTQ is not the problem,” argued Maisha, “society’s reaction to being LGBTQ is the problem,” in response to the problem of society’s refusal to see LGBTQ victims of domestic violence as legitimate.
In large part, the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault within LGBTQ relationships being seen as less legitimate is an issue of historical erasure and the promulgation of misleading data. Maisha laid out some troubling data in her presentation. According to a 2010 intimate partner violence report by the CDC, 48.3% of lesbians, 61.1% of bisexual women, and 26% of gay men have experienced at least one incident of sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, data for transsexual individuals is seriously lacking. This is for a few reasons, according to Ms. Barrett. For one, statistics on intimate partner violence rely on self-identification, which could potentially further endanger trans individuals. Also, the nature of public opinion and the democratization of media has allowed the popular narrative about transsexual individuals to be influenced by negative stereotypes, like the “transsexual sex worker.” Depictions of trans individuals as sex workers, even tongue in cheek, are damaging to public perception of domestic violence and sexual assault against trans people.
In a segment entitled “myth v. truth,” Maisha discussed several myths about domestic violence and sexual assault present in popular culture. For example, the argument that men cannot be abused or sexually exploited. Not only is this far from accurate, there is a recent example in our own backyard here at the Forty Acres. Ms. Barrett showed the audience video footage of the homicide reporting of Stephen Sylvester, an 18-year-old UT student who was assaulted and murdered by his abusive boyfriend. And yet, at no point in the clip were the words “domestic violence” or “boyfriend” used.
Maisha discussed how this example is a testament to the consistent lethality in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. Lethality is never something “no one could have seen coming” according to Ms. Barrett. Deaths resulting from domestic violence follow an often very predictable pattern. When victims are trying to leave the abusive relationship is when the most cases turn lethal. Maisha demonstrated many of these patterns of behavior and identifiable tactics used by abusers and perpetrators of intimate partner violence with members of the audience at various points in her presentation.
Some of the other topics she touched on in her presentation were the connection between intimate partner violence and human trafficking, barriers to calling the police during and after incidents of domestic violence, and a survey of some of the recent policy decisions surrounding domestic violence in the LGBTQ community. Maisha described the effect of including LGBTQ relationships as a provision within the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013, a piece of legislation designed in part to prevent and protect against intimate partner violence; it almost failed to be reauthorized. Maisha concluded the workshop with a survey of various resources available to the public to help save anyone they know who may be a victim of intimate partner violence, before then opening the floor for questions.
Many of the questions centered around the implications of living in a post-Trump world. One question posed by Marimar Miguel, a second year MPAff student at the LBJ School, really resonated with me. She asked, “how can we better help individuals we may know who are victims of intimate partner violence and are also undocumented?” citing a recent case in El Paso as an example. To this, Ms. Barrett responded “we are in a whole new world.” Indeed, since January 20th of this year, America is treading uncharted territory when it comes to domestic policy, LGBTQ rights not excluded. In my opinion, there is even more reason to hold these kinds of training exercises, and to continue to raise public awareness of LGBTQ social issues.
Edited by: Elizabeth Petruy