Abuse in Lesbian Relationships &
Lesbian Friendly Service:

A Saskatchewan Survey (2001-2002)

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Excerpt from Analysis of Data from Service Providers

Why it is not enough to say 'our door is open to everyone'.


It is also not enough to say, "Our door is open to everyone," because of the array of barriers blocking that door for lesbians generally. Just as every agency today knows that an open door at the top of a flight of stairs is not as accessible to women confined to wheelchairs as it is to able-bodied women, agencies must realize that they have to construct 'ramps' for lesbians as well.

Although it is true than some lesbians place barriers upon themselves through learned behaviours such as fear of rejection and fear for safety, lesbians are, in fact, rejected for being lesbians, and do, in fact, experience circumstances that are not safe, just because they are lesbians. To say as one respondent did that the barrier that prevents lesbians from accessing services is "the perception of the gay/lesbian community that they require services specialized in gay/lesbian issues" is to ignore the dominant social context.
"It is important to understand, then, that lesbian battering happens in a problematic social context. It should not be a surprise that lesbians are very hesitant to identify themselves to health professionals [or service providers]. Lesbians who are battered face an abuse of power and control at two levels—from the batterer in her intimate world, and in the public or social world from institutional agents, professionals, community members and lawmakers. It is every health [and service] worker's responsibility to acknowledge the social bases of discrimination and take actions in order to create safety for women."

(Assisting Abused Lesbians: A Guide for health professionals and
service providers, London Abuse Women's Centre, 1994)

Homophobia and heterosexism, or the fear of same, as well as lack of information re services, fear of being 'outed' in the general community, 'butchness', and concerns about reporting abuse by a woman and about the level of knowledge and understanding of lesbian issues on the part of the service provider, are all real barriers specific to lesbians that keep them from accessing the services of abuse help agencies (again, see the Individual Analysis). Again, in order to help lesbians overcome those barriers, agencies must do more than just 'open their doors'. Here are some examples of strategies that can improve an agency's accessibility for lesbians:
  • Display posters, pictures and art work that depict positive lesbian relationships
  • Display posters and provide pamphlets that invite lesbians to use your services
  • Display posters and provide pamphlets on same-sex abuse.
  • Distribute information re services so that it will reach lesbians (see Appendix F for relevant publications, for example)
  • Maintain an up-to-date referral list specifically for lesbians
  • Include information on lesbian abuse when making presentations, applying for funding, collecting statistics
  • Conduct ongoing employee training (including support staff) and workshops on heterosexism, homophobia, and diversity.
  • Assess agency intake and assessment forms for inclusiveness.
  • Provide books for children with same-sex parents (e.g. Heather has Two Mommies)
  • Ensure it is safe for staff to be 'out' at work.
  • Adopt affirmative action plans to ensure diverse representation.
  • Use inclusive language comfortably. (It is also important to remember to use the language the client uses. She may not want to be labeled as lesbian or bisexual.)
  • Inform interventions with a consideration of the very real stigmatization and discrimination faced by lesbians
  • Sensitize the Board of Directors to the need for accessible services for ALL people.
  • Do not assume the abuser is a he. Use gender-neutral language (e.g. partner, abuser, they, etc).

Adapted from Women Hurting Women Workshop and Assisting Abused Lesbians

Of the 39 respondents that said their agency's services are lesbian friendly, only 18 (46%) make any efforts to inform the 'lesbian community' that their services are lesbian friendly, and only 14 (36%) openly display sexual minority material. 13% of rural respondents openly display sexual minority material in comparison with 61% of urban respondents, even though 77% of rural agencies said their services are lesbian friendly, as opposed to 72% of urban. (To conduct a comprehensive evaluation of your agency's services re accessibility, see Appendix G, 'Evaluating Your Service for Accessibility for Lesbians'.)

A final point re "Our door is open to everyone": Is not that open door also open to homophobes and heterosexists? (It was surprising that more shelters were concerned about a lesbian's abusive partner getting into the shelter than were concerned about the homophobia/heterosexism of other residents.)