by Maisha Z. Johnson
For the majority of the time I spent with an abusive partner, I didn’t tell a soul about the violence I was suffering. Threats, isolation, and shame made me feel like I had no choice but to keep it to myself. In spite of the seriousness of what was happening, I didn’t see myself, a queer Black woman, in common images of domestic violence – an omission that led me to hardly recognize my situation as domestic violence at all.
But I AM a survivor, and when finally I dared to disclose that to a friend, it was a big deal. Talking about what was happening meant the abuse was really bad, and I was really scared. Looking back now, I see it also meant I wasn’t as hopeless as I felt at the time. Even with my sense of self-worth chipped away to the bare bones, some part of me still knew I deserved protection and care in spite of the harmful messages I heard at home from my partner – not to mention the messages I receive from living a world that profits from invisibilizing and exploiting women of color in distress.
I felt like I didn’t have any options, but I made a choice. I chose to reach out and ask for some of the care I knew I deserved. And that was significant. Because when queer and transgender survivors of color stand up for our needs, in any way, we stand up to an entire system that says we were never meant to survive.
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My friends’ responses to my disclosure showed just how true that is. They reacted with anger, wanting vengeance against my abuser, and urging me to report what I’d told them to authorities. While I appreciated their concern, I felt even more hopeless than I had before. If I had to choose between staying with my abuser or calling the police, then there was no such thing as safety for me.
The government says to rely on police to look out for our safety. Police come into our communities under the guise of seeking out people who do bad things – “criminals” – and protecting the victims of their crimes. But, society’s understanding of crime is determined by very questionable political leaders, leaders who have no actual investment in healing or protecting our lives and communities.
As QTPOC, we know this system isn’t designed to keep us safe. Our communities are systematically targeted by police officers for harassment, incarceration, and abuse. We’re criminalized simply because of who we are and how we live.
So for us, calling the police means taking a risk. Marissa Alexander’s case is just one example of how police intervention in domestic violence against women of color often leads to more suffering for the survivor. Many others show that we’re locked up at alarming rates for self-defense, and more likely to end up with results like having our children removed from our care.
This is not protection – it’s oppression.
For QTPOC, this system’s oppression doesn’t stop when we’re the ones experiencing violence. CeCe McDonald defended herself against a racist and transphobic attack, only to be arrested and incarcerated for nineteen months in a men’s prison. Her horrific experience shows that police can and often do see us as criminals to arrest and abuse, not survivors to protect.
It’s nothing short of remarkable that, in spite of all this, QTPOC survivors have found ways to survive. We’ve been our own heroes in seeking out care. Care means creating safe spaces that don’t discriminate against us on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, as many domestic violence shelters do. It means developing accessible resources and tools that meet QTPOC survivors’ needs, rather than excluding those who aren’t heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class white women, as domestic violence agencies often do.
Caring for our needs includes addressing economic injustice. For us, escaping domestic violence often means providing for the basic resources we need to live another day. As we struggle with disproportionate rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, in communities targeted by “tough on crime” laws, we’re more likely to encounter even more barriers to accessing the healing we need. This, too, is violence.
While all survivors need to know that their partner’s abuse was not their fault, we also must remember that the other forms of violence impacting our lives is not our fault. It’s not our fault that we sometimes have to choose between safety and food. Between financial stability and emotional freedom. Between relying on an institution that retraumatizes us and creating our own path toward healing.
As QTPOC survivors, we are the leaders we need to destroy oppressive cycles of violence. Too often, the traditional vision of justice feeds into the stereotype of the damaged survivor who needs rescuing, and is incapable of making their own choices. Survivors of domestic violence are incredibly resilient, so we’ve disproved that false stereotype. Efforts to end domestic violence should act under our leadership, as we’re the real experts on what survivors need.
We have options outside of the criminal justice system. We create our own safety plans that address our unique needs. We reach out to community, family, or chosen family to build our options. We develop skills in community accountability as a healing alternative to the isolation and harm that prisons perpetuate. We fire warning shots when we can. We fight back when we have to.
It’s essential to listen to survivors about their needs. Every survivor knows what’s best for themselves, and there’s no one answer that would work for everyone.
When I thought I had no options for surviving, I created my own way. We all have, as we make radical acts of self-love by making our own choices in the face of violence and systems that tell us we aren’t worth healing and love. In the process, we’ve created a radical vision for justice, one that honors us for all of who we are and how we’ve survived. We deserve to thrive and celebrate our individual and collective resilience, without fear or shame. Let’s look out for each other as we grow in this journey of love.
For organizations whose work supports a transformative vision of justice for QTPOC survivors, check out:
- Community United Against Violence (CUAV)
- National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP)
- Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project
- Audre Lorde Project
- Bay Area Transformative Justice Collaborative (BATJC)
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Maisha Z. Johnson is a healer, a troublemaker, and author of two poetry chapbooks, Split Ears and Uprooted. She breathes her Trinidadian roots and experiences as a queer black woman and survivor of violence into her art, working to amplify the voices of those often silenced. She blogs at www.maishazjohnson.com.