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.
In a previous essay, I discussed sexual assault and relationship violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) campus communities — specifically, how faculty and staff members could support such students systemically. In this article, I will provide suggestions on how to interpersonally support LGBTQI students who disclose experiences of sexual or intimate partner violence to faculty and staff members.
Understand why LGBTQI students may not report. It is highly likely that LGBTQI students may avoid reporting relationship or domestic violence to the police, campus officials or medical professionals for fear of discrimination or mistreatment. A report from Lambda Legal found that 14 percent of LGBT respondents reported being verbally assaulted by police, and 2 percent reported being physically assaulted by them. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that, of those trans people who had interacted with the police, 22 percent reported harassment, 6 percent were physically assaulted and 2 percent were raped or sexually assaulted by police. Additionally, for trans people who do not have identification that accurately matches their name or appearance, filing a police report can be remarkably difficult.
On college campuses, LGBTQI communities are likely to be strongly interconnected, and survivors may not disclose relationship violence within community spaces for fear of being shunned or isolated from those communities. That can likewise be a problem within many other marginalized and activist communities. LGBTQI students of color, for example, who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized communities, can feel even more pressure to ignore violence within those communities.
Be willing to listen to and support LGBTQI survivors. LGBTQI students may have few people to whom they feel they can disclose relationship violence or sexual assault. For that reason, they may turn to a trusted staff or faculty member on campus for help. If you suspect a student is going to report sexual or relationship violence to you, inform the student whether your position is bound by Title IX or the Clery Act to report this information to your institution so that the student can make an informed decision about whether (or not) they wish to disclose to you.
Do not underestimate the positive advocacy or support role that you can play for students. While it may be outside of your comfort zone, you do not need to be a counselor in order to assist a student who discloses relationship or sexual violence to you. You can encourage a student to seek counseling or call for culturally-competent support if they are in crisis.
If a student does disclose sexual or relationship violence to you, I encourage you to follow these steps:
- Thank them for trusting you with the information.
- Empower them to make their own decisions with regard to reporting, seeking medical attention and/or pursuing mental health care.
- Be willing to refer the student to campus or community supports.
However, in order to refer students to campus or community services, you need to not only be aware of what support systems are available, but you must also have knowledge of the extent to which these supports are LGBTQI inclusive and competent. Support systems that are not inclusive of LGBTQI students — or worse, hostile toward LGBTQI students — can do more harm than good. Students should not be revictimized by the very services that are supposed to help them, yet many LGBTQI people face discriminatory responses and biased service.
Further, in situations of bias-motivated sexual assault (i.e., “corrective” sexual assault, or assault on the basis of one’s LGBTQI identity), emotional trauma is typically heightened. Referring a student to unsupportive or hostile campus supports can make the student feel they are under attack, further exacerbating this trauma.
You can help by educating yourself about the resources available on your campus and in the community. If you find that the existing resources are woefully inadequate for responding to the needs of LGBTQI survivors, suggest updates to policies or practices. For example, ask your student health center to implement the use of this gender-neutral anatomical diagram skin-surface assessment for their forensic sexual assault exams.
Follow up after disclosure. Trans and intersex students, in particular, will often avoid seeking legal, medical or mental health care due to the documented fear of revictimization. Trans students may also neglect to discuss past or current sexual or relationship violence with a therapist due to the fear (perceived or real) that this will delay the therapist writing a letter in support of their transition or that the therapist will question a causal relationship between their gender dysphoria and survivor status. Men students may have little or no access to sexual violence peer-support groups, and lesbian and bisexual women may feel unwelcomed in existing sexual violence peer-support spaces.
Clinical research on supporting survivors of sexual violence suggests that establishing a reconnection with the broader community is vital for the recovery process. However, due to the relatively small size of LGBTQI campus communities, it may be difficult for students to reconnect, particularly if their assailant is also a member of that community. As students all over the country have demonstrated, continuing to see one’s attacker on the campus is incredibly distressing. Due to the fact that LGBTQI students are less likely to report, their attackers are less likely to face legal or disciplinary action — and therefore more likely to remain on the campus.
The increased risk of isolation for LGBTQI survivors can have detrimental effects on their mental and emotional well-being, which has marked ramifications for their academic pursuits. When possible and appropriate, I encourage faculty and staff members to check in with the student at regular intervals. Are they seeking ongoing counseling or mental health support? Have they connected with resources? Are they experiencing isolation or harassment as a result of reporting? Are they still in an abusive relationship? (If so, you should suggest that they develop a safety plan.) Is the quality of their schoolwork suffering?
Some people may not wish to continue engaging in discussions with you after initial disclosure, but if a student trusted you enough to disclose, they probably intend their relationship with you to be ongoing. As a campus practitioner, your role as an adviser or mentor to students is powerful. Checking in with students can let them know you care about their well-being, that you wish to see them persist with their education, and that you are willing to be a continual source of support to them.
In sum, as educators and practitioners, the relationships we forge with students can have a profound impact on their college experience, persistence and overall academic success. Understanding our role in supporting the holistic well-being of our students, and taking steps to support students who are struggling with relationship and sexual violence, can help make a tough road a little easier for LGBTQI survivors.