by Tan Mutia Edmilao
“If my partner was a man, I would have never allowed myself to be treated like that.”
My heart was pounding when I said these words out loud to a Zoom meeting full of domestic violence and sexual assault advocates. On the right side of my laptop, I had an amethyst crystal and a scented candle to help keep my nerves steady while sharing my experience with surviving intimate partner violence.
I decided to share my story to generate a discussion about LGBTQ-inclusivity to a community service agency that provides shelter and resources to survivors of sexual, domestic, and intimate partner violence. The majority of their clients are survivors who identify as cisgender, hetereosexual, immigrant women with children. The agency was beginning a series of inclusive trainings addressing anti-blackness racism in response to the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed by Minneapolis Police on May 25, 2020. In addition to racial equity, this agency was also addressing homophobia and transphobia within the community that they serve and learning how to make their services more inclusive to LGBTQ+ survivors.
I was recruited to provide my expertise as a former mental health and LGBTQ+ advocate. This training represented every part of my identity as a non-binary femme queer Filipinx survivor. To create this training, I centered my experiences with homophobia, transphobia, and racism that impacted my survival of domestic and intimate partner violence.
I was raised in a mixed race family, my mom is an immigrant from the Philippines who married a white man from Los Angeles. My stepdad’s white male privilege made it easy for him to disguise his abuse as strict discipline. He would constantly threaten to kill me and my mother and this fear kept all of us silent and isolated for years. Since I was four years old, I struggled with protecting myself from him, hiding the bruises from when he would beat me, lock me in my room, and refuse to feed me. I recall a time that I sprained my foot while learning how to skateboard at church and he refused to take me to the hospital for two days because he thought I was faking my injury.
When I finally turned 18, I was able to help my mom file a restraining order against my stepdad. As the eldest child, I also helped my mom raise my two younger siblings and I worked three part-time jobs to provide care and resources for my family. Having an intimate knowledge of injustice, I later found a sense of belonging and empowerment in fighting for political power and representation for Queer Transgender Asian and Pacific Islander (QTAPI) communities in the greater Los Angeles area. My passion led me to become a community organizer who fights for mental health advocacy for QTAPI people. Although being in social justice spaces helped me find my voice and discover my identity, it didn’t mean that I was immune to experiencing abuse.
In 2019, I was in my first serious relationship with a queer woman and looking back I can see the many signs of intimate partner violence. I remember being constantly anxious because we fought often, which was probably due to our constant miscommunication and cultural barriers. My girlfriend was born in the Philippines and English wasn’t her native language and I am a native English speaker, born and raised in Southern California. It wasn’t until I was at a workshop training for work that I realized I needed to leave this relationship. It was a training designed to teach Asian people involved in social justice to recognize signs of domestic or intimate partner violence, especially in queer relationships. The entire workshop was inspired by the facilitators, who drew from their experience in supporting their queer friend to leave an abusive relationship. I originally thought I was going to apply what I learned to support members that I served at my place of work, but this training ended up supporting me in my personal life.
During this training we were presented with a scenario of an abusive relationship where one person insisted on "tracking their partner’s location" under the guise of keeping their partner safe. The life-changing moment for me came when the workshop facilitators who helped me realize how my girlfriend was using her trauma or mental health to justify hurting me physically or verbally. My girlfriend would tell me that knowing where I was at all times helped her ease her anxiety that came from her traumatic experiences of witnessing violence. After the training, I broke up with my ex-girlfriend because I recognized the harm she caused me. She began to cyber stalk me for months trying to convince me to take her back. There was a time when I was afraid to check my phone and I had to assemble a safety team to screen through my messages. I had to block her phone number and email on every account on every social media platform. I felt embarrassed because before our breakup, I was bragging about how in love I was and how happy she made me. I would keep telling myself that “I should have known better,” but I couldn't have known without the help of others to help me see that I was being silenced.
2020 has taught me that I am part of something bigger than my shame or fear. I have learned how to alchemize my pain into action. The urgency of our heavy and uncertain world has given me full confidence to understand that our stories can save lives. As we continue to fight for black liberation, I know that my place in this revolution is to ensure that all LGBTQ people of color are showing up in this fight to end all forms of violence. I know that my voice is powerful and it is used to uplift my community, and I invite others to do the same.