Sexual assault and IPV in the queer community: the community’s response to harm

SDS: This is the final week of our three-part guest post on sexual assault and intimate partner violence in the queer community. And one last time, we’re going to light our candle as we hold this topic with the care and compassion it deserves. So far in this series, we’ve talked about various experiences of harm within the context of queer community, as well as factors that can impact a person’s access to resources. But today we want to talk about the role of the community in responding to harm, sexual assault or intimate partner violence. We’ll offer some steps that we as community members can take both to prevent harm and to make our community safer for those who have experienced harm.

BJG: Community itself is such a precious resource. Community takes on many forms and can provide so much to an individual: affinity, support, connection, fellowship, and even the possibility of discovering companionship. As we mentioned in our first post, for a small community, it’s quite possible that you would come to know many other members by face at least, if not also by name. A small community is “where everybody knows your name.” This is true not just for the BGLTQ community, but many others on campus, such as religious groups, cultural affinity groups, and shared-interest groups.

SDS: Cheers for that great description, BJG. Experiences of harm can jeopardize access to community, as we’ve touched on before. Think of all of the places where the queer community gathers on campus. It can be harder to avoid a person if they’re at the same dances, community mixers, in the same student groups, or attending the same kinds of courses (take ‘Women, Gender, and Sexuality’ classes, for example). “Will the person who harmed me be at the next party?” “Will I have to see them at club meetings?”

BJG: Other members of the community may be drawn into this experience as well. For example, hearing about another person’s experience of harm can bring up painful memories for someone who has had a similar experience in the past. Likewise, someone who has experienced harm, or someone who has caused harm, may reach out to a friend to process that, and to figure out what to do next.

SDS: That raises another issue. When everybody knows your name, it can feel like everybody knows your business, too. Unfortunately, when harm occurs between members of the same community, that information can travel quickly. The community can begin to feel quite small, and privacy can be hard to come by. It can be really difficult when community members take sides; whether or not they were there, and whether or not they were privy to what took place, people can form opinions.

BJG: Speaking of opinions, there may also be concern about how this all affects perceptions of the queer community. There is a sad history of homophobia and transphobia that has led our community to be portrayed in a negative light. Addressing sexual assault and intimate partner violence as a problem could feel like pathologizing the community, feeding into the narrative there is some particular vice or sickness at the heart of the community. Even for the two of us, naming all of these very real issues that people experience within the queer community feels a bit like airing our dirty laundry, or unearthing something that is better buried. But there’s a pernicious way that this harm gets perpetuated, and normalized, when we don’t encourage ourselves and our communities to reflect and talk frankly about what we can and should be doing better as a community. In many ways, silence hasn’t helped us.

SDS: Sometimes, the only way to root out these problems is to address them directly, as difficult or uncomfortable as that may be. We as a community should be thinking about these issues all the time. And that goes for members of any community, big or small. Before anyone names harm, we should already have created space to support them. It shouldn’t feel like someone naming harm is “rupturing” the community, because there should already be an open and consistent dialogue on harm. This is something that every community should aspire to.

BJG: Community also has a role to play in healing and prevention. This can take the form of willingness to intercede when you notice controlling or predatory behavior, or indications of harm. It can mean checking in on friends and others around you in social settings, particularly when alcohol is involved. It can mean respecting people’s privacy, and not spreading information or rumors as gossip. And because you never know if, or when, someone will reach out to you for help, it can mean being familiar with the resources that exist on campus to support those who have experienced sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and other forms of harm. These are all expectations that community members can set for one another.

SDS: Ultimately, that requires people to reflect seriously on the question, How do we want to treat people in our community? And how does that reflect our history and our values? We think about this a lot in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, and we’re so glad for the opportunity to share these reflections on queer community, resources, and access over the past three weeks. We hope it’s encouraged you to think about your role in helping to minimize the barriers to accessing resources, and creating communities where people feel safe and take responsibility for one another. Finally, we invite you to hold onto this flame, and be a light for someone around you. Come stop by our office at 7 Linden St, or visit us at our new location in Grays Hall starting in January. See you around campus!

Sheehan Scarborough, Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life

BJG, Undergraduate Intern ("Quintern") in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life

Sexual assault and IPV in the queer community: finding support and affirmation after a harmful experience

SDS: Thanks for joining us for week 2 of 3 in our (the BGLTQ Office’s) guest post series. Just as we did last week, we’re lighting a candle to both acknowledge and center those who have experienced harm.

BJG: So, last week we talked about the context of queer communities and relationships and how that plays a role in how harm is experienced. As part of that, we explored some of the factors that might impact how individuals within the queer community access resources - factors such as outness or the size of the community. This week, why don’t we dig a little deeper into that and think more about how this affects someone within the queer community after they’ve experienced harm.

SDS: I think it’s so important to recognize that sexual assault can be an incredibly isolating experience. As we mentioned last week, shame, fear of retaliation, one’s degree of outness, and concerns about whether you can trust people to believe your story can all lead a person not to share what they’ve experienced. I’m reminded of the many people in the television and movie industry who’ve recently spoken out about their own experiences of assault, some going back as far as decades. That’s a long time to hold on to that pain. As difficult as it has been to hear these stories of sexual assault, it’s encouraging to see that people are using this opportunity to call for systemic change. Part of changing the culture around sexual assault and harassment means working to destigmatize the experience of harm.

BJG: It’s important for queer people to receive affirmation and acknowledgement of their experiences of harm. This goes hand-in-hand with the affirmation of the people and relationships that reflect a wide variety affections, intimacies, identities, and orientations. In short, to affirm and acknowledge harm, we must also affirm and acknowledge the people experiencing that harm.

SDS: That’s really well said, BJG. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of systems, such as homophobia and transphobia, that lead queer people to not feel accepted or affirmed. Can you speak to some of that, in your experience as a student?

BJG: Sure. The lack of education about gender diversity, the struggle to find all-gender bathrooms, the required gendering of first-year housing, assumptions that people will make about a person’s sexuality, and the ways gender and sexuality are included and not included in curriculums can all make queer students feel excluded and powerless on campus. To solve these structural problems, it’s not enough for individuals to just not be openly homophobic or transphobic. The default on campus and in society in general is homophobia and transphobia, so those outside of the queer community must put in extra effort to oppose those defaults and create an inclusive space. In addition, queer students’ experiences within the Harvard queer community may not always be the most affirming. Is the queer community accepting and diverse? What intersections of identities are represented at queer events? How can we avoid forming exclusive cliques within the community?

SDS: You’re so right. While we as a Harvard community strive to be inclusive and affirming of all genders and sexualities, there are reminders that we still have a long way to go. Part of our work in the BGLTQ Office is to educate the campus (staff, students, and faculty) about gender and sexual diversity, and to create space for building community across the various identities that we hold as queer people. But this is only part of the work. It’s also important to have people who are easily accessible and available when students want to speak with someone who they feel will understand their specific experience as a queer person. In regard to sexual assault, all of the staff and interns in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life are trained to be able to serve as a confidential resource. And every house and yard has its own BGLTQ Tutor or Proctor to serve as a local resource for queer students. While BGLTQ Tutors and Proctors don’t have confidentiality training, they are a great source of support and advice, and can help connect students with other resources on campus.

BJG: I’m actually on staff for Contact Peer Counseling, and we’re confidential undergraduates trained to listen to and understand the experiences of queer students on campus and provide information on additional resources. Queer Harvard students who have experienced harm are welcome to visit Contact or call us during our drop-in hours. Some students may also want to turn to their queer peers, such as friends or classmates, for support. For students who don’t want to access official campus resources, queer peers can be their first point of contact for getting support.

SDS: And let’s not forget that there are other great resources that aren’t queer-specific, but which are definitely queer-friendly and queer knowledgeable, such as our friends and colleagues at OSAPR; Emily Miller, the College’s Title IX Coordinator; the Bureau of Study Counsel; and Response Peer Counseling. This isn’t an exhaustive list! You can learn about these and other resources in the links we’ve provided below.

BJG: We hope that this has been a helpful start to a conversation about the aftermath of harm and how queer students who’ve experienced harm can access resources on campus for support in the aftermath of a sexual assault. We hope you’ll join us again next week when we’ll explore the ripple effect that sexual assault has on members of a small community.

Sheehan Scarborough, Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life

BJG, Undergraduate Intern ("Quintern") in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life

Additional Resources

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence in the queer community

SDS: Many thanks to the folks behind the Sexual Literacy project for inviting us as guest columnists today! We’re glad to have the space to speak to some of the concerns that have come up for the queer community in regard to sexual assault and intimate partner violence, or “rape culture” generally speaking. I want to “light a candle”, so to speak, to be mindful of those who have experienced this harm. We’ll try to hold this flame with care and respect as we move forward. But to start off, perhaps we should clarify who/what are we referring to when we talk about the “queer community”?

BJG: Sure! The queer community is made up of people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or any other identity that is not straight or cisgender. It’s important to note that not everyone within the community identifies as queer, and people can hold multiple LGBTQ+ identities, such as being transgender and pansexual. Even amongst LGBTQ+ people, there is sometimes doubt as to whether it’s a “community” in the traditional sense, as there are a variety of identities and experiences that fall under this umbrella, and everyone doesn’t experience the same sense of connection to others in the group.

SDS: That’s right. It may be more accurate to talk about queer communities, plural. No two communities look the same, or have the same needs, or even advocate for the same rights and resources. But in general, there are some features that are consistent across communities: for example, they tend to be small, “where everybody knows your name”. Access to community isn’t always guaranteed, and this can depend on where a person lives and how open they are about their queer identity.

That said, when we talk about sexual assault or intimate partner violence in the queer community, we’re not talking about a new or heretofore unseen form of harm. Rather, it’s the same old, pernicious harm, but played out in a particular social and cultural context. It’s important to acknowledge that.

BJG: There are a variety of features that generally impact relationships in queer communities. There can be pressure for the relationship to look perfect or live up to a certain standard, particularly since the small size of the community can lead to fewer examples of what a relationship can look like. The smallness of the community can also lead to “two degrees of separation” so to speak, where others in the community are all aware of the relationship and the partners in the relationship have many mutual friends. There can also be relationships in which partners meet anonymously, particularly for those who are not out. All of these features can impact someone’s decision to communicate their experiences in their relationships.

SDS: Even if we just look at something like outness, for example, it makes sense that a person who has concerns about being perceived as queer may not share everything about their relationship with those who under other circumstances might be considered confidants. In reality, this can also prevent people from reaching out for help from offices or organizations that support those who have experienced the harm of sexual violence or assault. There are lots of reasons why a person would not want to openly identify or be identified as queer: for example, out of fear of reprisals or stigma, for safety reasons, because they haven’t decided or aren’t sure that they do identify as queer, or even because the language and labels (gay, bi, trans, etc) just don’t fit their experiences. This also applies to the language we use to describe those who experience harm: “survivors” and “victims”. The question for some people becomes, ‘Does this apply to my situation? If the language doesn’t apply, then is this a resource or a support system that is actually made for me, with my experiences in mind?’

BJG: Beyond the barriers for reaching out for support, barriers also exist on the other end by the offices and people who are supposed to be in a position to provide support, such as police officers and counselors. It can be invalidating for someone to have to explain themselves more than once or justify their situation, because others don’t trust it at face value or their situation doesn’t seem to fit the typical mold, or the stereotype. A person could also have concerns about their situation being given the care and attention it deserves, as prejudice, transphobia, and homophobia often lead people to dismiss queer experiences.

SDS: Wow, I’m glad this is just the start of this conversation. There is so much more to say! Next week, we’ll continue this conversation and consider the role that community has to play in supporting those who have experienced harm. As people who identify as members of the queer community, we’ve tried to shed light on an uncomfortable topic while also holding these experiences with sensitivity. Just as we lit the candle at the start of this post, we’ll carry it with us over the next two posts as well.

Sheehan Scarborough, Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life

BJG, Undergraduate Intern ("Quintern") in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life

For Further Reading: