Changing locations, advocates and tactics has not helped the NWA Center for Sexual Assault get its LGBTQ support group off the ground, with no one but members of the center’s staff attending in recent memory.
Holly Wrobel, 27, has been the LGBTQ victim services advocate at the center since October 2019 – one of several new hires made last year, including a male Marshallese advocate, a Black advocate, a Latino advocate and a new executive director.
The NWA Center for Sexual Assault’s Project ARCH program, headed by Wrobel, hosts two monthly LGBTQ support groups in partnership with Northwest Arkansas Equality. After months of poor attendance, Wrobel plans to rework the program to draw in more survivors.
“We know that the need is there because we have clients that fall under the community, but trying to get them to come to one more reminder of their assault – it’s a difficult thing,” Wrobel said.
Since spending the past several months getting the word out about the support group, Wrobel still spends two Tuesdays a month alone with a counselor and a social worker in an empty room, hoping for an LGBTQ person to come share their story.
The empty seats at support group are not shocking to Wrobel, who identifies as a lesbian, because she understands the pressure and concerns about coming forward.
“It’s not like anybody really wants to go to a support group,” Wrobel said. “And then you have the LGBTQ community that already receives so much backlash for just existing the way that we choose to exist.”
To Wrobel, the LGBTQ acronym represents more than just a collection of sexualities and gender identities.
“Each letter has its own specific percentage,” Wrobel said.
While 35% of straight women experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, 44% of gay women and 61% of bisexual women experience the same, according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
A smaller percentage of gay men (26%) experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner than their straight counterparts (29%), but 37% of bisexual men indicated experiencing the same in the 2010 survey.
Of all respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. The survey found that non-binary people who were assigned female at birth had the highest rate of sexual assault (58%), followed by all non-binary people (55%) and transgender men (51%).
“Sexual assault doesn’t just look for one type of person, and it doesn’t look the same even in our community,” Wrobel said.
Because LGBTQ people are not limited to one cultural background, Wrobel said it is difficult to generalize their attitudes toward sexual assault and toward reporting sexual assault.
Sexual assault rates as recorded in the 2015 survey were highest in transgender and non-binary people who identified as American Indian (65%), Multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%) and Black (53%).
Instead of the traditional support group set-up, Wrobel thinks a different take on support groups might be more suitable for the LGBTQ community. Wrobel has considered yoga as an activity that is “more organic than just everybody sitting in a room and hashing out these traumatic periods in their life,” she said.
“You’re asking them not only to leave their own comfortable safe spaces at home, but to step out and stand in front of other people that have experienced the same thing they have and talk about it,” Wrobel said.
It is difficult for Wrobel to see an empty support group week after week for what she said is “one of the most at risk” communities while the center’s other support groups have a steady stream of attendees.
Julie Kinder, the victim services coordinator at the NWA Center for Sexual Assault said concerns about confidentiality present obstacles for reporting sexual violence, especially in marginalized communities.
Despite the obstacles, Executive Director Brandon Pettit has no plans of stopping the support group.
“We know that there are survivors out there that would benefit from this support group,” Pettit said. “If it’s not working, we have to be open to making some changes.”
Pettit coordinated support groups as executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness from April 2017 to June 2019 and said it is especially difficult to start an LGBTQ support group because of challenges LGBTQ people might face “when it comes to feeling safe about expressing their assault experience.”
“Trauma is not an easy thing for anybody to talk about. It’s not an easy thing to deal with,” Wrobel said. “Then when you have already got so much stacked against you, it’s just kind of one more thing.”
Wrobel grew up in Fayetteville, where she went to the UofA to pursue a degree in psychology before taking a break from school and working at Vantage Point Behavioral Health Hospital for two years. At Vantage Point, Wrobel worked mainly with trauma survivors, especially children.
“It became what I was meant to do,” Wrobel said.
Realizing that she wanted to devote her career to working with trauma survivors, Wrobel was ready to take the next step. So when she saw a job posting at the center for an LGBTQ victim services advocate, she got to work applying for the job.
“You’re telling me I get to go and help victims of sexual assault, and on top of that, I also get to work with my community?” Wrobel said. “That’s great, where’s the catch?”
Aside from work, Wrobel volunteers at the Center for Equality for events like Rainbow Thanksgiving and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, attends LGBTQ events across NWA and plays in a metal band, Endfall, under the stage name “Sparrow.”
With everything she’s involved in, Wrobel can’t help but think of ways to use these channels to reach out to assault survivors within the LGBTQ community — from hosting events at the center to playing a “bands unite against sexual assault” show with her band.
Because Wrobel knows that so many factors contribute to LGBTQ survivors staying silent, she said the best thing she can do is get the word out and be prepared any time her phone rings.
“Nobody really knows about these kinds of services until they need them,” Wrobel said. “We’re not like a hospital, where you know exactly where it’s at, you know exactly what it’s for, if there’s traffic you know another way to get there. Without us making our presence known, until you need (the center), you may not even know that it exists.”