Op-Ed: Inclusivity for LGBTQ survivors

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 6:49pm

Though the most common narrative surrounding sexual violence and intimate partner abuse tends to focus on heterosexual relationships with a female survivor and a male perpetrator, it’s important to remember that these issues affect relationships between people of all social identities. In fact, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of sexual violence were much higher among lesbian women, gay men and bisexual men and women than among heterosexual people.

The survey reports that approximately 13 percent of lesbian women and a whopping 46 percent of bisexual women reported having been raped at some point in their lives. Forty percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men reported experiencing sexual violence other than rape. Compared to 17 percent of heterosexual women reporting rape and 21 percent of heterosexual men reporting other kinds of sexual violence, these statistics show that sexual violence has a major presence in the LGBTQ community. So why are LGBTQ survivor stories so invisible? 

When people don’t see themselves represented in a situation (in this case, among abuse and sexualized violence survivors), they tend not to identify with it. Many LGBTQ people are afraid to report their assault or to speak out about their abuse because they worry the resources available for survivors aren’t “for them” or feel they aren’t included and accepted in safe spaces for survivors. This “othering” can make the survivor feel further alienated by society.

Another huge barrier for LGBTQ people seeking resources or support is the gendered language that tends to be used when discussing assault. It is often implied that all survivors are female and all perpetrators are male, which, for many survivors, is inconsistent with their story. Because they do not see themselves accounted for in resources supporting survivors of abuse and assault, many LGBTQ people do not speak up or seek help.

Another possible reason behind this could be that members of the LGBTQ community who experience sexual violence are afraid to tell their stories due to stereotypes and their minority status. There’s a sentiment that if there is an issue with sexual violence in the community, then straight people will have another excuse to marginalize them. Other members of the LGBTQ community may have friends or family members who are skeptical of LGBTQ people’s sexuality and partner choice. This may cause the individual to feel like they have to work extra hard to keep up the appearances of a healthy relationship in order to make sure people have no reason to further disapprove of the relationship and, by extension, their sexual orientation.

There is also the fear of being outed. LGBTQ people who have been abused, but have not come out, fear speaking about their experience or seeking resources for help because they are not yet ready to be out. In the case of abusive relationships, the abuser could even use their partner’s fear of being outed as leverage to keep their partner from leaving.

With all these real issues and fears, what can be done to combat this problem? How can straight people — survivors or otherwise — be allies to the LGBTQ community both generally and in the context of sexual assault and intimate partner violence? One big step is inclusive language. The use of “partner” rather than “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” includes all gender identities and all types of relationships. Rather than gendering sexual assault and intimate partner violence, understanding that these things can happen to people of any and all social identities is crucial to opening up the conversation about domestic violence to everyone. Regardless of their identity, all survivors deserve to be heard and believed.

Rachel Thursby is a SAPAC network publicity activism volunteer.