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When Love Hurts: Domestic Violence Still Hidden in Many Relationships

By Ev Schlatter (Andi Marquette)

Originally published in Church Street Freedom Press, Nashville TN (August 17, 2006).

“Dennis” was 22 when he got involved with “Alex.” Fun, caring, and into Cuban cooking, Alex seemed like Mr. Right. But four months into the relationship, Alex’s demons emerged when he showed up hours late to take Dennis to a party. Dennis commented that it was probably too late to go. Alex slapped Dennis and pushed him over a chair only to immediately apologize. He then cooked him dinner. Dennis’ chest still hurt the next morning; Alex had cracked his ribs. Dennis didn’t tell the doctor his partner had caused it. Regardless of Alex’s continued blow-ups, Dennis kept thinking that he could help him.

The two moved in together but things only got worse. Alex pushed Dennis down a flight of stairs, breaking his jaw in two places. He would try to force Dennis to have sex with him and if Dennis refused, he would beat him. In one instance, Alex ruptured Dennis’ spleen and in another, he beat him so badly that his intestines tore open. Dennis was in constant pain and fear. He lost his job because he missed so much work and Alex became the primary breadwinner, further keeping Dennis dependant on him. Finally, Dennis got up the courage to move to another state to live with his parents and get on his feet again. He still needs medication to deal with the pain of his injuries. And even after a total of 82 days in the hospital, no medical personnel ever asked Dennis if he was the victim of domestic violence (DV). Even Dennis never made the leap of logic that he, as a gay man, could be a victim. Consequently, he never thought to ask for help.

“Laura” was 28 when she got involved with “Nancy.” Because Laura was in graduate school and her lease was up, she agreed to live through the spring and summer with Nancy. Within three months, Nancy was belittling Laura’s family and friends, which made Laura uncomfortable. She made phone calls from work, to avoid Nancy’s questions. She stopped going out with her friends, even stopped going to movies unless Nancy came with her, and avoided talking about Nancy with her family, which caused her further stress.

Five months into the relationship, Laura helped a friend move something from her office to her house while Nancy was at work. When she returned home, Nancy was furious and accused Laura of having an affair. Screaming obscenities and throwing objects around the house, Nancy then spit in Laura’s face. Laura threatened to leave and Nancy began crying and told her “she didn’t want to lose her.” After another 4 months of “walking on eggshells,” Laura voiced relief when Nancy started having an affair. “Sad, huh? That you’re glad your girlfriend is having an affair. It distracted her and I moved in with friends.” Still, she was plagued with hang-up calls for another 3 months. “It was hell,” Laura said. “Here I was, an educated, middle-class woman from a family with no history of abuse or violence and I ended up in a relationship that was clearly abusive. On some level I thought I could help her. What I realized was that my safety was the most important thing in that instance. I also realized that anyone can become trapped in an abusive relationship.”

According to a 2000 study conducted by community-based anti-violence organizations in 9 regions throughout the U.S., rates of violence in GLBT partnerships mirror rates in heterosexual relationships. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) discovered that of reported incidents, roughly 15-20 percent of gay male relationships become embroiled in domestic violence. Studies since 1980 suggest that almost half of women surveyed who identify as lesbian have been abused by a female partner. And the Portland, Oregon-based Survivor Project’s 1998 Gender, Violence, and Resource Access survey of intersex and transgender individuals found that roughly half had been raped or assaulted by a romantic partner. The NCAVP calls domestic violence the third-most severe health problem facing gay men today.

Elizabeth Slagle-Todaro is the Director of Outreach Services at the YWCA in Nashville. In a long interview with Freedom Press, she explained that 1 in 3 women will report being abused at the hands of a partner during their lifetimes. She is quick to point out that this number tends to skew toward heterosexual women, but notes that studies suggest numbers are concurrent in GLBT relationships.

Since 1979, the YW has helped thousands of women and children find healing and safety through its domestic violence services. Women who leave an abusive relationship have access to an emergency shelter where they can get counseling, life skills support, healthcare, legal advocacy, job search help, and case management. Children have access to their own program that helps with coping and communication skills. “One of the things that many people don’t understand,” Slagle-Todaro says, “is that domestic violence is not just about physical abuse. It can include emotional and psychological elements that are just as damaging as physical violence.” For these reasons, she notes, “some people may not realize that they are, in fact, in an abusive relationship with someone because their partner doesn’t physically harm them.” Also, she says, “there are times in the relationship that are very good. And the victim may genuinely love her partner and vice versa. The partner may be very caring and loving at other times. But a healthy relationship does not have the constant threat of a ‘blow-up’ hanging over it.”
She lists abusive and controlling patterns of behavior in which your partner might engage that are part of a cycle of domestic violence: embarrassing you with bad names or put-downs; controls what you do, who you see or talk to, and where you go (“checking in” all the time); makes all the decisions; tries to control money in the relationship; always seems to know what’s best for you; withholds affection or punishes you with a “silent treatment”; withholds your medications or puts you in situations that endanger your health; breaks or steals your things; becomes jealous, sick, or needy when you try to spend time away or with family and friends; tells you you’re a bad parent or threatens to hurt your children; wakes you up in the middle of the night to argue with you; intimidates you with weapons; threatens to kill him/herself; threatens to kill you; hurts or threatens to hurt your pets.

She points out that GLBT relationships caught up in a cycle of DV share many of these characteristics with heterosexual partnerships, including forced sex, but there are some unique concerns. For example, your partner may threaten to out you to your family or at work or may threaten to disclose your HIV status. “Because of homophobia in larger segments of society—especially in some regions of the country—and a lack of social services and resources,” Slagle-Todaro says, “threats like these are frightening to GLBT victims of DV.”

Indeed, DV in GLBT relationships has not been examined with anything near the thoroughness that heterosexual partnerships have. The NCAVP acknowledges the unique role of gender inequality in DV, but does not believe that the former is intrinsic to the latter. In other words, power differentials can be expressed through economic sufficiency, class, race/ethnicity, education, social background, and health status. It’s important to realize that DV always stems from a power differential. Other reasons that DV in GLBT relationships remains a problem include a widespread belief that DV simply doesn’t occur in these partnerships. Other problems include poor or inconsistent law enforcement response and homophobia among officers. GLBT people have no access to family courts so most DV cases for them are adjudicated in criminal courts, which are not set up like family courts are. There’s a decided lack of accessible and sensitive services, especially for gay men and transgendered individuals, since most facilities deal with heterosexual violence and are thus geared toward women.

On a recent visit to the local shelter, I asked Outreach Director Slagle-Todaro whether she saw many lesbians utilizing the YW’s services. She said that the YW makes it a point to use GLBT-inclusive language in its publications, information packets, and presentations, regardless of whether the audience might find that offensive. She also said that yes, lesbians do use the services and shelter; there’s a wing for women without children and a wing for women with children. With regard to gay men or abused heterosexual men (roughly 4-5 percent of heterosexual DV cases), Slagle-Todaro expresses some frustration because there aren’t as many resources for them and that’s part of why GLBT DV is such a well-kept secret. Most of the services are geared toward heterosexual women. She sees this changing, however, as organizations like the YW seek to educate the public about the full range of DV in our society.

I then ask her about resources for people who realize that they are abusing their partners. She said that batterers are welcome to call the crisis line and the YW will refer them to a certified batterers’ intervention program. She notes that “anger management” classes are inappropriate for men and women who batter because DV is not about anger. DV is about power and control and batterers, like victims, need to understand that and take responsibility for their actions so that they, too, can heal. “We don’t judge,” she said. “Anyone who recognizes their role in a cycle of violence at home can get help and we’re here to provide that help or refer them to someone who can.”

The program at the shelter is 90 days, with the goal to get women on their feet and into transitional housing or other safe, sustainable living options. The shelter itself is clean, quiet, and includes play facilities for children and lounge/work areas for the women. It’s bright and feels safe. I heard children laughing and playing and the women I spoke with seemed happy to be there. Slagle-Todaro says that sometimes the shelter is fuller than at other times and that there really is no particular “season of violence.” If the facility is full and someone calls needing assistance, “we are on the phone immediately to find them a safe space. When someone finally decides to leave an abusive relationship, that can be a very dangerous time for them, which is why it is so important that we have a network of other resources in place to help.” I ask her if she ever feels burned out. She leans back and sighs then smiles. “I have good days and bad days, like anyone else. But I love what I do. It’s important that people know that we’re here and we can help and that GLBT people are welcome here as well.”


YWCA Crisis Line, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 615-242-1199 / 800-334-4628
Website: www.theYW.com
If you’d like to volunteer or donate items to the DV program at the YW, call the crisis line or check the website for their “wish list.”

Call the YW Crisis line if:
You think you might be in an abusive relationship.
You know someone you suspect is in an abusive relationship.
You think you might be abusing your partner.
You would like the YW to provide training or materials to a group you are affiliated with.

Other resources:
National Domestic Violence hotline: www.ndvh.org or 1-800-799-SAFE
Rainbow Domestic Violence website: www.rainbowdomesticviolence.itgo.com
Provides information about DV, “red flags,” and lists of resources
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: www.ncadv.org/resources/state.htm
State-by-state resource guide
Lambda Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project: www.lambda.org/DV_background.htm
Doves Gay and Lesbian Battering: www.doves-stop-violence.org/gnl.htm
Provides information and safety tips
National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women: www.vawnet.org
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (National Advocacy for the Gay and Lesbian Communities): www.ncavp.org
The Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse: www.nwnetwork.org
NCAVP 2000 GLBT DV report: www.avp.org/publications/reports/2000ncavpdvrpt.pdf
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force overview on GLBT DV: www.thetaskforce.org/theissues/issue.cfm?issueID=31

When Love Hurts: Domestic Violence Still Hidden in Many Relationships

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