Oregon Gov. Kate Brown came out again on Friday in a debate with her Republican opponent, but this time it wasn’t about her sexuality.
The out bisexual shared that the she is also a survivor of domestic violence, after an audience member asked about the recently released “Count Her In” report from the Women’s Foundation of Oregon, which reveals that more than half of Oregon women and girls experience domestic or sexual violence during their lifetime.
“I know what it feels like to be a victim of domestic violence,” Brown said. Her campaign confirmed that she experienced domestic violence, declining to provide additional details except to make clear that the perpetrator was not Brown’s husband Dan Little, whom she married in 1997.
Brown became governor in 2015 after the four-term Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid scandal, making her the first openly bisexual governor in the country. She must be elected this November to stay in office through the end of the term.
Despite Brown’s clear personal expertise on the topic, Republican candidate Dr. Bud Pierce suggested that only poor or uneducated women are vulnerable to abuse.
“A woman that has a great education and training and a great job is not susceptible to this kind of abuse by men, women or anyone,” Pierce said to loud boos from the audience.
Brown quickly busted the pervasive myth that having financial resources or a college education shields women from domestic violence. While a survivor’s relative personal and family wealth can certainly impact their access to resources like legal representation and housing, having a good job or a flush bank account does not in itself prevent abuse.
Even when survivors of intimate partner violence come from middle or upper class families, have well-paying jobs or high levels of education, the very nature of abuse may prevent them from accessing the protections their background would seem to afford. Abusers often take over control of their partner’s finances, cause them to miss work, and interfere with their education.
“I’m honestly not even sure where to start. I grew up in a middle class family. I went to law school,” Brown replied. “This is not just about [having access to] power. This is about making sure women are not discriminated against because of their gender, because of their race, and because of their sexual orientation.”
And it’s because of that discrimination women like her are at even greater risk of experiencing domestic violence.
While one third of heterosexual women report experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking in their lifetime, more than half (61 percent) of bisexual women do, according to the CDC. Bisexual men also report higher rates of abuse, with 37 percent saying they’ve experienced these types of violence, compared to 29 percent of heterosexual men.
Pervasive stereotypes that paint bisexual people as unfaithful or untrustworthy are often used by abusers to keep their partners down, and these damaging attitudes are further reinforced by the discrimination bisexuals face from straight and gay folks alike in society at large. Case in point: the mainstream and tabloid media response to bisexual actress Amber Heard’s allegations of domestic violence against ex-husband Johnny Depp.
Because both bisexual folks and survivors of intimate partner violence are often made invisible by stigma and shame, Gov. Brown’s personal declaration is especially powerful.
“We believe we will see more people coming out, seeking support, finding their bi community, and literally saving their own lives because of Gov. Brown sharing her story,” says Lynnette McFadzen, an Oregon bisexual activist who serves on the board of BiNet USA and produces the BiCast. “Considering our high rates of physical and sexual violence it is crucial in bringing awareness to our disparities.”
McFadzen, who is an organizer with the Portland-based advocacy group BiBrigade, emphasizes the importance of having community resources specific to the bisexual community. While many LGBTQ organizations claim to include the concerns of bisexual people, the vast majority of time, money, and attention go to gay—and to a lesser extent, transgender—causes.
“I sincerely hope to see an increase in ‘bi specific’ programming and support for bi, pan, fluid, queer (bi+) communities in the Pacific Northwest soon,” McFadzen explains. “Oregon has always been progressive around LGBTQI issues and has been presented a unique opportunity to raise awareness and create change for the bisexual+ community.”
The first shelter for victims of domestic violence on the west coast, Bradley Angle, is also the Oregon’s only domestic violence agency providing culturally-specific support for LGBTQ survivors.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing abuse in their relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat with an advocate online.