Editors' Note: Guest blogger Roberta Sklar is the former director of communications at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Empire State Pride Agenda. She is a communications activist who lives and works in NYC.
Over the past year I've been working closely with the LGBTQ anti-violence community. If there is one thing I have learned it is that outside of the advocates and the service providers, no one wants to talk about domestic violence or sexual assault.
Was it the poet Adrienne Rich (mother of us all, as far as I am concerned) who said the unspoken becomes the unspeakable? And didn't we learn the lesson of the '80s: Silence = Death? Well it seems to me sexual assault is an unspeakable crime - one we are just not talking about enough for it to matter.
I sit at my desk alongside the New York City Anti-Violence Project staff and I wonder: How do they do it? The hotline volunteers, the service providers, how do they listen and respond to the experiences of sexual assault and other violence that our people experience every day? How do they bear the stories of being turned away by police or emergency room workers after a crime has been committed and no one believed the survivor?
Imagine being assaulted and then rebuffed with "Wait a minute, you mean you're gay? You're so pretty it's hard to believe you're a lesbian. What did you say your partner did again? Come on, was this an assault or just rough sex?" Do these responses to reported violence sound like science fiction? Or out of the archives of the '50s? They're not. They're from today, 2010, from New York to San Francisco and back.
I know, gay Pride is coming up, don't rain on my parade. Truly sorry to say, sexual assault in relationships, pick-up sex ending in assault, violent assaults that no one will believe, LGBTQ people being raped and beaten because they are gay, transgender women topping the target list for sexual assault and murder - these are real. Real. Real. Real.
Incidents of violence and their severity soar while the silence is deafening. It's true in the straight world as well. Sexual assault occurs in both communities at, at least the same rate - and is under reported by both. However, when a gay person does seek help after an assault the chances of getting heard slide rapidly down the chute.
From police precinct to emergency room, from need for shelter to the courts, our people are not only underserved, they are often thwarted and experience what is known as being "re-traumatized" - metaphorically speaking, raped again. Why it Matters, a report recently released by the National Center for Victims of Crime, a DC-based alliance of mainstream advocates and service providers, and our LGBTQ community's National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, reveals huge gaps in services for LGBT victims of violence, especially when they seek to report domestic violence or sexual assault.
Two stories immediately come to mind. One is a pick-up incident involving a young man, flattered by an older guy in a bar, who ended up with a drink spiked with a date-rape drug. He reported that he was raped over several hours, his life threatened throughout.
When he was able, he went to the nearest police precinct for help. An hour later he stumbled away dazed and confused by the "condescending, skeptical, sometimes snickering" police response. Uncertain as to whether the desk officer actually filed a report, he felt too overwhelmed by the disbelief over what he'd just encountered to seek medical attention.
The other experience that comes to mind is that of Susan, a lesbian whose partner went into an unprovoked rage, raped her with a strap-on, threatened her life and left her half-conscious in a state of shock. When Susan sought help from the police, she was met with disbelief and a battery of questions that suggested that she was lying. This was followed by a round of questions that seemed to be those of a curiosity seeker rather than an officer of the law. The final insult was when the detective asked her to go home unaccompanied by the police and bring back the weapon of assault - the strap-on - in a paper bag.
Police are often insensitive in responding to our needs in the face of violence. But shouldn't we expect them to be better? Don't we have the right to receive more support following a violent crime? Why is there such a lack of competency when it comes to dealing with LGBTQ victims of sexual assault? Why it Matters calls for public sector accountability, for more federal and local support to educate and bring first responders of all kinds up to speed; to make police, doctors, nurses, therapists, and judges responsible to us as they should be.
Friends, we have got to start talking about this violence out loud. Without our collective voices, nothing will be heard.
April was Sexual Assault Awareness month. Let's bring the awareness into the rest of the year.