Information for Advocates: Creating an Affirming and Safe Environment
As with any victim, if LGBTQ victims feel that you understand them, affirm their identity, and do not judge them, they are more likely to use you as a resource.
There are several ways you can begin to provide a safe atmosphere in which LGBTQ victims can talk honestly about their identity and their relationship.
- Post LGBTQ-friendly materials in your office, to convey respect and sensitivity toward LGBTQ people but don’t post such materials unless all staff members are prepared to follow through.
- Give individuals an opportunity to
- Transgender people often find that providers refuse to call them what they want to be called, so they may not put the name they actually use on forms they fill out. Acknowledge the name they give you, and also ask whether they’d rather be called by a different name.
- Let them know that you take confidentiality seriously. Ask whether they have any concerns related to the privacy of information about their identity.
- Don’t take it personally if an LGBTQ victim is wary of you. They have likely had negative experiences with other providers. (For instance, one transgender woman had to submit to a police cavity search in order to stay in shelter, because staff said they “picked up male vibes” and felt the need to protect other residents from her.13)
- Use inclusive language in speech and agency materials.
The language we use has a real impact on real people. Being careful with language communicates respect, and makes it safer for the other person to talk with us, leading to better understanding — it’s not just a matter of political correctness.
Individuals choose many different terms to describe themselves, depending on their culture, socio-economic background, where they live, their political ideas, and changes over time. For instance,
- The people to whom labels are applied demand change (as, for instance, when women began objecting to being called girls in the 1960s.)
- Communities reclaim stigmatized words to positively express their identity. Queer has been reclaimed in this way, especially by college-educated and younger people. LGBTQ individuals may use it to refer to their sexual orientation, their gender identity, or both.
- Communities of color might say they are in the life, family, or same-gender loving. Some people prefer to avoid labels entirely.
How do you know whether it is OK for you to use certain words, especially ones that don’t apply to you? For instance, if you are heterosexual, is it OK for you to use queer?
- Don’t use a word if you’re not sure what it means.
- Don’t use it until the other person does.
- Don’t use it if you’re concerned that the individual might find it hurtful. (Homosexual has come to be seen as hurtful because of it’s historical connotation of mental disorder. Don’t use it unless the individual tells you it is their preferred identity term.)
- Find out what each individual wants to be called, how they identify themselves, and what words best communicate respect to them.
- When in doubt, ask. Even LGBTQ people who identify as queer, for instance, may not like it if non-queer people use that word. Depending on context, it may feel insulting or threatening. If you are unsure whether it is OK for you to use a certain term, ask about it in a respectful way: “You refer to yourself as queer. Is that how you’d like me to refer to you?”
- Find out how the person describes their identity.14 Transgender people use many different words to describe their gender, including: transgender, queer, genderqueer, man, woman, trans, transwoman, transman, two-spirit, and third sex. Remember that they do not experience the gender assigned to them at birth as their true gender — don’t act as if it is.
- Pronouns and titles. Refer to people who identify as women as ‘she’ and ‘Ms.,’ and to those who identify as men as ‘he’ and ‘Mr.’ If you’re not sure what pronoun the person prefers, ask. Don’t substitute the word that fits your own perception.
- Names. Transgender people often have experienced people refusing to call them what they want to be called. They may not, at first, give the name they actually use. Ask what they prefer to be called not what their “real” name is. If you have a legitimate need to ask for their legal name, explain why and then continue to call them what they want to be called.
- Trans. Some transgender people use this short form of transgender; others feel trivialized by it.
- Transsexual. Should be avoided, unless it is the word with which the individual identifies. To many people, it carries the connotation of a psychological or medical disorder, and implies that the individual has had surgery. Not all transgender people choose to have surgery as part of their transition from the gender assigned to them at birth to the gender they identify with. Many take hormones. Others simply make changes in their gender expression— how they dress, wear their hair, walk, talk and gesture, and their name and the pronouns they use.
- He/she, tranny. These words are hurtful. Avoid them.
- Don’t ask about surgery. Whether or not a person has had surgery is their own private medical business. Personal curiosity about it is rude and intrusive.
Creating an affirming and safe service environment requires careful training of staff. Staff members may lack knowledge, have discriminatory attitudes, or be personally uncomfortable with LGBTQ individuals, especially transgender people. If they are not well-trained, they may rely on their clients to educate them. This puts an unfair burden on the client, and takes away from the time available to deal with their concerns.
Education for service providers should give staff members the opportunity to:
- Examine their attitudes, biases and stereotypes about LGBTQ people.
- Honestly recognize their own relationship to heterosexual and gender-conformity privilege.
- Learn about LGBTQ people’s diverse identities, lives, and concerns.
- Learn to empathize with clients of different identities, and not pass judgment on anyone’s identity.
- Identify stereotypes based on heterosexual domestic violence and traditional ideas about gender, and how these stereotypes can stop them from recognizing female abusers and helping male victims.
Training on LGBTQ IPV is available through the NY LGBTQ DV Network or NCAVP for training
In looking at how your agency can better serve LGBTQ victims, ask yourselves some specific questions, and let the answers help you identify what you need to work on.
- What specific services do you have for LGBTQ clients?
- Do you offer LGBTQ support groups? Are LGBTQ clients welcome in other support groups? How can you make this happen?
- Do you take transgender and male victims
into your shelter?
- If so, how do you make them feel comfortable (e.g., private bedrooms, restrooms and showers)?
- How comfortable is your staff with transgender people, especially staff working non-traditional hours evenings, weekends, etc.?
- If not, why not? What can you do to overcome the obstacles to sheltering LGBTQ and male victims? What shelter alternatives do you have in place for them until you do overcome those obstacles?
- If you use safe homes, what sort of neighborhood are they located in? How safe is the environment — both in general and for LGBTQ people specifically? What security arrangements are there?
- If an LGBTQ victim is treated poorly by other shelter residents, what are your strategies for dealing with the situation?
- Do you screen for abusiveness, to prevent LGBTQ abusers from gaining admission to shelter? How?
Non-residential domestic violence services
Even if they do not provide shelter in their main facility, any domestic violence program should be able to help LGTBQ victims with:
- Advocacy with law enforcement, courts, social services, etc.
- Applications for orders of protection and custody orders.
- Legal assistance. Some programs have attorneys on staff; others may have arrangements with lawyers in the community.
- Support groups.
- Children’s programs.
- Job search help.
- Safety planning for victims and their children. Advocates will help each victim identify risks and safety concerns, plan how to safely escape when necessary, and make longer-term plans for their safety and independence.
Some programs offer specific services, such as support groups, for LGBTQ victims, but not all do.
Considerations for LGBTQ victims
Going to a shelter, attending a support group or calling a crisis line may mean having to deal with coming out while you are in the middle of a crisis. Being open about your identity and that of your partner may help you get the services you need, but it also may mean having to deal with other people’s hostility or bias. You are the only one who can decide what’s right for you.
If your situation is urgent and you are unable to find help through a local domestic violence agency, the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project hotline at 212-714-1141 may be able to help you. In the Albany area, contact the Capital District LGBT Anti-Violence Project, at 518-432-4341. Members of the NYS LGBTQ DV Network may also be able to help connect you to LGBTQ-friendly resources in your community.
- Courvant, D. & Cook-Daniels, L. Trans and intersex survivors of domestic violence: Defining terms, barriers, & responsibilities.
- See also Quick Tips: Trans Inclusion: A guide for service providers.