How We Heal From Sexual Violence Against The Queer Community
By Jennifer Patterson
People who have survived sexual violence and traumatic experiences know all about the expectations to heal. The demands to be well are endless, and can come from families, partners, friends, doctors, and communities. I (and many other people) would argue that we are in a Healing Industrial Complex moment — despite all the pleas to get well, the expectations and demands to heal are often completely out of reach, thanks to limited narratives and exclusionary spaces.
This expectation to care for oneself often at the expense of oneself is also inextricably linked to capitalism and productivity, as healing and disability justice activists like Mia Mingus, Reina Gossett, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha, Corina Dross, and so many others have given voice to.
As the editor of the recently released anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement and as a survivor of multiple forms of violence — physical, sexual, and emotional — violence and healing are at the forefront of my mind. I also understand the uniquely difficult experience that queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people who are also survivors of sexual violence may have when it comes to healing.
Indeed, we often find ourselves outside the dominant narratives and, for a variety of reasons, lacking institutional and medical resources. Compounded with further intersections of race, class, disability, immigration status, sex worker status, and more, violence can be not a one-time rupture, but so frequent that we are unable to put our attention on healing because we are too busy just trying to survive.
Realistically, there is no one way to heal and there is no timeline. Yet pressures to feel better in the right way can make “being healed” seem like an elusive destination, always just out of reach.
So what is healing when trauma is ancestral or frequent or deeply rooted in systems bigger than individuals? What can healing look and feel like outside the dominant narratives of medicalization and pathologization? What are the barriers, and who are the gatekeepers making sustainable healing difficult? What needs to be overcome in order to create more welcoming and effective healing spaces?
Here, four contributors to Queering Sexual Violence share their personal healing paths, envision what healing could look like, and shift the narratives of what surviving and thriving actually can be.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Aishah is the Creator of the Ford Foundation-funded internationally acclaimed film NO! The Rape Documentary. She is also a 2015–2016 Sterling Brown ’22 Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College; a 2016–2018 Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow; and an Associate Editor of the online publication The Feminist Wire. You can follow her on twitter at @AfroLez.
The late Black feminist author, cultural worker, organizer, and one of my teachers, Toni Cade Bambara, asked the timeless question, “Are you sure, sweetheart, you want be well?” in The Salt Eaters, her award-winning 1980 novel. I consistently ask myself this question, because being an unapologetically out Black feminist lesbian who is both an incest/child sexual abuse survivor and an adult rape survivor is extremely difficult. One of many things that I have experientially learned is that healing and being well — emotionally, psychologically, mentally, psychically, and physically — are ongoing journeys and processes, not permanent destinations.
In my essay for The Queering of Sexual Violence, I wrote about three non-negotiable tools that are an integral part of my healing work. These tools helped me move from victim to survivor and engaged participant in movements to end violence committed against women and queer people, most especially those who are Black/People of Color. These tools are: 24 years of work with a licensed clinical Black feminist psychologist, Dr. Clara Whaley-Perkins; a 14-year practice of vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka; and 25 years of consistent involvement as an activist/cultural worker/filmmaker in global anti-gender-based violence and LGBTQIA movements.
Because so few publications support high-quality work from marginalized voices — and pay.theestablishment.co
With that shared, there aren’t and there shouldn’t be “one size fits all” models for healing and wellness. I do not believe they exist. Yes, there may be similarities and even parallels, but I believe that each path and journey is unique. What works for one individual may not work for another individual.
Personally, I navigated my way to figure out what best supported me on my healing journey. Through this navigation and exploration, I sought and received metaphorical roadmaps that guided and supported me in charting my own healing path.
Jen is a queer brown mixed/ambiguously-ethnic tomboy femme living with her partner, their dog, and their two cats. She is an ex-pat of the progressive political nonprofit world, and has settled into a post-organizer career as a librarian and archivist for feminist and queer work. Jen has been involved in some kind of activism since third grade and fell happily in love with the pro-choice, queer, and anti-violence movements in high school.
“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t.
Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.
. . . Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence.”
— Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure
“but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”
— Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”
These are the words, from Dorothy Allison and Audre Lorde, that both echo and frame my own story of healing, of surviving.
For over half of my life, I’ve been spinning stories about this vulnerability, this resilience, this brokenness, this strength, this deep loss, this big opening. For a long time, I only spun the stories I wasn’t afraid to tell, the stories that aligned with the narrative of the heroic survivor. There are so many other stories that live behind that selective silence, though — scarier realities hidden behind layers of spoken and unspoken truths.
These stories live deep in my gut, in the muscle tissue that surrounds my bones, in the soft fleshy parts of my thighs and in the strong ligaments that string from bone to bone. These stories live in the fragile lattice of my ribcage and in that hardened/vulnerable fist-shaped muscle that lives inside. Which story do you want to hear? Which story do I want to tell? How much can I contradict myself and still be a trusted storyteller? Would you believe me if I told you that although my brother was my first abuser, he’s the only person in my family I regularly talk to? Can I tell you that I grieved my abusive mom for 8 years while she was alive, and was still torn limb from limb by grief when she actually died? Would I still be queer enough if I told you that my queerness is one of the most powerful components of my healing, that maybe my abuse did turn me queer?
I never wanted to call myself a survivor. I never expected or, frankly, wanted to be “past” what happened to me, never wanted to forget how powerfully it undermined my foundations as I was trying to build them. Identifying myself instead as a victim, I am vulnerable, and that vulnerability felt real and honest. Acknowledging that vulnerability felt powerful, empowering even. I’m not a survivor. Sure, I am brave and strong and resilient, but I’m also still — always — damaged by this. I’m also still — always — different.
I was never meant to survive the violence and neglect and manipulation and abuse I faced as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. I was never meant to survive the gauntlet of therapists and forced survivor narratives and expectations of traditional healing. I was never meant to survive and I was never meant to become a queer brown femme that is queer in part because she was abused, a brown girl learning how to be brown as she was learning how to be queer, a queer femme that found power in that fierce femininity that both plays into and resists the idea of the heroic, healed survivor.
This was not who I was meant to become. I wasn’t meant to become anything, because I wasn’t meant to survive.
Ida, a Licensed Master Social Worker, is a writer and lifelong activist living in New York City working with others in the women’s, trans, and LGBQ communities for social change. Her work centers on the well-being of trans women. She started the Trans Women’s Healing Justice Project as a trans feminist initiative to address violence and oppression experienced by trans women.
Trans girls are often targets of sexual violence. This violence is bolstered when children learn to internalize shame about their gender identity from their families and communities. Stigma forces many children to hide their gender identity, which can make them vulnerable to those who might exploit this secrecy and shame. Many LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence blame themselves and keep their experience of violence secret. We witness this dynamic when schools blame bullied children for the violence they experience because they are gender nonconforming, or when murdered women are said to have invited violence because of their gender presentation.
The policing and criminalization of trans women and girls’ access to public spaces and accommodations, such as restrooms, is directly related to the way society ignores and perpetuates sexual violence against them. The myth of the trans woman sexual predator makes it impossible for people to understand the reality of sexual violence perpetuated against the trans community.
Rather than affirm the lives of trans women and girls, our society, culture, and normative family structures negate them. It’s important, then, to build spaces where the experiences of these individuals are centered and fully recognized. This is not about being simply more inclusive. We need new visions that start with the experiences of trans women and girls, rather than trying to fit them into the existing social structures.
Institutional cissexism and cis supremacy need to be understood as the main barriers to healing. The world we live in is literally constructed in a way that leaves trans women and girls vulnerable to violence and without access to healing.
Healing can be understood as a collective process. The violence is a collective and social problem, and the path to healing needs to also be understood as a social one. When trans women and girls come together and care for each other, develop trust and affection for each other, that is a healing process. With stigma, we often distance ourselves from those like us. So in loving each other, we can come to love ourselves.
Keiko, MFT, is a Japanese American poet, essayist, and psychotherapist. In addition to her literary writing, which has been published in journals and anthologies, she also writes about the intersections of queer culture, oppression resistance, and liberation psychology. She is currently a psychotherapist in Berkeley, California with a private practice specializing in work with queers of all genders, artists, activists, academics, queer and genderqueer parents and prospective parents, asylum seekers, and other clients self-identified as post-colonial. Keiko also teaches graduate and post-graduate psychotherapy courses on queer and multicultural psychotherapies, the psychodynamics of social justice, and the embodied literature of exile. The following is from “Blood/Loss: Toward a Queer Poetics of Embodied Memory (a love story).”
The mythology of healing is that it means being restored to our previous state. That we forget what happened, that our bodies loosen away from the damage and invisibly repair. The truth is more complicated. The truth is queerer. We remember. Incidences of sexual violation become a part of a larger story of bodies which are always targeted, always sexualized, always fighting for agency and self-authorization. For some forms of violence, there is no before. We integrate the story of survival into the embodied narrative of a life story and context within which we reach toward those we love, those with whom we make community and family, and the complexities with which we push away.
I come from a family marked by Internment, and a chosen community of queer artists decimated by AIDS and sexual violence — which are overlapping and complex categories in which HIV infection is used to weaponize and isolate queer and gender outsider and POC bodies. And yet still we go on. We remember. We carry each other’s bodies, in memory or in the visceral present, within the shape of our own bodies navigating this world.
I worry, sometimes, about my tendency toward nostalgia and sentimentality. But that’s the voice of futurity anxiety, isn’t it? We’re supposed to move forward. And yet can’t we reclaim queer sentimentality and nostalgia in our narratives as a linguistic signifier of tenderness and embodied resistance to annihilation?
And maybe, then, homonormativity is a defense against the relentless experience of queer loss and powerlessness.
The idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is bullshit. It isn’t true. They aren’t opposite, don’t cancel each other out, the strength and the dying. That was what we learned. Even when we didn’t die. Parts of ourselves broke off, lost, abandoned, unsaveable. Changed. Scars formed in those places. Tough, non-elastic tissue. Unbreakable and tender to the touch. So tender.