A Same-Sex Domestic Violence Epidemic Is Silent
Typical framing of partner abuse as a heterosexual issue—with men abusing women—does a disservice to victims in abusive homosexual relationships.
Two months into their relationship, Chris's boyfriend José pushed him to the ground in a fit of anger and ripped the clothes off his body. "We had gone out dancing, and when we got home, I was changing in front of him," said Chris, 34.
"I had on my favorite pair of underwear; it was the pair I had worn the first time we went out. He saw the underwear, and just flew into a rage, saying, 'How dare you wear those! Those are for me!'"
José threw him on the floor of their bedroom closet, and smashed the only light bulb in the room, leaving them in darkness. He loomed above Chris on the floor as he tore the underwear away. That was the first time things had ever turned violent between the two.
"I was in such a state of shock," Chris recounted seven years later, his fingers tapping at a wine glass stem and his brown eyes drifting. "I thought, 'Oh, he's just jealous; it's the drinking,' and I let it go. There was a lot of drinking in this relationship. No drugs, but lots of drinking."
The second time was worse. "He was angry at something—I can't remember what—and I was laughing," said Chris. José again became incensed, strode into the kitchen and grabbed a butcher knife. "He pulled me by my hair, had me on my knees and had the butcher knife at my neck."
Chris says he didn't react. At the time, his sister was pregnant, and he wanted to live to see his niece. "I talked him down, told him to give me the knife. I put my hand on his, and we put the knife back in place together," said Chris, demonstrating by holding his two hands together.
That night, José locked their bedroom door for fear that Chris would escape and tell someone. The next morning, he told Chris, "You know I didn't mean it, right?"
"That was his way of apologizing to me," Chris scoffed. The relationship lasted nine months, but continued to affect Chris for years after it ended.
Sam, 25, describes himself as having been "naive and impressionable," during the time he was dating David. "He's not a stupid person," Sam told me over Skype. "He never hit me or threw things directly at me, but he would frighten me enough to make me back down."
According to Sam, David became increasingly controlling after they moved in together, three or four months into their relationship. At that point, because of the apartment lease, he said, "it was too late to just up and go."
One of David's main methods of control was evoking pity and threatening to harm himself.
"He would get very sad and upset which, in hindsight, was a plea for compassion," Sam said, "As time went on, he became controlling through jealousy. Any attention that I didn't give to him—whether I gave it to friends, family, or other guys, even just other gay men who were my friends—he would get very upset if I hung out with them too much."
David eventually forced Sam to open a joint bank account so that Sam couldn't "stockpile" any funds and move out. He increasingly tried to cut off Sam’s contacts with friends and family.
After two and a half years, Sam managed to end the relationship after David admitted he had returned to using cocaine.
LaTesha, 18, is a consummate Queens girl. Tough and stoic behind her soft voice and hooded sweatshirt, she is about to graduate from high school and wants to study criminal justice in college. She has already been beaten up by a girlfriend. "It only happened when we got into an argument," she said, her brown eyes getting serious. "If she felt like she was being disrespected, she would swing at me."
"We always argued," she continued. "But you know how a couple can argue and then just be back to normal? We would argue, be back to normal. When we argued again, she would bring up the last argument. And it would just build up.” There was always something to argue about and usually, LaTesha said, it was girls.
"She was so insecure," LaTesha recalled. "If I'd be hanging out with one of my friends who was a girl, she'd see me and say 'What's this? You cheating on me?' And I always told her, 'You need to stop.' And then we would get into it. It was a pattern. We would break up for one week, get back together another. We must have broken up about 20 times."
The final break-up happened when Monique landed several punches on LaTesha in front of the staff of Safe Space, an LGBT community center in Jamaica, Queens.
Chris, Sam, and LaTesha are smart people with educations, plans, and busy social lives. They all identify as homosexual, and they all have had experiences with physically or psychologically abusive partners who left them financially, mentally, or emotionally damaged. Domestic violence—or as it's often referred to today, intimate partner violence—is usually discussed in the context of heterosexual relationships. But partner violence is also an issue in the LGBTQ community, a fact that has only come to light in recent years.
Tre'Andre Valentine, the Community Programs Coordinator at The Network/La Red, a Boston-based domestic violence support group specifically for LGBTQ people, says that because domestic violence is still thought of as a heterosexual problem, there can be major hurdles when trying to find funding and conduct research, as well as when providing services to people who don't fit in the stereotype of a domestic violence survivor. "The idea that a woman can be the one who's abusive throws a wrench in the traditional view," Valentine said. "The idea that only men can be batterers makes it a lot harder for men to get access to shelter."
Yejin Lee, an associate at the Anti-Violence Program in New York City, said that the assumption of heterosexuality has been a huge stumbling block for gays and lesbians seeking refuge from an abuser. "One problem is the way domestic violence has been framed for the past 30 years," she said. Since the entire movement against domestic abuse started as a battered women's movement, Lee said, we are ingrained to think that victims are all are married, straight women.
As a mental health counselor with the Violence Recovery Program in Boston, Jessica Newman says that because the default assumption is that people are straight, there can be an attitude within shelters that a gay person somehow “deserved” the violence. "Same-sex relationships are often demonized or marginalized," she said, "So some people's attitudes are 'it serves you right.'"
But Newman, Lee, and Valentine all added that there are also internal factors that keep a cover of darkness over the issue of domestic violence in the gay community.
"There can be a fear of making the community look bad," said Newman. "Some people might have a real and legitimate fear of being looked down on, or not finding services through the police, judicial system, or a shelter. People don't want that negative image of the community out there."
Valentine added, "There's the idea that we'll be airing dirty laundry. It sort of discredits the community to say that abuse is happening, after all the work we've been doing [to enter mainstream society]. There's the feeling that we don't want to attach something additionally bad to us, so it's not talked about."
Sitting in a small restaurant near Madison Square Garden, Chris mulled over his past. "I know gay couples in the Bronx who beat the shit out of each other," he said. "The weird thing is, it's like fighting with your brother. You're going at each other, and you're not taking it seriously, and you don't think of it as a problem, it's just the fabric of your relationship. But you don't realize it's a piece of fabric you can cut out."
Raised in a conservative, military family, with a history of sexual abuse running on both sides, Chris said he always felt like the odd one out growing up. "I was raised to tolerate what was dished out," he remembered. "It was just dysfunctional. I grew up with a closeted uncle who died of AIDS and a mother who hit my father, who would then turn around and hit us."
Chris moved from Chicago to New York when he was 21 so that he could live life as an out gay man, he said. "I had a full time job, full time benefits, and my own apartment," he said. "That didn't last."
Chris met José at a lounge in Washington Heights in late September 2004, and for him, it was love at first sight. "I saw his eyes, the way he dressed," he said. "He made me feel secure. He was a husky guy. My ideal: a masculine Latino."
A honeymoon period ensued and within three months the two were living together. Chris said he doted on José, alienating friends and family in the process. But the honeymoon period ended soon after José moved in. He started taking over everything in Chris's life. "It started with verbal abuse," Chris said. "Little things: put downs about the apartment, about me, and then it turned into everything. He wasn't happy with anything."
"I grew up self-conscious. I was made to feel inferior at school and at home," Chris continued. "And I just lost all the self-esteem that I had found when I came here and came out. I'm smart! I graduated from college, I've won awards. And he just made me feel like so much less than I was. [But] the less happy he was, the more I would try to fix things."
Chris sensed José wasn't happy, but it never occurred to him that the relationship had turned bad, or would soon turn physically violent.
"I didn't tell anybody [about the violence in the relationship],” Chris said. “I didn't want to! They're just going to tell you what you don't want to hear."
The summer after José moved in, after those first incidents of violence, Chris was mugged on the street outside their apartment. The thief punched him in the nose, but when Chris went to run after him, José grabbed his arm and stopped him.
"He wouldn't let me call the cops," recalled Chris. "José didn't have legal papers to be in the U.S. and he was scared of what might happen."
Furious, traumatized, and gushing blood, Chris turned around and backhanded José on the street. The two stood looking at each other. Chris remembers this as the moment when the relationship truly began to go downhill.
"I didn't think about leaving until that moment," he said. "It got to the point where I was crying in public. I was crying at work. I couldn't speak my feelings."
The very last time José turned violent was close to the end of their relationship. "He was always on the phone a lot," Chris said. "So one time I reached for his phone to go through it and see who he was talking to, and he just grabbed my wrist and twisted."
By this point, Chris remembers, José was out all the time and coming home late, or not coming home at all. In August of 2005, Chris kept a promise to himself. "I told him, 'I can't count on these fingers how many times you've lied,'" Chris said, spreading all ten fingers out on the table in front of him. "And I promised myself once I couldn't count your lies on these fingers, it would be over.'"
That night, Chris went out without José. "I told myself if I could kiss someone else, then I didn't really love him. Well, I kissed someone else, and I went home and told him to move out."
Data on the rates of same-sex partner abuse have only become available in recent years. Even today, many of the statistics and materials on domestic violence put out by organizations like the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Justice still focus exclusively on heterosexual relationships, and specifically heterosexual women. While the CDC does provide some resources on its website for the LGBT population, the vast majority of the information is targeted at women. Materials provided by the CDC for violence prevention and survivor empowerment prominently feature women in their statistics and photographs.
In 2013, the CDC released the results of a 2010 study on victimization by sexual orientation, and admitted that “little is known about the national prevalence of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking among lesbian, gay, and bisexual women and men in the United States.” The report found that bisexual women had an overwhelming prevalence of violent partners in their lives: 75 percent had been with a violent partner, as opposed to 46 percent of lesbian women and 43 percent of straight women. For bisexual men, that number was 47 percent. For gay men, it was 40 percent, and 21 percent for straight men.
The most recent statistics available on same-sex intimate partner violence from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which focuses on LGBT relationships, reported 21 incidents of intimate partner homicides in the LGBT community, the highest ever. Nearly half of them were gay men and, for the second year in a row, the majority of survivors were people of color—62 percent.
In 2012, NCAVP programs around the country received 2,679 reports of intimate partner violence, a decrease of around 32 percent from 2011. However the report noted that many of the NCAVP’s member organizations were operating at decreased capacity due to limiting the number of cases they were able to take. The report said that excluding data from organizations, there was actually a 29 percent increase in reports of violence from 2011 to 2012.
"Statistics are very controversial," wrote Curt Rogers, executive director of the Gay Men's Domestic Violence Program, in an email. "And it's possible that men are underreported. The bottom line for me [is that] it happens to men, period, so we should be inclusive in our approach and not marginalize the male victim population."
Valentine, from The Network/La Red, said that in his experience, the rates of violence in the LGBTQ community seem comparable to those in the straight community. "The rate of domestic violence that has been documented is one in four women, and it's pretty much the same for LGBTQ folks," he said.
"Reporting can be really difficult, and historically we [LGBTQ people] have not had a very good relationship with police and law enforcement, so folks may not be reporting it."
In any case, he continued, the police might not believe the victims when they call, the attitude often being, "You're both men, work it out between yourselves," or, "Women aren't violent; they don't hit each other."
Indeed, according to the NCAVP report, only 16.5 percent of survivors reported interacting with the police, but in one-third of those cases, the survivor was arrested instead of the abuser. A mere 3.7 percent of survivors reported seeking access to shelters.
"We need to change the way we look at domestic violence," Rogers said. "I don't see it in any way as a gender issue. I see it as a power and a control issue."
Sam met his first and, so far, only boyfriend, David, outside of a club one night while he was in his second year of college. "The first thing I remember thinking when I saw him was 'Oh God, never,'" he said, laughing. "As in, I would never date somebody like that. He was very assertive; almost a purposely bitchy persona, which is not uncommon in the club scene."
But date they did. After a bit of flirting back and forth on Facebook, within three or four months, as Sam remembers it, they were living together.
"In hindsight," said Sam, "I sort of already knew things were off, which really should have been my chance to get away. But it wasn't until we moved in when I started to realize that amount of control that was going on."
David soon became aware that Sam was unhappy and, according to Sam, he increasingly tried to force a façade of a stable life and healthy relationship on him.
"He went from using emotions to manipulate me, to smashing things, to threatening to commit suicide, to threatening to harm our cat, to threatening to ruin me in various ways—socially, academically, that kind of thing. About a year in, I tried twice to get out of it. He would say 'Okay, that's fine,' and then he would smash up the apartment. He would smash mirrors or push the Christmas tree over or threaten to kill himself. That's usually when the threats became the worst, when he was trying to control me into staying," Sam said, recounting once incident when he tried to break up with David, and David smashed an entire rack of drying dishes, saying, 'Well I guess we don't need any couples dishes anymore.'"
Sam insisted that David was delusional and trying to cling to the idea of a stable, normal life with Sam. David, as it turns out, did not have a stable background. He came from a troubled family: His mother was alcoholic, and his parents, while loving, were dysfunctional and destructive. In addition, David told Sam that an older boy had molested him when he was 12 or 13. He developed a cocaine habit that, he told Sam when they met, he had kicked.
Both men eventually grew depressed, and Sam felt increasingly frightened and isolated by David's behavior—not to mention embarrassed that the neighbors could always hear when David flew off the handle. He had only one friend he felt he could turn to, who of course pleaded with Sam to break things off.
During this time, David began slipping back into cocaine use, and Sam buried himself in his studies. Focusing on earning an honors degree, he said, helped get him through.
"Often he would try to 'guilt trip' me about the time I spent doing school," Sam recalled. "But I was able to hang on to that as sort of a hope and a goal."
In December 2010, David forced Sam into an engagement. "I was so afraid of what he was capable of," Sam recalled. "It was less problematic to keep this up than to break it up." Then, in mid-August 2011, David came forward and admitted he had started using cocaine again.
"I was in the shower," said Sam. "And he came in the washroom and said, 'I have something to tell you. I've been doing cocaine again. A lot of it, and spending a good chunk of our money on it.' We'd been really struggling money-wise, like, probably below poverty line at some points."
Sam got out of the shower and went out, and David began making calls to friends and family, admitting his problem, telling them that he'd been lying to them and taking money from them.
"Years ago, he had had one slip up," Sam said. "And I said, 'Okay, I get it, you're a recovering addict. But you do it again, you slip up again, and it's over.' And that's the card I pulled. I'd been looking for a way out for two years."
The psychology of domestic abuse, both those who perpetrate it and those who survive it, has been studied for years. Multiple factors have been shown to contribute, including childhood abuse, mental illness, cultural norms, stress, and unbalanced power dynamics in the relationship.
Brian Norton has been a therapist in New York for 12 years, specializing in "challenges related to gay men (homophobia, coming out, etc.)" and couples therapy. He said that often a controlling or abusive personality forms in childhood.
"We all recreate the same dynamics over and over again. Ninety-nine if not 100 percent of the time, victims have had previous abusive relationships."
Abusive relationships are, of course, emotionally draining for the victim. "It's disorienting," Norton said. "One minute they're telling you they love you, and being strong, and loving and positive; then they're cheating on you, or not respecting you, and not paying attention to what you need."
Benjamin Seaman, also a New York-based therapist who has been practicing since 2001, specializes in polyamorous relationships and has also seen the "full spectrum" of gay couples. In Seaman's philosophy, violence and abuse are "usually the tools of someone who feels powerless." Seaman agreed that bad relationships fuel other bad relationships and that sometimes the lingering stress of abusive childhood incidents leads to an ongoing shame in adulthood. This can further contribute to stress in a gay relationship, said Seaman, when one or both of the people are "self-loathing" gays.
Norton gave the example of one couple currently in his care. "One person in the couple doesn't have his life together, and his partner does. He feels intimidated and threatened by the success and stability of the partner. So he became abusive."
LaTesha, the high-school student from Queens, admits that when she was in first grade, she used to "do things that we weren't supposed to do" with a next door neighbor's daughter. The first person she came out to was her best friend when she was 15. Her mother found out by reading her diary. "She was just like, 'You love girls now? Not in my house!' and she started bashing me. And so I told her I would never tell her anything ever again."
LaTesha was 16 when she met Monique, who was 18, in school. The two started dating, and soon after, started fighting. "This scar, on my neck? Her," she said softly, massaging the thin line with her fingers. "That's from her nails."
LaTesha insists the two didn't physically fight often in their 19 months together. "I'm not the type to do that," she said. "If I love somebody, I will never put my hands on them. I just figured that she got mad, and she swung. That’s what happens when people get mad—I didn't see it as she was beating me. I didn't see it as that. But then I had to realize that's not always the answer for when we get into altercations.”
Others noticed. "People would come to me and ask what happened, 'cause I would usually have scratches or a little bruise on my face. I'd tell them I got into it with her and they'd say, 'I don't' understand why you're putting yourself through this.' I'd be like, 'Well, I love her, and I'm going to accept her for who she is.'"
Monique began trying to manipulate LaTesha, telling her who she could and couldn't hang out with. She bought LaTesha a cell phone and then took it back when she thought LaTesha was texting other girls. When they fought, Monique would hurl insults at LaTesha, saying, "I hope you die of AIDS," and calling her a slut. After the last time the two broke up, LaTesha said, "She just wouldn't let it go. She tried to get back with me. I was still in love with her [Monique], but I didn't want to be with her anymore."
At the time, LaTesha had started dating another girl. Monique didn't like this, tracked the pair down at Safe Space, and came in swinging at the new girlfriend. A final confrontation occurred in front of staff, counselors, and peers at Safe Space. LaTesha had begun volunteering as a peer educator there after she and Monique broke up for the last time. "I could have gotten banned from Safe Space," LaTesha said of the fight.
"We weren't even together, and she was, quote-unquote, in love with me. I was just like, 'No. You're not going to hit her. You got a problem, it's between me and you.' And she swung at me. She got in my face and said, 'What are you gonna do?' And she hit me, and then she did it again."
The Safe Space staff managed to separate the two, and LaTesha remained a peer counselor with the group.
Lesbian women can have a very hard time finding shelter. And sometimes, an abuser will call a shelter claiming to be a victim. "What may happen," said Valentine at Network/La Red, "is that both a survivor and an abuser can access services, so it might not be the safest harbor for a lesbian survivor."
Newman at the Violence Recovery Program said that proper screening techniques can help enhance shelters' safety. "We screen both parties," she said. "And we won't work with batterers. We'll refer them to a batterer's intervention program. But I've definitely seen it. People will see themselves as victims when they're not."
It's tough enough to get into a domestic violence shelter if you're straight, no matter your gender. Kristen Clonan is a spokesperson for Safe Horizon, which claims to be New York City's largest provider of domestic violence residence with nine shelters and around 725 beds throughout the city. Clonan said that in 2011, nearly 2,500 women, children, and men sought out shelter at Safe Horizon, and Safe Horizon's three hotlines field 163,000 calls annually.
That's a lot of demand for 725 beds. And shelters that cater to LGBT people are even more perilously few and far between. Cassildra Aguilera, the LGBTQ program coordinator for Safe Space, said there is one shelter in New York City that identifies as LGBTQ-specific, with 200 beds. Of the mainstream shelters, only 12 are LGBTQ friendly, and all are based in Manhattan. According to Network/La Red in Boston, only two of the 30 domestic violence shelters in Massachusetts are specifically geared toward LGBTQ people: Network/La Red, and the Gay Men's Domestic Violence Program. Of mainstream programs, only eight accept LGBT people. Many shelters, even if they say they're LGBT-friendly, reportedly fail when it comes to providing for LGBT safety needs.
Valentine of The Network/La Red said there's a lot of homophobia in shelters among shelter residents. "The staff might have a non-discrimination policy, but it's not enforced, and that definitely affects a lot of survivors."
Transgender people have an especially hard time, according to Newman. They might not find a shelter, because often neither men's nor women's shelters take transgendered people. If they find a place in a homeless shelter, they might be housed with the men, which could be dangerous, or with women, which can agitate shelter residents. Curious people may ask intrusive questions, or they might not be seen as "real" women or "real" men, which, Newman said, is tremendously demeaning.
A month after breaking up with José, Chris tried to commit suicide. He failed, and shortly after began a course of therapy that, he says, helped him come to terms not only with this damaging relationship, but also with his tumultuous family life. After a rough few years during which he suffered from depression and severely decreased libido, he has just begun to make his way into the dating scene again. He has a steady job working in children’s after-school education.
Sam graduated from college and has begun a master’s degree program. He and his friends work to actively ignore and cut David out of their lives, despite David's repeated attempts to be in touch and get back together. And Sam says he has begun to date again, as his mental health has slowly improved with the help of his psychiatrist and his counselor.
Soon after the last violent encounter with Monique, LaTesha met the girlfriend she is currently seeing and says that she has definitely learned from her experience with Monique.
"The girlfriend I have now, she's so much different than before. You know, if we argue, we just won't talk to each other. If we play-fight, and we know it's about to get serious, we'll stop."
LaTesha is still a volunteer peer educator with Safe Space. Every week, she works to educate the Queens community about the LGBT population and spread the message of safe sex and healthy relationships.
In May 2013, President Obama re-authorized the Violence Against Women Act. While the law still focuses on women in heterosexual relationships, it has a new section that includes coverage of same-sex partners—a big sign that attitudes are changing. Rogers and Newman both agree that circumstances are improving for gays seeking shelter and help.
"Twenty years ago there was nothing," Rogers said. "Now there are significantly more resources and a much higher likelihood of a positive response from mainstream providers and first responders."
As individuals and society come to recognize same-sex partner violence as an existing problem, there is hope.