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The Other Side of Love, Part Two: Partner Abuse in LGBT Communities

By Dave R.

June 13, 2013

This article originally appeared on PositiveLite.com, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.

Read Part One of this piece, in which Dave R. shares his own experiences with same-sex partner abuse.

People feel, "Why should we air our dirty laundry? People feel so negatively about us already, the last thing we should do is contribute to negative stereotypes of us."

-- Dave Shannon, (coordinator of the violence recovery program at Fenway Community Health, an LGBT clinic in Boston)

Dave R.

Dave R.

You're afraid to leave and afraid to stay. You're afraid of other people's reactions if they find out. Your gay friends will look at you differently and assume that you're a walkover or weak with possible masochistic traits and unable to stand on your own two feet. They'll snort and claim they would never allow themselves to be in that position. Your family and the world at large will jump to conclusions. You can hear them saying it; they'd really never expected anything else from a same-sex relationship; they knew nothing good would come of it. In short, the world will mock and criticize and somehow assume you must have deserved it. "After all, you're not the easiest person to live with." All these things terrify you and you're trapped, unable to move one way or the other and the keys to all your locks belong to the person you love and purports to love you back ... your abuser.

Can you imagine how lonely that must feel for a man or woman, totally dependent upon someone who batters them, whether verbally, physically or mentally? What must they do and why don't they do it? What's wrong with them? Get out already! If only it were that simple. This sort of situation has various names: domestic abuse, same-sex abuse, intimate partner abuse. The point is: It's all abuse. Furthermore, according to almost universal organizations, both LGBT and otherwise, between 25% and 33% of LGBT people are either living in, or have experience of an abusive relationship. Now statistics can say anything and frequently do. If it's true that there's evidence of abuse in a third of LGBT relationships, what about all those who never report their problem and solve it themselves? That would surely push the figures even higher, or maybe the statistics are taking that into account and thus become little more than guesswork. We're used to hot air stats in the HIV community but the point is that even if just one in a hundred LGBT people is being abused, isn't that one too many?!

But as a community we don't want to talk about it; why is that? Wouldn't you think that the LGBT community has learned over the decades that strength and support lie in unity and looking after our own? Apparently not; this subject is as taboo in the LGBT community as husband beating, for instance, is in heterosexual society.

LGBT communities have been reluctant to discuss same-sex domestic violence for fear of validating negative stereotypes and detracting from the push for legal recognition of such relationships. The relative silence on this issue continues despite the fact that individuals in same-sex relationships are more likely to be abused by their partners than beaten in an act of anti-gay violence. The political downside of discussing same-sex domestic violence is obvious. Anti-gay organizations invoke same-sex domestic violence to bolster their assertions that homosexuality is a dangerous lifestyle and that same-sex relationships are unhealthy, unstable and violent. ... Same-sex domestic violence also challenges our highly gendered (and heteronormative) understanding of domestic violence because it cannot be explained by reference to gender difference, the historical subjugation of women or the private nature of family violence.

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Whether you agree with the above is for you to decide. Personally, I believe one of the main reasons why this is such a taboo subject is the shame engendered by intimate partner abuse. The victims don't want to talk about it, so impress on their immediate circles not to talk about it and so on. Going to the authorities is also seen as deeply shameful and potentially opening you up to ridicule and publicity. The only people who really want to bring it to the fore are the people who have to pick up the pieces in the hospitals, abuse shelters and LGBT organizations. They can see the results of abuse at close quarters but come up against a wall of indifference or unwillingness when they try to raise it as a community social issue.

Patrick Dati had reached his breaking point.

With a metal pin in his arm and Vicodin coursing through his veins, he picked up the phone to call his psychiatrist. Dati had undergone surgery for a broken arm after his then-boyfriend allegedly threw him down the stairs when he tried to leave their home. Now he sat on the phone with his doctor, explaining why he couldn't carry on, as he tried to overdose on painkillers.

The attempt to end his life, which landed him in a psychiatric ward for two days, resulted in part because he felt trapped in the abusive relationship and saw no way out.

"I couldn't let my boyfriend go because he wasn't allowing me to," Dati said.

Dati is one of a quarter of gay men in America who report having encountered intimate partner violence.

-- CNN

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One of the biggest problems is that the word "abuse" is so generic and covers a multitude of sins. It may be worth reminding people exactly what constitutes abuse. It's not just a question of physical injury and bruises; there are far more damaging elements. If you recognize yourself, or any of your friends in any of the following, it may be worth asking yourself if there's something more going on than at first appears.

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There are more; these are just an overview of classic abuse symptoms. I'm sure most people in a relationship will recognize certain of these traits; the question is, when is the line crossed and will you be aware of it when it does? As a basic guide, you should always ask yourself if you're afraid that your partner is going to hurt you, either physically or emotionally. Are you scared of challenging them for fear of a comeback? Do you trust him or her to have your best interests at heart? Are you happy in your relationship and if not, why not? These are simple questions you can only answer after really thinking about them. Negative answers may not always mean abuse but you will know when you've lost full control of your life and surrendered important elements to your partner. After that, you need to ask yourself if the situation is going to get better or worse. Blind faith that it will get better, when this, that or the other situation improves, may reflect your own fear of change more than the truth of the matter.

In heterosexual society, women are far more abused than men, which may seem like stating the obvious but in LGBT society the statistics vary widely. In general, the pattern of abuse is thought to occur in roughly the same proportions for both sexes. Lesbian abuse is therefore as big a problem as gay male abuse and both seem to be growing across all LGBT communities. The occasional lurid headlines and reluctance to bring the problem out into the open, have led to a number of myths and misunderstandings about the nature of same-sex abuse. These myths persist even in the LGBT communities who should know better.

The following paragraph perfectly sums up how abuse begins and develops:

Domestic abuse is always about power and control. One partner intentionally gains more and more power over his/ her partner. Tactics can include physical, emotional or verbal abuse, isolation, threats, intimidation, minimizing, denying, blaming, coercion, financial abuse or using children or pets to control your behavior. Domestic violence runs in a cycle. Typically, things are wonderful at the beginning of the relationship. Gradually, tension starts to build. Finally, an act of violence occurs. This may be verbal or physical. The victim is shocked. The relationship then moves into the "honeymoon" phase. The abuser is remorseful and attentive, and the victim wants to believe the abuse was an isolated incident. Again, the tension gradually builds until another violent act occurs. The longer the cycle goes on, the closer together the acts of violence happen.

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So what can you do about it if you find yourself trapped in an abusive relationship? Look for the warning signs.

First of all, stop blaming yourself and stop making excuses for the person who is hurting you. If he or she is abnormally jealous and claiming that's a sign of their love for you, it's not, it's possessive behavior. Jealousy has little to do with love and trust and more to do with claiming ownership. Look out too for controlling behavior; someone who wants to take over the running of your life, claiming that they're doing it for your safety and organizational purposes. They may get angry if you're late, or angry if you make a mistake. They may begin to question you about every move you make and eventually you won't be able to make personal decisions for yourself. They may even take pleasure in bringing you down in company, to reinforce the fact that you are the lesser being in the relationship. Time to think about if you really want this or not.

Don't jump into a domestic, "living together" situation too soon. You don't know that person yet but he or she may already be desperate to "acquire" you as a possession. They may start the courtship with a whirlwind of intense compliments, praise and declarations of undying devotion and you will feel pressured into commitment; like the spider and the fly! This can especially apply to people who have just come out, or are new to the scene; these people are especially vulnerable to flattery. Watch out too if you find your friends gradually falling off and your partner becomes unwilling to socialize. They may be trying to isolate you. Innocent flirting may get you into a heap of trouble but you should retain your own social structures; they're there to fall back on.

Many abusers will blame the world and his dog for their problems and shortcomings. Eventually you will be pressured into compensating and going out of your way to make their lives more comfortable. It's a tactic to increase your dependence and loyalty. As a result of this, you may also get the blame for things, including their anger and aggression. Your partner will become the "victim" in the relationship and it will turn out to be your fault. Can you see the pattern? Look out for hypersensitivity too. Even the most innocent remark may set them off and it will become your responsibility to keep them happy. They may become Jekyll and Hyde and you will end up walking on broken glass before you realize it.

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Check out their past before entering into the relationship. Look at their friends and ask about past relationships. If they react aggressively to questions about their past, that may already be a warning sign. It may sound cynical but asking them their views and attitudes on various subjects may reveal signs of a cruel or dominating nature. You need to develop a sixth sense and although you'll make mistakes, it's better to be safe than sorry. Finally, on the list of red flags to watch out for: walk away and stay away the very moment a hand is raised in anger and it looks as though you may be struck. You may be the biggest bitch, the worst lover and a complete douche bag yourself but you never, ever deserve physical abuse and you should have zero tolerance from day one. Never give second chances to abusers; they feed on them.

If it gets to the point where you've got to get out and are strong enough to do it; go to friends, find a safe place and get away to gather your thoughts. Create a safety plan. Gather your important documents together ready to go (passport, driving license, insurance papers etc). You can leave your other things behind for now; your safety must come first. If you feel you need to report the abuse to the authorities (and in the best of all possible worlds, you would do that) then contact your local LGBT organization first. They may have invaluable experience about the best way to go about that and the best people to turn to. If you do go to the police, you have a right to a sympathetic hearing and action but whether you get that often depends on where you live and the climate at the time. Again, your local gay organizations should be able to advise. In cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, the police are being trained in same-sex relationships and same-sex abuse cases but in other more remote places, that may not be a realistic expectation.

"We're just now beginning to take same-sex domestic violence out of the closet," said Jennifer Rakowski, associate director of Community United Against Violence, a group that provides crisis intervention and court advocacy in San Francisco. "We had to get acceptance as individuals first."

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The bottom line is that the more you learn about same-sex relationships and the potential for abuse, the better you will be able to make informed decisions. The problem is that very few people enter into relationships with this in mind; it's just not realistic. It's important then to be a good friend; if you see someone in a relationship withdrawing into themselves and being clearly unhappy, don't hang back to give them privacy; ask as a friend would do, if anything's wrong and then keep a close eye on the situation. Any bruises, cuts, bone breaks etc that don't have a perfectly reasonable explanation may give you reason to worry but don't confront your friend with the question; "Are you being abused," they may run a mile or react angrily. Make sure first but use tact and diplomacy; someone being abused doesn't want you to know about it! As I said, be a friend.

We need to learn again how to support each other. Our community organizations need to open up and talk about an issue that takes place behind closed doors and develop support systems to catch the victims when they fall and support the prosecution of the perpetrators. Abuse is never okay; it's the last resort of a coward and a bully but realizing that the victim is not in control of his or her destiny is equally important. We support the victims of drug use and disease within our communities; those who are battered by their partners deserve better than closed doors and lack of understanding. You abuse one of us, you abuse us all!

Finally, this short but moving YouTube video encapsulates the whole problem and sums up why constructive help is so necessary.

More information:

Same-Sex Domestic Abuse

STOP Same-Sex Abuse

CDC Releases Data on Interpersonal and Sexual Violence by Sexual Orientation

Intimate Partner Violence in Same-Sex Relationships

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