The Skin I’m In
By: Sharron Fincher, Guest Author
When asked to write this blog post I was a little apprehensive. My apprehension was more about what I should talk about versus not having anything to talk about. Over the past few weeks, I have had many conversations as well as experiences about a common topic. This will be a reflection of those experiences which not only affect me but many others like me.
One thing that has remained constant in my life is the challenges I face because of the skin I’m in. I would like to take a deeper look and really think about whether my experiences are challenges or moments of empowerment. Before I compare the two I would like to talk about my actual experiences.
I have always been looked at as different and for a while, I thought that was because I was uncomfortable with myself. I was uncomfortable because I was not living the life that I desired to live. I was not embracing my sexuality. The reason was the fear of loss and disappointing those I loved. After years of guilt, loss, self-evaluation, and learning about and forgiving myself, I was finally able to embrace and love my true being. Now, I do so unapologetically and surround myself with those who love me and appreciate me for the person that I am. The road to get to that point is a long and hard road but once you get there you definitely appreciate your journey.
Now that I’m here and very secure in my skin, I have time to slow down and pay attention to things that I failed to notice before. When I describe myself, I say that I am a sister, mother, aunt, and friend. I am caring, giving, compassionate, kind, gentle and fair. I am African-American; I like to give back to the community, be involved in the community and work with victims of violence and children. I love to cook, listen to music, admire art, smoke cigars, travel and plan. I am finally comfortable in my own skin. This has allowed me to represent myself in a way that is totally comfortable to me. In addition to all the previously mentioned things, I am also a masculine appearing lesbian. I am a lesbian who chooses to wear men’s clothing.
Many embrace me because they have taken the time to get to know me, but there are few who have an issue with me based solely on my outward appearance, without even having a conversation. I have no problem with people choosing not to deal with me but it becomes an issue when verbal harassment and physical threats occur. I often wonder what about me causes so much anger and rage from people who I’ve never met before. What about me causes one to become so belligerent and hateful without even having a conversation with me? As part of my process of self-discovery, I’ve come to the realization that everyone’s problem with me has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them.
Growing up in a house with a homophobic parent, I’ve heard terrible things and because of the way it made me feel I chose to distance myself. I’ve heard on countless occasions when speaking to parents of homosexual and or bisexual children that they (the parents) worry about the challenges their child may face because of their sexual preference and/or identity. The truth is that in several cases parents cause more harm than others in the world. Losing the support and love of a parent can be one of the most detrimental events that could happen to a person, especially one who is already combatting a world that is usually unaccepting of them. We all want the best for our children but there comes a time when we must trust that what we taught our children will be implemented in their lives. Rather than punish them for not being exactly who we want them to be it would be better to support the people they are. That means to love and support them as well as allow them to be comfortable in their skin. It is their life after all. Besides, I’m sure very few of us turned out to be exactly who our parents wanted us to be.
I realize that I may face adversity for the rest of my life but because of my growth and my experiences I am able to be a voice for those who are not able to speak up for themselves. I was previously asked the question: “Is your experiences challenges or moments of empowerment?” I believe the answer to the question is that it is both. My challenges have turned into moments of empowerment. Life is not about the problems we face but the ways in which we grow from them. I would not be who I am without my life’s challenges and even though things may be difficult at times I am stronger and wiser. Today, I wouldn’t change anything because in a world where disrespect and self-doubt is common, I have learned to love me and surround myself with those who feel the same and for this I am strong. More importantly, I am grateful and humble.
About Author Sharron Fincher
Sharron Fincher was born and raised in Detroit. She is a graduate of Detroit Public Schools and attended Wayne State University’s Social Work program. Sharron continues to strive for diversity and inclusion is the city of Detroit. She is a community activist and leader in propelling the LGBTQ community forward. She is a member of the Detroit Police Department LGBTQ Action Team. Sharron is the Program Facilitator for the Woman2Woman program at LGBT Detroit. She is also the National Executive Director of Alpha Psi Kappa Fraternity, Incorporated. Her favorite quote is “Every Saint has a past and every Sinner has a future.” She believes that it is very important to enjoy life and try to change a life for the better as often as possible. Equality and dignity are quintessential to Sharron’s life’s mission to end oppression and fight against injustice.
Volunteer Feature: Emilija Kraii
Sexual assault is by far one of the most pervasive acts of violence in society. It is also an area of work that is difficult for those servicing survivors. Programs like Wayne County SAFE rely heavily on the community to provide quality and timely support for survivors of sexual violence. For example, volunteers contribute their time and skills to advocate for survivors of sexual violence. There is no doubt that Wayne County SAFE relies heavily on volunteers to provide outreach to the community, 24-hour crisis intervention, and other forms of support to survivors.
Emilija Kraii, featured in this post, is by far one of our most dedicated volunteers. Serving as a First Responder, she is empathetic, caring and compassionate when working with survivors. We are honored to have her as part of our family! Learn more about Emilija below!
Q: What led you to volunteer at Wayne County SAFE?
A: I, like many other people, was outraged at the discovery of the untested rape kits in Detroit. I’d seen how devastating sexual assault can be to a survivor and their immediate loved ones and couldn’t reconcile this with the low priority status given to the crime. WC SAFE’s mission perfectly aligned with my concerns.
Q: What do you like/love about volunteering at Wayne County SAFE?
A: As a first responder, I feel great satisfaction knowing that survivors of sexual assault are being treated with respect and affection in their moment of crisis. This volunteer work fills me with a sense of purpose and the organization is so welcoming that I continually feel appreciated and part of the family.
Q: Tell us more about your background.
A: I received a Master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University in 2011 and my field placement was in Southwest Detroit working with school aged children. I also worked at the Center for Urban Studies with the resident grant writer. I have been a stay at home mother of two wonderful girls for the last ten years and feel it is now time to put my social work degree to good use.
Q: Why is this work important to you?
A: I feel that this work is necessary and unfortunately a great need. Sexual assault is far too common and its harmful effects ripple out from the survivor into the wider community. Aiding in the healing is important work and very fulfilling for me.
Q: Outside of this work?
A: I have fallen in love with the work, staff, and volunteers at WC SAFE and will most certainly be applying for employment here if an opening comes along. Volunteering here for almost two years has given me a glimpse into the lives of survivors in crisis–I would feel privileged to play a greater part in their healing as well as work on ways to tackle sexual assault on a more macro scale through legislation and community organizing. My career goals underlie my goals as a mother: to be a role model for my girls, help create a better environment for them in which they can grow up confident and strong and teach them that social problems are not intractable when dedicated people work together to eradicate them.
“Hello? Can You Help Me?”: Creating Safe Spaces for Male Survivors of Sexual Assault
It was 2011, shortly after I became an advocate for WC SAFE. I came into the office one morning, anticipating a full day. As I turned on my computer, logged into my email and began to pull up the day’s calendar, the phone rings. It’s 9:02 am. “Hello, thank you for calling Wayne County SAFE, this is Amy. How can I help you?” “Hello?”- A firm, but inquisitive voice responds. “I’m not sure if you can help me or not. I was given your name by my substance abuse counselor, Mr. Martin. He wasn’t sure if you could help, but he told me to call anyway. Um, I’m looking for someone to help me. I went through something with my family member a while back and never got help for it. I ended up using drugs and went out on the streets and well, that’s how I got here. I don’t know what else to say. I’ve never make a call like this before. I feel kinda dumb for asking. Is there someone there who can help me?”
His name was Tony (name protected for anonymity). I can still hear the inflection in his voice. I can only describe it as a commanding confidence wrapped in uncertainty. He went on to explain that after being homeless and on the streets for the past 10 years, at 51 years old, he made a decision to get help and entered into a local facility for substance abuse treatment. Throughout his treatment stay, Tony uncovered some deep emotional scars. For the first time in almost 40 years, he felt trusting enough to disclose to his counselor that much of his pain and substance use/dependence was influenced by the unaddressed sexual abuse he experienced as an adolescent and young adult. Like many adolescent sexual assault survivors, Tony’s mother and father did not believe him when he first told. In fact, he was punished for his disclosure and later sent to live with a distant relative, where more abuse took place. The lack of support from his mother and father after his disclosure haunted him. It caused him to question everything he knew to be true of his experience. “Maybe it really didn’t happen. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t fight him off. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I DID like it.” Tony wrestled with his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. He didn’t have anyone in his life to tell him these were normal, common responses. At a very young age, as he had learned to do with so many other things, Tony learned to bury this part of his life, resolving that he would NEVER speak of his experience again.
Throughout my phone call with Tony, he described many instances where he felt isolated and alone. He never sought help for the abuse out of fear that (1) he wouldn’t be believed, (2) he would be labeled and judged, AND/OR (3) he would be turned away. The prompt for him calling today was the fact that in one week, he would successfully complete his 6-month treatment program. But before he could transition into independent living, he would have to stay with his abuser temporarily, until his home was ready. Although Tony had begun to face his abuse in therapy, he had no idea how to face his abuser in real life. He had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. He described feeling like a little boy again – stripped of his power, choices and his former defenses.
Call it coincidence or call it an alignment of the universe, but in the months immediately following Tony’s call, I met three additional adult male sexual assault survivors. Each of them had different experiences, but a common occurrence: there were no safe spaces for men to disclose and get help.
At this time, I had been an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence for almost 9 years. It’s safe to say that within those 9 years, I had a fairly extensive background of working with survivors from a wide range of experiences. In my 9 years as a sexual abuse counselor, however, I can count the number of men I served on one hand. Four male survivors to be exact. FOUR. By this time in my career, I had served HUNDREDS (if not THOUSANDS) of survivors and only four of them were male? How can that be? I had 4 male survivors (that I know of) in my immediate family!
I began seeing each of these survivors for individual counseling. Although I didn’t know the right thing to do at the time, I knew that I believed them. I knew that I could also listen and validate their experiences. I will always deeply honor and admire the transparency of Tony and his fellow survivors. In their sessions, they disclosed generations of abuse and silence; concerns about sexuality, masculinity, and pride; regrets about not being able to defend themselves against their abusers; and shame around how their bodies responded to unwanted touch.
My phone call with Tony and subsequent counselor/client relationship with him and other male clients served as the catalyst for our commitment to improving services and outreach to men and boys. We began exploring local, state and national resources for male survivors. We located experienced clinicians who had worked with male survivors and arranged for internal training for not only myself but our staff and volunteers as well. We’ve organized Sexual Assault Awareness month activities with male survivors as our focus and are one of the only stand-alone sexual assault programs in the state that have hired both a male SANE nurse and male Sexual Assault Advocate.
Our hope and intention is to shift the culture from one that stigmatizes men and boys who seek help to one that normalizes and honors them for it. On a systems level, that’s an ambitious goal, but on an individual level (personal, local, organizational), it is achievable. While we still have much work ahead of us, WC SAFE is committed to creating safe spaces for men in our community. It starts with us. One phone call at a time. One survivor at a time.
For every male survivor who wonders “Can you help me?” WC SAFE’s response is “Yes. Yes, we can.” Every time.
Resources for Men:
WCSAFE.org (Wayne County SAFE Advocacy and Counseling Services)
About Author, Amy Dowd
Amy Dowd is a licensed MSW and currently, the Director of Advocacy Services for Wayne County SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner) Program in Detroit. Amy has over 15 years of experience as an advocate for both domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. In addition to her direct service and leadership experience, Amy has a passion for education and outreach. Amy has collaborated with several local colleges and universities including University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Eastern Michigan University in an effort to increase awareness and student engagement on campus. Amy has been invited as a guest lecturer with Eastern Michigan University and University of Michigan’s volunteer program lecturing on topics related to gender based violence, in addition to women and substance abuse issues. Amy has been an advising member to several ground breaking projects in the city of Detroit, including the National Institute of Justice Rape Kit Action Research Project and the Wayne County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force. She is a trainer for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards in the area of non-stranger sexual assault investigations and has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to sexual assault, trauma, and best practices.
Amy Dowd is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where she obtained both a Bachelor’s of Science degree and a Master’s degree in Social Work with concentrations in mental health and chemical dependency. She has been a licensed practitioner in the State of Michigan for 6 years.
Advocacy Through the Eyes of a Survivor
By: Benita Robinson, Crisis Coordinator
A moment in time…. Where everything stands still. Your life is forever altered, sometimes without you realizing it. Sometimes without you knowing if you will make it to the see the end. I will undoubtedly never forget the day, about 10 years ago, I was sexually assaulted and nearly died at the hands of a former intimate partner. It changed the way I thought and moved about the world. It changed the way I viewed people, including myself. I did not have a support system to provide emotional safety and support. No one told me what my options were. I was ashamed, embarrassed, angry, and blamed myself…. I felt alone and coped by burying it. It was a life-changing experience that informs my work as an advocate at Wayne County SAFE for other survivors of sexual assault.
I did not realize it at the time, but my experience was far from an anomaly or unique circumstance. The personal was and is political. Countless people’s lives are colored by sexual violence every day. Advocates from Wayne County SAFE and other organizations that support survivors of sexual violence see it repeatedly when working with survivors of sexual assault. Survivors share feelings of fear, embarrassment, detachment, shame, depression and anger. They are often blamed by others and ostracized by the community. They question their purpose and their lives…. Why an act so horrendous could happen to them. For these reasons, many survivors do not feel supported and do not disclose.
Unfortunately, we see and hear the statistics all the time. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetimes. 63% of these are never reported to the police. These numbers are even more startling when we consider other intersecting identities such as race, age, sexuality, and gender identity. There are people in our community suffering in silence, some for years and years. They are our friends, family, and neighbors. They sit beside us during service and frequent the same businesses we do. They work and go to school with us. The fact is, whether you realize it or not, there is someone you know that has been victimized by this epidemic.
As we raise awareness around the sexual violence that plagues our society, we should also challenge our own ways of thinking, experiences and how they inform our work and lives. We must continue to ask ourselves: What can we do in our own lives and communities to create a supportive environment for survivors and hostile one for perpetrators? Last month many events, trainings and rallies were held for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but we must remember it is much more than a time to raise awareness around sexual assault. It is also a time of reflection and revitalization. We must view healing and advocacy through the lens of survivors, even if some of us have not experienced sexual violence firsthand. As a woman of color, survivor and advocate the phrase coined by Founder and Director of Sasha Center Dr. Kalimah Johnson is even more relevant, “Healing is Possible.” Survivors are already resilient but with the support of the community, survivors can experience holistic healing. This month, as we do every day of the year, we honor the diverse survivors of sexual violence Wayne County SAFE serves for their strength and inspiration. From you, we draw our motivation and are revitalized. Because of you, we will continue to fight to ensure your voices are valued and heard.
About Author Benita Robinson
Benita Robinson is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is a passionate activist for equal rights and access to opportunities for underserved populations in metro Detroit, specifically around issues such as sexual and domestic violence, racial inequality, equal pay, feminism, prison reform and leadership development. She is currently the Crisis Coordinator for Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners Program in Detroit, Michigan. In this role, she oversees the First Responder program and specializes in ensuring quality provision of crisis intervention and advocacy services to survivors of sexual assault. Benita also does outreach and community awareness events/trainings. She is also on the advisory board for the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Women and Gender Studies program and a member of the Michigan Theory Group at Macomb Correctional Facility.