Friends help friends survive

Intersectional justice: On intimate partner violence in queer communities

This is the third post in a series on intimate partner violence in queer communities. Read the first parts here and here.

“Let me clarify: healing from our personal experiences is not just a matter of personal health, but also about social change. Our communities have suffered lifetimes of abuse from slavery to police brutality.

And the work that is required to undo the internalized and externalized forms of oppression is not just about what we do out in the streets, in non-profits or community groups: it’s also about how prepared we are to deal with the fall out of our circumstances and personal experiences. It is hard work to do this. It is really hard.” – Ana Lara, The Revolution Starts at Home

Friends help friends survive

Image credit: The Northwest Network

How do we find justice when the systems in place to protect us are often the same ones that have made our communities so vulnerable in the first place?

As LGBT people, both ourselves and the people who hurt us often live at the intersections of multiple forms of marginality — sexism, heterosexism, racism, ableism, class discrimination. Our own vulnerability can make it scary or risky to address violence through conventional systems: We may feel that no one will take us seriously, or that everyone in the situation will be unfairly treated.

And when we stop understanding intimate partner violence as always and only caused by male privilege, accountability begins to feel more complicated.

Oftentimes, we are abused by people who are more structurally powerful than us in certain ways: Men, if we’re women; white people if we’re people of color; straight people if we’re queer.

But a lot of times, our abusers may be marginalized in ways that we aren’t. People of color can be violent to white people; women can be violent to men; trans people can be violent to cis people. This does not mean that the person acting abusively is not “really” oppressed, or that the abuse isn’t real. It does mean, however, that we can’t just give lip service to intersectionality: We need models of justice that are intersectional all the way down.

INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence’s “Critical Resistance Statement” says it perfectly: “To live violence free-lives, we must develop holistic strategies for addressing violence that speak to the intersection of all forms of oppression.”

Having compassion for survivors who abuse and abusers who are survivors does not mean we tolerate abuse. As Tre’Andre Valentine of The Network/La Red said in our interview last week, people who abuse can use their own oppression as a weapon or an excuse. Connie Burk, writing for the Northwest Network, puts it well: “While advocates often talk and learn about how batterers use their strengths to manipulate survivor’s vulnerabilities, we rarely talk about the reverse — how batterers use their vulnerabilities to manipulate a survivor’s strengths.”

Truly respecting each other’s agency as marginalized people means not only having compassion for our struggles, but holding each other accountable for the harm we cause. Accountability is an act of love. It is also an act of hope: We need to believe that experiences of oppression or violence do not dictate our futures. That we can choose to act in different ways.

But we don’t make choices in vacuums. We make choices in communities.

I want a feminism that is relentlessly dedicated to making our communities collectively better — a feminism that gives no one up, leaves no one behind, and labels no marginalized person “too damaged” or “too problematic” to lead a healthy, respectful life.

A lot of us are working really hard to make this feminism real.

I am so grateful for the feminists out there — including some of the rad writers here on Feministing — doing the fabulous work of making the systems that already exist, such as University Title IX systems, more accountable to communities, more critical of the lived complexities of power, and more responsive to survivors’ needs.

I am also grateful for the people out there doing the fabulous work of envisioning alternative forms of justice. People bravely, lovingly walking the tightrope between interpersonal accountability and structural justice; between caring for survivors and having compassion for abusers who are survivors; between tending to our wounds and preventing us from wounding further.

As I’ve said before — and as can’t be said enough — a lot of this work is coming from women and LGBT people of color. INCITE!, a network of women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color dedicated to deep justice around a whole host of issues including IPV, has a number of visionary resources. Check out their writing on community accountability, the “dangerous intersections” of gender and racial oppression, and gender violence and the prison-industrial complex.

The Northwest Network is another organization with robust resources on accountability; Connie Burk’s life-changing realness on partner abuse in queer relationships shook me down to my soul.

And of course, the last few essays in “The Revolution Starts at Home” — if you couldn’t tell, this book literally changed my life — contain a plethora of resources about community accountability and intersectional justice.

Writing this series has thus far been kind of the worst ever (like, hey, I have a good idea! Why don’t I think about shit that makes me sad every week! Gee, that sounds fun!), but also the absolute best. Because what really gets me isn’t necessarily violence, though that shit’s fucking horrible. What gets me down to my core and shakes all my little springs and cogs and wheels out is feeling like I don’t have a framework to understand what I have experienced. Feeling like I have no way to be just. Feeling like healing means disavowing people and communities I love.

Here’s what I’m learning through this work. Not that all individual relationships can be healed — many of them can’t, and for many of us it’d be too dangerous to try. And not that all the shitty feelings will go away — some things suck forever. But that in an ultimate sense, our healing is bound up together.

I will not be fully healed until the people who have hurt me are healed. I will not be healed until my communities are healed. I will not be healed until the systems that oppress us are healed. I don’t want justice to mean we make more suffering. I want justice to mean we raise hell, and elevate each other.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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