It’s Not Okay: Intimate Partner Violence in Radical Queer Spaces

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“If we only speak of our oppression from the position of safety, we’ll be forever silent.” – from the zine Betrayal: a critical analysis of rape in anarchist subcultures

Yesterday, I had a panic attack. Although I am a trans woman who has been physically and verbally harassed multiple times for being who I am, I was not ready for it. Although I am a trans woman who has survived suicide attempts and considered killing myself many more times before, I could not handle this sudden wave of anxiety. Because despite all these problems I have had in my life, I have lived a relatively privileged existence. My periods of anxiety, fear and stress have either been within my control or directly resulting from a source outside of myself.

Never before have I had my own fear knock me down, literally making my knees buckle as I gasped for breath in between unsuccessful attempts to soothe myself by repeating, “They are not even in the same state, they are not even in the same state…” I am sure this is hard to imagine for people who have only known me as the gregarious, ditzy, carefree person that I regularly present myself as. It is probably even harder for the people who have seen me on stage in one of my various punk and metal bands or walking through the streets with a megaphone yelling about how Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the U.S. government. But now I’m showing y’all this part of myself: the damaged, vulnerable me.

The LGBTQI community, including the radical leftist community inside and outside of it, talks big shit when it comes to love and ending violence but very seldom confronts intimate partner violence. Although the word “abuse” has become synonymous with intimate partner abuse in a broader sense, you only need to search for “trans abuse” online or in a library to see that the standard narrative is that most, if not all, violence against trans* people comes from individual community outsiders, though sometimes there is a recognition of the hate being part of a larger social problem.

Even pieces written in an attempt to expose the problem, such as Kae Greenberg’s “Still Hidden in the Closet: Trans Women and Domestic Violence,” spend a significant amount of time going over how non-LGBTQI people harm trans* women. The idea of the normative trans woman—the heterosexual, white, skinny, shaved, dolled-up skirt-wearing femme—makes it hard to conceive of intimate partner violence coming from within the community. After all, why would a trans woman be getting intimate with anyone except for a straight man? Or rather, why would a cis lesbian be with someone who looks so straight? Greenberg’s use of the term “domestic violence”, as well as uses in similar reports, is very appropriate. It is difficult to apply domesticity to survivors and victims who are lesbian and queer (thus the increasing use of the term “intimate partner violence”), but the trope of the normative trans woman fits it. Furthermore, aside from her trans* status, she also fits the mainstream image of a domestic violence victim. And just as with cis women, the compounding factor of racism makes women of color more susceptible to being the targets of intimate partner violence (Toni Newman gives a stunning account of this here and in her memoir I Rise).


 

I burst through the door to the outside. It’s cold, especially since I took off my jacket to show off my Siouxie Sioux-esque outfit to the other attendees of the goth-themed party. A few people smoking cigarettes look over at me, the looks of confusion and curiosity written across their faces like a bolded, laminated and italicized warning to me to not say a word. Soon after, a friend opens the door behind me. “Hey I, um, followed you,” he says, awkwardness slowing down his normally brisk and cheery voice.

“I can’t believe this,” I say, “She’s following me around. When I try to talk to Edwin, she walks up to talk to him. When I try to get closer to the stage to listen to the band, all of a sudden she has to go over to that section. Can you please tell her to stop?”

He pauses in sour contemplation long enough for a person nearby to interject, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Is there someone predatory here?”

“No, no, she’s fine,” my friend says immediately, though just as quickly realizes his mistake and, stumbling, says, “I mean it’s not okay, you’re not okay, I’m sorry.”


 

Perhaps the Men’s Rights Advocates are to blame (I’d like to think this is true on a number of issues). Their hyperbolic presentations of the situations of male domestic violence victims (such as one guy who told me that 60% of domestic violence victims were men) often blame society for not perceiving women as being capable committing intimate partner violence. I would also like to think that trans women being read as men, even by those who try consciously not to, does not play into the denial—but it almost certainly does. I would like to think that the role that trans women are often regulated to in queer polyamorous relationships, so aptly described by Savannah Garmon, of being someone’s “thing on the side” does not play into the ability to minimize the nature of the violence—but it definitely could. BDSM, trans women with large bodies “being able to defend themselves,” and the old “well, why haven’t you called the police?” are all possible excuses for and dismissals of trans women’s experience of intimate partner violence.

I feel so lonely but can’t talk to anyone but myself. Have you ever been at that point? You forget what it feels like, what it feels like when you first were together. Her happiness is now difficult to view as anything except a prelude to anger; her romance only comes to haphazardly patch up the holes she has torn in your trust. Sound familiar? You look into her eyes when she says “I love you” and you only see every look of disgust, every cissexist and transphobic gaze. Why would you subject yourself to this? But it has so thoroughly become your life: you feel like you depend on her for everything. After all, she is the woman who has “been a woman for much longer than you have.” She tells you how to dress, how to eat, what to watch, what to read, who to hang out with, who to like, who to talk to, who to interact with online, how to spend your time. She has control, yet you both can feel it is precipitous. If you are not with her you must be with someone else: she tells you that you are in an open relationship but becomes enraged if you ever discuss attractions to others. She has no problems explaining to you how attracted she is to your best friend, though. She can’t help it, she is attracted to masculine people. She tells you that she was first attracted to you because you were, and are, manly; she tells you that she has supported you in every step of your transition and you have been selfish the whole time and only thinking of yourself. She hits you, but she was just drunk, she was just so angry, she was just joking. Why can’t you take it? Your needs are too much for her and her needs can never be met by you because you are inferior. You are an annoyance, a chore, a child: dirty, lazy, ugly, smelly, macho, stupid, slow.


 

In places like New York City, where I currently live, there are many resources for trans women and other queer and LGBTI people who have suffered intimate partner violence, most of them free and peer-conducted. And yes, legal recourse for a trans woman survivor against her attacker is near impossible (even with the help of a wonderful group like the Sylvia Rivera Project), but I generally distrust the state’s ability to liberate or protect us anyway, so it’s not discrimination I am particularly concerned with. What is really worrying is that we, the LGBTQI community, pretend that intimate partner violence is not an issue.


 

Maybe it’s karma.

I watch them arguing again. It’s my senior year of college in Virginia and I’m hanging out with my friends at a party. Roman and Gabriel, two of my best friends, are yet again fighting. He shoves her, she shoves him back; she giggles, but for a second I think I see fear in her eyes. Everyone looks at the ground or laughs nervously. Later I ask her if she’s okay and she gives me her characteristic big smile: “You know Roman, that’s how we kid around. Besides,” she winks at me, “You of all people should know how hot it is.” I try to smile back, but the effort only barely hides the grimace that surfaces as soon as she turns away. Sure enough, when she visits my partner and me many months later, she recounts to us how abusive the relationship had been and how it would take her awhile to ever trust anyone, to ever open up to anyone ever again. As soon as she leaves, my partner turns to me: “She acts like she’s such a victim when obviously there was abuse on both sides.” Awkwardly, I shrug my shoulders and look around the room. My partner doesn’t notice how uncomfortable she’s making me because she’s caught up in her own conjectures: “It’s like how we are sometimes.”


 

If you are or have been the victim of intimate partner violence, I want you to know that I believe you. I trust you and I know that you are unsure, confused, anxious and may be a bit of a mess, and I want you to know that that is okay. You are beautiful and worthy of love, protection and respect. I want you to look at the following list of resources and even if you can’t call or email them right now, maybe go to the website and read more or put the phone number in your contacts list. As trans women, it is not fair that we must so often be survivors not only of a transphobic, transmisogynist, cissexist society, but also survivors of intimate partner violence committed by those we trusted to help us exist amidst the oppression. But we are amazing for being able to do it, and we can change our communities to stop these types of violence from happening to more of us.

[1] See”Domestic Violence: A Resource for Trans People” by Barking and Dagenham

The Anti-Violence Project
www.avp.org
Manhattan, NY (212) 714-1184
24-hour Bilingual English/Spanish hotline: (212) 714-1141

Center for Anti-Violence Education
www.caeny.org
Brooklyn, NY (718) 788-1775
Self-defense classes, free for survivors and special programs for trans* youth

generationFIVE
www.generationfive.org/index.php
Oakland, CA and National
(510) 251-8552
Child sexual abuse survivor advocacy

The Network la Red
www.tnlr.org
Boston, MA
Hotline: 617-742-4911
Survivor-led advocacy group for trans inclusion in survivor programs and shelters

NYC Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-621-4673
24-hour Bilingual English/Spanish

Right Rides
www.rightrides.org
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 964-7781 and (888) 215-7233
Free rides home in service area on Friday nights from 12 AM – 3 AM

Sanctuary for Families
www.sanctuaryforfamilies.org
Manhattan, NY
(212) 349-6009
Counseling for trans women survivors, especially immigrants and victims of sex trafficking

Safe Horizon
www.safehorizon.org
Manhattan, NY
Intimate partner violence hotline: (800) 621-4673
Rape, sexual assault and incest survivor hotline: (212) 227-3000

Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program
www.mssm.edu/SAVI
Manhattan, NY
(212) 423-2140
Counseling for survivors of violence who practice the Jewish faith

Trans Pride Intiative
http://tpride.org/
Dallas, TX
214-449-1439
Advocates for making shelters more inclusive of trans women


About the author: Emma Caterine recently left Virginia to move to her dream city of Brooklyn, New York. She completed a B.A. in English and a B.A. in African-American Cultural Studies from the College of William & Mary. She has done work in the past with labor organizing, archival science, LGBTQI activism, radio and venue management and volunteer coordination. Emma brings her diverse set of experiences to Red Umbrella Project, a sex worker advocacy group, as a Program Officer and will be helping to coordinate RedUP’s advocacy for the “no condoms as evidence” bill S1379/A2736 as well as other legislation and policies which impact sex workers in New York. For more info on NCAE you can reach her at emma [at] redumbrellaproject [dot] org or for other questions, comments, or concerns at emmacaterine [at] gmail [dot] com.

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24 Comments

  1. Thumb up 11

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    Thank you so much for writing this, and for sharing your experience—it takes guts to be vulnerable and to talk about things no one really likes talking about. The queer community and the DV movement really, really need to step up when it comes to supporting trans folks, especially trans women.

    One of the biggest, best things we can do as a community is to actually ask our friends about their relationships, to listen non-judgmentally, and to offer our support when asked for it.

    I also want to add the NW Network (http://www.nwnetwork.org/) as a resource for Pacific Northwest queer and trans folks experiencing intimate partner violence or abuse (and for friends who are concerned).

  2. Thumb up 16

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    I just want to say that I hope your courage and your words are met with love and support. I also hope that whatever support you are needing at this moment you find.

    I also wanted to say that the hurt someone you trusted has chosen to inflict on you is not karma. The fact that you weren’t able to help your friend in the past does not mean that you deserved any part fo what has been done to you. Nothing about you does. I know that you know this intellectually but just in case you need to hear it, none of this was your fault.
    Even if you were every one of the things they called you (and I don’t think you are) you still would deserve to be loved and sherised and treated with respect.

    Kia Kaha (roughly translated that means stand stron in Maori).

    you’re amazing.

  3. Thumb up 1

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    As a queer WM alum from 2010, I just wanted to send my love and support. As much as I loved my time in the burg, I still wasn’t comfortable being openly queer. I wish it could have provided a safer space for us all.

  4. Thumb up 7

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    As a domestic violence advocate, and former victim, I understand where you were, and what you felt then. I also understand looking back at it now, and thank you for putting an article out that not many campaigns are really focusing on. Abuse of any sort is not okay! Great job, and thank you once again.

  5. Thumb up 9

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    I’ve been really working on this with our new IPV Speaker’s Bureau team. We speak in classes about how all sorts of different experiences that are possible, based on the diversity of our personal experiences. Even though it’s really hard, I wanted to do it so that I could be a voice representing a queer IPV scenario. I have all sorts of layers in my story, because my girlfriend was very butch but also a lot smaller than me, and we were underage, and she used manipulation to drag other people into the scenario and all sorts of nonsense. So I got many of the comments that “typical” victims get, like, “why didn’t you leave?” But I also got comments like, “but she was a girl” and “you’re strong.” As if those fixed anything. So I have a lot of empathy to people in statistically less common (or completely ignored) populations, and I’m doing all that I can to create a new, gender inclusive survivor space, and changing the language with which my community talks about people to be inclusive on ALL levels, and dispell the “white heteronormative weak feminine” victim stereotyping that comes from the romanticization of rape culture.

    Keep spreading the word, because we can’t get anywhere if our own community doesn’t support us, or acknowledge our existence! The queer community has got to stop pretending negatives don’t exist from within, and work to help fix them instead! This is the first step. It will only make us more great.

  6. Thumb up 8

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    Brilliant, brilliant article. I would really love if Autostraddle could write more about these sorts of things. I think that the queer women’s community, being so heavily tied to feminist groups and historically lesbian separatist groups, theres this idea that women can’t do harm to eachother. That sisterhood and all that jazz means that all lesbian relationships are these soft, happy things where things are equal. Theres also this attitude that rape doesn’t happen between women because we’re working to stop the rape culture and aren’t men terrible etc etc. But that’s not the totality of real life. Rape happens because some people are monsters. They’ll still be monsters if and when we abolish the rape culture. Pretending rape culture is the only thing responsible for rape completely erases the experiences of people outside the generally accepted vision of what rape is.

    • Thumb up 13

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      I agree that these influences have negative effects on dealing with IPV, but I feel the monster label is inaccurate and misleading and thus counterproductive. My ex-partner, like many abusers, is a nice person. A person who makes an effort to help sustain her community in a number of good ways. If we keep the mindset that all abusers are monsters, we will continue to not see those who are not and the testifying of survivors will be disbelieved since “these actions are committed by monsters.” And I don’t want “justice” brought down upon my abuser. Although my primal urges compel me to support any harm that comes to her, I know that nothing good will come of that. She’ll either leave to another place where she’ll be able to repeat the cycle all over again or she’ll be consumed in her own shame. The queer community, even in a place like NYC, is not large enough for such results to be sustainable especially if we make larger efforts to confront abuse in our community. There are indeed monsters and there are times when radical actions are demanded, when facilitating a person’s change becomes too great a risk for the community. I believe everyone is also entitled to self-defense. But it is like when someone told me they were going to stop being my ex-partner’s friend because of what happened and they were shocked when I said, “Please don’t. Please don’t let her only be surrounded by people who will justify her actions. Being a good friend is more than just sticking with someone when they are someone you like: it is being able to tell them when they have done wrong and to help them change their ways.”

  7. Thumb up 13

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    Thank you for sharing your story – it was powerfully and beautifully expressed. I’m so sorry you had to go through that experience, and even sorrier that the queer community wasn’t more supportive. I worked in the NYC family court for awhile and after observing and reading case after case, it became very clear that abusers come in all shapes, sizes, and genders – every type of individual, including grandmothers (I saw an example of this) can be abusive, and everyone is a potential victim.

    I disagree with those who say that it isn’t important to talk about IPV committed by women because most of it committed by men. That doesn’t logically follow – most people are straight and cis, but that doesn’t mean LGBTQ issues are not important. Interestingly, the statistics I’ve seen show that men and women in same-sex relationships report similar levels of IPV, which suggests that men are most often the primary aggressors in heterosexual relationships because they are (often) more physically powerful, not because women are just somehow better people. Part of being a true feminist is recognizing that women, men, and gender-queer/non-binary people, are not only equally valuable, capable, and intelligent, but also equally capable of violence. There is darkness as well as beauty inherent in human nature, and everyone is capable of evil. It would be much better for all of us to recognize that and do everything we can to support survivors, instead of questioning them because their stories don’t fall into the typical narrative.

  8. Thumb up 3

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    And makes the concept that “womyn born womyn” spaces are therefore, safe spaces all the more absurd. Thanks for writing this, there isn’t nearly enough discussion about partner abuse within the LGBTQ community.

  9. Thumb up 0

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    could be triggering to abuse survivors, maybe?
    I appreciate this article and will likely come back to it later. I’m not a survivor of IPV, fortunately, but I sometimes worry that I will be. I got lucky that the red flags/reasons its probably advisable to run from at the beginning of my relationship have been resolved and is both healthy and supportive now (but please don’t take from this that it’s a good idea to stick around if you find yourself in a similar situation).

    If the relationship I’m in was to end, then I’m not sure I wouldn’t find myself in bad relationship next time. I have an unfortunate habit attracting predators.

    When I first went to the police about some of it, I was convinced they’d call me a liar on basis of the number of people I could make cases against. They were actually very nice about it and when I closed and later reopen the case they mentioned that I also had the option to report those other people. Now I just need to get my stuff out their house, without them becoming suspicious, over the next week…

    Off topic, but just in case anyone else was worried about that.

  10. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you for writing this. I feel alienated by a lot of anti-sexual violence and abuse discourses / activism that centres on “finding justice” or singling out “monsters” who commit abuse. Victimisation is such an unclear, immeasurable experience? It’s not just one person committing violence against you – it’s different kinds of violence being committed against you by a lot of different persons and it’s hard to separate the pain and distress of being physical hurt from the pain and distress of not being believed by your community. I dunno, I’m frustrated by attempts to pass moral judgement on abuse or sexual violence – the way we feel about the badness of abuse / sexual violence is filtered through centuries and centuries of racism and, to a lesser extent, homophobia because accusations of committing or being prone to committing abuse / sexual violence have been used for centuries to legitimate hate crimes. I just feel like it’s pointless to say abuse or sexual violence is “bad” or “monstrous”? The most powerful thing we can say about abuse and sexual violence is not that they’re bad, but that they happen, that they exist, that survivors are all around us and that we should look carefully at how our behaviour enables their victimisation.

    I’m also frustrated by how whenever I say anything about abuse / sexual violence happening in queer communities, people will instantly use what I say to “prove” that anyone is just as likely to commit abuse and everything feminism tells us about rape culture is a lie. I don’t think we can deny there’s this huge system of oppression that allows, even encourages men to abuse their female partners through, for example, laws which make marital rape impossible to prosecute or by making women financially dependent on their male partners. I also feel like cis / straight people are often more likely to believe a queer woman is violent / abusive towards her partners than that a “nice” straight man is violent / abusive towards his because cis / straight people want to believe queer women are violent, “perverted”, evil etc. As I was saying, everything we think about abuse and sexual violence is full of racism and homophobia and I think we can, and need to have conversations on abuse and sexual violence which instead of simply saying, abuse / sexual violence are bad, show how complicated and conflicting these issues are.

  11. Thumb up 2

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    There’s several things about about that keep me up at night. I was in a wildly abusive relationship during my first year of college, and I developed PSTD and an anxiety disorder. I dated someone new, and was horrified when I started reflecting certain aspects of my abuser within my new relationship. She terrified me, I couldn’t trust her, and I would shut down during arguments and stop responding. When we broke up, I exploded in about fifty different ways, not being able to understand what I needed- which was to heal myself. Three years after I broke up with my abuser and took legal action, I received a call from her and she apologized. We talked a little about being who hurt us, I forgave her, and I haven’t heard from her since. Abusers aren’t monsters- they’re pretty messed up people who need help, too. That doesn’t mean you can love them into being who you want them to be, that’s a choice they have to make themselves- you can’t do it for them. All you can do is walk away, protect yourself, and pray for them. Few abusers seek help, but even the most monstrous person can change. I’ve seen many different people do it. The thing that keeps me up at night is how easy it is to peg people into one thing- and honestly, victims of abusive relationships have a long, confusing, road ahead. None of us deserve what happened, absolutely, however that doesn’t mean we have permission to be manipulative, codependent (and people who are codependent can be victimized, but they are not always victims), or to take our hurt out on others. As much as it’s the abuser’s responsibility to heal themselves, it’s ours to heal too. My mistake was denying therapy, treatment for my PSTD, and dating way before I was ready to.

  12. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you for this. My experience was not with a woman, but with a guy in the LGBTQI community (who also supposedly really into political stuff) who constantly treated me like crap. It was much harder for me to think of it in those terms or to be on my guard, because it’s not at all the context I would have expected when I was young and innocent.

    So, really, thank you.

  13. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you so much for this article. I am a survivor of intimate partner abuse (including sexual, physical, and verbal/emotional assaults). Because I had never heard about this type of abuse, I denied for a long time that’s what it was. It didn’t help when I’d finally had enough and went to the police–only to be laughed at because she is shorter than I. It didn’t matter that she was shorter when she knocked me down and held a knife to my throat, saying she would kill me if I ever left her. But they still thought it was amusing.
    I think our culture needs to be educated that women are fully capable of violence, and that it’s not funny when one woman is abusing another.
    Thank you again for a very eloquent article. I’m so sorry for what’s happened to you.

  14. Thumb up 1

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    thank you for sharing this. as someone who has also come out of an intense and terrifying abusive relationship, i appreciate your openness and willingness to write about it. for me, it’s been over a year, but the flashbacks still flash and the triggers still trigger. our stories are important, and i hope that yours and all the others that have been shared here and elsewhere help others to recognize what is happening to them and feel the support that they need to get out.

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    Found this on facebook and thought I’d share for anyone who’s in the area and interested:

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B5_b-_A72EjWMWRSakdsdlFlNEk/edit

    ASSERT is a 10 week support group for survivors and victims of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) will be starting at the Brooklyn Family Justice Center on June 18th. ASSERT is an acronym for A Safe Space to Explore Relationships Together.

    The objective of ASSERT is to respond to and prevent violence within the LGBTQ and HIV-affected (LGBTQH) communities by educating, empowering and supporting community members to explore their experiences of IPV in a safe and supportive environment.

    Dates: June 18th – August 20th
    Time: 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm
    Location: Brooklyn Family Justice Center

    To refer potential group members for intake or for more information: Please see the attached flyer, and call or email Ursula Campos-Gatjens (212)714-1184 ext. 44 [email protected]. You are also welcome to call our 24/7 hotline or refer your clients to our hotline (212)714-1141.

  16. Thumb up 0

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    Thank you Emma for sharing with us so honestly about such an important topic. It’s something that our community as a whole needs to deal with better (and we all need to make it easier for us to talk about and to have an open conversation).

  17. Thumb up 0

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    thank you. queer relationships have every bit as much violence as straight ones and no one will be able to tell me otherwise. Tbh i’m counting on it – except with every one i as an ugly/fat/wrong ethnicity woman grow stronger and am less likely to become someone actively suffering abuse. mostly i steer clear of clear power imbalances and being in need – because if i can just slam the door and leave it makes people think twice. And it’s important to be someone strong enough to be able to initiate a breakup, otherwise it’s an endless hostage situation.

    Still all people (queer or not) respect is power. Someone holding that over you is guaranteed to eventually become abusive. At least in my experience.

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