Janice Ristock, University of Manitoba
This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.
December 6th, today, marks the national day of remembrance and action on violence against women. It is the anniversary of the 1989 l’École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre where fourteen women were singled out and murdered by Marc Lepine, a man who blamed women and feminists for his inability to get into an engineering program.
I remember that December day in 1989 very well as I listened to CBC Radio describe the unfolding events. The question of why this had happened was at the forefront – was it a mad man; was it a sign of lack of gun control legislation; could it be that this was part of a larger pattern of male violence against women? I was teaching Women’s Studies at Trent University at the time and we had been planning a trip to the Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Montreal in early January. We hadn’t imagined that our trip would include a visit to the site where we would bear witness to the outpouring of shock and grief as displayed in the hallways and on the walls of l’École Polytechnique in the area where the killings took place. I’ll never forget the experience and I don’t think my students will ever forget it.
The debates surrounding how to understand the violence that occurred on December 6th also struck a particular chord with me because I had been starting to research the issue of partner violence in lesbian/queer women’s relationships (work that I have since continued for over twenty years). In engaging in this research I was concerned that I might contribute to the anti-feminist backlash that suggested that women were just as violent as men and/or that violence in queer relationships was simply further evidence of the ‘sick’ nature of our desires. Thus, I have been committed to framing partner violence as an issue facing communities and to unpacking and examining the spaces and places in which violence occurs in order to keep our gaze on the differing historical, social, political and cultural contexts of violence and thereby connect the dots between structural violence and interpersonal violence.
My book No More Secrets: Violence in lesbian relationships was based on interviews that I conducted with 102 women who had experienced violence in their intimate relationships with other women. In the book I brought forward a number of overlapping contexts that women spoke of as giving shape and meaning to their experiences of violence. For example, some women experienced contexts of dislocation where they had moved from another country to Canada, felt great isolation and vulnerability and they felt this all contributed to their experience of partner abuse. Others spoke to me about a lifetime of violence, often growing up in poverty and experiencing violence within their homes, their neighborhoods and later in their relationships. Others spoke of the impact of colonization and the legacy of residential schools and the ways in which violence had been normalized in their lives. None of the women that I interviewed were offering excuses for the violence they had experienced, rather they could speak clearly about the intersections between structural violence and interpersonal violence and they understood first hand the ways in which racism, sexism and heteronormalcy were part of an interlocking framework of power, privilege and oppression that shaped their lives.
I vividly remember interviewing one woman who spoke to me about a cycle of violence, of being abused as a child, experiencing racism daily as an Aboriginal women living in Alberta, using drugs and alcohol, working in the sex trade, being abused by johns, being abused by her female partner, and then entering another relationship where she was abusive towards her female partner. She said “As I look back, my mom was physically abusive to me and my brother, I was sexually abused by my grandfather and that was huge for me…plus I’m from Alberta and there is a lot of racism towards Natives. People running people over and not caring. What I seen is what I thought was acceptable.” She spoke without offering excuses, identifying herself as an abuser although her account reflects a context of violence in which the neat categories of victim and abuser no longer seem to hold. Her story also exposes the limits of focusing too narrowly on domestic violence. She experienced a lifetime of violence supported by larger social structures that create and sustain inequalities and disadvantages.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia intersect to shape the context in which sexual abuse, child abuse, stranger violence, and partner violence are initiated and continue. Her story, like those of many of the women that I interviewed, challenged the binary categories (perpetrator /victim, good/bad, male/female) that have been relied upon in the domestic violence movement and that end up asserting one grand narrative of relationship violence that keeps the experiences of marginalized women hidden and that most often ignores violence in LGBTQ relationships.
My recent research with Art Zoccole, the Executive Director of 2 Spirited Peoples of the First Nations in Toronto explored the trajectories of mobility and migration of Two-Spirit people and the impact on identity, health and well-being. While violence was not the focus it became clear that state violence including forced mobility (experiences of residential schools, foster care, child welfare systems) along with racism in LGBTQ communities and homophobia on many First Nation reserve communities could not be overlooked. Nor could the fact that more than half the people that we interviewed experienced violence in their intimate relationships. The separation that is often still made between public and private violence clearly does not reflect most lived realities.
As Andrea Smith so rightly asserts in Conquest: Sexual violence and American Indian genocide, when speaking about domestic violence in Aboriginal communities: “our strategies to combat violence within communities (sexual/domestic violence) must be informed by approaches that also combat violence against communities, including state violence – police brutality, prisons, militarism, racism, colonialism, and economic exploitation.”
Catherine Taylor and I recently wrote a chapter in my new edited book Intimate Partner Violence in LGBTQ Lives about the need for white researchers to see themselves as allies and to take an anti-oppressive ethics of solidarity when engaging in research on partner violence that addresses LGBTQ and racialized communities. We wrote:
“It therefore remains imperative that we keep our efforts at responding to relationship violence aligned with the broader struggles against oppressive discourses that sustain and rationalize state violence in its many forms. In advocating for an emphasis on social transformation, we are at the same time arguing for continued attention to the specifics of IPV [intimate partner violence] in people’s lives. In the case of indigenous LGBTQ people experiencing violence, we are persuaded that attentiveness to specific contexts of violence coupled with conscientization leads logically to the conclusion that researchers who see our work as opposing personal violence need to actively oppose state violence through our research and in our public lives. As allies, we need to continue to think critically, consciously and reflexively about how to engage in transformative work that centers the experiences of marginalized people, recognizes the implication of state violence in personal violence, and integrates both these principles into our research, service, and community actions.”
On this December 6th, let us remember the 14 women who were killed, let us think about the large numbers of women affected by gender and racial violence including the many missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Let us also see the connections to other acts of hate and violence – high rates of violence against members of the trans community, homophobic bullying, institutional violence, colonization – and let us all commit to action and to being allies in order to end structural violence, state violence and interpersonal violence.
Janice Ristock is Associate Vice-President (Research) and Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Manitoba.