Every time a celebrity suffers from or commits intimidate partner abuse, the media responds by writing op-eds, hosting panels of experts, and making the public aware of resources available to them. As someone who works in the field of domestic violence, I am glad these conversations take place, and I wish they would occur with more frequency. After all, the Center for Disease Control indicates that 1 of 4 women and 1 in 7 men over the age of 18 experiences severe physical violence in their lifetime. These conversations clearly need to happen.
The public, too, reads more and becomes more informed every time a celebrity tragedy takes place. What we see and hear, though, usually consists of advice to determine whether the man is abusing the woman, and once abuse is determined, conversations turn to how women can escape abusive relationships. But what happens in same-sex or LGBT relationships? In this short piece, I would like to cover how partner abuse manifests itself in the LGBT community, which experiences domestic violence at equal rates--and sometimes higher--than those of the rest of the population (25-33% of the LGBT population experiences domestic violence in its lifetime). True, any person--gay or straight--can be controlling of finances, hit another individual, or constantly make derogatory comments. However, intimate partner abuse in the LGBT population also manifests itself differently, thus presenting specific challenges our community faces when recognizing partner abuse and when trying to access services.
Here, then, are some things to consider:
The threat of outing
"If you do not do x, I will tell your [parents, friends, church, etc.] you are gay." This is very common. The threat of outing for the LGBT community can be used as a way to control another person. Someone who is closeted might not only feel afraid of stigmatization and rejection from his or her family or social group, but also face serious repercussions from experiencing a forced outing. In twenty-nine states, employers can fire someone who is gay, and in thirty-four states, an employee can be fired simply for being transgender. LGBT youth are also more likely to become homeless than their heterosexual peers. In addition, LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates than heterosexual homeless youth (62% versus 29%).
Consider the following insults:
• You are not gay enough
• You are too gay
• You say you're bisexual because you just want to sleep around
• You are too butch to be a real woman
• Real women do not wear cargo shorts
These are some insults that heterosexual victims do not, or are less likely, to experience. Putting someone down is a classic form of abuse because through insults, a person erodes someone else's self esteem. However, the type of insults abusers use can vary according to race, gender, and culture.
It is difficult for a man to use his girlfriend's driver's license or personal information to commit identity theft. However, that likelihood rises significantly in a same-sex relationship. Consider this: a gay man gets pulled over for speeding. He presents his boyfriend's driver's license and the police officer gives him a ticket. Now the wrong person has a ticket in his driving record. Now imagine the legal trouble a person faces if his identification were used at a time of an arrest for, say, drug possession.
Withholding or selling medication
Any person can withhold or sell his/her partner's medication, but in the LGBT community, this can have serious implications not just for the person's health. If a person is transitioning (male to female or vice-versa), he or she has to take a series of hormonal replacement therapies in the process. Being deprived access to those hormones not only means the person will not be able to transition, but also that he or she may face an increased probability of discrimination and harassment at work and the larger social environment.
Think of the children
A person might have raised her or his child for ten years but not be the biological parent. In many states, this parent would have no legal protections and no legal claim to the child. An abuser may threaten to take away the children. If the non-biological parent tries to escape the abusive relationship with the children, then that person can face serious criminal charges such as kidnapping. In addition, many social workers and courts remain hostile towards LGBT people. The implication?
[O]uting could place the biological parent's custody at risk, given the history of case law wherein lesbians have lost their children to dysfunctional ex-husbands who have substance abuse problems or even murder convictions, simply on the grounds that the children "should be afforded the opportunity to grow up in a non-lesbian household"
Aside from experiencing other forms of abuse, LGBT victims of domestic violence have a much more difficult time accessing services. Here are some reason:
Lack of screening
Traditionally, service providers have done little to no screening to distinguish between abuser and victim. When a woman calls a shelter or the police, it is automatically assumed the male is abusing her. However, this model fails when one deals with same-sex couples. There have been cases of same-sex domestic violence in which the couple was arrested, placed in the police car, and even locked in the same cell, only to be released the next day. In addition, when service providers do not screen, they are likely to offer services to the abuser, further alienating and stigmatizing the victim.
Lack of resources
Most domestic violence shelters are women-only shelters and operate under a heterosexual model (in support groups, for example, facilitators will talk about male privilege, what it means to be a woman in relation to me, and how to prevent future male partners from abusing them). This means that many LGBT victims of domestic violence do not seek help or shelter.
Renewal House, where I work, has provided services to transgender clients who were refused services at other shelters. Some social workers have asked transgender clients the hurtful question of, "What is between your legs?" before allowing them to access services, and many transgender survivors even report experiencing abuse in shelters. Homo-, bi-, and trans-phobia can also play a role in court proceedings. Judges can say things like:
• You boys need to just work it out.
• Why are girls always getting in these fights?
LGBT-phobia might also affect survivors' obtaining custody of their children. After hearing a divorce case between a heterosexual man and a recently out lesbian woman, a judge might feel that the child's best interest would be to grow up with the heterosexual abusive father, away from the influence of the homosexual 'lifestyle.' In addition, LGBT survivors might not feel comfortable in mainstream domestic violence support groups. Finally, while LGBT people experience domestic violence in rates equal to that of the general population, almost half of LGBT survivors cannot access shelter safety and a fourth are mistakenly arrested as the aggressor by law enforcement. Over 55 percent of LGBT survivors are denied orders of protection.
Smaller community and closeted individuals
Given the small size of LGBT communities as compared to the general population, survivors and abusers are likely to know the same people, resources, and support groups. For example, it is likely that a survivor may access a support group that does not screen for abuse only to be joined by his or her abuser a few weeks later. In addition, LGBT survivors who are closeted might not have friends, family members, faith communities, or other social circles to seek help should the person experience abuse. The degree of isolation when one is in the closer increases drastically.
Lack of awareness
"Does domestic violence really occur in the LGBT community?!" I have heard the surprise behind this question too many times for me to remember. Many people believe LGBT couples cannot experience intimate partner abuse. Why would they abuse each other if they already have to go through so much to be together? They already have to live in an oppressive system. If LGBT couples are together, it must be out of true love, and they cannot possibly abuse each other. So does the logic go. As mentioned earlier, the LGBT community experiences as much, if sometimes not more, domestic violence than the rest of the population. Unfortunately, it is the misconception that intimate partner abuse only affects (straight) women that partly accounts for a lack of resources (informational material and shelters, for example) as well as a lack of broader and more inclusive conversations about intimate partner abuse.