A Survivor’s Strength

By Tamara Juarez, May 2017 Issue.

Sexual and domestic violence is prevalent across all demographics, including the LGBTQ community. In fact, an average of 61 percent of bisexual individuals and 43 percent of gay and lesbian individuals experience sexual violence at least once during their lifetime, according to a national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010.

Incidents of domestic violence and other forms of sexual violence, such as rape and sexual assault, occur in the LGBTQ community as frequently as the rest of the general population. However, most cases do not identify the sexual orientation of the victim when recorded in a database at local shelters or advocacy organizations, limiting the amount of information available about victim demographics.

Considering the additional obstacles minority victims face when attempting to escape an abusive relationship, most experts agree that sexual and domestic violence is under-reported in the LGBTQ community.

LGBTQ Victims Face Unique Obstacles

There are many factors that can discourage LGBTQ members from reporting sexual violence.

Tasha Menaker, director of sexual violence response initiatives for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, believes one of main problems with the process is institutionalized heterosexism and cissexism.

“Rarely do domestic and sexual violence outreach and awareness campaigns include the LGBTQ community,” she explained. “And, as a result, survivors may be less knowledgeable about their options following victimization, their rights as victims and the availability of community resources.”

Unlike heterosexual victims, LGBTQ survivors face additional obstacles – such as outing themselves – when seeking help or in the process of reporting the crime to law enforcement, healthcare providers or shelters.

From Victim to Survivor, LLC’s CEO, founder and president Melisa Mel, who recently received the 2017 Beth McDonald Arizona Woman of the Year Award, explains some of the unique challenges LGBTQ victims face.

“It’s very hard for a victim to come forth,” she said. “But when you’re LGBT[Q], it’s even harder, because now you’re not only concerned about victim blaming, you’re also concerned about judgement.”

Melisa Mel. Photo courtesy of fromvictimtosurvivor.vpweb.com.

As a LGBTQ community advocate and victimology expert,  Mel asserted that experiencing loss is another factor the LGBTQ community.

“We’ve all lost friends or family over being gay, or we’ve lost opportunities at work, or opportunities from our own fear of what might happen,” she said, “that constant hiding, that constant judging yourself or being judged affects how you’re going to reach out when you’re a victim.”

This also lends itself to another factor that may prevent LGBTQ individuals from leaving a toxic situation: Weakened support systems creates a stronger attachment between the victim and abuser and can lead the victim to believe that they have no one else who they can depend on besides their abuser.

As both sexual violence survivor and a member of the LGBTQ community, Mel said it’s critical to understand the different obstacles minority victims face in order to create an effective safety plan.

There is a long list of the things that must be considered, she said, including whether the person is publicly out, if they have a supportive family, how far they need to get away, if there are children or pets involved, if it’s physical or emotional abuse and if the abuser has weapons.

Tracking Victim Information

In order to make reporting sexual and domestic violence crimes less challenging for LGBTQ victims, Mel said, the Phoenix community must raise awareness around the issue and begin implementing different strategies to make programs and services more inclusive for minorities.

To start, local shelters and nonprofit organizations could consider tracking the number of LGBTQ people that use their services and resources, which would increase people’s knowledge of the actual number of LGBTQ victims in the Valley – intel that would help determine the steps needed to create further progress.

For now, however, most of the resources dedicated to assisting sexual and domestic violence victims do not track cases based on sexual orientation.

Angie Swart, the chief program officer for Chrysalis, a 24-hour crisis shelter in southern Phoenix, explained the reasoning behind the lack of data collection.

“When a person comes in, they can be in a crisis, so what we try to do is minimize the data we collect to only what is critical or crucial data needed to report on,” she said. “But we are realizing that this is a piece of data we need to get along with other critical information.”

Beginning last year, Chrysalis added sexual orientation to the list of information that the shelter asks victims for upon intake, but there a few bugs to work out before the updated database can start yielding insightful information.

“Our agency is a leader [in] providing services to the LGBT[Q] community, but we ourselves are still playing catch-up with capturing data correctly,” she said. “Our database didn’t allow for us to capture LGBT[Q] clients until this year.”

Chrysalis has served members of the LGBTQ community thought its nonresidential program since it was founded more than 35 years ago, and offers resources and help to any victim of sexual or domestic violence, including transgender individuals.

Additionally, Swart said she hopes to see other shelters and nonprofits following a similar path by becoming all-gender inclusive and culturally responsive.

Bridging Law Enforcement and the LGBTQ Community 

Advocates and victims aren’t the only ones impacted by the implementation of inclusive programs. Police officers and sex crime investigators, including Phoenix Police Department’s Lt. Jeff Benza will also see a positive effect from having victims report cases of sexual and domestic violence.

Benza said he assures victims will be treated with the utmost respect and professionalism regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“When we do our investigations, we don’t care who the victim is. We just care if they were victimized, and then focus on how we can stop the suspect,” he said. “Making sure they have a voice is very big for us and an investigation ... to have a vocal victim who is willing to prosecute and own the investigation with us helps.”

The law enforcement officer of 18 years emphasized the importance of having victims share their stories in court and how each victim plays a critical role in empowering current other victims and help prevent future sexual and domestic violence crimes by putting abusers behind bars.

Mel, who has written eight books about victimology and vulnerable populations, agrees with Benza, and claims that one of the most powerful things the LGBTQ community can do to lessen the burden of reporting a sexual and domestic violence crime is to facilitate discussion about the topic and make people feel safe about sharing their stories.

“There’s a ton of other community members who need to hear from [LGBTQ victims],” she said. “A gay man speaking on how his partner abused him is a very powerful thing to hear [for] another gay man that is being abused, because it makes them think, ‘if he can do it and come out, then so can I,’ and seek help.”

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