There have been quite a few conversations in our community lately about the importance of knowing our history.
Last summer Out on Screen launched its Queer History Project film series to intense community interest, and it is currently working on an online collection of history.
Robert Rothon writes an excellent history column in Xtra; Morgan Brayton emphasised the importance of knowing our history in her final column last year.
And of course anyone over 30 has complained at one time or another about the young people who think they started everything (those “young people” could be any age, as long as it’s younger than the person speaking.)
Acknowledging our history gives us a richer sense of community. It shows respect for the work of the people who came before us. It saves the younger ones from reinventing the wheel.
It can also make us safer, in very concrete ways. For example, last issue this newspaper ran a cover story on queer domestic violence, with minimal acknowledgement of the activism on the issue that has been happening right here in Vancouver for the past 15 years at least.
“So what?” you might ask. Well, anyone in an abusive relationship reading the article would get the impression there is no help available. They would get the impression that while there is lots of action on the issue in Toronto, nothing has been done here. They would get the impression that our community just doesn’t care about violence in relationships. This can only increase fear and isolation, and consequently puts victims of abuse in danger.
Those of us not in abusive relationships are also affected. We need to know about the anti-violence work that our community has done, so that we can help our friends when they are in trouble, so that we can get involved in activism and support services, so that we can be proud of our community.
Of course violence in relationships continues to be extremely difficult to talk about. But it is simply not true that “the issue of intimate partner abuse remains a skeleton hanging silently in the closet.” Queers in Vancouver have been talking about abuse in relationships for years.
Just at the end of April there was a community workshop about how to break silence about relationship abuse. It was advertised in Xtra West, even.
My own memories go back to the early 1990s, when there was a community forum on violence in women’s same-sex relationships. Since at least that time, local women’s groups like Battered Women’s Support Services have been working with women who are in abusive relationships with other women, bringing in speakers from groups like the Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse in Seattle to train staff and volunteers.
I was on the staff of Battered Women’s Support Services from 1995 to 1999, and we were always seeing women in same-sex abusive relationships. I make no claims that our work was perfect or that it was enough. But it was happening. And it still is.
It is also important to acknowledge that some lesbians have denied the existence of violence in same-sex relationships, because of a belief that only men are violent, or because of fear of homophobic backlash against lesbians if the straight world knew about our “secret.”
Some women-serving agencies have denied services to trans women. Many gay men have also denied the reality of abuse, or seen it as a “natural” part of gay relationships. This is another key part of our history and, unfortunately, of our present.
But that does not negate the outspoken activism that has been done.
In 2000, Cindy Holmes, a lesbian anti-violence activist, and I gathered a group of men and women together to form the Network Against Abuse in Same-Sex Relationships. In the early 2000s, we held a number of community workshops and created pamphlets about abuse in same-sex relationships.
In 2001, a few women started the Safe Choices project, which continues to this day. The project holds Healthy Relationships workshops for queer women and provides education to service providers to help them work with women in abusive relationships with other women.
The LGBT Anti-Violence Project, which Peter Toppings referred to in last issue’s cover story, not only carried out educational workshops in various BC communities, but also produced a number of pamphlets about violence in relationships for trans people, gays and lesbians (you can download these at www.endingviolence.org).
Trans people have been part of anti-violence activism in Vancouver at least since the early ’90s – think of Kimberly Nixon, who fought for her right to work at Rape Relief and who provided services to battered women in at least two other agencies. The Trans Alliance has produced educational materials for transition houses and counselling centres.
If you are in an abusive relationship, the simplest thing to do is to call VictimLink at 1.800.563.0808 for information about options and referrals to nearby services.
There are victim assistance programs across BC that are mandated to work with all victims, and many of them have had specific training on same-sex abuse and trans issues. Volunteers at the Centre’s Prideline have also had training to help them respond to calls from victims of relationship violence.
So that is just some of the history of anti-violence work in our communities. And while it is extremely important to fill in missing information, it is just as important to have the desire to know in the first place, the commitment to linking our present to our past.
We need to ask ourselves what stands in the way of doing this. Maybe it’s too much work. Maybe it’s too hard to step outside of our own small circle of queers. I don’t pretend to be super good at doing research that requires me to step away from Google and talk to people I might never have spoken to before, or seek out hidden bits of knowledge. But we gotta do it.