June 2, 2013
This article originally appeared on PositiveLite.com, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.
Read Part Two of this piece, in which Dave R. provides an overview of partner abuse in LGBT communities.
That over one-third of LGBT people have been subjected to violence from an intimate partner is evidence of the brutality we can inflict upon one another, even those whom we claim to love.
-- David Phillips
The quote above from David Phillips, was a comment on an earlier post of mine. At the time I thought, "Damn, he's right. I should have mentioned that side of it in the article." Then a couple of days later it hit me that by saying that, he had inadvertently reopened a chapter of my life that I'd more or less successfully filed away. It shocked me that I hadn't thought about it for years and that other events had overtaken it on my list of life changing moments. It's one of the last remaining taboos, along with men being abused by their wives. If you are a man you just don't readily admit that you were in an abusive relationship ... with another man and yet if the statistics are true and one in three LGBT people are being abused by their partners, shouldn't we be talking about it? After all, we lay our sex lives bare and confess all about our relationships with HIV and yet revealing a past full of same-sex abuse somehow makes us losers, weaklings and unable to hold our heads up in society.
An abiding memory I have is one which still gives me chills and one which David Phillips reawakened. The pub would be its usual boisterous self on a Friday night. It was loud, full of smoke and both working and unemployed men from a tough industrial town in the North East of England. It was a straight bar and my partner's brothers would be there, full of fighting talk and Newcastle Brown Ale (a lethal combination). I was sat on the edge of the group playing five-card stud, silently supporting my partner but not standing behind him, otherwise the others would accuse you of cheating. At any given moment but usually after Pat had had that elusive one beer too many, he'd turn his empty glass upside down on the table. At that moment my world would stop; the noise in the bar would be blocked out and my heart would start thumping in my chest. At that moment, mostly without warning, I'd know I was in trouble.
I was 21 and he was my first real love, after a few years of fumblings, furtive adventures and infatuations here and there. He'd completely swept me off my feet. I was the deepest shade of green you could imagine and met someone who was street smart and a player and knew exactly how to manipulate my naivety; talk about putty in someone's hands! I didn't know he was psychotic, or had been behind bars, or was an ex-boxer, or was addicted to betting on the horses, or came from a family of five brothers living on and off in a small council house, with a mother desperately trying to cling on to the reins. I didn't know that he had a sort of sugar daddy who worshipped him and funded his gambling and rent arrears out of his own meagre pension and hated me from the first moment he set eyes on me. I didn't know any of that; all I knew was that he was the handsomest man I'd ever seen and after one night at one of his hook-ups' houses, after he had begged him to let us use a room, I was completely hooked.
The timing was appalling. I'd just qualified as a teacher and had my first job in a town a few miles away. I had my own bedsit, my independence and loved the work I was doing. I was already set for promotion and my working future looked rosy. Pat ruined all that within six months. I should have taken the hint after a furious row during the morning after the first night before. I even walked away, horrified at the appalling arrogance of the man and the already evident aggression.
The fact that I believed his apologies after he ran after me and swore undying love and unremitting attention was a mistake that I lived to regret. Funnily enough, looking back in many ways, I don't regret it now. I grew up in those three years and I needed to and there's no doubt that part of who I am now was forged through those harsh lessons. The road through life might have been easier and I would have avoided losing my job and my family and any other friends I used to have but in a perverse way, Pat taught me how to survive and read people in a way that I wonder if I could have done on my own.
It was the beatings that I still carry the scars from, both mental and physical. I'm convinced that half of my current back problems come from his thumping me repeatedly on the back instead of the face, because I had to go to school and face a class the next morning. He would take out his rage on me and until that rage was spent, there wasn't much I could do about it. In the beginning I fought back but I was out of my league and of course, the classic apologies and promises never to do it again always worked. Now I know I fit the profile of a classic abusee but I didn't see it then.
There came a point where it was too late and I couldn't get out. The love changed to fear but I'd burned my boats with the schools, who got sick of my constant absences due to illness and I ended up on sickness benefit. I'd also turned my back on my family after a disastrous visit, during which Pat started an argument with them, as he loved to do with virtually anyone. My mother couldn't take the swearing and the aggression and I ran out in sheer horror and shame. I learned later that Pat had added a few other choice home truths after I had gone and after that I couldn't face them again.
So there I was, living in his family home with battle-worn siblings and his mother who, in her own way, tried to take me under her wing. I had no job, I'd cut the ties with my family; I had nowhere to go. I had to adapt pretty damn quickly and learned what it was like to, shall we say, live on the other side of the tracks. I learned about honor among thieves and the fierce loyalty his family had toward each other. Luckily, his brothers were sympathetic. It was never mentioned that Pat and I were gay, although it must have been obvious. Pat was their brother and I was his partner and that's all that was important to them; the rest of the world had better watch out with their comments.
We went down to London a couple of times to get jobs and I built up experience in different trades (supermarket manager, record shop manager etc). Again, I'm grateful for that. A teacher often goes from kindergarten to his pension without ever leaving a school situation and it's frequently true when they say that a teacher is a man amongst children but a child amongst men. The problem was that Pat could never hold down a job and was repeatedly fired for starting rows and being aggressive. He'd take out his frustrations on me via alcohol and the beatings got worse. One day after turning up for work with a black eye and broken nose, the penny began to drop.
To cut a long and painful story short, I eventually walked out on him; rang my parents and begged their forgiveness for two years of silence and asked if I could come home. To my astonishment, they later told me that they were convinced rough, tough, macho Pat was gay but didn't ever suspect I was! Go figure! They protected me while I got myself together, got back into teaching, got my own place and got my life back on track. What I didn't know was that they had to put up with months of a drunken Pat ringing them, threatening them and abusing both them and me and once even turning up on the doorstep. Thank God they had the strength to put up with all that while making sure I never knew about it. It was only later when I came out to them and told them the whole story that they in turn told me about the aftermath of the break up.
So why did I put up with all that crap for so long? Why would any sane and supposedly intelligent person allow his life to be dismantled and his body to be regularly battered in this way? Well, I could write a whole article about my theories as to why Pat was the way he was; a psychologist could have a field day, but in the end you have to own your own mistakes and face up to the fact that it is nobody's fault but your own. I was so naive and my life experience had never prepared me for someone like Pat. I was in love, at least for the first year, after which I was in too deep and I was forever finding excuses for his behavior.
From what I read now, these are classic avoidance techniques and classic abuser and abusee scenarios. My naivety also led me to romanticize the situation somewhat. His life and background was a sort of exotic "otherness," with enough danger to make it exciting; it was almost seductive. Only after the reality became apparent did all that nonsense disappear and it became a question of making the best of a very bad job. Perversely, although he was the beast personified in the outside world, he was passive sexually (more food for the psychologist). I'm sure that made him hate himself and by extension me even more but there you go, I just wasn't aware what went on in the mind of a psychopath.
There will be people reading this who make instant judgements. Yes I should have left him after the first fists were raised but nobody ever got away with threatening me in that way again -- lesson learned! I'm not a masochist either; that was never a part of the equation. Yes, I should have been more responsible concerning my job and family; why would I put both in such a situation where they had to deal with my failure? I should have reported Pat to the police, or gone to a social worker. That's possible today but in 1971, it was much more difficult. The police would laugh you out of the station and social services just weren't equipped for same-sex violence (they could barely protect people in heterosexual abusive relationships). Battered women's shelters didn't even exist and believe it or not, I still had enough pride to know that you didn't go running to the authorities if you were being abused by your boyfriend.
Yet, although I can place this in a time context of my own, one in three LGBT people are apparently still being abused domestically by their partners. Believe me, it isn't just physical abuse either. One of Pat's favorite tricks was to humiliate me in public by exposing my weaknesses in a sort of reverse snobbism. Verbal abuse can be just as damaging although the scars are mainly on the inside and not visible to the outside world. There's clearly still a taboo around the subject. So, if it's really true that a third of gay people are being abused by partners, why aren't we hearing about it? Social workers will tell you that it's a big problem which they do their best to deal with but society as a whole is far from sympathetic to the woes of the "sissy being slapped by his boy or girl friend." Yet bullies can take all shapes and forms and same-sex bullies aren't interested in having you as an equal partner, they search for conquests and possessions; people they can call their own property. It's a mind- trip, a kick, a compensation tactic; call it what you will but if you're on the receiving end, it can damage you for life.
Last week, I read a comment on an HIV forum that many young people wish older guys would stop giving in to the urge to tell their life stories ... enough already! I get it, I really do. We come from a different generation, different circumstances and different truths and continually pushing the past into youngsters' faces will of course turn them off big time. My point in writing this piece is that some things are universal and belong to every generation. One in three LGBT people suffer abuse from their partners in 2013! Let that sink in for a minute. If it's only half true, it's shocking and proof that the stigmas and taboos are not confined to HIV. Surely, we as a community should be addressing this social cancer amongst us, or should we sweep it under the carpet like every generation before us?
Telling my own story has not been easy for me. I'm still ashamed that I let it happen (I'm blushing as I write) and with hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, I should have been strong enough to get out early but if one person reading this recognizes the signs and makes the right decisions, then maybe it's been worthwhile. Remember, you can be outwardly the butchest creation on God's earth and be regarded by society as a rock and someone who could deal with anything but behind closed doors, you could still be subject to someone else's sadistic tendencies and living in your own private hell. It needs to be talked about and it needs exposing, so that people feel safe enough to get help if they need it. Unfortunately, breaking down society's silence and disdain is so much easier said than done.
"You're only as sick as your secrets, but the truth shall set you free ..." (via David Geffen).
Read Dave's blog, HIV and Neuropathy: How to Avoid Becoming a Nervous Wreck.