Rift in the rainbow: Rise in sexual assault reporting within LGBTQ community reveals pervading fears, distrust
Editor’s note: This story is the fifth part of an eight-week series focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. To view the entire series as it unfolds, visit SteamboatPilot.com/news/in-our-shoes.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This year’s Denver PrideFest was the first LGBTQ festival I have ever attended, and it did not disappoint.
The event bedazzles the city with rainbows, glitter and renditions of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” each June, which has been designated as Pride Month to promote awareness for LGBTQ rights and issues. LGBTQ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer sexual orientations and gender identities, but queer is also used as an umbrella term for all nonheterosexual orientations.
Parading through the city alongside hundreds of fellow queer people and supportive allies, I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, something bright and hopeful. I realized why people refer to us as the LGBTQ community.
But I could not help but notice that, while Colorado has come a long way in championing queer rights, inequalities remain.
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Booths at Civic Center Park, surrounding concerts and drag shows offered resources for survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence. They quoted statistics showing how on the state and national levels, these issues disproportionately affect people of certain sexual orientation within the LGBTQ spectrum. A display at the center of the park gave a timeline of key accolades in LGBTQ rights, as well as infamous instances of discrimination that have perpetuated feelings of fear and distrust.
A community at risk
A 2018 survey conducted by One Colorado, one of the state’s largest advocacy organizations for LGBTQ rights, found that sexual assaults have spiked within this community in recent years.
Out of more than 2,000 queer respondents from across the state, 33% had experienced rape or sexual assault — more than double the rate from 2011. Another 30% had been a victim of relationship violence, up from 21% eight years ago.
Across the country, the LGBTQ community has reported higher rates of sexual violence than heterosexual people. For example, 40% of gay men said they have experienced sexual violence, compared to 21% of straight men, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Advocacy groups and assault treatment centers point to several reasons for this discrepancy, including the stigma and marginalization that still torments the queer community.
Statistics show that while sexual assault can happen to anyone, certain minorities and demographics are more vulnerable than the general population. Below are some key findings showing the discrepancies.
• 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.
• 26% of gay men and 37% of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 29% of heterosexual men.
• 40% of gay men and 47% of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21% of heterosexual men.
Race and gender
• Native Americans are twice as likely to be a survivor of rape or sexual assault compared to all races.
• 90% of adult rape victims are female.
Age and education
• Male college students ages 18 to 24 are 78% more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.
• Women of the same age range not in college are four times more likely than the general population to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.
• Females ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.
*Sources: The U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
As a gay man in a small town, I believe it necessary to discuss these issues during this wider series on sexual assault in Steamboat Springs. While the queer community is obviously smaller than in a city like Denver, forensic nurses have treated queer survivors in this town. It is one of the primary roles of journalists to give a voice to marginalized people who may not otherwise have a public platform. My aim is to do just that for members of the LGBTQ community.
Sexual assault is the most unreported crime in the U.S. People’s reasons for not reporting predominantly center around a multitude of fears, which range from being re-traumatized in an interview room to suffering backlash following a report.
For a community that has faced and continues to face discrimination based on their sexual orientation, those fears have led to an even larger gap in reporting in Colorado.
“The LGBTQ community in general is less likely to seek help or report abuse,” said Wendy Friden, a board member with Advocates of Routt County, which helps survivors of sexual assault.
Of the LGBTQ respondents to the One Colorado survey on sexual assault, 85% of sexual assault cases go unreported to the police. That is slightly above the national rate for all sexual assault — regardless of sexual orientation — which estimate about 80% of assaults never get reported, according to a 2016 analysis of violent crime from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Friden, who is married to a woman but does not identity as a lesbian, joined Advocates last summer as a way to offer LGBTQ representation. In the past, she has worked as a psychiatric therapist and treated many survivors of sexual abuse and assault.
“Domestic violence and sexual assault do not discriminate,” Friden said. “It affects all people.”
Patty Oakland, a forensic nurse with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, has seen firsthand how such crimes have impacted the queer community. Before moving to Steamboat, she worked as a nurse in Kansas City, Missouri. She noticed many of her patients said they had been assaulted at a gay bar in the city.
Oakland also could sense how uncomfortable those survivors became when she asked them to recount the incident.
In Our Shoes is an eight-part series about sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County published by the Steamboat Pilot every Wednesday, from June 5 to July 24.
“It was so difficult for people to come in and talk,” she said.
Some survivors may not be “out” at the time of an assault — that is, they may not have told anyone, or only a select few, about their sexual orientation. Revealing such a secret can swell concerns of rejection among friends and family or lead to workplace discrimination.
Friden herself did not openly express her love for women until her 40s. When she made public her relationship with Sarah, she faced criticism from a previous employer and even her friends, though they would eventually accept her.
Many gay men in Steamboat remain closeted about their own sexualities. A cursory scroll through the profiles on Grindr, a popular gay dating app, will reveal the predominance of anonymous users, demanding discretion and no-strings-attached encounters.
Friden wondered how such transient, impersonal relationships might put users of Grindr and similar dating apps at greater risk of assault, particularly in tourist-heavy towns like Steamboat.
“You have a lot of people who don’t even live here, and they get on that app,” Friden said. “They don’t know each other. Sometimes, they get invited into their very own homes or hotel room. That poses some really unsafe behavior.”
After six years with her wife, Friden is confident in her identity and wants to help others in Steamboat feel the same.
“We should all be proud of ourselves and proud of whom we love — and love ourselves enough to report if something happens to us,” she said.
Feelings of distrust
Colorado has a turbulent history of LGBTQ rights. The state was among the first to adopt anti-discrimination policies that included gays and lesbians in 1990. But just two years later, voters approved a ballot initiative for an amendment to the Colorado constitution that would have prohibited all gay rights in the state.
The discriminatory initiative led Armistead Maupin, a popular author of gay novels, to refer to Colorado as “the South Africa of the U.S. for gays.”
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down Amendment 2, but it and other instances of discrimination have led to a general distrust of authority figures among certain members of the LGBTQ community.
This year’s PrideFest in Denver commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when queer demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest police brutality against homosexuals.
Daniel Ramos, executive director for One Colorado, said memories of such violent persecution are still fresh in the minds of many queer individuals, which makes them less likely to report crimes, including sexual assault.
“There is this perceived fear of how law enforcement works with same sex couples and with LGBTQ people in general,” he said.
The lack of distrust extends to health care experts. About two-thirds of queer respondents to the One Colorado survey said they have not told their doctors about their sexual orientation. The primary reason they listed for not doing so was a fear that their doctors would discriminate against them or provide biased treatment.
All of this can make an LGBTQ individual feel uncomfortable reporting a sexual assault or even receiving treatment for it.
The work continues
In the wake of increased sexual violence among the LGBTQ population and greater visibility of the community in the public sphere, more work is being done to advocate for their rights and equality. All of the people with whom I spoke have plans within their organizations to do so, especially for survivors of sexual assault.
Local forensic nurse Patty Oakland is co-chair of a committee working to train forensic nurses across the country in treating transgender patients while respecting their gender identities.
“At the end of the day, if someone is a victim, it should just reflect back to being respectful, attentive and listening,” she said.
Advocates of Routt County has made some changes in its signage and branding to make them more androgynous. For example, the organization’s logo used to be a water-colored dove, which members felt was more women-centered and, perhaps, deterred men from feeling represented.
The new logo is an aspen tree encircling a phoenix.
“The idea is we want it to feel as inclusive as possible,” Friden said.
One Colorado will take a 17-city tour this summer to hear from communities about how to close the gap in health care resources. The organization will visit Steamboat on Sept. 8.
Ramos said the feedback from the tour will inform initiatives aimed at closing the gap between the LGBTQ community and access to quality health care. Part of his long-term goal is to bring more LGBTQ-specific mental health care resources to rural communities.
At the end of the rainbow
The fight for LGBTQ rights and equality will not end with Pride Month.
As the people featured in this article agree, it will take systemic change to address the reasons so many people, not just those from the LGBTQ community, choose not to come forward about sexual assault or suffer unintended consequences if they do.
With more awareness comes the potential for greater change.
This year’s Denver PrideFest was among the most well attended in the country, with 25% more visitors than last year, according to organizing officials. As the parade turned west onto Colfax Avenue, the golden dome of the Capitol burst into view.
Crowds cheered along the street, sporting rainbow-colored versions of every outfit imaginable.
Events like this bring LGBTQ rights to the forefront and celebrate the progress that has been made. But it is the work that follows the celebrations, undertaken by groups like Advocates of Routt County and One Colorado, that will determine how issues of sexual assault within the LGBTQ community play out in the coming years.
Everyone can be a part of these efforts. When not referring to the queer-identifying individuals, one can add an “A” to the umbrella of sexual orientations — LGBTQA — to refer to allies. Allies are heterosexual people who support the queer community.
And for those still hiding behind fear or blank Grindr profiles, for survivors of assault or discrimination, I offer you a simple line from Walt Whitman, which on nights when I had no one to share my secret, shone as my only consolation.
“I exist as I am, that is enough.”
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