LGBTQ&A Podcast: Sonya Passi Is Empowering Abuse Survivors

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Freefrom, the organization founded by Sonya Passi, is working to financially empower survivors of domestic violence. It’s “a national crisis,” Passi says about the current levels of domestic violence, and as she also explains it’s “really, really expensive.”

On this week’s episode of LGBTQ&A, Passi talks about how financial abuse is as common as physical and emotional abuse, what’s missing from the #MeToo movement, and how prevalent intimate partner violence is among queer and trans people.

Read highlights from the interview here, or listen to the full podcast interview on the audio player below.

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The Advocate: With the #MeToo movement, there have been more conversations about sexual assault, most of which occur in the workplace and involve people’s careers. Are you also seeing a rise in awareness around domestic violence?
Passi: Yes and no. Yes, because I think people are really starting to prioritize women's issues, prioritize gender-based violence issues.

No, because we're still seeing all these different forms of gender-based violence in silos. There's the #MeToo movement and then there's the Time's Up movement. I haven't yet seen them come together and collaborate. The domestic violence movement hasn't had its own rise in the way that sexual assault and workplace harassment has, yet those are all just different variations of the same problem.

A lot of people don't know that most sexual assault happens within domestic violence situations. It's not happening outside of relationships. It’s actually happening within them, within the context of people that you're dating or are married to.

It's just so easy to not think about because it usually happens privately.
Exactly. We talk so much about private and public, what happens in the home and what happens in the workplace. I think that actually inhibits us from getting to effective solutions. Gender-based violence is a community issue. It is a national crisis. It is something we all have a responsibility to address, so saying it’s private is completely the wrong way to think about it.

You have a responsibility to your neighbor if you know they're being abused. If your employee is harassing people in the workplace, you can be fairly sure they're doing the same thing at home. That is the same line of behavior. You're not going to find someone who is a nonviolent partner, but a violent coworker. Domestic violence is one of the key indicators of mass shooters, of serial killers.

I didn’t know that.
In the last two to three years of a high profile mass shootings, there's almost always a domestic violence component. Often it was domestic violence that led them to have a gun in a school or public place in the first place.

What can we do since we don't usually see the violence occurring? Are we supposed to just keep our eye out or is there something more actionable?
I think we need to break down this myth of what happens at home stays at home. I think we have to get comfortable talking about the issue. I think we have to not always put the pressure on the survivors to come forward to tell their story. We have to create environments in which that can happen. That means talking about it in schools, in colleges, at work. It means creating policies that say This is a place where it's OK to talk about this.

It’s hard not to draw the connection to our current president being an accused sexual assaulter and the symbol that presents.
Exactly. We have a responsibility to keep our eyes and ears open, to create safe spaces for people, but it really starts at the top and that means the government. That means corporations have a responsibility to their employees. Schools have a responsibility to their students.

The stat I read said that one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. That’s a huge percentage.
Severe domestic violence. One in four will experience severe domestic violence. We’re talking about a national crisis. This is the worst thing to happen to women ever in the world.

And we need to help survivors, but we also need to change something so people don’t think they can turn to violence.
There just aren't any consequences right now. You don't lose anything. And often, in domestic violence, you actually have a lot to gain financially from abusing someone. You may take out credit cards in their name, you may take their paycheck. Where there is a harm, there has to be a repair. It’s really, really expensive to be a survivor of any kind of gender-based violence.

That’s why your organization Freefrom focuses on financial abuse.
In 98% of domestic violence cases, in addition to there being physical abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual abuse, there's also financial abuse, which basically means it's as prevalent as the physical and the emotional.

We tend to talk about heterosexual couples in terms of domestic abuse when it affects everyone. Are there stats about how abuse differs between heterosexual and queer couples?
We know the trends, but there aren't good enough stats. We know that trans women experience intimate partner violence in much higher numbers. We know gay men experience intimate partner violence much more than heterosexual men. So we have a rough sense that it's incredibly prevalent in the queer communities, but there haven't been enough reliable studies done.

And the stats we have are likely underreported.
That’s very underreported. A lot of people don't feel safe disclosing. I don't even know how many states trans women would feel comfortable going to a women’s shelter. My guess is that the majority of trans women who need shelter have to go to a homeless shelter because they're not welcome in traditional domestic violence shelters for heterosexual woman.

You've been doing this work for awhile. What initially drew you to it?
I was really passionate about human rights as a teenager. I started an Amnesty International group at my high school and their campaign that year was Global Violence Against Women and just remember how deeply it shook me to my core. I didn’t understand why it wasn't all we were talking about. It’s such a black and white issue. There’s no disputing that intimate partner violence is wrong. I thought, If you are not safe in your own home, then where are you safe? Everybody deserves to have a place in their life where they’re physically and emotionally safe.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Subscribe and listen to the full podcast interview on LGBTQ&A.

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