Behind Closed Doors: WOW Exeter 2018 and Deaf abuse survivors

I am taking the train to Exeter St David’s on a beautiful day. The peaceful cumulus straddling the giant expanse of blue outside my window reflects my thoughts: assured of my place of safety and comfort, but not resolutely clear.

Today I’m joining a 2pm panel discussion about domestic abuse, Behind Closed Doors, chaired by Jude Kelly as part of WOW Exeter 2018, and I’m keen to share some of my Deaf survivor experiences.

The risk, in doing so, is inherent. I have PTSD and depression, both of which were triggered by cyberbullying following previous ‘outings’. (You can see my first one here.) I have young children to protect.

I belong to a 156,000-strong, intrinsically expressive Deaf/BSL Community that thrives on open communication and gossip – ensuring a high concentration of British Sign Language (BSL) users who know both me and my ex-partners, especially if they’re Deaf. (I expand on the theme here)

So if I don’t divulge certain details, focussing instead on information that doesn’t ‘date’ the abuse at a specific point in time – you know why.

However, I will not be cowed. My perpetuators know that I am one of very few Deaf women not just prepared to speak out – but able to, because I have the ability to articulate myself well to a mainstream or hearing audience. But you know what? If they try to stop me, they cannot profess to be an ally of the Deaf/BSL Community when they practise what we seek to overcome.

Since beginning my work with fellow Deaf survivors – both in a professional capacity, and more informally – I have come to realise how vital their contribution is to everyday discourse about domestic abuse, and yet how lacking it is. As an artist and writer who values freedom of expression in her work, that speaks most deeply to me.

And there are honestly others who recognise this too. In 2015, I was invited onto a panel discussion at the Women’s Aid annual conference, where I became the only Deaf survivor addressing a packed room directly. Later that year, I gave a 45-minute presentation at the NHS Safeguarding annual conference, in which purple became the token colour.

Again, I was the first Deaf survivor to speak out there. 350 people fell completely silent.

Earlier this year, I collaborated in a workshop with DeafHope survivors as part of Statements in Semaphore, an Arts Council-funded project led by Susan Merrick. (You can read more about the workshop here.)

In two hours, I had become a fan of the survivors. The dignity and composure they showed, as they worked patiently on their effigies, reminded me of our unbroken spirit, and evoked memories of how I felt after completing my own course with DeafHope some years ago.

It also made me very sad. These women were resilient because they had to be – but how many of them could stand up on stage and address a hearing audience? For Deaf women, the usual disincentive to come forward is aggravated by, again, communication barriers.

Visible though the survivors’ art is, it exists only as anonymous messages. Their experiences, and what they do afterwards to ensure their safety, remain hidden.

Within the wider society, our position is vulnerable. 90% of all Deaf and hard-of-hearing people come from hearing families, the majority of whom don’t sign. Having a deaf child doesn’t guarantee increased deaf awareness, ensuring that the communication barriers between child and parent become their own institution.

Being clueless in the matter, if they’re not inquisitive enough, parents will then turn to medical advice to ‘solve’ the problem instead. Some will, unfortunately, start abusing their deaf children as a way of deflecting their guilt – thus setting the tone for future toxic relationships.

For people like that, the very idea of calling out domestic abuse in adulthood becomes an insurmountable challenge. I am very lucky to have had loving parents (communication barriers notwithstanding), and an understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship – but even I have faced enormous pressures to not come forward.

Sharing my experiences briefly with a compassionate audience at WOWExeter today, I am assured of their support. There are four other people on the panel besides me – chair and WOW founder Jude Kelly; Elizabeth Langley and Karen Atkinson of SPLITZ; and Sasha Nathanson of Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE). It’s a lovely panel, with courageous stories of their own to share, and Jude is kind and accommodating. The 45-minute discussion is even-handed, with a few more minutes for audience questions. My PTSD inhibits me a little when I give my background, but I push on nevertheless, and hope the audience gets the message.

However afterwards, when the BSL interpreters are gone and people come up to congratulate me, the barriers remain. I wonder then how I can advance from this?

I am not Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Even within my own community I don’t have an international movement backing me with #IBelieveHer on social media. I do not have the time or the energy, for practical reasons as a single parent and carer of a disabled child, to campaign for better support for Deaf survivors.

I can write and make art, and use both to effect change. I can get others to do the same, collaboratively or otherwise. I can continue representing Deaf survivors at mainstream events. But I cannot do that alone. There needs to be a Deaf collective, not a one-woman band, for real change to take place.

The onus is on you, dear reader, to share this blog as widely as you can. Make sure it reaches Deaf survivors and their allies, and encourage them to join ranks with me. We may not be able to hide the emotion pouring forth from the sign language we use, or even avoid their symbiosis altogether. But if we can be emotional together, the more powerful our message will be.

The cumulus is passing. It is time.

(Edited on 16th October 2018 for clarity.)

Statements in Semaphore: an evaluation

IMG_9566.JPGWomen’s struggles. Women’s pain. Women’s compassion and resourcefulness, and the coded messages they send out to the world every day through their clothes, their language, their actions.

I cannot call this post an objective review of Statements in Semaphore or its accompanying exhibition, A Series of Events (Part I), which ran for almost a week at Platform 1 Gallery in Wandsworth Common – because I have made my own emotional investment as one of its contributing artists.

But I can tell you my impressions of what the project was about, and what made my work with fellow artist and sign language interpreter Susan Merrick, who initiated and led it, so invaluable.

Statements in Semaphore aims to highlight the rights of women; particularly, marginalised women. It began with Susan visiting the National Archive building in Kew and discovering the voices of suffragette prisoners and women ‘hidden’ in its archives during an art residency – before climbing the roof to make literal semaphore signals, filmed by an accomplice (for want of a better word).

In the two ensuing years, a socially engaged art practice exploring power, access, language and control in perpetually exciting and diverse ways has emerged. From initial workshops that involved women being photographed from behind making semaphore signals, each of which were printed on giant fabric banners and displayed in public spaces, Susan has reached a point where she is able to create ‘safe spaces’ for creative conversations with women whose voices are often ‘unheard’, so she can invoke thought, debate and awareness around contemporary women’s issues, and link it to her archival research.

As an experienced and qualified sign language interpreter, she felt compelled to add Deaf women’s voices to the mix. They are, after all, twice as likely to experience domestic abuse as hearing women, primarily because the Deaf community is so small and gossip is rife, placing them at increased risk of abuse. Deaf women also experience language and communication barriers in accessing support services, exacerbating their isolation.

In order to empower Deaf abuse survivors to speak for themselves in their own culture and language, Susan resolved to get a Deaf artist running the workshops instead, and invited me to take it on. That I had previously been involved with DeafHope, the anti-domestic abuse charity run by and for Deaf women, was sheer coincidence. I accepted without hesitation.

My workshop, which took place inside Platform 1 Gallery at Wandsworth Common station, was just two hours long. It consisted of a 15-minute ‘brainstorm’ of words the survivors associated with their experiences of domestic abuse, and then a hour 45 minutes making small-scale, mixed-media effigies that were pegged, like washing on the line, above our heads. Immediately afterwards, Susan made a 360 camera clip of the gallery space with the same associated words fading in and out as the film progressed.

In another workshop, I was filmed conversing in BSL with my partner in crime on the steps of a former Victorian hospital for women and children, as if on hidden camera. This became one of several ‘documentary’ pieces looping on a laptop screen in A Series of Events (Part I), the partly obstructive imagery of Platform 1 trains thundering past heightening the sense that you were prying into a confidential dialogue.

Platform 1 Gallery isn’t a large space. For that reason A Series of Events (Part I) felt more like an all-white sanctuary than an exhibition, the perky upcycled or vintage furnishings dotted around giving it an elegant intimacy. That was Susan’s direct invitation for visitors to sit down and chat with her about their life experiences over a cup of tea or coffee.

On the one day I was able to visit the completed exhibition (single-parenting commitments kept me away), I found it very moving. There was a sense of the outwardly pristine finally unveiling signs of women’s oppression, like gilded houses occupied by victims and their still-active perpetuators. You had to engage directly with the effigies, the documentary pieces, the 360 film clip (now accessed as a virtual reality installation), the vintage clothing that Susan had strung up like a giant textile cobweb, in order to identify the coded messages.

Susan extended the theme to the train platform. At 12 noon and 6pm every day, she’d venture outside to make semaphore signals, but her performance had no fixed content. Over time, she also lined up vintage shoes, some of which she walked briefly in; quietly knitted an ultra chunky scarf after a particularly affecting conversation; and roped in volunteers like myself and a couple of others to  copy her signals with revolving layers of borrowed clothes. Each of these performances symbolised the myriad ways in which women try to reach out to others for support without endangering themselves.

This was women reflecting upon themselves, simultaneously looking for a means to liberation and self-respect while maintaining their right to be treated as fellow human beings. As a member of the same gender, it made sense that I should respond to the project with two pieces of my own – and one of them was a gilded house.

Reaching (2018) was a 3D cardboard house model sprayed metallic turquoise on the outside with white tissue roses jutting out, while Selfie (also 2018) comprised a framed 300mm x 300mm largely blue monochrome self-portrait with (obviously) a mobile in my hand, drawn on manilla paper.

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Reaching seems to have left a huge impact on many people. Given the deceptive appearance of the exhibition – although I am obviously touched by the public’s emotional reaction, I am not surprised.

You entered the space, saw the metallic turquoise and gold house on the low side dresser with the pretty white roses and, wondering why some of them were singed, peered inside – only to be confronted by dark fake blood and debris splattered across one corner of its pretty floral-print walls and gnarled roots. I don’t need to explain why the roses got burnt as they erupted from the house.

Further enhancing the sense of ‘living space’ was a rail and a floor pile of donated vintage clothing, rows of shoes fringing the adjacent side dresser. These were offered in free exchange for the shirt off your back, as if to give you another crack at a fresh start or a new identity.

Interestingly, within four days of its opening, Susan – who had manned the exhibition from day one – was exhausted after several intense conversations with strangers, and wanted to hide; hence the enormous textile cobweb, part-draping the gallery entrance.

If you have been following my work on Instagram, you will know that for the past year or so, I have been making and posting almost every day very small mixed-media drawings that utilise fine lines, cross-hatching and sometimes experimental use of colour and tone.

For some time now, I have been seeking a way to free up my drawing and my thinking so my work on Statements in Semaphore, however much it diverts from my practice, is a crucial step towards developing a bolder and more experimental approach.

Certainly, I valued being able to avoid following a rigid structure to my work with Susan Merrick. Not only did it allow for childcare responsibilities, but also real scope for flexibility and lateral thinking. I am honoured and proud to have had such rich and fulfilling discourse with her and those who participated in my workshops, and more crucially, feel more emotionally grounded as an artist, a Deaf person and a woman – which is exactly what meaningful, socially engaged art practice should do.

Statements of Semaphore is a project led by Susan Merrick and funded by Arts Council England. A Series of Events (Part II) takes place at Princes Hall, Aldershot on 18th and 19th October 2018. See website

8th March is International Women’s Day. Here’s why I stand up for male survivors of domestic abuse

IMG_5433Image courtesy of source

On a day dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women everywhere, for me to be writing about male victims of domestic abuse instead may sound odd. Some may not understand how that correlates with feminism. As always, the movement has a knack of highlighting inequalities you never knew existed, and I’d like this blog to be one example.

As a feminist, I don’t seek to oppress men, but to eliminate the oppression of women. I may be stating the obvious. But in light of the misogyny that has grown exponentially in recent months in the run-up to – and following – the election of the present Republican administration, it’s also unfortunately become necessary.

Likewise, actress Emma Watson was ‘quietly stunned’ by the backlash to a cover that she posed nearly topless in and shared earlier this week. Her response was to counter with, ‘Feminism is about giving women choice…It’s not a stick with which to beat women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality.’

That speaks directly to me. Not just because I’m a binary female, but also because I believe that in liberating women, feminism also liberates men.

How so? Fundamentally it boils down to embracing your feminine side, that bit that so terrifies men and women get picked on for espousing. ‘You run like a girl.’ ‘You dress like a woman.’ ‘Leave the touchy-feely stuff to the ladies.’

The irony of such vilification is how it reflects men’s insecurities about themselves, rather than the perceived weaknesses of the people they mock. Even they know that femininity and masculinity is inherent in all of us, to varying degrees; like yin and yang, you can’t have one without the other. Masculinity isn’t some fragile male construct that’s going to vaporise like Boss cologne when your female colleagues start punching above their weight on a regular basis.

Rather, it exists as an opportunity for men to get in touch with their ‘feminine side’ – their emotions – and try to reach some sort of inner equilibrium that way.

By that I don’t mean indulging in froufrou blouses and high heels if that’s not what you want to do. Rather, it’s a matter of taking a long, hard look at yourself and identifying what it is about you that embarrasses other men. Have you ever been picked on for showing respect towards women, or the way you run? Do you harbour a secret predilection for pink shirts? Do you have pigeon toes? If you say ‘yes’ to all of those and follow that up with ‘…and I don’t even care’, then kudos to you.

Otherwise, trivial though these questions are, they’re a way of flagging up society’s expectations of you as a man, and how these impact on your own behaviour. That women wrestle with unrealistic and often contradictory expectations every day is well-documented. But expectations of men are also unrealistic, and that’s why patterns of abusive behaviour and shame prevail more among them.

Statistics for male victims of domestic violence are hazy, but that is not unique to them. Female victims suffer in silence too. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing how many men, and how many women, are prevented from reporting intimate partner abuse due to oppression, stigma and prejudice. To put it bluntly, you can’t record silence.

However, reported statistics show that the vast majority of perpetrators are male. More men are responsible for the abuse of other men and women – and children – than women. Much of the scarce press coverage surrounding male survivors feeds off the misogynistic belief that a man wouldn’t even allow himself to get in the kind of situation that a woman would.

So prevalent is this attitude, that it even affects how the press frames domestic abuse of LGBTQ people. ‘Well, if they’re less than men’, crow the bigots, ‘it would happen to them, wouldn’t it?’

Yet the oft-touted statistic that domestic abuse affects one in four women and one in six men is not straightforward. Refuge’s own statistics reveal that a significant majority of men reporting abuse have themselves perpetuated violence against their partners, and are more likely to report one-off incidents. When the abuse is limited to four or more recurring incidents, the percentage of victims who are female jumps to 89%.

Unfortunately, it is a common tactic of perpetuators to claim victimhood as a way of covering up their own crime. They’re also far less likely to blame recurring abuse on the real victims, for the practical reason that it’s easier to remember the truth.

Where does that leave the genuine male victims? Following my own coming-out as a domestic abuse survivor three years ago, one unexpected development was the coming forward of male survivors. Although smaller in number to the female survivors who also confided in me, they had the greater impact as an illustration of how convoluted domestic abuse really is.

These straight men had been abused by their ex-partners. They demonstrated respect for women, and couldn’t understand how that could have made them victims.

What these guys highlighted was the notion that turning the table on male perpetuators simply because they’re male doesn’t redress the balance in any way – it simply redirects the misogyny without a solution. Far fewer women than men perpetuate domestic abuse – but are three times more likely to be arrested for it. How is that proportional to the numerous crimes perpetuated by men who escape arrest? 

Men suffer from domestic violence in silence due to their own stigma, imposed by other men in society. They’re less likely to report ongoing partner abuse to the police because ‘it’s too trivial or not worth reporting’. Yet the choice impacts adversely on their psychological wellbeing in the long term, and doesn’t really further the feminist cause enough if we don’t address it.

So if we’re to promote true gender equality, we need to recognise that men also suffer from domestic abuse (albeit in smaller numbers), and support them without judgement. We need to be reminding them that showing vulnerability takes courage, misogyny is primarily male self-disgust projected onto another person, and that frank admittance to their own quirks and flaws is as much a display of respect for the whole human race as it is for themselves.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Blog: Deaf survivors and domestic abuse

Originally published on the Women’s Aid website on 7th December 2015. Part of their 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign. Blog link here

At the national Women’s Aid conference this year, I was amazed to find I was the only Deaf survivor there. Despite a full house, there was no evidence of British Sign Language (BSL) users in attendance. I asked who in the room supported Deaf survivors – and shockingly, was met with silence.

Deaf women are twice as likely as their hearing peers to suffer domestic abuse. Around 22 Deaf women are at risk of abuse every day. Ironically, a key role in this is played by BSL, their preferred language – as every word and expression could be a potential trigger.

The history of BSL is itself laden with centuries of oppression of Deaf people. That it has survived, and continues to evolve as a living language (and has only now acquired formal legislation in Scotland) is testimony to the resolve of Deaf people themselves. After all, it’s their main form of communication – so they will bloody well use it, whatever the circumstances.

One in six of us are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and only around a third of us are part of a Deaf Community. Two-thirds of deaf or hard-of-hearing people don’t hang out with other deaf or hard-of-hearing people – they might wear hearing aids and lip read but they don’t sign, and they may prefer to integrate with hearing people. Many of those people become deaf through old age and are often isolated from other deaf people.

Moreover, if your perpetrator is active within the Deaf Community, they’ll know how to exploit your communication skills. This inhibits you from reaching out to even your closest Deaf friends – never mind your family (many of whom lack signing skills).

But the experience of domestic abuse for Deaf women is the same as hearing women. We are seduced by our perpetrator’s apparent sincerity, their psychological control – grooming us for abuse. By the time the violence turns physical, we’re emotionally and mentally paralysed, unable to articulate ourselves properly to those close to us.

Your trust, self-esteem and well-being thus broken, your signing breaks up too. You daren’t explain the smallest detail of your abuse to anyone, for fear word reaches your perpetrator (gossip spreads fast in the Deaf Community). With so many eyes on you, clear-headed objectivity feels impossible.

You cannot hide your emotions behind sign language quite like you can with the written word. Deaf people are well-known for bluntness, which doesn’t sit well with a democracy where justice must prevail, and people are innocent until proven guilty.

How best to address this issue? I was lucky enough to be able to access DeafHope, the UK’s first anti-domestic abuse service for Deaf survivors – but sadly, few will be in their London catchment area. The only advice I could give that day at the Women’s Aid conference was placing BSL clips on their websites (see example).

To that, I’d add Deaf awareness training and a few BSL classes. The more we can work together on the issue, the more chances will improve of Deaf survivors ‘speaking out’ like I did.

NHS Safeguarding: Hidden Voices Conference, 27th October 2015

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The picture above shows over 350 hearing medical professionals standing to give a hand wave in solidarity for the Deaf survivor who gave a raw and painful account of her domestic abuse experiences, in BSL, for 45 minutes.

That survivor was me. NHS Safeguarding’s invitation in October 2015 came courtesy of Women’s Aid, at whose annual conference I had also appeared the previous summer. It was not a public conference, but one attended by senior NHS medical professionals, which made for an ideal ‘safe space’.

It was also oversubscribed: tickets sold out within three weeks of release in July, and there were another 280 on the waiting list.

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Presenting as a keynote speaker at such a prestigious event was a honour. I was especially touched that NHS Safeguarding made purple – the colour I wore when I ‘came out’ as a survivor during #deafpurplethursday (more info here) – their signature colour, even getting delegates to wear something purple. The theme – Hidden Voices – was established after direct consultation with me.

It is by far the most important presentation I have ever had to make.

Women’s Aid Annual Conference, 1st July 2015

Waiting for the Women’s Aid conference panel to start, July 2015

On 1st July 2015, I made my first appearance at a conference specifically aimed at survivors of domestic abuse.

For its latest conference, the national anti-domestic abuse organisation Women’s Aid invited me to join a panel chaired by its CEO Polly Neate that focused on minority perspectives. I was the first ever Deaf survivor to speak out about my experience as an example of the particular issues affecting the Deaf Community. My presentation lasted all of seven minutes – yet it made the biggest impact, due to the specialist subject-matter.

Twice as many Deaf women are at risk of gender violence as hearing women every day, yet still lack access to suitable anti-domestic abuse services due to both language and communication barriers and a persistent lack of funding. The situation is likely to get worse thanks to deepening cuts made by the government, which also impact on women’s refuges and mainstream anti-domestic abuse services.

First draft play script uploaded

My first ever piece of playwriting has been uploaded to Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB website, albeit as an early draft.

How’s Your Garden? is the story of a survivor set in the suffragette era. A ten-minute short involving three characters, the play takes place over one night at a rich dowager’s townhouse, and explores themes of personal freedom, love, and votes for women with a sprinkling of euphemistic fun amidst doses of opium and the heady scent of a summer garden.

Click here to read the draft script.