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Partner violence among forum topics [28 May, 2008]

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Violence is usually discussed within the context of heterosexual families and social groups.  It’s widely assumed that people in same-sex households, communities, and relationships are either incapable of causing harm to each other, or that their needs can’t be met by mainstream anti-violence groups.  As a result, significant issues like intimate partner violence or the particular needs of transgender youth seeking shelter from abusive homes are not addressed.  This leaves portions of the LGBTQ community without the conventional resources available to heterosexuals who seek relief from abuse. 

These and other points were raised at a day-long panel and community discussion, “Violence Within and Against Queer Communities,” organized by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects at the Center on Halsted.  The May 24 event’s panel featured Alicia Vega, co-chair of Amigas Latinas, and Ann Russo and Michelle VanNatta.  The latter two women represented Women and Girls Community Action Network (WGCAN) and the Queer Transformative Justice Project. 

Vega talked about the findings of Proyecto Latina, a survey initiated by Amigas Latinas (AL) to gather data about the experiences and lives of queer latina women.  Until this survey, which was carried out from January to July 2007, there had been no statistical information about the community.  Amigas wanted to “speak from a more informed place” about the women it represented.  The questions asked about everything from health care to marital status. 

According to Vega, the survey drew over 300 participants and revealed both new and surprising information.  The responses indicate that discrimination, for queer Latina women, does not occur only on grounds of sexual orientation but is also based on race and gender identity.  The survey also asked about female to female violence because “we wanted to learn about people’s experiences with violence.” To the surprise of many members of Amigas Latinas, and the audience, some women reported being forced into sexual activity by female strangers. 

Nearly 100 women were born outside the US; “and many are currently undocumented,” according to Vega.  She said this indicated that “immigration status could be a controlling mechanism in a violent relationship.”  Such raw data gave members of Amigas Latinas “an opportunity to have conversations” about issues facing the community, and showed that people could not be simply divided into categories of survivor and perpetrator.  Rather, same-sex issues indicated that “there’s an equivalence of violence back and forth” and that the resolution of such issues “requires a very different approach,” one that might include conflict resolution. 

Vega said that one immediate plan for the study was to take “the three most compelling bits of information and put together action groups.”  Amigas has recently received funding to hire a researcher to perform full data analysis of the survey. 

Ann Russo and Michelle VanNatta are members of Women and Girls Collective Action Network (WGCAN).  They each spoke about their experiences with the issues of domestic and community violence.  VanNatta is a criminologist whose research indicated that lesbians were being excluded from domestic violence shelters, “sometimes because of explicit policies.” Both Russo and VanNatta emphasized that they were not only interested in reforming such institutions but looking for “alternatives to the criminal legal system.”

According to VanNatta, the domestic violence/shelter world is too professionalized, with harmful results.  For instance, professionalization results in skewed power relations between survivors and shelter officials who wield a great deal of control over the women seeking help, and who require them to live by onerous rules.  As a result, survivors are turned into disenfranchised “victims.”  VanNatta also addressed the violence experienced by women within organizations that are supposed to help them, even though “we don’t think of the state as a rapist.”

Both Russo and VanNatta felt that the anti-violence movement had moved away from community-based solutions, and that the system depended too much on the state which, in turn, asked for immediate solutions like jail time without providing a long-term plan for the cessation of violence.

For alternatives, they pointed to a recent report by WGCAN, titled “Communities Engaged in Resisting Violence,” which documents alternative strategies to anti-violence work used by 16 Chicago groups.  These include Young Women’s Empowerment Project, which works with young women in the sex trade.  Russo pointed out that the group doesn’t paint the women as victims or criminals but simply provides a safe and non-judgmental space for them, regardless of whether their work is a choice or not.  According to Russo, this is the sort of necessary non-judgmental community-based work that works with members’ needs, instead of imposing the “one size fits all model” used by the state.

Both Russo and VanNatta stressed the “need to do something in addition to social services.” For both, such work is especially important because it provides an alternative for LGBTQ people and answers the question: “What does [the anti-violence movement] mean for queer issues of violence?”

Originally published in Windy City Times, 28 May, 2008

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