Charise: People call Oklahoma the buckle of The Bible Belt. I grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma. We lived in this little protective bubble because it was a military base. I was maybe 13 the first time I started paying any attention to what I was feeling. At first, I didn’t know what I was feeling. I had no clue. I came out to my mother first on a trip somewhere, and so we kind of argued the entire way there. We argued through the store. We argued all the way back, and then by the time we got home, the conversation was over. It was a nightmare.
Charise: I left Lawton so that I can first continue school because I was still in high school and then be myself. I was extremely isolated. At the time, I really didn’t know it was abuse that I was experiencing, but the relationship that I had with my girlfriend, she really just had this weird power over me because of the weird relationship that I had with my family, and I couldn’t go back. That further isolated me because my family didn’t understand why I didn’t want to leave. I was in that relationship for five years. No one really took our fights seriously. It was tough. It was tough.
Charise: Most victims of domestic violence had been able to go to a shelter or just had even had an advocate to take them through the steps, through their options. I made my family with the LGBT identifying people that I met where I was because most of them understood. They were my new mothers, and my new aunts, and uncles, and that family that I made is actually what got me through.
Charise: The police department had no experience with LGBT identifying people to begin with. And so, when you talk about the dynamics of an abusive relationship, they just can’t fathom how that could happen. That’s what pushed me into wanting to provide essentially emergency shelter for LGBT identifying people and other marginalized populations who experience violence, and they have no where to turn. We just want to provide a space where there will be someone who takes your experience seriously, walks you through the process of actually receiving assistance, and not just being provided with a brochure or a number to someone that may not even serve you.
Charise: Often times whenever you hear someone talking about why they’re not providing services. Like, if you can find a religious belief that matches it, Oklahoma is for it and whatever to whoever suffers from it. No one who experiences any sort of violence should have to return to their abusive environment. No one should have to return.
Charise: I had the pleasure of meeting an amazing woman and we will be celebrating our 10 year anniversary in April. We went to a fertility clinic. At some point brought up the fact that the eggs that were harvested were going to be used for Erica, and the doctor’s nurse was kind of just like, you can’t do that. We ended up just leaving. Unfortunately, we’ve been experiencing discrimination since we met. There definitely has to be proper policies and procedures put in place that protect people based on their identity or their orientation.
Charise: Senate Bill 1140 does a ton of things. It’s all wrapped in the basis that if you are providing services to any population and you have firm religious beliefs that prevent you from providing that service, you can deny it. That’s how those impositions of power describe it, like their lifestyle and it’s important to note that this isn’t a lifestyle. This is literally someone’s life that we’re talking about.
Charise: In this instance, that would prevent the LGBT identifying youth in foster care from being available for fostering opportunities through these agencies. If we’re leaving out these particular youth, where are they going to go? What are they going to do? How are they going to get their services?
Charise: I want to be here because I can take the punches all day long, but I really feel like I want to be who I needed whenever I was younger. We all need somebody. Let’s be honest. But, it’s really the work of a community. Without real work, without real effort being put behind it, our people that are essentially slipping through the cracks and it’s about time we catch them.
The reach of intimate partner violence is extensive, affecting the lives of people in every pocket of society, including members of the LGBTQ community. With the majority of the domestic violence awareness and support groups centering heterosexual relationships, many LGBTQ people find themselves with few resources to navigate the healing journey to get out of an abusive relationship. In addition to the lack of LGBTQ-affirming service providers, bigotry, religious intolerance, fear of being outed, and exclusion from family can add additional complications for LGBTQ survivors of violence.
Charise Walker knows this experience all too well. An Oklahoma native, Charise came out to her family in high school, and the reaction from her family forced her to leave home and live out on her own for years. During that time, she became partnered with someone who was physically and verbally abusive. In the midst of this relationship Charise kept finding that police, domestic violence support agencies, and housing facilities were limited in their understanding of how intimate partner violence affects LGBTQ people.
“This isn’t quite domestic violence. Just fight her back,” was a response Charise found herself often confronting.
Charise finally got out of that abusive relationship, and eventually began rebuilding her life with a new partner, Erica. Together they found themselves becoming a support system for other LGBTQ folks in their community who were seeking refuge from abusive relationships in Lawton, Oklahoma. Charise realized that her experience wasn’t just anecdotal, but an unfortunately common experience among LGBTQ survivors. She began dreaming of a support system for survivors in rural Oklahoma, and began to form Helping Women Win, a non-profit that offers affirming support for marginalized survivors of violence.
In Lawton, Charise and Erica have continued to face discrimination. From trying to get fertility treatments to finding housing, they have been literally turned away at the door. The recent passage of Oklahoma Senate Bill 1140 promotes this type of discrimination, with dangerous anti-LGBTQ statues that allow publicly-funded adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ prospective parents, single mothers and interfaith couples, among others.
Despite their experiences of discrimination, Charise and Erica continue to work for change in Oklahoma.
“I stay here to support the next generation of LGBT youth” Charise says.