Confronting Coercive Control in Queer Couples

Only straight, cisgender* women are isolated, manipulated, emotionally abused, stalked, micromanaged, sexually coerced, and physically abused by their partners, right? Ah, no.
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Only straight, cisgender* women are isolated, manipulated, emotionally abused, stalked, micromanaged, sexually coerced, and physically abused by their partners, right?

Ah, no.

These tactics form a strategy that is called coercive control. It does not always include physical violence. Coercive control is more than just bossiness or having a temper; it is the systematic domination and abuse of an intimate partner. People of all genders and sexual orientations can be victims or victimizers. Because coercive control most commonly involves straight, cisgender men abusing straight, cisgender women, the coercive control that can occur in same-sex couples and in relationships involving a transgender partner(s) is often invisible or dismissed as "not really abuse."

LGBTQ people have often been discriminated against by those who should be protecting them: the police, courts, and mental health and medical professionals. This history may make them hesitate to turn to such authorities for help. In addition, many service providers do not know how to help LGBTQ victims of relationship violence, or they do not have resources to meet their needs. Some therapists, clergy, and family members will use the relationship crisis to push LGBTQ individuals to question their sexual orientation or gender identity, even though the problem is in the controlling relationship rather than their identity or orientation. Additionally, few domestic violence shelters welcome trans women or non-binary trans people. Almost no shelters are open to male victims (including trans men).

LGBTQ people who are not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity may feel that they have nowhere to turn. If they are being financially supported by their parents, for instance, they face the risk of being disowned when they disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, which could render them homeless. If they are "out," they may receive little acceptance -- or be alienated from their families -- making it difficult to turn to them for emotional support.

Within LGBTQ communities, many people assume that same-sex relationships are "naturally" more equal because they lack the male/female power dynamics of different-sex relationships. As a result, when lesbian and gay victims of coercive control reach out for help, they may discover that some of their friends would prefer to ignore or deny their reality, acting as if only heterosexual people use violence and control in relationships. Some lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals may also feel that talking about control and violence contributes to further stereotyping of the community or is "airing dirty laundry" in public. Similarly, some trans victims of coercive control, or some cisgender victims of trans partners, may fear that denouncing the abuse will reinforce the still common belief that trans people are unstable or mentally ill.

Societal prejudice and discrimination also make LGBTQ people vulnerable to particular forms of coercive control. If the controlled person has not publicly disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity, the abuser might exert control by threatening to "out" them to family members or to an employer. As a result, the controlled person's relationships, jobs, and safety are constantly at risk. In places where the non-biological same-sex partner does not have established legal rights, the abuser might threaten to deny the partner contact with children whom they have raised together. If the controlled person is trans, the abuser might threaten to fight for custody or seek to deny visitation rights, based on the person's gender identity. Moreover, in jurisdictions where property rights are not accorded fairly to LGBTQ partners, a controlling person might use economic threats to control their partner.

Trans people may face additional controlling mechanisms in an abusive relationship. If the person is transitioning, their partner might threaten to interfere with their transition process, such as by taking away their hormones, cutting off their health insurance, or abandoning them in the midst of their surgeries. The abuser might also seek to humiliate the partner by telling them that they are "not really a woman" or "not really a man." If the trans person is non-binary, the abuser might say that they are "not trans enough." The victimizer might also seek to increase their control by telling a trans partner that "no one else will ever love you" due to their gender identity. It can be difficult for a trans person to leave a controlling and abusive relationship if they think poorly of themselves and believe that they will never find anyone else or anyone better.

When subject to further marginalization because of their race, class, immigration status, a disability, or other concerns, LBGTQ victims of coercive control face additional obstacles to escaping from these dominating relationships. As two people who have been subject to coercive control in very different kinds of relationships, we know how hard it can be to break away. Although we have seen a few excellent resources available for people in LGBTQ relationships that involve violence, we know of only one book that directly discusses coercive control in LGBTQ relationships: Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. We hope to further the discussion to include all people who may be subject to coercive control relationships, whether or not physical violence is present.

* Cisgender refers to individuals who identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth. In other words, they are not transgender.

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