5 Ways to Help LGBTQ Abuse Survivors
by Renée Fabian
I am a sexual abuse survivor, and I don’t particularly enjoy telling my story. I was abused by a male teacher for three years. This man’s position of power over me and the slow progress from “I care about you” hugs to sexual acts I didn’t want to perform was so gradual, my power to say no and my power to consent were null and void.
It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact I didn’t have any agency in the situation and couldn’t say no, yet from the outside it looked more consensual than it was. When I disclose my abuse narrative to others, I am always worried they will see me as weak or stupid because I didn’t do anything to stop the abuse sooner. I am always wondering what the other person’s response will be.
I’m also a queer survivor. I came out to a few friends prior to the abuse, but I come from a homophobic family and a homophobic town during a time when things weren’t so friendly for the LGBTQ community. As a result, it was easy for my abuser to convince me I wasn’t gay, and it took a lot of time to untangle the sexual abuse from my sexual orientation after the abuse ended. When I first came out to my parents, they assumed I was only gay because I had a “bad relationship” with a man. The shame and confusion of this damaging response kept me both in the closet and silent about the abuse for years.
Disclosing abuse as an LGBTQ survivor is difficult, but family and friends who know how to respond in non-damaging and open ways facilitate trust and healing. I am grateful for the people who have affirmed my identity in my life, and want to share the ways these people were most helpful to me so other survivors can hopefully find safer spaces to tell their stories and be seen as the beautiful people they are!
Here are five ways to respond in meaningful and helpful ways to disclosures of abuse by LGBTQ survivors.
1. Listen non-judgmentally without interrupting.
Talking about sexual abuse is a particularly hard subject to broach with friends and family. It can bring up a plethora of difficult emotions and make getting the story out in the first place really hard. I had to call my parents on the phone when I reported my abuser and tell them the whole story. They didn’t say one word until I had finished talking, and I was so grateful. Listen non-judgmentally to a survivor’s whole story without interrupting. Not only will this make the process easier on the survivor, it allows the listener to focus 100 percent on the survivor’s story without inadvertently offering unhelpful advice.
2. Don’t confuse sexual abuse and sexuality.
Especially with LGBTQ survivors, the tendency to confuse sexual abuse and sexuality happens too often. When I came out to my parents and they figured I was gay because I was abused by a man, this statement only served to increase my shame and confusion about the abuse and my sexuality. A person who is abused was violated without their consent and stripped of their agency. Sexual abuse has nothing to do with a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, no matter when (or if) they come out. Keeping this in mind and avoiding the conflation of sexual abuse and sexuality will help LGBTQ survivors feel safe and seen for who they are. It gives the survivor back the dignity and agency to define their own sexual identity.
3. Encourage LGBTQ-specific support.
Whether it’s a support group or individual therapy, survivors often need to find support for the unique issues they will face following trauma. For LGBTQ people, sexual abuse becomes intertwined with sexual orientation and gender in unexpected ways often best discussed within a support system with specific experience in the LGBTQ community. My therapists tend to identify as LGBTQ, and I have participated in support groups only for LGBTQ women. These spaces made me feel accepted on a deeper level because they could truly understand my whole identity, and I didn’t feel I had to hold anything back for fear of being judged. Encourage survivors to look for LGBTQ-specific support at local LGBTQ centers, LGBTQ therapy networks and from friends and family.
4. Get educated.
Disclosures of abuse can be overwhelming for everyone involved. If you’re a friend of a sexual abuse survivor, take some time to get educated yourself. Not only can this help with your own feelings of helplessness or anxiety about the situation, it can provide a lot of context for what your friend or family member might be going through. Books such as Lauren Davis and Ellen Bass’ The Courage To Heal, Allies In Healing and The Courage To Heal Workbook, for example, are LGBTQ-inclusive in both language and examples, plus they have a ton of great information and exercises. Reading through a book about trauma and recovery could even be a project for you and your survivor to do together.
5. Treat them exactly the same.
More than anything, being treated like the person I’ve always been is enormously helpful. The traumatic after-effects will remind survivors daily of the abuse, so maintaining a sense of normality and identity outside of just sexual abuse can’t be overstated. Abuse can take on this large, overshadowing quality, but it’s not a person’s entire identity. I am a full person who is both LGBTQ and a survivor, but I am also a writer, musician, cat lover and so much more. I want to be treated as the same person I was before my friends and family knew about the abuse. This helps me maintain a sense of agency, helps me remember I am more than the abuse, and ultimately helps me move toward healing from trauma.
Renée Fabian is a Los Angeles-based writer covering music, entertainment, the arts, mental health and the LGBTQ community. Her work has been published with Ravishly, The Culture Trip, Miss Millennia magazine and GLAAD, among others.