CALL IT OUT: Domestic Abuse, Gender Recognition, Race and Improving Public Services

The first step in stamping out domestic abuse, intolerance and hatred is speaking out. A verbal conversation, a written email, a virtual message chat; all can lift some weight off shoulders about a situation, even one that no one ever deserves or should have to put up with. Name calling, hostility, belittling, physical abuse, provocation, and more are never warranted. Different abuse, all of which can be hidden, is often filtered through other forms of hatred, namely sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Speaking out about your personal life could be the hardest thing that any of us have to do throughout life, which is why it is of the utmost importance that services to support abuse victims in the home are accessible and inclusive to all.

The other necessary step is to ‘call out’ domestic abuse, identify it for the evil that it is, and to address each individual case; which is what South Yorkshire organisation CALL IT OUT has been doing both before and crucially during lockdown.

Sheffield is fortunate to have SAYiT, an energised, committed local LGBT charity. Through their main youth group Fruitbowl, they work exclusively with young people under 25 in differing circumstances. SAYiT engages with schools across the city, organising Pride events and providing social groups that improve the confidence of their members. There is a popular regular meeting for parents and carers, who now understand their loved ones better and make friends in the same boat as them. SAYiT are always looking for ways to improve access to services that may exist but have unequal demographic participation, which is why CALL IT OUT was created.

CALL IT OUT was launched in July 2019 at the University of Sheffield after a successful government bid by all four South Yorkshire councils.

I talked to Heather Paterson, joint lead worker at CALL IT OUT, to discuss the specialism it provides, the challenges faced by trans youth, and the historic discrepancies with minority groups accessing public services. I wanted to focus on how the issue of domestic abuse is compounded by sexual orientation and gender expression, including trans issues. SAYiT was instrumental in championing and successfully bidding for central government funding for a local, specialised domestic abuse service. Unlike other SAYiT services, CALL IT OUT works with anyone who has experienced domestic abuse, regardless of age or identity, meaning it effectively covers a considerable population of 1.4 million. Leeds has not yet adopted a specialised LGBT domestic abuse service despite its size and has valuable lessons to learn from SAYiT.

We began with Heather explaining the specific function that CALL IT OUT offers. They are not a front-line service – instead, their role is “to make the mainstream services more accessible for LGBT people.” This means that they do “a lot of training and produce a lot of resources.” Heather’s take on why local and central government was so keen to promote this service is that SAYiT “gets out into the communities and LGBT spaces; if they have accessed services then what has their experience been, if they haven’t, why haven’t they, and what can we do to sort of improve (even) with those barriers.” Heather is clear that domestic abuse, like many societal problems, is faced equally across every section of society, but being LGBT compounds domestic abuse because how severely the rate of access to those services is impacted.

Heather said there is a clear and urgent need to improve access to key services, particularly as victims of domestic abuse are now confined with their abusers. It has been a strange, busy first year for CALL IT OUT. Summer and autumn were spent discussing with SAYiT users their experiences of domestic abuse at Pride events at Sheffield Picnic, Rotherham Show, Barnsley and Doncaster. Winter was busy with establishing the organisation, and then spring brought the unforeseeable lockdown.

Speaking about the initial summer canvassing with SAYiT users, Heather recounts, “That part of the community engagement was really eye opening I think, because you can read these statistics and reports and say there is really high prevalence or you know people aren’t represented at services, but when you are face to face with people… almost every person we spoke to had some sort of experience with domestic abuse, hardly any of them had approached services.”

CALL IT OUT’s only direct involvement is consultation work. They provide guidance about the LGBT community to domestic, sexual and housing services, and have worked with an impressive 86 organisations over the past year. Heather says it was like “pushing at an open door. Services were so grateful, they wanted this intervention, were aware the problem existed and generally the intent was there”. They wanted LGBT people to feel welcome. What they needed was specialism, and the expertise of CALL IT OUT was welcomed.

Heather gained valuable insight from the conversations had “on the road”, directly from people who either did not know that services were out there or that they would not be safe spaces for them.

“There’s a really real sort of perception that a lot of services are from organisations like Women’s Aid, so a lot of male victims who just didn’t think that services were open or available to them. This very public perception of domestic abuse, being it is a man being physically violent towards a woman, and anyone who fits outsides of that really struggles to recognise their own experiences of even being abused in the first place. Or not seeing services for them.”

Heather describes the different general forms of abuse, and how there is now a “much greater understanding now of coercive and controlling behaviour” due to more research. Recognising high levels of control as abusive is changing the public perception of domestic abuse. The more specific forms of abuse for LGBT people that other agencies such the Police may not identify immediately include that of trans peoples’ “actual identities being used against them”. Trans people are often abused home but don’t speak out as their family members do the bare minimum of using their preferred pronouns. For others, it is the fear of being outed, the bargaining of safe sex, the blackmail from being HIV positive. All this culminates in the idea that LGBT people will likely have low standards of self-worth for themselves:

 “Here people experience abuse, discrimination or harassment and that’s their standard benchmark for everyday life. The level of what they will get to before they recognise it as abusive.”

This can apply to a visibly trans person or camp gay man who face public harassment, meaning that to “recognise something as abusive, it has to far exceed that norm.” We talked about this desensitisation and I bring up the well-known evidence that victims can experience abuse from their family being repeated with a partner, and often thinking such behaviour is normal. Heather talks about the strong correlation between previous domestic abuse in abusive relationships, linking the issue to the “absence of positive role models in relationships.” She continues describing the reality of modern life being inundated with depictions of heterosexual couples while there are so few LGBT relationships in comparison. This lack of role models also explains how the biggest rate of abuse within LGBT relationships is actually in 16-17-year olds experiencing their first relationships.

I asked whether LGBT media representation has improved over the last decade. Heather believes it ‘absolutely has’ citing a report from GLADD showing how 2019/2020 Broadcast TV had the best year of LGBT representation of any year in history, “so it has certainly got better in terms of visibility.” Heather, however, is not wholly positive. This record visibility is “equally being met with hostile media”, which has evolved into the less overt negative portrayal of trans rights that has been seeping through right-wing broadsheets into a reinvigorated online discourse. “The Sunday Times last year ran, I think, 330 negative articles about trans people, so almost one every single day”. Mermaids UK reports that there is roughly ‘three and a half times as many articles in 2018-19 compared to 2012’.

I brought up the series of milestones for LGBT people in this country since 2012, chiefly same-sex marriage, but how there is also the same type of debate in the media about transgender people that has been there for decades. Heather concurs: “It is really sad and really difficult seeing those exact same arguments being used against trans people. In the ‘80s, it was lesbians shouldn’t be allowed in our toilets, our changing rooms and spaces – because obviously if you are sexually attracted to women then you must be a predator, you must be a risk.”

These fearmongering homophobic arguments were ultimately rejected by the public’s own experience as the people in their lives came out as gay. Heather describes these similar arguments being aimed at other sections of society as grim.  The idea of this hostile, toxic and oppressive environment of the ‘80s is not that removed from today; there is now masses of anonymous hate online that did not even exist decades ago. Heather expresses how this links back to there being a different threshold of abuse for LGBT people, meaning “slightly less hostile” behaviour can even be interpreted wrongly as kindness.  

Another group that agrees with Heather’s argument of regression is the charity Stonewall, who criticised Liz Truss’ speech this April about reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Stonewall plainly says ‘We can’t let history repeat itself’ about the new proposed changes that would mean trans people using services that don’t match their gender. Heather watched the speech “through very gritted teeth” and talks about the difficulty of the situation for a much-marginalised community. “It is difficult when they wrap it up, as well: we are fighting for the rights of women, we are fighting for equality, we are fighting for safeguarding… they try to wrap their hatred in that umbrella, but it is the same as we saw before. They never said we hate gay men, they said we are concerned about the welfare of children.”

Truss used language that clearly would offend the trans community. I comment to Heather that Truss specifically made her first point about protecting same-sex safe spaces, then protecting transgender individuals. I asked her for her views on same-sex safe spaces.

“First of all, my last job prior to being on this project, I actually worked at a women’s centre… It has only been in the past year, or two years, where people have really kicked a fuss and gone what about x, y, z. And it’s like this isn’t theoretical, trans people have been accessing these places for years and there hasn’t been an issue! Trans people have accessed single sex places for as long as there has been trans people.”

Protesters at the first Trans Pride march in London, September 2019 (Image: Simon Dawson/Reuters)

With the 2010 Equality Act in conversation, I raised that the Justice Secretary was against gay marriage, and comment on Liz Truss only replacing last year Maria Miller as Women and Equalities Minister. Heather is cautious to express a public political opinion and avoids being “party-political’ by pointing out the current government’s voting record and lack of legislation around transgender people would be comparable to the same-sex marriage Act. I argued that Theresa May had a different approach and commitment on the issue of including the trans community. Heather carefully says how she welcomes sincere individuals and also people from a party that “historically speaking” has not been that pro equality. Heather does mention, however, the threat of elections saying that all equalities have suffered in this increasingly divided political nature in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

Theresa May said in Parliament that her aim was to streamline changing legal gender and there seemed to be cross-party consensus for this. The GRA documentation costs £140 pounds which is much more than a marriage licence, entails no face to face contact in its process, and if unsuccessful, provides no feedback. Heather describes the response in the trans community as initially very positive to this landmark legislation. It was a step forward, it ended the need for surgery and the absence of legal trans recognition, but it did not create a perfect system, as it lacks accessibility and accountability.

The last government’s proposal was on the lines of a legal self-declaration. However, this new speech by Truss, a new Prime Minister buoyed by a landslide election victory, and recent online discourse has all shifted the landscape to the right, meaning the political consensus on this issue has been broken.

We moved onto the topic of JK Rowling’s recent tweets about trans people and womanhood, that angered fans and even the stars of her franchise. I mention the language used by her, ‘people who menstruate’, in her much-mocked, random tweeting. Heather comments on Rowling’s reaction saying that there is no issue with companies and language when they want to be inclusive of all customers, e.g.  period products.  “The anti-trans campaigns are really so stressed about, well you are trying to redefine woman, you are trying to change language and it’s like no one needs to use language about themselves other than the language that they choose.”

People are not being asked to redefine themselves in a different way. It is just about in specific cases like with period campaigns that organisations should be as inclusive as possible, so as not to deter trans men, intersex or non-binary people who also may menstruate.

Heather says there are only a few charities, 12 she thinks, in the national LGBT network. Heather stresses that there is also close friendship with women charities, like “Welsh Women’s Aid” who currently don’t have funding for LGBT abuse but want to integrate specialist support in their mainstream service.  We concluded that the whole thing is that this is a whipped-up controversy. 

“When you actually look at the Gender Recognition Act Consultation, over a 100,000 people responded to that and over 70% of them were overwhelmingly in support of trans rights and trans inclusion and people being welcomed in the space they feel most comfortable.”

“People are really struggling with their mental health in general in isolation, for LGBT people particularly and for trans people specifically, who may not be out, whose families may not be supportive. Generally, they may be able to manage that because they can go visit friends, or go out, this can be at school or college…we’ve seen huge spikes across the board in domestic abuse for everyone during lockdown.”

CALL IT OUT has been challenging the underrepresentation of use of services, even in lockdown. Heather has just spent her morning virtually training a Doncaster housing provider. This collaboration helps create a “best practice”. Heather says how the main thing that keeps occurring is that organisations want to be inclusive but are worried in stumbling in their language and causing more controversy. So, the Kite Mark to demonstrate services’ LGBT inclusiveness was created. Developed by SAYiT and CALL IT OUT, it is similar to other schemes, and has been rewarded to many local services including South Yorkshire Police. CALL IT OUT has trained many officers which went “really well”, as the gaps in knowledge were already identified, with assistance and expertise being needed.

“For example, were they called out to respond to a violent incident between two men, it wouldn’t necessarily occur to them to think ‘this could be domestic violence’, whereas an incident between a man and a woman would automatically trigger that for them.”

An example of CALL IT OUT’s work with Doncaster Domestic Abuse Hub and South Yorkshire Police, now explicitly LGBT+ inclusive.

The Kite Mark is based on evidence that this visual reminder improves rates of attendance to public services by LGBT users. I asked Heather a difficult question about whether organisations across South Yorkshire are naturally proactive about inclusion without charity intervention. Heather answers that people want to do something meaningful, “not sticking a rainbow on it”, which is why the Kite Mark is an accreditation with weight behind it. We discuss South Yorkshire Police, who are represented on CALL IT OUT’s steering group but have not yet applied for the Kite Mark. Heather discusses the current reality of policing with fraught tensions that have been exposed in Black Lives Matter movement.

 “If you are a young, black trans woman, the likelihood of you thinking the police as someone as a source of support for you, that’s not likely to be honest.”

The history of LGBT people being criminalised, and the reputation of the Police as a homophobic institution, have created those barriers in accessing services in the first place. There is a parallel about people of colour, and queer people of colour, being marginalized and not accessing services, including legal protection. The issue of intersectionality between a person of colour and being LGBT means that many people may be forced to decide “Am I more gay or am I more black?” Recognising that neither space may be fully inclusive, it’s a challenge that needs to be addressed meaningfully; this isn’t something easily solved with diversity officers.

“I think there are LGBT spaces that across the board, are very white, and there are BAME spaces who are not necessarily very LGBT inclusive.”

CALL IT OUT has considered how to address this issue in their work. When they developed their local training packages, they invited ASHIANA, a local BAME Women’s charity, to “tear into pieces” their material.  Heather says that in line with the majority of LGBT organisations, they have an issue with whiteness, so they have made efforts to consult with BAME, with trans groups and with male victims.

Charities such as CALL IT OUT, have long been protecting LGBT Rights, working practically to equalise the disproportionate rates of accessing services. Investment is decisive with tackling domestic abuse and every topic touched on the negative legacy of austerity.  Gay rights have been campaigned for decades, and now trans campaigners are facing the same barrage of contempt from press, persons and even Parliament. Being transgender should be accepted, loved and remembered as individuals, not one side of a manufactured debate. If we begin to question their very existence, their identity, then we are allowing abuse from all areas of society to be heard above the rarely heard abused. Domestic abuse in modern Britain is a travesty, and it never will be properly dealt with as long as hatred is allowed to remain.

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Our thanks to CALL IT OUT for the use of their infographics and posters.