Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dignity. Hygiene. Period.

Legal Voice staff and board collected 520 tampons and pads for local shelters!
By Taylor Markey
If you are one of the 86% of women who have been caught without a tampon or pad at the beginning of your period, you know that it can be an uncomfortable and annoying experience. But, for many people (women, transgender men, and genderqueer people alike), this experience is more than annoying; for those who cannot afford supplies, it can be debilitating. Because tampons and pads are not covered by public assistance programs—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—low-income people are often compelled to break the law by selling their food stamps to afford these necessities. In many prisons, the prices of tampons and pads are inflated, making them difficult to obtain for inmates who don’t receive money from outside. For women who are homeless, lack of access to feminine hygiene products (and the lack of awareness of the need for such products) often means that they go without them.

Inability to access tampons and pads increases the risk of many vaginal infections and may force people to miss opportunities such as school, work, or employment interviews. There is also an emotional toll when a person cannot maintain basic cleanliness, leading to feelings of alienation and lack of dignity. The denial of access under SNAP or WIC not only to tampons and pads, but to diapers, soap, toilet paper, and other hygiene items, has come to be seen as another way in which the cycle of poverty is institutionalized. Because SNAP and WIC have clearly defined missions of feeding the hungry and have been unfortunately framed by politicians as “entitlements,” any expansion of these programs to non-food items would likely be faced with intense political resistance.

This is why Legal Voice was excited to learn that our long-time supporter Kate Beck had set out to collect 50,000 pads and tampons for her 50th birthday to help meet the need in our community. Our staff and board members joined together to collect 520 tampons and pads for Mary’s Place and YouthCare in Seattle. We encourage you to match our efforts by making a donation of tampons or pads to your local shelter. (And be sure to track Kate’s progress on her campaign page.)

Donation drives like Kate’s have sprung up across the country, providing a critical immediate solution for many people. But we cannot allow this to be simply a passing trend. It is time to advocate for a long-term policy solution to supplement these efforts and ensure that low-income individuals have access to the feminine hygiene products they need.

This issue is often misleadingly framed as primarily a problem for women in the developing world; we have all heard the heart-wrenching stories of young African girls who miss school during menstruation or Indian women who are shamed for using tampons because of insertion taboos. But this narrative obfuscates how much of a problem access to basic reproductive care is for women in our own country, particularly for women of color. It also ignores the strides that people in developing nations have made on this issue without foreign intervention. For example, India’s government targets subsidies of pads to poor rural areas, while many Western governments continue to tax feminine hygiene as a “luxury.”

In the US, some state government officials have proposed removing sales taxes from tampons and pads. This is an important first step, but state governments should actively subsidize these items as well. Employers are required under OSHA guidelines to provide hand towels and soap in employee restrooms; they should be required to provide tampons and pads for sale as well, and encouraged to provide them for free, to create a comfortable workplace environment for people of all genders. Laws requiring tampons and pads to be available at no charge in prisons should also be passed and enforced to stop prisons from using restricted access to hygiene and reproductive health as a punishment.

For incarcerated people, important first steps have been made through litigation. A class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates in the Jefferson County Jail in Washington resulted in a favorable settlement, requiring jail officials to follow the state law directing prisons to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge. Another similar case in Michigan right now is seeking feminine hygiene access, and the removal of other degrading living conditions, arguing that prisoners’ constitutional and human rights have been violated. The framing of these legal arguments is part of a larger movement to expand the notion of “human rights” to include a right to cleanliness and dignity. This movement arose from a growing awareness that people cannot succeed in modern society if they do not have access to basic hygiene.

For the non-working, non-incarcerated poor, policy and litigation-based solutions are less obvious. As is too often the case, those who are most marginalized are not part of programs or institutions that can be easily affected by regulation or legal change. This is perhaps why many feminists have suggested that tampons and pads should be completely free. Although this suggestion takes the idea of tampons and pads as a human right to its logical conclusion, it is politically and logistically infeasible and would over-include people who can easily afford tampons. For the most marginalized among us, local, grassroots efforts are probably the best way of increasing access. Perhaps organizations like Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics, particularly those which are highly integrated into low-income communities, could be given federal funding designated for purchasing and distributing feminine hygiene products, mirroring successful programs that have increased condom use.

In addition to advocating for policy changes, we can all be a part of the solution by asking for tampons and pads to be provided in our workplaces and schools, by including these products in our collection efforts for homeless and domestic violence shelters, and by questioning the culture of silence that surrounds menstruation, which allows this problem to persist.

Taylor Markey is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at The George Washington University Law School. She is a recipient of the QLaw Foundation’s Sher Kung Memorial Grant for her LGBT advocacy work and is not-so-secretly obsessed with boy bands.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Game of Thrones and Sexual Violence

By Brittany Carpenter 

As you may have heard, the hit HBO show Game of Thrones has caused a huge stir this past week. In the latest episode, a major character was raped on her wedding night by a character whose reputation on the program has already been well established as sadistic and villainous.

Fans reacted to this scene in various ways. To fans of the book series Game of Thrones, this scene marks the third (!) time the writers of the TV adaptation have included a rape scene where one didn’t exist for the particular character in the novels.

Additionally, many men and women have been speaking out about how the scene triggered an extremely negative and unsettling reaction for them, declaring its inclusion unnecessary and over the line of acceptable content for television.

However, there has been another contingent of the show’s audience saying to those who were upset by the scene: “What’s the big deal? Game of Thrones includes a lot of unsettling content!”

Throughout the existence of the show, characters have been tortured, violently murdered and even castrated. Children have been burned to death. An incestuous relationship between a brother and sister is an integral part of one of the major storylines. Most people would agree that those are actions are, indeed, unsettling and disturbing.

So…what’s the big deal? Why is portraying rape any different?

While those other acts of violence do still persist worldwide, sexual violence is alarmingly prevalent in our society with not enough being done to prevent it, or even acknowledge its effects on victims.This scene, not unlike the other two previously enacted on the show, depicts the violent action as a catalyst for a change in plot, but hardly (if ever) deals with the mental and emotional repercussions for the victim. While other violent acts, such as castration, are absolutely disturbing, the fact of the matter is that they simply do not happen as often or are debated as publicly as is sexual violence.

As a woman, and as someone who has known victims of sexual violence, the image of rape as portrayed and treated in news stories, in politics, and in entertainment, is jarring.

Take, for example, Emma Sulkowicz, the student who was sexually attacked at Columbia University. She carried around her mattress in protest of the school administration’s lack of response and action to her complaint for the remainder of her education. Several days ago, Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia, opting to carry her mattress across the stage despite protests from university officials. In response, the President of the university refused to shake her hand. By refusing to shake Sulkowicz’s hand, the President chose not to acknowledge her attack, including any emotional and physical repercussions that resulted from it.  

It is painfully apparent, based on this and many other instances in both fiction and reality, that people are either not aware or worse, choose not to acknowledge the frequency and effects of sexual violence in our society. As a result, when these scenes do stir conversation, people are surprised at the amount of negative backlash.

It is disappointing to see so many people not understand why rape is such a sensitive topic. However, I remain hopeful that the more the issue of sexual violence is portrayed to the masses, the more it will further the conversation about its frequency and effect on victims. Without that essential feedback, how can the minds of politicians and scriptwriters ever change?

Brittany Carpenter works in marketing by day and studies for her MBA by night. In her spare time (is there any?) she likes to travel to watch her favorite football team, sample the amazing beer of the Pacific NW, and catch up on her favorite TV shows.

Image via HBO 

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Mother's Fight

Rachelle (left) with her partner,
Angela VanHoose
With all the progress we’ve made for LGBT equality in Washington, I didn’t think I’d be treated any differently in my divorce because of my sexual orientation. But I was wrong.

After nearly 20 years of marriage to my former husband and having three beautiful children, I filed for divorce last year because I realized that I am a lesbian.

Even though I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for more than 15 years—for my children’s entire lives—the court gave primary custody of our children to their father, and now I have my children only a few days every other week. The court also restricted me from talking to my children about homosexuality, religion, or other “alternative lifestyle concepts” unless I obtained specific approval for each conversation from their counselor.

Legal Voice, with the help of attorneys at the Perkins Coie law firm, is representing me in my appeal of this ruling. I am so grateful for their advocacy and support, and I am asking—on behalf of all individuals facing discrimination—for your support.

Please make a gift to Legal Voice on Give OUT Day on Thursday, May 21st. They are working to change the system so that no one else has to go through what my children, my partner, and I are going through. During this time when Legal Voice is supporting me, I hope you, in turn, will support them.

- Rachelle Black, Legal Voice Client

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Legal Voice Self Help Committee:
Seattle's Best Kept Secret

By Lauren Akamine
Last spring, I was in the market for a muse. Late nights with Jon Stewart were not sufficient anymore and as a potential JD candidate about to take the plunge, I was in dire need of an overdose on motivation. My firm announced that we had two tickets left for an event, “Cocktails for a Cause.” Of course I was in. Networking with social justice champions and feasting on delectable hors d’oeuvres? Painting the town with likeminded individuals was the mental stimulation I had been craving.

Upon arriving to the event, I grabbed a crab cake and parked myself in front of a giant orange screen that read, “Women’s rights, nothing less.” At that moment, I knew I was going to be a part of a leading movement. For the rest of the night, I sat and looked up at the guest speakers in awe. Where did these women come from? Where does one find that kind of eloquent confidence? How do these women remain so hopeful in the face of the constant onslaught on women’s rights? Where has Legal Voice been all my life?!

I recently celebrated my one year anniversary as part of the Legal Voice family. I am currently a proud member of the Self Help Committee, a diverse group of social justice superheroes comprised of, but not limited to, attorneys, paralegals, and law students. We meet tucked away above The Paramount Theatre at the Legal Voice headquarters on the second Wednesday of every month. As Self Help Committee members we discuss issues on proposed court ruling with legislative advocacy staff, identify legal needs through community outreach, and increase access to legal information for the general public. The meetings are informal, usually accompanied with fresh fruit, old Halloween candy, and riveting dialogue about Legal Voice’s latest work.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much this small-scale committee contributes to the people of Washington State and to the mission of Legal Voice. From specific issues facing victims of violence (Hearing Guidelines for a Domestic Violence Protection Order – “You can do it without a lawyer!”) to basic information about lawyers (Working With a Lawyer  – yes, that phone call to your lawyer just cost you $50!) to estate planning and end-of-life issues (After a Death Occurs - a Checklist  – a vital collection of information for a very stressful time, excerpted from another example of dedicated committee work, the Handbook for Washington Seniors: Legal Rights and Resources.) As a contributing editor to the Self Help materials—available in the Tools to Help You section of the website—I discovered so much about issues that I had never considered before such as Basic Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples and Leave from Work for Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking (a right brought to you by Legal Voice!)

From this experience I began to understand why so many people required legal help. The law is an entity that we interact with every day. However as citizens, we often fear the law and perceive its complexity as a restrictive force. In reality, the law is in place to protect and enhance our rights. This is why the determined efforts of the Self Help Committee are so important. Our mission to enhance the general public’s access to the law enables citizens to find solutions to their legal issues and, in turn, increases their understanding of the law and how it can help them.

What I enjoy most about being part of the Self Help Committee are the people. I have never encountered so much passion in one room from so many different backgrounds, genders, and age groups. I like to think organizations like this are where people like Shirin Ebadi and Madeleine Albright first started: a small room, good ideas, and profound generosity. If the riveting conversations aren’t enough for you, consider joining for the unlimited smiles, the fulfilling work, and the old Halloween candy. Welcome to Seattle’s best kept secret. You won’t regret it.

Lauren Akamine is a paralegal for MacDonald Hoague & Bayless by day, and a Legal Voice feminista by night. She hopes to be accepted to law school soon so she can finally spread her wings and abandon cubicle life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Survivor Stories:
Education, Entertainment,
or Public Investigation?

Law & Order: SVU Rips Story From Dozens of Campus Rape Headlines
By Alex Kory

Including the voices and real life experiences of survivors can personalize issues like domestic violence and sexual assault in ways that statistics cannot. Stories educate, inspire, and connect people. Because of this, survivor stories are frequently told on the news, at public events, and even in movies and television. But has our demand for survivor stories come at the expense of survivors themselves?

While some survivors choose to share their stories on their own accord, many others are approached with speaking opportunities or interview requests. When I worked as a domestic violence advocate it was not uncommon to get inquiries from media or event planners looking for a survivor to share her story; Legal Voice, too, frequently receives similar requests. As advocates, we can help survivors decide whether to share her story by weighing the intent of a request against the impact on the survivor. In the end, the survivor is our number one priority.

But in other circumstances, that isn’t the case. Even with seemingly good intentions, education can quickly become exploitation by journalists, event planners, or panel moderators who are simply looking for the shocking details. Survivors may face disbelief in their stories or be pressed for explanations of very intimate, personal, and traumatizing events. Put on the spot, survivors may not have prepared for certain questions or considered the potential impacts of taking their story public.

Journalists who report on violence against women have to balance the demand for stories with scrupulous fact-checking. In the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s discredited story on an alleged gang-rape at University of Virginia, journalists are even wearier of believing a survivor’s own words. And as more stories are reported, including stories that become discredited, the public is weighing in on the issue in disturbing ways—playing out the role of investigator and adjudicator in news article comment sections and on social media.

Survivor stories that are told without the input or permission of the survivor can create risk, unwanted attention, and scrutiny for the survivor. I cannot count the number of times I saw the video of Janay Rice (Editor’s note: link does not take you to actual video) being dragged unconscious out of an elevator—not once because I sought it out. When she did decide to speak about her experience to ESPN, over 650 people weighed in in the comments section, with varying degrees of victim-blaming and misogyny.

It becomes even more problematic when we try to reconcile the demand for survivor stories in the news and at public events with the entertainment industry’s use of violence against women. While some stories are told to educate and engage people, others employ violence against women solely and indisputably for the purpose of entertainment. The wildly successful Law and Order: SVU—a show that dramatizes, reenacts, and profits off of stolen sexual violence survivor stories—has been feeding our insatiable desire for “real-life” survivor stories for over 16 years. And like the entertainment industry, most news media outlets are also driven by profits, which can lead to sensationalist reporting, gratuitous violence, and even highly sexualized depictions of victims and survivors.

Survivor stories at public events such as conferences, fundraisers, and even hearings on proposed legislation allow for live interaction between survivors and the audience, opening up the dialogue in critical ways. But it also creates the potential for invasive questions or offensive assertions by people assessing credibility, judging stories, and picking out the survivor’s mistakes. All of this may leave survivors feeling exhausted, angry, and exploited.

The goal of sharing survivor stories should be to empower women affected by violence and inspire others to take action against it. But when survivors are scrutinized, blamed, and used for entertainment, we’re only adding to the myriad reasons for the gross underreporting of rape and domestic violence.

So how can we engage with survivor stories in a way that is respectful, educational, healing, and empowering? There is no bright line rule and we can’t always anticipate the full impact of sharing a survivor story. But we can take steps to carefully consider the survivor speaker, the audience, and the purpose.
  1. Survivor speaker: Choosing a speaker should be done thoughtfully. As an advocate at an emergency domestic violence shelter, I always turned down requests from people seeking survivors to speak because my clients were homeless and living in crisis, and often in the process of seeking legal protection or child custody. Survivors should be given space first before being asked to take their story public, and should not be asked to decide immediately. The survivor should be able to choose her own identifiers or labels, if any (i.e. dv survivor, victim of trafficking, etc.) and should be able to decide beforehand what topics will be discussed.
  2. Audience: The particular audience may impact who the speaker is, what topics will be covered, and whether the audience will be able to engage with the speaker or not. Some survivors may be invigorated by speaking to potentially hostile or uninformed audiences like lawmakers or batterers groups. Others may prefer sympathetic audiences already knowledgeable about and committed to ending violence against women.
  3. Purpose: Generally, survivor stories should be shared with some intention of educating people about the problem of gender-based violence and inspiring them to take action—rather than to entertain or instill fear. It may also be important to consider whether the story is put into context, related to larger societal issue, or accompanied by a discussion of the root problems and possible solutions, or a call to action.
Public speaking is scary enough. Asking a survivor to share a traumatic story with strangers should always be facilitated with care and respect. For more insight, check out the Survivor’s Guide to Public Speaking by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

Alex Kory is an intern at Legal Voice and 4 short weeks away from graduation. She is a Scholar for Justice at Seattle University School of Law; and like a true north westerner, she camps in the rain.

Photo courtesy of Jezebel (Gawker Media).