Speaking Up for Unseen Survivors

Terra Slavin first walked into a domestic violence shelter when she was 16. In some ways, she never left.

She was there as a volunteer, but she had no idea at the time that the experience would help determine her calling.

As Slavin looked around the shelter, a place reserved for those who had experienced severe abuse, she was shocked to see a familiar face. The woman was a family friend, and her husband—her batterer—was close to Slavin’s father. Slavin focused on the woman, and the rest of her view seemed to blur like watercolor. Ever the introspective investigator, she struggled to integrate this experience into her worldview.

So seemingly good people can do horrible things, Slavin thought. Tragedy can happen anywhere.

She had volunteered to come to the shelter to play with the women’s children, read them books and help them with their homework. She wound up there as a result of her passion for ending injustice and what she calls the opportunity of chance. This “random” community service assignment, she says, would help her discover her future career path about a decade later.

“‘Oh my goodness,’” Slavin remembers thinking when she saw the woman at the shelter. “There was this notion, which I think is so often the case, that you would have never expected that.” She came away realizing “just how severe and pervasive domestic violence is, even in my small town.”

Almost two decades later, in a very big city, Slavin is acutely aware of the severity and pervasiveness of interpersonal violence. She has led an advocacy program for survivors at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the world’s largest LGBTQ organization, for the past eight years. (LGBTQ refers to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.) At a relatively young age—she is 34—Slavin has become perhaps the nation’s leading expert on gender-based violence in the LGBTQ population and a principal activist in the fight for inclusion of these survivors in federally funded programs.

“Terra understands both the role of direct service and the role of policy development, which are not the same things,” says Eve Sheedy, a deputy L.A. city attorney who represents domestic violence victims. “She took on a very big issue in a very big city at a very young age and handled it very gracefully and effectively. Not a lot of people can do that.”

Beyond Policy

Her work has also shaped her, Slavin says. Before she came to California, she was a brown-haired, green-eyed feminist in a small town in Texas, a place that emphasized traditional gender roles. She already had a sense that she didn’t fit into those neat boxes, but she wasn’t quite sure yet what that meant or how it would play out in her life. Although she hasn’t experienced domestic violence personally, Slavin, who identifies as a queer woman, says she knows what it’s like to face sexism, homophobia and other injustices. It’s those experiences, as well as those of some of her close family members and friends (including the woman she saw that day at the shelter in Texas), that have spurred her work.

Before she came to the center, Slavin fought for gender equality, LGBTQ issues and immigrant rights. She left the Gulf Coast to attend Pitzer College in Claremont, California, where she played water polo and studied political science and economics. Toward the end of college, she came out as queer. In her third year, she did an internship in Africa with an LGBTQ organization, an experience that solidified her career choice. “It felt like I was coming home to my work,” she says. “It just was like something clicked in my brain, this instant realization that, ‘Whoa, here’s an issue that really isn’t being addressed and it affects my own community,” says Slavin, who is now married.

Slavin, who is an attorney, joined the Los Angeles LGBT Center as the deputy director of policy and community building in 2006. In March of this year, after eight years at the center, she was promoted to manager of the center’s Domestic Violence Legal Advocacy Project. She still oversees the organization’s domestic violence work and advocates for related public-policy changes nationwide. She was instrumental in getting Congress to include provisions for LGBTQ survivors in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013. “We were successful, and no one thought we would be successful,” Slavin says of the more than two-year fight to get the act reauthorized with protections for LGBTQ survivors included. The act is the first LGBTQ nondiscrimination provision in federal law.

Before the changes to VAWA, shelters could turn away survivors based on their sexual orientation, and those that accepted LGBTQ people sometimes had trouble securing federal funds. The reauthorized law lists the LGBTQ population as an underserved community, enabling groups that help survivors, like the L.A. center, to receive a wider range of grants. But, as Slavin knows, just because the law exists doesn’t mean discrimination will automatically end. “Now we’re focusing on, ‘How do we implement those provisions?’ because for the first time we cannot be turning away a trans-woman just because she’s trans.”

In addition to advocating for policy changes on a national level, Slavin has helped victims get restraining orders and visas and pursue justice in court. The center sees about 800 survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking annually. Since Slavin started there, the organization has served 1,200 people. The services are open to all, but the vast majority of clients are LGBTQ, because they have few other places to turn, Slavin says.

The center estimates that between a quarter and a third of LGBTQ people will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, a rate comparable to that of straight women. The center, located on a plain block in Hollywood near parking garages and bungalows, does not operate a shelter, but has close relationships with several in the area, in the event that clients need an emergency place to stay. But, “for the majority of our clients that is not what they need,” Slavin says. “It’s not the thing that’s going to make sense. It can be isolating.”

About half of the survivors the center sees are male. Until recently, there were almost no places for those clients to go for culturally competent care and emergency housing, particularly back in 2006 when the L.A. center started its Domestic Violence Legal Advocacy Project. “There’s been an absolute dearth of services for portions of the survivors that we work with,” she says. This includes gay, bi and trans-men, as well as trans-women.

When the center first opened its doors, a gay man came in who had been to the emergency room 24 times as a result of horrendous domestic violence, Slavin recalls. “There was really only one shelter at that time that knowingly took male survivors, and his batterer knew about that shelter,” making it unsafe for the victim to go there for help.

The man, who was in his mid-30s, had been shot in the shoulder and had his eardrum ruptured and his teeth knocked out. His partner, a wealthy L.A. professional, had effectively held him hostage for several years. The survivor had tried to escape to a homeless shelter in the Midwest, but his partner put out a reward for his information, and a shelter worker turned him in, pocketing the reward money.

The man was among Slavin’s first clients, among the first lives she helped save. “We knew at that moment that if he were go to back he was likely going to be killed, so it was critical for us,” she says. She found him a safe place to stay, and “last time we heard he was doing very well.”

Overcoming Skepticism

The L.A. center and one in Chicago were the first to provide formal legal services to LGBTQ domestic violence victims. Even before the formal creation of the domestic violence program, the L.A. organization was helping survivors. Loosely formed in 1969 and officially established in 1971, it is the oldest LGBTQ center in the country.

In addition to providing mental health services and legal help and being designated a federally qualified health center, the organization is among the only ones in the United States with a LGBTQ-specific, court-approved batters intervention program. “We have to be doing more around the batterers’ piece,” Slavin says. “How as a community are we really going to shift things if we’re not addressing that side of the equation?”

The center has since trained more than 5,000 service providers, including police officers, attorneys and shelter workers. Discrimination still exists, but it’s gotten better. Before, lesbian, bi or trans-women who turned to shelters or law enforcement for help might experience sexual harassment instead. “There were even little things that people hadn’t thought about, like when they had the clothing bank, it was all feminine clothing, and the person didn’t wear feminine clothing,” Slavin says.

Over the last four years, Slavin has mentored a young lawyer, Mieko Failey, who now holds Slavin’s past position. “I think one of the things that Terra did so well was to finally create a space for clients where they felt comfortable and understood,” Failey says. “There’s still so much homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.”

When the legal advocacy program first began, it was much more difficult for LGBTQ survivors to get restraining orders—one of the main tools victims use when trying to escape abuse. “We literally had an advocate watch someone get sent from the courthouse to our mental health program,” Slavin recalls. “We also saw at that time a lot of mutual restraining orders,” where a survivor would file and the batterer would swiftly do the same, complicating the legal proceedings. Particularly in same-gender relationships, judges and police were hesitant to protect victims, Slavin says. Lesbian women often had a hard time getting restraining orders at all. “Judges would be like, ‘Do you really need a restraining order? Are you really afraid of this person?’ We’ve had people chased to the police department and had them be like, ‘What are you afraid of? It’s just another woman.’”

Learning to Speak Out

Slavin wasn’t always so comfortable shattering societal norms. A precocious child, she didn’t want to break rules or even miss school—she remembers her parents having to force her to stay home when she had a 103-degree fever. But an incident in ninth grade made her begin to think about standing up against injustice. She was in line in her school’s administration office with her mother, waiting to check in after a routine doctor’s appointment had kept her out of class that morning. In front of Slavin, the administrator was harassing a Latino mother and her son for not having a doctor’s note to prove the boy’s absence was excused. Slavin recalls feeling panicked—she didn’t have a note either. But when she and her mother got to the counter, “the whole demeanor changed, the administrator was super friendly and never even asked for a doctor’s note.” Slavin experienced a mix of shock, relief and guilt, because “I knew I had been treated differently because I was white, which wasn’t right.”

Later that afternoon, Slavin’s mother confessed her disappointment in herself for witnessing racism and not speaking up. “That moment always sticks with me, because it was a very clear example of the inherent privileges that I have had, but it also made me realize I needed to find my voice to speak up, which is something that I was terrified to do when I was young, but that has been my goal as an adult,” she says. The aim of her personal and professional life is “to be a voice and help others find their voice to challenge injustice, because all injustice requires for its maintenance is to say nothing.”

To that end, Slavin has focused intently over the last few years on helping survivors who are also undocumented immigrants. Last year she worked with a woman from Latin America who had been stabbed multiple times. The woman, who identified as transsexual, was able to get a U visa, which provides temporary legal status to victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence. Slavin says survivors who are people of color, immigrants or low-income face steeper challenges in extricating themselves from abusive relationships—and therefore face more danger. “The lethality in those situations can be so much greater.”

Slavin is also concentrating on young survivors. She recently started a program for LGBTQ youths ages 14 to 24, the demographic that is statistically most likely to experience domestic violence. About a hundred homeless youths use the center’s services daily, and Slavin knows there are many more who aren’t able to walk into the rainbow-flag-flanked building. “What do you do if you’re in an abusive relationship and living at home and you’re worried if you tell your parents about the abuse, you’re going to be kicked out for being gay?” she says. “That’s still far too common.”

While there’s still much to be done, Slavin’s work is already having an impact, says Sheedy in the district attorney’s office. “We should be serving all the underserved populations,” she says. “Terra has relentlessly and energetically really raised everybody’s awareness of the issues.”

Although she went on to help thousands in California and change federal laws, in some respects, she never left that little shelter. Even with her seasoned perspective, sometimes Slavin still finds herself thinking of how seemingly good people can do horrible things and tragedy can happen anywhere. She thinks too of the many injustices and people in need of help.

It’s that last thought that keeps Slavin going, even when she’s up against prejudice, when she’s fighting for survivors of unthinkable violence and when she’s helping all those who have no one else to help them.

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