Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jackson Wright Shultz is an activist, educator and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. He is a current doctoral student at New England College, an administrator in TRiO Student Support Services at Everett Community College and an adjunct professor at Granite State College. Jackson is also a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.
Supporting LGBTQI Survivors, Part I
For the past five years, a trans colleague and I have facilitated one of the only transmasculine-specific sexual assault support groups in the United States that meets regularly. Working extensively with trans survivors of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence has provided us insight into the distinct needs and challenges facing trans survivors. While this community work is mostly separate from my life as an academic, I have gleaned a number of lessons from facilitating this group that are applicable to the college campus.
Most of us working in a college setting know that college students are at greater risk of experiencing sexual violence than are their similarly aged noncollege peers. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex students face additional risks. While violence within these communities is likely underreported, we know that sexual minority individuals experience sexual violence at a significantly higher rate than their heterosexual peers and about one in two transgender individuals will experience sexual assault or abuse in their lifetimes. This data makes it abundantly clear that college campuses need to take measures to address issues of LGBTQI intimate partner and sexual violence.
While many well-intentioned faculty members and administrators seek ways to support survivors, few resources exist that specifically deal with relationship violence within LGBTQI college populations. Some of the bystander initiatives and consent campaigns that colleges have developed may address same-gender relationship violence, but they rarely tackle issues of particular concern to trans and intersex students.
In this first part of a two-part essay, I will describe how to provide general support for LGBTQI survivors on your campus, specifically ways that faculty and staff members can begin to lay the groundwork to support them. In part two, I will give recommendations on ways to provide one-on-one support to LGBTQI students who disclose issues of sexual or intimate partner violence to faculty or staff members.
Get educated. A crucial first step in supporting LGBTQI survivors is to understand that violence in LGBTQI relationships manifests differently than it does in heterosexual and cisgender ones. For that reason, many LGBTQI people do not recognize the signs of intimate partner violence in their relationships.
For example, tactics of power and control in LGBTQI relationships can include additional issues such as identity abuse, wherein abusers threaten public disclosure of the person’s LGBTQI identity or HIV status as a form of manipulation. Even physical and sexual abuse can go unrecognized, as LGBTQI people are not taught to identify relationship violence outside a heterosexual and cisgender paradigm.
LGBTQI people also face additional barriers when it comes to reporting sexual or intimate partner violence. The willingness to report same-gender violence is predicated on one’s comfort with being out as LGBTQI. Students who are not out, or who do not identify as LGBTQI but who are experiencing same-gender sexual violence, may be uncomfortable reporting relationship and sexual violence to campus authorities. Given the mistreatment that LGBTQI people often face in the prison and judicial system, many survivors are reluctant to report LGBTQI abusers to the police for fear of subjecting a community member to the violence inherent in the penal system. And, in fact, their abusers may capitalize on this hesitancy. What’s more, details of domestic disputes are often printed publicly in local newspapers and police blotters, which is cause for someone who has not publicly shared their LGBTQI identity to avoid reporting incidents to law enforcement.
These examples are just a few of many, but they underscore the need for increased education about relationship violence both within LGBTQI communities and for those who wish to support LGBTQI survivors. If campuses have already put in place bystander or consent initiatives, these programs should be vetted for LGBTQI inclusivity. If they are found only to address the realities of heterosexual and cisgender relationships, campuses should consider adopting an LGBTQI-inclusive bystander or consent campaign. They should also consider implementing additional education and training for both students and practitioners about relationship violence. Individuals who wish to be better advocates for survivors should take the initiative to learn about the resources available to LGBTQI students on their campus, particularly around issues of sexual assault and relationship violence prevention and support.
Some campuses will be more resistant than others to implementing LGBTQI-inclusive programs about relationship violence awareness. For campus constituents who feel comfortable agitating for these programs, leveraging your power to vocalize demand for such programs is an excellent way to show your support to LGBTQI students. For those who are in more precarious positions, such as contingent faculty and members of marginalized groups, pushing for changes at the campus level may be more difficult. However, do not underestimate the potential positive impact of offering your individual support to survivors.
Make your office a safe zone. The concept of the safe zone or safe space predates the long-standing debate about trigger warnings in the classroom. While the precise meaning and effectiveness of safe zone stickers on college campuses vary, safe zones usually apply to office spaces rather than classrooms and indicate that the office holder has undergone some form of ally or advocacy training, feels comfortable talking about LGBTQI identities and issues, and will not permit microaggressions or other forms of harassment of LGBTQI students within that space. My LGBTQI students frequently cite the importance of safe zones and campus signage that indicates supportive allyship. They feel more at ease to disclose issues — such as harassment or relationship violence — in areas they have identified as safe spaces.
I encourage you to seek out resources at your own institution or in your own community for safe zone training. If no such resources are available locally, consider an online version of the training. Having facilitated many dozens of safe zone trainings, I can state unequivocally that displaying a safe zone sticker or other safe space signage in your office is a simple way to indicate your allyship to LGBTQI students. However, this is an action that should not be taken lightly; calling your office a safe zone but failing to live up to all that the name indicates is an offense that students will not quickly forget. Recognize that your safe zone sticker is making a promise to students regarding that space and your role as an ally — and be willing to take responsibility for upholding that promise.
Believe in your impact. While this introduction is hardly exhaustive, taking these basic actions can go a long way toward supporting LGBTQI survivors on your campus. As faculty members and administrators — regardless of our area of focus or operations — we can play a profound role in making the campus climate one that is supportive of our LGBTQI students.
The actions above can lay the groundwork for students to recognize the ways in which relationship violence manifests in LGBTQI relationships, and they can provide safe spaces for students to consider disclosure of intimate partner and/or sexual violence.
Part two of this essay will offer suggestions on how to specifically support students who disclose LGBTQI intimate partner or sexual violence to faculty or staff members.