It oftentimes is misunderstood by the outside world, and almost never talked about by those experiencing it, but domestic violence in same-sex relationships continues to have a crippling affect on the GLBT community.
Like a large rainbow elephant in the room, domestic violence in same-sex couples is either largely ignored within the GLBT community—pressured as it is to present a flawless image of itself and the relationships within—or mishandled by outside domestic violence services, many of which still are plagued by heterosexism and homophobia.
Because of these problems, same-sex domestic violence victims often are left to struggle alone in a world that doesn’t seem to have the tools or motivation to help them. This massive, widespread invisibility also leads to widely perpetuated myths about same-sex domestic violence.
Myth No. 1: Same-sex relationships are immune from domestic violence. It only happens to straight women.
Gender does not make one prone to abuse or be abused. Domestic violence, and violence in general, are about power, so men and women are both capable of being abused and of abusing others.
Estimates put the occurrence of domestic violence in same-sex relationships at about 25 to 33 percent, which is roughly the same as in heterosexual relationships. Statistics vary, however, because, similar to sexual assaults, domestic violence is an underreported crime, and may be even more so within same-sex relationships, as additional factors such as fear of outing and isolation come into play.
Myth No. 2: Domestic violence in same-sex relationships isn’t as severe as it is in heterosexual relationships, because the abuse is occurring between two equals.
Coleen Schmitt, Manager of Day One Services, a Cornerstone program that links domestic violence shelters statewide, says, “The common myth is that it’s really not as serious, because it’s just two guys fighting, or women just getting in a spat, but, in fact, it is as equally serious.”
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), a collection of programs that fight for GLBT victims of violence, and AARDVARC (An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection), point out that power differences can happen between any two people, regardless of their gender.
According to AARDVARC.org, “Size, weight, ‘masculinity,’ ‘femininity,’ or any other physical attribute or role is not a good indicator of whether a person will be a victim or a batterer. A batterer does not need to be 6’1,” and built like a rugby player, to use a weapon against you, to smash your compact discs, to cut up your clothing, or tell everyone at work that you really are ‘queer.’”
Myth No. 3: It’s easier for GLBT people in an abusive relationship to leave their partner.
Not only is this inaccurate, but also victims of same-sex domestic violence may find it even harder to leave their abusive partner, as a lack of appropriate resources and a potential lack of support from family may leave the victim feeling vulnerable and isolated.
Schmitt notes, “I think there are some common threats, like economic abuse or using children in the relationship, but there are added threats to out someone to their family or at work, or flipping it around, and saying, ‘I’m the one being abused.’ So, there are additional layers as well.”
If the victim is not out, and fears further repercussions from having to come out or being outed, he or she often may choose not to confide in a domestic violence service, or choose to lie about a partner’s gender, a further blow to the person’s emotional well-being.
The victim also may choose to live with the abuse, because he or she feels pressure from the GLBT community to be perfect, and doesn’t want to add to the myth that same-sex relationships are unhealthy or dysfunctional. As a result, even gay or lesbian friends of the victim may be reluctant or unprepared to help for the very same pressure reasons.
Myth No. 4: Same-sex domestic violence is a form of sadomasochism, not “real” violence.
Not only does this portray GLBT people in a stereotypically sexual manner, but also it doesn’t do justice to the actual abuse happening. While sadomasochism can occur between two consenting adults, domestic violence takes place without mutual consent, trust, or pleasure.
Myth No. 5: Same-sex domestic violence victims are helpless when it comes to resources and legal options.
While some domestic violence services lack sufficient training to help victims of same-sex domestic violence, reliable services do exist.
Schmitt points out that while many shelters and safe homes serve only female victims (lesbians and heterosexual women alike), other programs, such as Cornerstone, serve male victims, too.
As Schmitt’s explains, “When we talk about domestic violence in any community setting, whether it’s public awareness or so forth, we have to be inclusive in our language, and talk about same-sex domestic violence. I think it is important for any community to know that there are resources out there to help. Again, a lot of times, I think it is very hidden in the community, and not talked about as much, so we have to get the word out that there really are resources out there.”
Even so, Schmitt admits that same-sex domestic violence victims may feel like they have to take a leap of faith when first seeking help.
Schmitt observes, “I think there is more education that’s been out there, and there may be less fear of different service providers, but there are always those myths, and the abusive person may be saying things like, ‘You’re not going to be believed.’ Or the other fear—and it does happen—that a program may be serving one of the partners in the relationship, and the other one knows this, and calls and says, ‘No, it’s really me that’s being abused,’ and flipping that around.”
As with many issues affecting the GLBT community, laws vary from state to state regarding same-sex relationships, and the same is true for laws regarding same-sex domestic violence. Some states specifically allow same-sex domestic violence victims to request and receive a domestic violence protection order; some states specifically forbid it; and other states use gender-neutral language. The ambiguity of this latter case typically leaves public officials involved in domestic violence cases, such as law enforcement officials and judges, in the dark.
According to <AARDVARK.org>, “Some police officers still fail to determine the nature of the relationship between same-sex parties to an assault, and, therefore, don’t even consider applying abuse-prevention laws. Others remain hostile or unwilling to recognize the rights of GLBT people. One may also still encounter court personnel or judges who are uncomfortable, unhelpful, or unfair in their treatment of same-sex cases.”
Schmitt remarks, “Because domestic violence is about power and control, what feeds into that is your homophobia, and all your other ‘isms’ feed into that as well. So, it’s like a bigger picture of our society. We don’t want to look at GLBT relationships in the first place, and even less so to deal with domestic violence.”
While domestic violence often looks the same regardless of the type of relationship, internal and external factors may influence a same-sex relationship differently. In addition, an abuser in a same-sex relationship may use different control factors to keep a partner in the relationship, including:
• Playing on a partner’s fears that no one will help him or her, because the person is a member of the GLBT community.
• Telling a partner he or she isn’t “really” gay, lesbian, or bisexual, in an attempt to diminish self-confidence, and isolate the person from the GLBT community.
• Manipulating friends and family, further isolating a partner from potential sources of support.
• Defining the abuse as a regular, normal part of sexual activity, or convincing a partner the abuse is the abuser’s way of expressing masculinity.
If you’re being abused, help is available. Here are things to know:
• Understand that the abuse is not your fault.
• Tell someone you know will take you seriously.
• Organize necessities you will need upon leaving, such as a safe place to stay.
• Realize that domestic violence cycles often are repeated, and the abuser is unlikely to stop.
• Find professional help from those who understand the dynamics of same-sex relationships.
• Local resources include Minnesota’s Day One Services Crisis Hotline, which can be reached toll-free for information and referrals at 1-866-223-1111.