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Lesbian Concentrate

The Color of Violence: Conference on Violence Against Women of Color

“To develop a more politicized violence against women movement, a movement that fights for women of color, requires us to reinvigorate grassroots organizing that can augment the crisis intervention and service models that we are currently deploying. We need this movement because our culture is one that accepts violence against women as inevitable. It is… the ordinariness of it that …needs to be challenged, and can be challenged only by organizing.”

This talk was given on April 28, 2000 at a Plenary Panel at the first Color of Violence Conference.  The Panel followed a keynote by Angela Davis.  The conference was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Copyright 2000 Urvashi Vaid

Let’s put on the table first some of the realities facing lesbians, bisexual women and transgender women of color, and some of the challenges that we face inside both the GLBT movement and the violence against women movement, as we undertake work on homophobia, and racism, and sexism and class, in all its complexities. Second, I want to raise some of the practical difficulties in broadening the violence against movement to adopt an intersectional politic, and third, I want to talk about the importance of grassroots political organizing in any effort to challenge violence against women of color.

There are indeed data to be found about lesbians, bi, trans women of color. But they are sparse, they are incomplete, and what we know is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a tremendous need for more research and more gathering of information on us. All data about lesbian, bisexual, transgender women are likely to seriously underreport our problems, not only because the service agencies that collect these data are not necessarily plugged into networks of lesbians and of women of color and communities of color, but also, because of the lack of the research that’s been done on lesbians of color. One of the reasons for the lack of research is because of the reluctance on the part of many lesbians to access service agencies, to access police and other interventions, a hesitation rooted in years of bad experiences and low expectations among other things. But the information that does exist reveals several truths. There is indeed a continuum of violence in the lives of lesbian, bi and trans women of color. I want to talk to you about three kinds of data, data on our lifetime experiences of violence in the lives of lesbians of color, data on same gender domestic violence among women, and data on hate or bias motivated violence against women, and what they tell us.

Surveys of samples of lesbians that have gathered information about women of color reveal high incidences of lifetime experiences of violence in our lives from childhood to old age directed against us by a wide range of different kinds of people and institutions with which we interact. The 1991 Michigan Lesbian Health Survey of 1,681 women revealed that 43% had experienced sexual assault. Twenty five percent had no health care providers; 12.3% had no insurance.

A 1993 survey of 483 lesbians and bisexual women in San Francisco, of whom 11% were African-American women, 11% Latina, 9% API, reported that 40% of them all had experienced childhood sexual abuse.

Data on the experience of violence in the lives of lesbian, bisexual, transgendered youth, gathered by youth service agencies, are also quite stark. They demonstrate widespread evidence of family violence, and we know the high incidence of suicide attempts, and self inflicted violence. In addition, significant data exists on the incidence of violence and harassment against people who are perceived to be GLBT in schools and high schools. From Massachusetts to the State of Washington there are reports that document that playgrounds, elementary school yards, high school playgrounds are just as hostile places as they were when I was growing up.

What is interesting about this information is the use that the anti-GLBT right wing, especially the part found in the so-called ex-Gay movement, has made of these data. One of the things the right argues is that the high lifetime experiences of violence in the lives of lesbian and bisexual women result in our being lesbians; in other words, that violence has helped produce us as lesbians. Therapy and prayer can change us to not be afraid of men, and to accept our true heterosexuality. You know what’s curious about this? The GLBT movement has no counter-narrative. We don’t have a theory about what the high levels of violence in the lives of lesbians and bisexual and transgender women mean to us and in our lives. And you know why we don’t have a theory? Because the mainstream of the GLBT movement today is not feminist.

In the 1998 report on GLBT domestic violence that was produced by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, about 30 agencies that participated in producing this report documented 2,574 cases of domestic violence involving same gender, same sex couples. 2,500 cases were reported by about 30 agencies. Forty-eight percent of these cases involved women. Three percent involved male to female transgender women and one percent involved female to male transgendered. Overall, 52% of the reported cases of same gender violence against lesbians involved white women, 23% involved Latina, 14% African American, 4% API and less than one percent Native American.

Perhaps most alarming to me was a statistic buried in the report. The New York City GLBT Anti-Violence Project found that 80% of those who reported same sex domestic violence to them reported a history of prior incidence of violence. Violence is not isolated; it is a pattern. It is societally pervasive, and it is in our relationships. And the problem of same gender sexual assault, as many of you know, still remains deeply closeted and under-addressed. Stories tell us this problem is out there, but deep shame and lack of acknowledgment render it invisible.

The final kind of data that I want to put on the table is about hate violence, or violence motivated by bias or prejudice. As recently as 1982 there was very little information, and the problem of anti- GLBT hate crimes was seen as a problem arising out of a victim’s behavior, and not from bias of the perpetrator or from social conditions. Indeed, while we’ve changed some of this perception, the response to Matthew Shepard’s death a couple of years ago revealed that victims are still blamed for somehow bringing these attacks on themselves.

The 1999 report on anti-lesbian, gay, transgendered, and bisexual violence, also produced by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), reveals very high incidences of bias crimes. Overall in this country, crimes motivated by prejudice, based on a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, constitutes the third largest category of hate crimes. And that’s according to the FBI statistics, which are drastically low in undercounting a lot of these incidences. What we’re talking about with all these statistics are stories that you know well. They’re stories of real life women experiencing everything from assault to murder, to robbery, to intimidation, verbal harassment, and physical violence because they are perceived to be, suspected of being, or known to be lesbians, bisexual or transgender women.

So let us reflect for a moment on the GLBT anti-violence movement, and the way that we work on violence. Clearly, the advocates within the GLBT anti-violence movement have, like the women’s movement, over relied on strategies that involved law enforcement, police intervention and judicial avenues. And we have a very under-whelming set of options that we’ve proposed that have to do with education or prevention strategies. Really it has been women and men of color in the queer movement who have challenged the movements uncritical call for increased criminalization as its chief remedy for dealing with hate crimes. And the truth is, that our movement has very answers to the problem of violence beyond remedies that rely on courts. It is clear to me that because homophobia and heterosexism are so entrenched in the cultural systems that we encounter, in addition to legislative and legal remedies, we have got to turn our attention to religion, schools and workplaces as sites for organizing, education and intervention. I don’t know exactly what those projects and programs would look like. But the broadening of our work to get to the roots of the problem has to go beyond penalties and Hate Crimes Bills, but has to get into the production of violence in family, in religion, and its nurturance in schools that tolerate violent behavior and hate.

Another problem in the queer movement is that the mainstream of the queer movement operates as if there is a universal lesbian, bisexual or transgendered female experience. The anti-violence agenda in our movement is not defined in very specific reference to the varied experience of violence that women and men of color have, that GLBT immigrants have, that prisoners who are queer might have, or poor people might have. We do not explore the intersectional forms of violence that we face in religious institutions, in the media, etc. The anti-violence movement really doesn’t think of itself as having to challenge all the forms of violence we face. We concentrate on addressing violence primarily through providing services rather than through political or neighborhood level mobilization. I hope we can change these tendencies.

A positive development within the GLBT movement that I want to share with you is the development of a left-wing through progressive, multi-racial groups such as the Audre Lorde Project, among others. Part of the reason we have that progressive wing is because of several decades of leadership by progressive lesbians of color such as Barbara Smith, Carmen Vasquez, Deborah Johnson, and many others. The GLBT movement is not a reactionary monolith; there are real institutions, individuals, grassroots organizations, and networks that are really there waiting to be connected into a strong progressive front.

So what does challenging violence against women require? I think it requires the need to overcome homophobia and heterosexism in the women’s movement. It requires political organizing to complement the service work that we have so brilliantly created. We can do it in a complementary manner. And any movement needs to deal with women’s multiple identities, our racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual, gender, age, economic classes. To do so is difficult. To add an analysis of homophobia and heterosexism to the work of violence against women does make an already difficult task a little bit harder. But it is clearly critical for violence against women organizations to examine how our programs and services affect and impact lesbians, bisexual women and transgender women of color. Unfortunately, the mainstream domestic violence movement’s response to same gender violence is still very uneven. Programs serving lesbians in battering situations are still not institutionalized everywhere that services are provided. We can change this.

In getting ready for this talk I talked to friends, primarily dykes, who work in the anti-violence movement, and I was shocked to find that they said that the anti-violence movement was not a friendly place to be out as a lesbian. Why is it that a movement that has been built and strengthened and sustained by leadership of lesbian and bisexual women, many of whom are lesbians of color, perceived to be an unfriendly place for us to be out? I think we need to ask ourselves questions like, why are lesbians who are not in the closet in most part of our lives feeling constrained to be out in their work in the women’s movement? Why is that? Why are lesbians deprioritizing our own lives, needs and perspectives?

To develop a more politicized violence against women movement, a movement that fights for women of color, requires us to reinvigorate grassroots organizing that can augment the crisis intervention and service models that we are currently deploying. We need this movement because our culture is one that accepts violence against women as inevitable. It’s the kind of tolerance and accommodation to violence, the ordinariness of it that I think needs to be challenged, and can be challenged only by organizing. We need real gutsy advocacy to challenge and nail politicians and religious leaders and schools and colleges, in shopping malls and every other goddamn institution that isn’t doing anything about violence against women.

The goal of organizing in part is to educate and raise visibility, in order to change public opinion. I think we ought to think about reviving media zaps, boycotts, or direct actions against sexist corporations. I think we have to think about creating directing action groups like Act Up, that are focused around violence against women, and violence against women of color. I think we have to systematically target, harass, badger, motivate, plead with our mainstream people of color organizations, like conservative immigrant south Asian groups, to be involved in efforts to end violence and abuse that women face in our families. That’s the kind of organizing that is being done, and I think needs to be strengthened.

We clearly have to target the political process, to promote additional measures that can help the service providers. How are we going to get more funding? By organizing and pushing. It is not going to just happen on its own, and nothing has happened on its own. It happened because of our organizing.

Audre Lorde wrote ‘I know the boundaries of my nation lie within myself’. These are words that every woman of color at this conference can take to heart. This line means a lot to me, and embodies the truth that nations are made up of bodies, that bodies harbor our imaginations and our aspirations, and the boundaries of what is possible are limited only by our imaginations.

There is great promise and hope in Audre’s lines. But to fulfill the promise of social change, to transform our nation, we must, as women of color, believe in our power, and really assert it.

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