4 Ways to Create Space for Intersecting Identities

Lauren Montanaro

Last week, I went to an event hosted by Safe Havens and The Network/La Red which focused on intersectional identities.  Specifically, this event focused on the intersection of faith, sexual orientation, and domestic violence.  For the week leading up to this event, I could feel myself becoming more and more excited to engage in dialogue with other folks who shared in my passion for these three intersecting identities and experiences.  Throughout my work, I have seen how important a faith community can be for some survivors.  While not all the survivors with whom I have worked have identified their faith as an important part of their lives, for some it is the quintessential community that shapes their experience.  

Historically, there could be tension between advocates and faith leaders.  Too often when I am sitting with a survivor and they are sharing their experience, I hear stories of faith leaders having negative responses.  “It’s your duty as a wife to stay with your husband and help him heal from this sin.”  “Be submissive, and he will not act out.”  “You’re a man, the head of the household.  Your wife can’t be abusing you…”  Though these responses would be hurtful from any source, they carry additional weight from those who hold religious and spiritual authority over the survivor, for in addition to the emotional turmoil of surviving abuse, the survivor is now adding an additional barrier of concern over their soul.  

Yet for each of these stories in which my heart has been torn in two, there are stories of faith leaders who have been incredibly supportive.  At the event this week, one panelist told a story of a survivor who had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because her pastor had commanded it.  Yet when that pastor left and a new one arrived, she built up the courage to come forward once more, and this pastor had a different response.  The pastor said, “The first time your husband hit you, he nullified your marriage vows.”  These words, the panelist reflected, set this survivor free.  

Conversations around faith and domestic violence are happening with greater frequency and authenticity, yet within these conversations it is rare to hear the additional intersection of sexual orientation.  For survivors who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, or other “not-straight” identities, they often face additional barriers within their faith communities.  This month, we are thinking about “Creating Space for Change,” and I’m wondering: how do we create space for survivors to bring their whole selves forward?  How do we, as advocates, faith leaders, families, and communities, create an open space for a survivor to share the fullness and intersectionality of their experiences with us?  

  1. Educate yourself.

Whether you are a pastor, lay leader, congregant, advocate, or not part of any faith community, I believe that education is the quintessential first step. Seek out a training or workshop to learn more about these and other intersections. Learn about the many experiences that influence a survivor’s experience.  Talk with your neighbors or community members about the way that one’s sexual orientation changes their experience within their faith community.  Learn how your race has impacted your experiences, and unpack how you can use your privileges to effect change. 

If you are a leader in a faith community, this step becomes even more important. When we speak about domestic violence, or even just hang posters with resources in the bathrooms of our community, we are giving permission to survivors to tell their story. This is a simple, yet powerful way to acknowledge that you know that abuse happens, even in this community.  But ask yourself, are you prepared to sit with someone who discloses they are a survivor and support them through their experience? So often I have seen a faith leader talk about domestic violence and then immediately be shocked by the flood of disclosures they immediately receive.  Don’t get me wrong, I highly encourage leaders to initiate this dialogue.  But in order for you, and the survivor to have the best experience possible, this conversation should always start with you. 

   2. Start a Conversation

Whether you share a status on social media acknowledging Domestic Violence Awareness Month, or have coffee with friends and discuss this blog you read, one of the most effective ways to create space for change is through dialogue with one another. Domestic violence thrives in isolation. When we name this experience, and learn from one another, we break down the wall that silence has built.  In doing so, we allow survivors the space to feel connected.  Perhaps they will share their experience with you, or perhaps they will keep that information private.  But in either case, in talking about this issue, we have chipped away at the power of isolation and silence. 

   3. Plan an Event

REACH offers support in planning a variety of events, including workshops for small and large groups, and informal conversations among groups of friends at people’s homes. One of my favorite parts of my job is having the opportunity to chat with passionate community members who want to find ways to get involved. If planning a workshop feels like too much, consider hosting a donation drive to support the survivors we work with or sponsor a family through our Holiday Gift Drive.  

   4. Know Your Resources

The reality is, whenever we speak about domestic violence, we are giving permission for survivors to come forward and share their truth. Our team at REACH is available to all survivors in Metro West who are seeking support. Whether they are with their abusive partner and have no intention of leaving, are preparing to leave, or left years ago but are still dealing with safety concerns, we’re here to help.  Our shelter is available to those who need a safe place to go, and our Prevention team is excited to support the building of healthy communities to end domestic violence.  Our 24-hour hotline is always available to provide support or answer questions from survivors and concerned friends and family alike.  

We all have a role to play in supporting survivors and ending domestic violence.  We can all create space for survivors to bring their whole selves and multitude of experiences forward. 

If you would like support in taking one of the steps on this list, contact Lauren in our Prevention department for more information.