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 'we treat everyone the same'.

It is not enough to say, "We treat everyone the same," because that doesn't necessarily result in equal accessibility for all. The outdated concept of formal equality prescribes identical treatment of all individuals regardless of their actual circumstances. Real equality requires a substantive approach:
"Sometimes 'equality' means treating people the same, despite their differences, and sometimes it means treating them as equals by accommodating their differences. Neutrality is not compromised by treating some social differences differently; but it may be by ignoring them. The reality is there are still built-in headwinds for those who are different, those who are thwarted in their conscious choices by stereotypes unconsciously assigned. Disadvantage occurs for different people for different reasons and each disadvantage is entitled to its own policy response. Each group should be presumed to have the same entitlement: to have their uniqueness acknowledged and accommodated, from their perspective; to not be arbitrarily excluded or disadvantaged because of their uniqueness; and to the availability of genuine choices to [participate]."

(Judge Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Ontario Appeal Court)

"Substantive equality requires that differences among social groups be acknowledged and accommodated in policies and practices to avoid adverse impacts on individual members of the group. A substantive approach to equality evaluates the fairness of apparently neutral policies and programs in light of the larger social context of inequality, and emphasizes the importance of equal outcomes which sometimes requires equal treatment and sometimes different treatment.

Discrimination occurs when a program or policy—expressly or by effect—creates a distinction between groups of individuals which disadvantages one group based on shared personal characteristics of members of that group in a manner inconsistent with human dignity.

Systemic Discrimination occurs when problems of discrimination are embedded in institutional policies and practices. Although the institution's policies or practices might apply to everyone, they create a distinction between groups of individuals which disadvantage one group based on shared personal characteristics of members of that group in a manner inconsistent with human dignity. [For example, programs often unwittingly ostracize lesbians by using 'he' when referring to the batterer and by not providing literature that includes information for battered lesbians.]

Equality also involves a duty to accommodate differences where not to do so would deny equal access to services.

The current 'substantive approach' to equality in Canada recognizes that treating individuals with different needs, resources and life circumstances in exactly the same way may perpetuate inequality. Instead, ensuring equal benefit requires that agencies respond appropriately and fairly to differences in personal characteristics, socio-economic circumstances, and life situations in order to achieve greater equality in social outcomes.

Given the significant diversity amongst women, it is important to assess the various experiences of inequality in women's lives, and the multiple disadvantage that many women confront—social inequalities associated with characteristics such as race, ethnocultural heritage, poverty, disability, and sexual orientation may compound the problems that women experience. An inclusive analysis that investigates the situation and needs of diverse groups of women can uncover potential problems and solutions for specific communities.

For example, although many women fear calling the police when they are assaulted by their spouse, a refugee who was victimized by police in her country of origin may be more afraid to call the police in Canada for protection. She may also face language barriers that discourage her from seeking help. Her experiences and situation as a refugee compound her vulnerability to male violence. An effective response to abuse must be designed to respond to the specific barriers to services for women in all situations. The ability to access services must be viewed as an important interest for ensuring that we are all equal participants in Canadian society."

(Diversity and Justice: Gender Perspectives: A Guide to Gender Equality Analysis,
Office of the Senior Advisor on Gender Equality, Federal Department of Justice,

"Policies which are meant to ameliorate or improve conditions for an equality seeking group do not discriminate against people from the relatively more advantaged group, or give preference to the equality seeking group.* For instance, it is not discrimination for the government to provide sign language interpretation for people with hearing impairments, but not for able-bodied people who do not have difficulty hearing."

(Our Equality Rights in the Charter, Court Challenges Web Site

*A number of respondents seemed to think we were suggesting that agencies should be giving special treatment or preference to lesbians over other groups—one respondent even used the word 'preference' twice (once in the answer to Ques. 16 and once in 'Any other comments?'; see word pdf).

Are lesbians members of a group with different needs, resources and life circumstances that recommend 'different' treatment? i.e. are they members of:
"a group which:
  • has experienced and/or is now experiencing social, legal and/or economic disadvantage?
  • is vulnerable to prejudice, or stereotyping?
  • is vulnerable to being mistreated or having its needs/conditions overlooked?
  • is being prevented from participating fully in society?
  • is a minority community within broader society?"

(Our Equality Rights in the Charter, Court Challenges Web Site

The answer to all of the above questions is 'Yes':

"Negative attitudes toward homosexuality exist [in society] on a continuum from homophobia to heterosexism:

Homophobia: Any belief system that supports negative myths and stereotypes about homosexual people, or any of the varieties of negative attitudes that arise from fear or dislike of homosexuality. The irrational fear of, or aversion to, homosexuals and homosexuality.

Heterosexism: A belief system that values heterosexuality as superior to and/or more natural than homosexuality; that does not acknowledge the existence of non-heterosexuals; and that assumes that all people are heterosexual. A belief that heterosexuality is normative and that non-heterosexuality is deviant and intrinsically less desirable. An expectation that all individuals are heterosexual.

Homophobia can manifest itself in a number of ways:

Internal Homophobia: Learned biases that individuals, including Gay males, Lesbians, and Bisexual males and females (GLB), incorporate or internalize into their belief systems.

External Homophobia: Overtly observed or experienced expression of internal biases such as social avoidance, verbal abuse, and civil discrimination.

In addition, there are other types of homophobia/heterosexism:

Institutional Homophobia or Heterosexism: Refers to the many ways in which government, business, churches, educational institutions and other organizations and institutions discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. These organizations and institutions set policies, allocate resources and maintain unwritten standards for the behaviour of their members in ways which discriminate. For example, many religious organizations have stated policies against GLB people holding offices; most educational institutions fail or refuse to allocate funds and staff for GLB support groups; and most businesses have norms for social events which prevent GLB employees from bringing their same sex partners while heterosexual employees are encouraged to bring their opposite sex partners.

Cultural Homophobia or Heterosexism: Refers to social standards and norms which dictate that being heterosexual is better or more moral than being GLB, and that everyone is heterosexual or should be. While these standards are not written down as such, they are spelled out each day in television shows where the vast majority of characters are heterosexual and most relationships involve a female and a male: or in the assumption made by most adults in social situations that all 'normal' children will eventually be attracted to and marry a person of the opposite sex. Often heterosexual people do not realize that these standards exist, while GLB people are acutely aware of the standards. The feeling that results is one of being an outsider in society. [For excellent demonstrations of cultural heterosexism, see Appendix C 'Understanding Heterosexual Privilege' and Appendix D 'A Question of Perspective'.]

Heterosexism is subtler than homophobia and permeates culture and its social institutions. Homophobia and/or heterosexism have been demonstrated in mental health practitioners, undergraduates, nurses, governments and social workers.

Evidence exists that indicates that homophobia and stigmatization of GLB is a serious and prevalent social problem in North America. Most individuals do not perceive themselves as homophobic, yet unfamiliarity with members of the GLB community can inadvertently result in acceptance of misinformation or biased attitudes. Several studies have shown that individuals who know one or more GL personally demonstrate less hostility toward all GL."

(The Cost of Homophobia Literature Review of the Economic Impact of Homophobia on Canada,
Submitted to Gay & Lesbian Health Services of Canada, July 2001)

Anyone who thinks lesbians do not experience homophobia in Saskatchewan need only turn to the Individual Analysis (word pdf) to see that a lesbian sexual orientation is not universally accepted even by the significant people in the lives of Saskatchewan lesbians, never mind by strangers at services agencies. Anyone who thinks there are no homophobic or heterosexist staff in Saskatchewan service agencies should consider this written comment re this survey by an attendee at the 2001 annual conference of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses of Saskatchewan: "What in heaven's name are we doing a survey on gays for? Can't the money be spent on intervention and prevention of more abuse?" (See also Appendices E & F re the experiences of lesbian staff members of Saskatchewan agencies.)