Roundtable discussion addresses domestic-partner abuse in the black LGBT community

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March 20, 2011
By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter

BOSTON – One in four LGBT persons experience domestic violence, according to research conducted by a non-profit organization, the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, or GMDVP. Founded in 1994, the organization has provided crisis intervention, other services, and support to abuse survivors for 17 years.

And yet mainstream programs still perceive domestic violence, or intimate partner abuse, as a straight, white women’s issue, with females portrayed as victims and males depicted as perpetrators of abuse, exclusively.

Given that cultural context and so much attention paid to the gay community overall, what can be said about the experience of domestic-violence survivors within a sub population, namely the black LGBT community?

That was the topic of conversation during a groundbreaking roundtable discussion hosted by GMDVP in collaboration with black gay community leaders.

“There is such a lack of basic research, commentary, and resources afforded to the LGBT survivor population,”  said Iain Gill, GMDVP’s education director, who moderated the discussion entitled “Domestic Violence in the Black Queer Community,” adding, “When coupled with issues around white privilege and race, barriers to accessing services only become wider.”

The facilitated conversation took place on Thursday evening, Feb. 17, at Boston-based Fenway Health. More than 75 people attended.

“The fact that this conversation is happening at all speaks volumes” Gill stressed, explaining, it was “respectful but genuinely honest conversation about language, race, homophobia (trans and bi phobia, too), cultural competency, perceptions of provider agencies being white-led, and the role of the black church.”

Ultimately, the aim of the roundtable discussion, Gill explained, “was to look beyond domestic violence as just generic to the LGBT community and to see the specific needs of under represented communities who suffer abuse.”

For three hours, mainstream and gay-community-based service providers, law enforcement and public health officials, black LGBT community leaders, and a black lesbian survivor, among others, spoke about the challenges inherent in raising awareness of domestic violence within the African-American gay community, as well as the challenges that victims face in accessing services, resources, and support that they urgently need for recovery.

Altogether, four panelists made short presentations, followed by facilitated conversation.  Writer and theologian, the Rev. Irene Monroe spoke first about black queer culture.

“One salient feature that contributes to domestic violence in our community, is the dominant view that our race is more predisposed to engage in violence and enjoys it,” she said.  “If we are going to talk about domestic violence and the black LGBT community, then we are going to have to talk about classism and white-skin privilege and how that plays out when going to white health-care providers,” who are frequently told in emergency room settings, for example, that “physical violence is an acceptable part of [our] lives.”

For their part, Blake Johnson, GMDVP hotline advocate, and Tré Andre, community programs coordinator for The Network/La Red (www.thenetworklared.org), discussed barriers and gaps in accessing services.

The Network/La Red is a social-justice and service- provider organization dedicated to ending abuse in lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

One barrier, they said, is that black LGBT victims often seek support from  providers who lack basic cultural competence in the black queer experience, let alone sensitivity about gay life overall.

Another barrier, said Andre, is that some “people’s families are not accepting of their sexuality or gender expression,” going so far as to kick family members out of the house.  If that happens, it only becomes more difficult for abuse victims “to navigate [providers] systems,” he explained. “When [victims of partner abuse] do access services, they are placed outside the community and family, further isolated in a mainstream program.”

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Roundtable continued
Gary Daffin, executive director of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition, focused on next steps.

Not long into the discussion, however, several people gathered around the table voiced concerns about language, objecting specifically to the use of the word queer.

“I take offense to the title queer,” one woman said.  “I’m from the old school and don’t like labels. I was born Karen Payne. Labeling is not a good thing.”

Regina Jones-Jenkins, a substance abuse and domestic-violence clinician, agreed. “I don’t want to be called queer because there is nothing wrong with me,” she said.

But others said they preferred queer and used it to reclaim a positive meaning of the word.

Jones-Jenkins went on to explain her experience as a lesbian “thriver” of domestic-partner abuse. “I was in a dangerous situation,” she said. “When you are a victim or when you are victimized, something happens to your brain. It’s not that immediate to say, ‘I’ve got to run.’”

Jones-Jenkins detailed her attempts five years ago to access services, first at Fenway Health through the Violence Recovery Program, or VRP. “I needed an advocate to go to court with me,” she said, but was told ‘[the VRP] doesn’t do that.’”

Kelcie Cooke, director of the Violence Recovery Program (www.fenwayhealth.org), did not speak directly to Jones-Jenkins’ experience of contacting Fenway for assistance, but pointed out, in a follow up telephone interview, that legal advocacy is provided through the recovery program.

Jones-Jenkins next sought help through a mainstream service provider. For a short time, she attended a victims’ workshop facilitated by Domestic Violence Ended, or DOVE, Inc., but was asked to leave because “I was married to a woman” she said.  “Some people were having difficulty grappling with the fact that a woman could be an abuser.”

And yet Jones-Jenkins said she was pleased to hear that DOVE (www.doveinc.info) held a workshop last year that “finally included lesbians being battered.”

In follow-up e-mail correspondence, Sue Chander, the organization’s executive director, spoke to Jones-Jenkins’ concerns, reaffirming a commitment to inclusion: “We at DOVE know that women can be abusers and men can be victims,” she said. “DOVE has committed itself this year to creating a welcoming and affirming environment for LGBTQ survivors accessing our services, from community-based support groups, to legal assistance, to emergency shelter. We hope that the LGBTQ community will work with us toward this end.”

Additionally, Jones-Jenkins did not feel comfortable, she said, seeking support from her then spiritual leader, who told the congregation in a sermon at Morning Star Baptist Church that “gays and lesbians will always be welcome” but that he could not “condone same-sex marriage.”

Jones-Jenkins’ abuse perpetrator was her then same-sex spouse. “I certainly didn’t speak to the man who was my pastor because he didn’t want to hear about it.”

Ultimately, Jones-Jenkins got help through the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project (www.gmdvp.org). “They were able to do the one thing I needed,” she said. “I needed an attorney because [my] rights were being violated.”

Still, it took a year before Jones-Jenkins had a pro-bono lawyer and another three years in court before the legal system granted a life-time restraining order against her perpetrator.

Not only am I a “survivor,” she told the gathering, but also “I am a thriver and nobody victimizes me anymore.”

Jones-Jenkins went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling at Cambridge College where she wrote a thesis on the effects of partner abuse on African American lesbians and their children. Currently, she is a Walden University doctoral candidate in human services, specializing in families’ studies and intervention.

If there was one key take-away point from the roundtable discussion, it is the need for more personal story telling.

Corey Yarbrough, executive director of the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (www.hbgc-boston.org), spoke to the importance of narratives in bridging gaps between black LGBT survivors and service providers.

“Telling personal stories helps fight the stigma in the black community surrounding domestic violence,” he told attendees. “To hear more stories from survivors about the process they went through and about their own cultural background – that would go a long way.”

As Yarbrough explained further, “If you don’t see people like you experiencing [domestic violence] or offering services, then you just assume this is an issue that doesn’t affect your community.”

Hearing about people’s experience also helps in making it “okay to seek services from people with faces like the majority in this room,” Yarbrough added, especially, “if it means that others are going to get to the place where Regina [Jones-Jenkins] is today.”

Jones-Jenkins has remarried and is in a healthy relationship.

One participant suggested yet another way to build bridges between the black community and service providers-by reaching into the Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston where most LGBT black people live.

“Hire some people of color who know the community to do some serious outreach,” said Donnell Graves of the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition. “They can be the middle ground between you and the community.”

“You’re point is well taken,” said director Cooke, of Fenway Health’s VRP.

Another point also struck a resonate chord among roundtable participants. “If someone is being victimized, it doesn’t matter what color they are,” said one man. “You figure out what they need and how to help.”

GMDVP provides information and support services in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and can be reached through a 24/7-hotline telephone number:  (800) 832-1901.