Reimagining Academic Activism
Learning from Feminist Anti-Violence Activists

6: LGBT+ Bodies

Recognition and celebration of lesbian identities had been part of the collective since its inception; a trend similar to other long running anti-violence organizations around the world (Arnold and Ake, 2013). The salience of lesbian identities in anti-violence activism, Tia explained to me, was partly due to the positioning of anti-violence activists as “tree-hugging, bra-burning, man-hating lesbians” by hostile communities in the 1970s. The public backlash, however, resulted in the creation of a political space in which the collective was determined to break down discriminatory social norms which limited the full participation of lesbian women in Aotearoa New Zealand. Jen, who had been part of the organization for nearly 30 years, felt liberated by the attention to lesbian identities. Before she became involved in the collective, she told me she knew that she was:

‘Attracted to girls … but my understanding of what a lesbian was, was this hairy, big, truck driver, butchy jeans and boots … and I knew that wasn’t the sort of woman that I wanted to be. Therefore, if I was a lesbian, and I didn’t want to be one of those, then I didn’t know what I was.’

Many years later, Jen was exposed to the possibilities of being a lesbian like she wanted when she joined the collective as a volunteer. She described it as extremely emancipatory, telling me: “I came out as a lesbian about the same time [as I started volunteering]. That was really quite cool because being a lesbian in [the organization] in those days was a very … recognized and celebrated thing.”

Recognition and celebration of lesbian identities had been part of the collective since its inception; a trend similar to other long running anti-violence organizations around the world (Arnold and Ake, 2013). The salience of lesbian identities in anti-violence activism, Tia explained to me, was partly due to the positioning of anti-violence activists as “tree-hugging, bra-burning, man-hating lesbians” by hostile communities in the 1970s. The public backlash, however, resulted in the creation of a political space in which the collective was determined to break down discriminatory social norms which limited the full participation of lesbian women in Aotearoa New Zealand. Jen, who had been part of the organization for nearly 30 years, felt liberated by the attention to lesbian identities. Before she became involved in the collective, she told me she knew that she was:

‘Attracted to girls … but my understanding of what a lesbian was, was this hairy, big, truck driver, butchy jeans and boots … and I knew that wasn’t the sort of woman that I wanted to be. Therefore, if I was a lesbian, and I didn’t want to be one of those, then I didn’t know what I was.’

Many years later, Jen was exposed to the possibilities of being a lesbian like she wanted when she joined the collective as a volunteer. She described it as extremely emancipatory, telling me: “I came out as a lesbian about the same time [as I started volunteering]. That was really quite cool because being a lesbian in [the organization] in those days was a very … recognized and celebrated thing.”

Like Jen, I experienced that emancipatory feeling when I joined an organization that openly and actively attempted to celebrate and include LGBT+ identities. Not only was my identity as a queer woman recognized by my colleagues, but was celebrated as bringing a unique perspective to how we could best support LGBT+ women in our anti-violence activism. The contrast to the compulsive sexual and gender ‘neutralization’ of the business school environment (Rumens, 2016) in which I was spending the other half of my time was stark. The more accustomed I became to the norms surrounding the enactment of sexual orientation in the collective, however, the more acutely I felt my exclusion from aspects of anti-violence activism. As I swirled in the uneasy cocktail of the limitations, abjections, and celebrations of LGBT+ identities in daily anti-violence activism, I started to think about the importance of LGBT+ identities for expanding our understanding of how anti-violence activism can respond to violence against LGBT+ women and women who felt their ‘difference’ as marked in other ways through their bodies, such as indigenous women. The imperative of dislocating heteronormativity which shaped the way gendered violence impacted the lives of victims became central, for me, to protecting the lives of all women and gender minorities subjected to gendered violence. A focus on the dimensions of gendered identity related to sexual orientation also altered how I was thinking about anti-violence activism, the body, and social change.

Despite three decades of research about LGBT+ identities in organizing, the experience and understanding of sexual orientation in organizations has been slow to gain traction in some areas of scholarship; including my own field of critical organization studies (Ng and Rumens, 2017). The case for the need to pay attention to LGBT+ identities in organizations and in research is, however, clear and compelling. Even in organizations perceived as ‘gay friendly’ (such as the collective!), research has shown that LGBT+ people continue to feel that their identities are ignored, silenced, or marginalized (Bowring and Brewis, 2009; Giddings and Pringle, 2011). LGBT+ people also continue to face open discrimination from colleagues or third parties (Köllen, 2013; Rumens, 2016). Accordingly, LGBT+ identities are important to activist organizing, and activists need to understand the unique social, cultural, political factors that influence how we protect LGBT+ people from violence (Quesada et al, 2015; Matebeni et al, 2018; Buyantueva and Shevtsova, 2020).

The collective had long been aware of the importance of LGBT+ women for anti-violence work. When I started my volunteer role, a few of my colleagues – Jen and Emily particularly – were beginning the process of changing the collective’s approach from focusing on lesbian women specifically, to all LGBT+ women and non-binary folk. The need to move away from lesbian identities specifically was also important in the postcolonial context of Aotearoa New Zealand. There was a concern that Māori, in particular, were excluded from Westernized conceptualizations of LGBT+ identities (Kerekere, 2015). The intersection of identities has also been a feature of broader discussions of LGBT+ activism (Quesada et al, 2015; Matebeni et al, 2018). In order to effectively carry out anti-violence activism, it was important for my colleagues to unpack how different groups were subjected to violence in different ways. Yet, while my colleagues espoused their support for engaging in activism on behalf of LGBT+ women, the notion that lesbian women were to be treated no differently to heterosexual women continued to be pervasive. Tia, for example, told me when I asked her about anti-violence activism with lesbian women: “what about it? They are everywhere. Who people choose to go to bed with is their fucking business. It is not illegal, so what is the problem?” Kimberley had a similar opinion:

‘I find it fascinating that a women’s organization has [an explicit activist agenda] that is solely around sexuality. I really think that it brings to the forefront of identity that somehow sexuality is a massive part of our identity as [anti-violence activists] … Really it shouldn’t matter what sexuality anyone is.’

The perspectives offered by Kim and Tia (both straight cis-women) were regularly expressed by my colleagues who identified as heterosexual. These perspectives were, however, problematic and vocally opposed by LGBT+ members of our organization:

In the second week of my voluntary work, Jen was keen for me to attend a series of talks hosted by members of the collective, held in a sort of conference like environment. My ethnographic enthusiasm was abounding, and I attended excited to see what the anti-violence activists talked about together. I decided to go and see one activist, Sara, talk about something titled ‘heterosexual visibility’, partly because Emily had repeatedly told me that Sara was a fantastic human being and a great speaker. The room was small and slightly dark, and there were about 30 plastic chairs facing a projector screen. The room was fairly full by the time I arrived, and I took a seat near the back where I could see most people. Emily came and sat down next to me, and I saw Jen hovering in the doorway.

Sara started off by welcoming us and saying how nice it was to see all the heterosexual women here. Immediately, there was a loud comment from a woman just to my left: “You are making assumptions!” Sara laughed and put her hand across her heart and replied: “Oh I know. I know everyone in this room isn’t heterosexual – myself included!” Sara then started her presentation by showing us a video about the ‘heterosexual quiz’ in which she went around young people asking them questions like: “When did you first know that you were heterosexual?”, “When did you come out as heterosexual to your parents?”, and “What do you think made you straight?” There was a great deal of laughter from all of us in the room and from the participants in the video. Most of their responses were just ‘common sense’ like “I just knew”, “Um … when I first took my boyfriend home?”, and “You could tell I was straight by the music I listened to” (underneath that particular comment on the video Sara had posted ‘what???’ in bold red text).

After the video ended and the laughter had stopped, Sara said “I’m going to get more serious now.” Sara added an apology that she was going to be focusing on the church. She started talking about the continuing violence against the rainbow community, even though, she added, this was less widespread in Aotearoa New Zealand than overseas. “A transgender woman is murdered every three days” she told the now quiet audience, “a statistic which does not include self-harm or suicide rates”. Sara then played another video. It was full of very violent images and violence language; often from members of the church. The violent images included a transgender woman being attacked on the street, gay men being forced to rape themselves with glass bottles, and police brutality against peaceful LGBT+ rights activists. The violent language included speeches from priests saying that boys who ‘act like girls’ need to be abused and beaten in order to ensure they ‘act like men’, emails from priests urging gay men to commit suicide, and slurs against LGBT+ people in everyday situations. During this video, many of the women in the room made small exclamations at the violence and several started crying.

No one made a sound after the video ended. Sara paused a moment, as if breathing in the effect, and then went on to explain why it was so essential to foster an inclusive society and why it was so important for anti-violence activism to address the specific forms of violence targeting the rainbow community. Sara then told her own story and explained how when she was abused by her partner the police classed the incident as ‘between friends’, and when she left her abusive partner she had no legal access to the (non-biological) children she had raised from birth because there was no legislation to support her custody claims. She said how difficult it was for her to get help from anyone, and how many anti-violence activists didn’t recognize the violence she experienced. She told us: “people think violence between women is less dangerous because we are about the same physical size. But it can be much worse than violence between men and women”. At the end of the presentation Jen added, from the doorway, that she knew how powerful Sara’s presentation was and concluded: “How can anyone think that [a focus on LGBT+ women in anti-violence activism] is not relevant?”

Sara’s presentation effectively drew the link between heteronormativity and the violent material implications for LGBT+ women and non-binary folk. Furthermore, the stories that Sara shared underscored the impacts of heteronormativity on the body. Sara dedicated a lot of her presentation to unpacking the meanings people in her tales ascribed to bodies and the violence perpetrated against bodies. Importantly, Sara highlighted that anti-violence activism is often saturated by the binary assumptions that a ‘female body’ will have a ‘female heterosexual identity’. Sara’s arguments echo broader sentiments in research related to LGBT+ identities in organizations: restrictive social norms surrounding LGBT+ identities are enmeshed in widely accepted binary models of woman/man and feminine/masculine (Jagose, 1996). Judith Butler’s work developing the concept of the ‘heterosexual matrix’ has been influential in understanding how heterosexuality is normalized in many aspects of life, including in activist organizing (Quesada et al, 2015). Butler’s heterosexual matrix articulates how a ‘female body’ is naturalized as the complementary opposite of a ‘male body’, thereby making heterosexual relationships appear self-evident and natural (Butler, 1993, 2004a). Heterosexuality is positioned as the norm and homosexuality is the ‘other’, that is, heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and homosexuality is ‘abnormal’. Through the enactment of heteronormativity in institutions, social norms, and some activist practices, heterosexuality is made to seem coherent and is privileged by being accepted and included in daily organizational practice (Berlant and Warner, 1998; Colgan and Rumens, 2015).

The body is therefore central to how LGBT+ identities are understood. As well as other constraints on women’s bodies I’ve discussed earlier in this chapter, ‘female’ bodies are also constrained by social norms which posit a ‘natural’ heterosexuality thereby marginalizing women who perform their sexual orientation differently (Butler, 2004a, 2006a). For example, lesbian women can articulate identities which break with the heterosexual matrix but at the risk of abjection, non-recognition, and violence for breaking with powerful social norms. Additionally, lesbian identities are often normatively constructed to uphold some of the sex/gender binary and are often expected to fit within narrow legitimated frames of reference, such as butch lesbian identities (Bowring and Brewis, 2009). As Jen indicated in her story about not seeing herself in a ‘masculinized’ or butch lesbian identity, there are often limited subject positions for lesbian women, making it difficult to reconcile their identities as lesbian and as a woman. Nevertheless, as with all Butler’s work around identity, she emphasizes that the performativity of identities opens up the possibilities for the remaking of identities which, while difficult, can help to displace restrictive social norms. The rest of Jen’s story about feeling emancipated in the collective, which accepted women enacting their lesbian identities in a range of ways, underscores this potential.

In relation to anti-violence activism, the heterosexual matrix has significant implications for both anti-violence activists and women and non-binary folk subjected to violence. Implicit in compulsive heterosexuality is that a ‘weaker’ female body is seen as vulnerable to a ‘stronger’ male body, thereby assuming that gendered violence results in women being vulnerable to violence from men, but not from other women (Ristock, 2002, 2011). Consequently, as Sara highlights, the severity and seriousness of violence in LGBT+ relationships is often downplayed by institutions and anti-violence activists, which means that victims often face additional barriers to receiving assistance to attenuate the violence (Shelton, 2017). Research has demonstrated that LGBT+ victims may not even be aware that their experience constitutes abuse (Shelton, 2017) because of the heteronormativity pervasive in public conceptualizations of intimate partner violence (Ristock, 2011). They may also be reluctant to seek assistance from anti-violence activists (Bornstein et al, 2006) and may even be excluded from receiving adequate or any assistance from anti-violence organizations (Ristock, 2011). The impacts of heteronormativity, as Sara demonstrated through her own story of her abuse at the hands of her partner, is that only certain heterosexual identities are legitimated as the objects of organizational inclusion and the subjects of anti-violence activism. Accordingly, one important aspect of activism that includes and celebrates LGBT+ identities is to destabilize restrictive social norms that preclude LGBT+ identities and experiences from recognition in activism and in society more broadly. Recognizing LGBT+ identities in anti-violence activism is important for protecting the lives of LGBT+ women and non-binary folk.

I now move to exploring how LGBT+ identities were understood by my colleagues in their activist work by drawing on Butler’s understanding of the heterosexual matrix. To begin, I offer a story of an ordinary lunchtime conversation:

Lunchtime banter about colleagues’ sexual activities was commonplace; with some of my colleagues more enthusiastically sharing stories of their experiences than others. Their excitement about discussing these experiences openly seemed related to other discussion around the body and women’s experiences of the world. It was a way of politicizing their own experiences and relating them to social norms about women’s lives and bodies. Having no interest in sexual relationships and no stories to add to these conversations, my primary interest was ethnographic because of my awareness of sexual orientation as fundamental to my colleagues’ identities as women. Increasingly, however, I felt that some stories about sex seemed to be more acceptable to tell; particularly as my LGBT+ colleagues like Gracie, Jen, and Esther appeared to be less engaged in these conversations or only seemed to be comfortable sharing limited aspects of their experience. I felt that there were two options available: engage in detailed, humorous stories about sex with men, or remain silent. Today started off in the usual way.

Riley was really shocked by Emily’s admission that she hadn’t had sex in six months and said very loudly to the table: “Why don’t you just get drunk and get your hussy on?” I hate when people get so shocked about this, it makes me feel like my life isn’t worth living. It didn’t bother Emily as much, and she immediately shared horror stories of the last time she tried to have sex with men. One of the stories was the time Emily had sex with a man who had a foot fetish, which she didn’t discover until halfway through and he started telling her that he was imagining her dominating other women with her feet. Riley howled with laughter and asked where on earth Emily found these men. She happily explained that she had sex with many different men but had never come across anything as crazy as that. Riley said all you needed to know was that the men had sheets on their beds. Evelyn piped up trying to claim that they at least needed clean sheets, but Riley reassured the table with a wave of her hand that any sheets would suffice.

Several of my other colleagues decided that they would help Emily to find a man to have sex with; despite her protestations on the contrary. Esther held out her hand, demanding Emily’s phone so that she could ‘work’ on her profile on social media. Esther claimed that “My friends call me the Tinder whisperer … The key is to be really bitchy, because men really like that”. She looked over the profile, sized up Emily with a quick glance, and said that her personal description should be “probably taller and smarter than you”. Kimberley laughed and agreed that men really like women being ‘bitchy’ for some reason. She told the story of how she met her boyfriend on Tinder; where she had a quote from Taylor Swift that read “a nightmare dressed like a daydream”. Riley and Esther asked Emily several times if she was looking for a relationship or if she just wanted to “root some dude”. These appeared to be the only two acceptable options.

Gracie came to join us at the table just as Riley was telling Emily that she should go out and “hump randoms that you meet in bars. It is tried and true”. Riley turned to Gracie and asked when the last time she got laid was. Gracie laughed off the question, and so Riley ignored her. Emily was now adamant that she wanted her Tinder profile that she was only interested in sex if she was able to change her mind halfway through. Riley was sceptical about this because it might put men off, but told us stories of telling various sexual partners to ‘get out’ (of her and subsequently the house) in the middle of sex if it “wasn’t working for her”. Esther said that she had done that as well, spreading her legs and making shooing gestures around her crotch to indicate how she dismissed unworthy sexual partners. Gracie suggested that Emily should write that she was after “hot consensual respectful dicking” on her profile and joke that Emily should buy a squirty gun to get men out of her bed. My sense was that by this point Emily was extremely uncomfortable. Ava joined in the conversation saying she didn’t understand all this modern dating and asked what had happened to emailing men. That was how she met her husband.

The banter surrounding sex with men was very commonplace in daily organizational life, as illustrated in this story, and a central aspect of identity for many of my colleagues. Within this vignette, however, there are only limited possibilities of sexual behaviour normatively condoned or celebrated. In this instance, the normative sexual orientation is governed by an engagement in sex with men, limited to a position of desirable and desiring woman, or a woman in a heterosexual, monogamous partnership. Emily, a heterosexual woman, is being policed in her (lack of) sexual activity, and is repeatedly encouraged to embody and enact her sexuality in a particular way by our colleagues around the table. The conversation here is heteronormative; encouraging each other to engage in detailed descriptions of the use of bodies in sexual interactions with men but marginalizing or silencing voices that do not adhere to the social norms. Gracie, for example, was actively excluded when she didn’t meet expectations by avoiding an answer to Riley’s question and was only included again when she engaged in heteronormative banter. Esther and Gracie, who both identified as bisexual, only contributed some of their experiences. In instances where Gracie did share stories about her relationships with women, or explicitly talked about her bisexuality, there was a noticeably less enthusiastic response, and even an awkward silence to the point where her (occasional) stories were only acknowledged by a nod of the head and a subsequent change in topic of conversation.

The conversation over lunch highlights the ways in which heterosexuality was embedded in daily organizational life and encouraged by the majority of my colleagues. The whole conversation appears to be premised on a (supposedly) mutual recognition of a female bodily desire for the ‘male body’. The confines of heterosexuality were, moreover, particularly limited. Riley, Esther, and Kimberley constructed quite limited categories of behaviour expected from a heterosexual woman, tied to the way in which a female body was supposed to look and act. Kimberley, for instance, proposes that women need to make themselves look sexually desirable for men; proposed as something stylized women need to achieve. Esther also expresses normative expectations for the appearance of a ‘desirable’ female body by drawing attention to Emily’s height, noting that she is ‘probably taller’ than male bodies. Esther’s formulation posits that Emily might pose a challenge to a male body, suggesting that men might like to have the opportunity to reassert their place in a female/male relationship by proving that they are indeed ‘taller and smarter’ than Emily. Gracie and Esther also make reference to the expected bodily characteristics that ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies should align with, through their gestures and reference to ‘dicking’. Male and female bodies are, thereby, naturalized around the lunch table as complementary opposites. The process of naturalization marginalizes or invisibilizes the possibilities of bodies having different physical characteristics, or that ‘female’ bodies could desire other female bodies; or not desire at all.

The silence around LGBT+ identities, even when several people involved in the lunchtime conversation openly identified as LGBT+, echoes the findings of other research about LGBT+ identities in organizing. Silence, in other research, has been found as the predominant mode of marginalization of LGBT+ women (Bowring and Brewis, 2009; Giddings and Pringle, 2011). As Tia and Kimberley note in their conversations to me, lesbian and other LGBT+ experiences were often classed as “their fucking business” or something that “shouldn’t matter”. But these expressions contrast with the heterosexuality prevalent in everyday conversations between colleagues. As well as lunchtime conversations there were many other examples of ‘small’ exclusions of LGBT+ women. For example, Gracie was told by Jen that as a bisexual woman, she would be considered ‘not gay enough’ by other lesbian members of the collective to attend a meeting of lesbian women in the organization; corroborating other research which has found that bisexual women face discrimination from both their heterosexual and lesbian counterparts (Köllen, 2013).

As well as posing problems for the wellbeing of LGBT+ organizational members, particularly in relation to sharing their experiences of violence, heteronormativity became embedded in the activist work of the collective. Heteronormativity was problematic as it normalized only certain women as legitimate beneficiaries of activism. For example, Zoey, in writing the policy for guests visiting women in emergency housing, noted that women were not allowed visitors who were men but were allowed women who were visitors between the hours of 9am and 9pm. This policy is founded on the heterosexist assumption that women will have been in a violent relationship with men but not with another woman, and that victims of violence are in danger of violence from men but not from other women. The formulation in the policy accentuates that the concept of ‘violence against women’ or even ‘gendered violence’ is often constructed as only a particular form of violence from men to women; excluding and marginalizing LGBT+ women and non-binary folk and their experiences. Heteronormative practices thus have serious impacts on which bodies anti-violence activists perceived as legitimate victims of violence and worthy of institutional protection. I would add, however, that it was acceptable to challenge these heteronormative assumptions. After my raising the issue with the policy, it was changed to reflect the experiences of LGBT+ women and non-binary folk. That this policy and other similar policies could be negotiated was testament to the possibilities of inclusion and the long-standing work of LGBT+ anti-violence activists to ensure their experiences were included in anti-violence activism.

Consequently, although there were examples of heteronormative practices in the organization’s activist work, to paint a portrait of my anti-violence colleagues as unaware of the dangers of heteronormativity or actively exclusionary of LGBT+ women would present a one-sided view of their efforts. There was a long history of celebrating LGBT+ women, as Jen’s story highlights, and there was space to challenge heteronormative assumptions and open up the possibilities for LGBT+ women to be liberated in self-expression. Therefore, I now want to focus on the practices and experiences of my colleagues that did challenge heteronormativity in anti-violence work. I want to highlight how LGBT+ women were included and celebrated in a way that attempted to shift heteronormativity in and beyond the organization in their anti-violence work, explore two examples of how LGBT+ identities were unsettled through repeated exposure to domestic violence, and finally offer a detailed example of how challenging heteronormativity expanded (rather than constricted) activist work and the possibilities of who was perceived as a beneficiary of anti-violence activism.

My LGBT+ colleagues were open and reflective about the ways in which working with domestic violence had unsettled the way they thought about their identity. Jules, for instance, explained that working with violence had unsettled her sense of self as a lesbian partner; telling a group of us one day how after working in domestic violence for several months she had started to worry that her practices of slamming doors and refusing to talk to her partner constituted abuse. When she raised this with her partner, however, she had laughed and promised Jules that her behaviour lacked a crucial part of violence: causing fear as a means of control. Nevertheless, Jules still found that experiences of working in anti-violence activism had prompted her to reflect on and alter her behaviours and attitudes towards her partner. Interestingly, her concern about her own relationship was mixed together with a worry that she was being a ‘bad’ representative for the lesbian community. With the regular discrimination that LGBT+ women face in society, Jules was concerned that if she was seen as violent then there would be repercussions for the LGBT+ community; seeing them as defective or immoral. Another woman who openly discussed her experience of her sexual orientation and violence was Lesley, who worked directly with the LGBT+ community. Lesley came to talk with our collective about her experiences of violence as a bisexual woman and being a victim of domestic violence from one her partners. She explained some of the forms of symbolic violence she experienced that she considered unique to LGBT+ women. For example, as a bisexual woman she was coerced by her partner into changing her self-definition of her sexual orientation (that is, from bisexual to lesbian). As with Jules, this prompted a reflection and reconsideration of her own sexual identity.

LGBT+ women experienced an unsettling of their gendered identities, with some similar dynamics (such as the reflection on partnerships) and some different dynamics (such as concern about repercussions for the wider community) to heterosexual women. What both Jules and Lesley identified, however, was that they felt they had unique perspectives to add about domestic violence. They both remarked that their identities had been unsettled in a way that made them better partners and better anti-violence activists. Additionally, their experiences were enmeshed in broader issues for the LGBT+ community such as violent and negative stereotypes about LGBT+ relationships and the importance of self-identifying labels. Anti-violence activism, then, is shaped by multiple aspects of gendered identities. Legitimating and recognizing the multiple ways that women and non-binary folk may have their gendered identities unsettled in anti-violence activism is essential for ending all forms of gendered violence. Jules and Lesley were able to give voice to the ways that the complexity and multiplicity of gendered identities shapes anti-violence work and helped to identify particular areas where anti-violence activism was needed in order to dismantle harmful social norms.

Including and celebrating LGBT+ identities within our organization was therefore important for the ways in which our collective activism recognized LGBT+ experiences as legitimate and worthy of protection. Emily, Jen, and I were, in particular, concerned with ensuring that everyone in our collective perceived LGBT+ women and non-binary folk as an indispensable part of anti-violence activism. One aspect of our activism that I was heavily involved in alongside Jen and Emily was researching the experiences of our clients in order to improve our activism and engagement for victims of violence. Jen adamantly maintained that: “We are not founding our research on heterosexist assumptions.” All research conducted by our collective attempted to be inclusive of LGBT+ experiences by removing gender specific wording of victimization (that is, changing ‘was he physically violent’ to ‘was your partner physically violent’) and by asking for the gender identity of the abusive partner rather than assuming them to be a man. These attempts by Jen, Emily, and me had implications for which bodies were perceived as legitimate of recognition and protection from violence.

Naturalizing heterosexual relationships as the ‘norm’ of gendered violence has significant implications for both anti-violence activisms and for who anti-violence activisms consider to be the focus of activism. The embedded heteronormativity surrounding anti-violence activism has grave consequences for the inclusion or exclusion of LGBT+ women as activists and the recognition of all victims of gendered violence. If activists can better understand how heteronormativity marginalizes LGBT+ women in anti-violence activism, we gain a stronger understanding of the contours of gendered violence and therefore the ‘sticking points’ in which to dismantle harmful social norms. Which bodies are considered worthy of protecting, valuing, and celebrating is impacted by heteronormative practices (Butler, 2004a), and this is an issue for activists that expands beyond anti-violence activism. Activists frequently advocate for the protection of different bodies. The Black Lives Matter movement is exemplary of an awareness of the differences in how bodies are valued and protected by institutions. Black Lives Matter aims to challenge the social construction of Black bodies in order to ensure that they are considered worthy of protection. Other social movements, such as protections for non-human animals, also echo these reimaginings of the body and draw attention to how social norms and institutions perpetuate violence against certain bodies but not others.

In any activist work, then, it is imperative to understand how activists are constructing certain bodies as worthy of protection and to continue to challenge social norms both internal to the activist movements and in the activists’ work influencing others, to ensure that our activism benefits all those affected by an issue, not just a subset. In the case of my collective, opening up the space for LGBT+ organizational members to share their opinions and experiences related to the body was crucial. Although my colleagues did make substantive efforts to be inclusive of LGBT+ women, heteronormative practices operated to silence and marginalize LGBT+ women and non-binary folk on multiple occasions. Nonetheless, when the experiences of LGBT+ women were recognized in anti-violence activism, we gained a richer understanding of the contours of gendered violence and consequently how to end gendered violence for all women and non-binary folk.

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