Portland Women's Crisis Line: Not Just for Women, Not Just a Line

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2012 Group Shot4By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Founded in 1973, the Portland Women's Crisis Line is one of the five oldest sexual violence crisis lines in the country. As its statistics demonstrate, the organization's services are still all too necessary. In  2013, PWCL answered just under 22,000 calls. Three quarters of those regarded domestic violence, while four percent regarded sexual violence. Assisting LGBTQ identified callers is a priority at PWCL, and a skill that's evolved over its lifetime, says executive director Rebecca Nickels. "The Portland Women’s Crisis Line has a history of being led by queer identified women, as do many of our sister agencies," Nickels says. "However, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that our movement began to understand and think about how to respond to LGBTQ survivors. I suppose folks working to end violence against women didn’t want to acknowledge that sometimes, women batter and assault. We now understand that domestic and sexual violence can occur in any relationship." PWCL's most recent strides in LGBTQ inclusivity have involved increased competency and understanding regarding the needs of trans survivors. "In the last four years, I’d say that our understanding of serving transgender women has expanded, and we better understand how it’s more difficult for trans survivors to access medical and social services because of trans ignorance and phobia," Nickels says. Nickels, who is herself queer identified, says that PWCL's staff is trained in supporting trans survivors during a sexual assault forensic exam, and that the basic advocacy training that all of the group's service volunteers complete includes a session on gender and sexual minorities. In addition, any contact with the crisis line begins with a choice involving thoughtfulness and sensitivity around the issue. "For at least the last 13 years, PWCL advocates have been trained to be gender neutral when they work with a survivor," Nickels says. "Meaning—until the survivor has stated the gender of either themselves and/or their perpetrator, the advocate wouldn’t use a pronoun, or would use 'they.'" Another area where the organization's approach to service-providing has changed is in its outreach to sex workers. PWCL had been working with this community for decades, but around 2005, in Nickels words, their "framework for doing this work completely changed." At that point the crisis line began using a "harm reduction" model, as opposed to employing moral arguments with those they served, a choice Nickels sees as being more in line the organization's ideals. "We understand that it’s not our job to tell someone what to do with their lives or how to pay their bills—in fact, when working with survivors, we would never do this," she says. "Our job is to be supportive, help sex workers be as safe as possible while working, and help other service providers have cultural competency in how they serve sex workers." PWCL employs a Direct Service Advocate who works with adults impacted by the sex industry. This advocate accompanies Outside In's mobile medical van to the Clackamas Service Center. She also coordinates the Sex Worker Outreach Coalition, or SWOC, which is "a collaborative group of service providers, current and former sex workers, and community members who believe in the human rights and personal safety of sex workers." The aim of PWCL's Sex Worker Outreach Project today, Nickels says, "is to support sex workers to be safe, acknowledge and promote that they have human rights, and to offer supportive services that they lead themselves." PWCL describes itself as a "volunteer driven" organization. When I asked Nickels what she thought led volunteers to the important, difficult work the group does, she pointed to the crisis line's "core values," which include "empowerment," "social justice" and "mutual support & unity" among others, explaining, "all of us are working to make the world better, which is exhausting, difficult work. “We believe that the services we provide are part of a much bigger effort to end all oppressions and violence. We strive to find the successes, the joy, the humor, and the love in our work." She believes these values also help make PWCL a welcoming and supportive place for LGBTQ volunteers. "One of the strategies we have when working with survivors is to trust that they are the expert in their own life," she says. "Volunteers, and staff, are the experts in their lives too, and we accept people for who they are and celebrate our differences and commonalities." Nickels credits the organization's greater awareness around transgender issues with helping make it more inclusive for everyone within it. "As our understanding of serving trans survivors has expanded, the organization also better understands how its members—staff and volunteers—represent a gender spectrum, as well," she says. "We started inviting male-identified advocates to work on the crisis line a few years ago, and we ask everyone their preferred gender when they start volunteering with us." Nickels says PWCL understands that its name may not reflect the evolutions the organization has had regarding identity and inclusivity and that this may discourage people who they could help from reaching out to them. She says it's an issue the group takes seriously and is working on. "We don’t just serve Portland, we don’t just serve women, and we’re not just a crisis line," she says. "We believe it’s time for a change that reflects our values and what we’re trying to accomplish."