January 31, 2020
From Olive Wood, MSW Intern
While it may seem like we’ve come a long way in terms of making our communities safe for queer and trans people, our bodies, our presence, and our safety are all still up for debate in many spaces; as if our existence is akin to whether or not one prefers coffee or tea. As a small, white-cis lesbian, I embody a significant amount of privilege that many other LGBTQ+ community members do not. Still, I cannot explain to you just how many countless hours of my life I have spent—hours I’ll never get back—researching what restaurants my girlfriend and I should go to where we won’t feel that immediate, gut-twisting I-don’t-belong-here sensation, what towns are safe to travel to, and what doctors and therapists won’t squirm when I come out to them. In my professional life, I have spent way too much time dodging questions about my personal life with past employers and coworkers (which inevitably only resulted in more curiosity, and eventually, being outed). This is all to say, I am keenly aware that my safety is in a constant state of negotiation with my environment. Even with the power and privilege I do have, the threat of harassment and isolation as I walk around in the world often weighs heavy.
It is important to note, however, that in addition to my experience, other LGBTQ+ people are placed in much higher and different types of danger, especially trans women and gender non-conforming (GNC) people of color. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recently published their 2019 report on Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in the United States and found that at least 22 trans women were murdered in 2019 alone, and over 91% of them black women. “At least” is an important phrase to underscore because this data is largely inconclusive. Trans and GNC people’s deaths are consistently erased by perpetrators, the media, law enforcement, the criminal justice system, school systems, and other oppressive forces. Hundreds have been killed since the HRC began tracking trans people’s deaths, and hundreds more deaths have gone unreported. And yet, even as I report these findings to you, I can find almost no information about who killed these women—more maddening evidence that in our current state of affairs, safety is a non-negotiable for perpetrators of black and anti-trans violence.
Circling back to happenings here at Trauma Informed Oregon, a few weeks ago we held a listening session for LGBTQ+ community members who serve the LGBTQ+ population in Portland to learn more about how trauma-informed care (TIC) has shown up in their work and communities. As an MSW intern, I was curious about the listening session process as I’d never attended one before (I was born and raised in New York, where listening in general is scant). I also felt pulled to attend as a member of LGBTQ+ community myself. The discussion was rich; our guests explored complex and pertinent issues both within and outside the LGBTQ+ community. Some of the discussion themes included the duality of being black and queer, the specific trauma and isolation black queer femmes face in the world and in systems, the erasure that queer people of color face within the LGBTQ+ community, the lack of representation of queer people in professional environments, and the whitewashing of the acronym “LGBTQ+”. When the dialogue shifted to recommendations, participants were clear that organizations implementing TIC should a) hire queer people of color to do meaningful work (and be more clear on hiring values in general) b) recognize that some “TIC work” has been done in queer spaces already without being explicitly named as such, and c) place value on and hold space for different ways of expressing emotion and processing, especially when they deviate from white cis-hetero ways of being.
This part of the discussion brought up an important question regarding this newsletter’s theme of safety: when hiring queer people of color to do TIC and equity work, especially for trainings or work that requires lots of community engagement, what is the responsibility of the employer to keep employees safe? What does ‘taking responsibility” and “safety” look like in this context? While I can’t offer any official or concrete answers, the resounding sentiment from session participants was that organizations have both a responsibility to ethically employ LGBTQ+ people and to take special precautions to ensure the safety of their LGBTQ+ employees (especially queer and trans people of color) to the best of their abilities. In addition, the group noted the significance of intentionally pairing someone with a more privileged social location as a co-facilitator to step in when a particular worker’s voice needs amplifying, or when their safety and well-being has become compromised during trainings, meetings, or other modes of community-engaged work. Alternatively, when such support is unavailable or inadequate, organizations should consider alternative formats for engaging (an example might be webinars).
These were only some of all the wonderful points raised that we are continuing to grapple with here at TIO. However, it is worth acknowledging that this blog is only meant to scratch the surface of much more dynamic issues LGBTQ+ people face regarding safety, and what social service organizations can do to support them, be it as part of the workforce or as service users. We have a lot of work to do, and we need those who have been historically silenced leading it—but in our urgency to act, we have the potential to tokenize, endanger, and further oppress.
What do You Think?
I hope this post can also be part of a larger dialogue about our individual and institutional relationships with safety. In typical grad student fashion, I have more questions than answers. If you have a moment, please continue this discussion on my forum post. Do you have to negotiate your safety every day? In what way? What might we do in our daily lives to retract from others’ sense of safety? What does helpful intervening look like for co-facilitators or allies? How do we create environments where safety for LGBTQ+ people is a non-negotiable? What are organizations already doing to ensure the safety of employees and service users with marginalized identities? How can we do better?