‘Don’t Make Us Look Bad’: The Invisibility of LGBTQIA+ Intimate Partner Violence

Queer woman of color looking despondent

Source: QWOC

In 2013, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) released their annual report on intimate partner violence (IPV) in LGBTQIA+ communities.

The report stated a 32% decrease in reports of LGBTQIA+ IPV over the last year.

Awesome! That’s a good thing, right?

Well…

That same year, several LGBTQIA+ IPV organizations saw changes that limited the number of clients they could serve. Controlling for a decrease in reports due to a decrease in capacity, there was actually a 30% increase in reports of IPV that year.

The invisibility of LGBTQIA+ IPV is overwhelming.

So why is this? Why don’t LGBTQIA+ survivors report IPV? What exactly is the difference between a support service that is affirming and one that isn’t? What can we do differently?

Let’s back up a step and survey the scene.

LGBTQIA+ IPV Doesn’t Happen in Neutral Territory

It happens in the context of heterosexism and cissexism.

As a queer person, I become a bit anxious every time I discuss IPV in our communities. I fret over every word, wondering whether straight and cis people will think, “Hmm, lesbians are really violent” or “Seems like being trans means you’re a victim.”

This is the internalized oppression version of heterosexism and cissexism that leads to the gag rule “Don’t make us look bad!”

But this stuff is learned! Heterosexism and cissexism are some of our earliest teachers.

They teach us that a normal relationship involves a cisgender man and cisgender woman. Same with a “normal” case of intimate partner violence.

Which makes it hard to imagine two men in an abusive relationship – because we don’t imagine them in a relationship at all.

A note: this shows up in our language as well. You might be wondering why sometimes you read “intimate partner violence” and other times “domestic violence.”

The shift from “domestic violence” to “intimate partner violence” reflects a growing recognition that the historic denial of domestic partnership and family-building rights to LGBTQIA+ folks can alienate us from the realm of “domestic violence.”

Heterosexism doesn’t work alone – it relies on a strict cissexist gender binary. If I don’t know your gender (or my transphobia blocks me from affirming it), how am I supposed to know who is the abuser and who is the survivor? Cue the gender microaggression “Who’s the man in the relationship?”

So on one hand, you have a world sending the message that LGBTQIA+ relationships are not real or valid.

On the other, you have the LGBTQIA+ community fighting not to internalize these messages.

Heterosexism and Cissexism Aren’t Just for Straight and Cis Folks

LGBTQIA+ abusers are no different from their straight and cis counterparts: The abuse functions as a means of power and control.

But check out the LGBTQIA+ Power and Control wheel, and you’ll notice a critical difference in abuse tactics. They’re all made possible by heterosexism and cissexism.

And don’t forget that oppressions are layered. Among LGBTQIA+ survivors, survivors of color, as well as survivors who are low-income, young, differently abled, and/or undocumented face the greatest threats.

The threat of outing, a loss of community, identity abuse, self-blame, a lack of resources, extreme isolation: For an LGBTQIA+ person especially, remaining in an abusive relationship can often feel safer than exiting.

When LGBTQIA+ Survivors Seek Support, They Can’t Be Sure They’ll Get It

In 2013, President Obama signed a new and improved Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), marking the first time LGBTQIA+ communities were protected from intimate partner violence by federal law. It many ways, it was a landmark move.

But legislative change doesn’t necessarily translate to cultural change, and we’ve got a ways to go.

Upon calling law enforcement, LGBTQIA+ survivors may still encounter further violence or arrest.

There’s a distrust of law enforcement among many LGBTQIA+ folks – and for good reason.

In the same year the new VAWA was passed, of the 22.4% of LGBTQIA+ survivors who reported incidents to the police, 21% reported hostile attitudes and 28% reported indifference

In just 30.2% of LGBTQIA+ IPV incidents involving police, the abusive partner was arrested. Often, both abuser and survivor are arrested – lesbians specifically are twice as likely to face dual arrest.

Again, consider the impact of intersecting oppressions: More than a third of LGBTQIA+ people of color experienced verbal or physical abuse in their interactions with law enforcement. Should one of the estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBTQIA+ individuals consider reporting IPV, they must take into account a deportation rate of 1,100 individuals per day.

If they choose to enter a shelter, LGBTQIA+ survivors may still encounter further violence, harassment, or isolation

…if they’re admitted.

The same year the new VAWA was passed, 20.3% of the 5.8% of LGBTQIA+ survivors who sought access to shelter were denied.

This targeting comes from many directions: organizational policy, staff, and residents.

If a trans woman survivor enters a women’s shelter, she may be identified as a “trigger” to other women. She may be misgendered, isolated “for safety,” or subject to unnecessary scrutiny.

If a cis lesbian survivor enters a women’s domestic violence shelter, her abusive partner may also be admitted if proper screening tools aren’t used.

And for trans men and cis gay men—well—there simply are few to no safe beds available.

Upon disclosing to family, LGBTQIA+ survivors may still find blame or rejection.

Up to 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQIA+, with family rejection as the leading cause of homelessness. One in five trans people have been homeless.

What does it mean then to reveal that one is not only LGBTQIA+, but also experiencing IPV? Without family support during intimate partner violence, an LGBTQIA+ survivor’s support network is drastically diminished

And upon disclosing to community, LGBTQIA+ survivors may still find shame and eventual isolation from their support network.

The pressures of community are so real that there’s an actual book (you should read it) about this called The Revolution Starts at Home.

The LGBTQIA+ community is so robust in part because it’s a refuge of safety and support from the homophobia and transphobia of the “external” world. But if the “external” world is unsafe, what does it mean to acknowledge that the “internal” world isn’t safe either?

Law enforcement and social service failures aside, when your community is also your family, the potential loss from disclosure is enormous.

Okay – The Systems Are Pretty Messy: What Can I Do?

I get it: Things feel bleak. But there’s no other way around it. With historic invisibility comes a stark support landscape.

But as more LGBTQIA+ survivors tell their stories – stories of abuse at the hands of their partners and at the hands of those meant to support them – we’re gaining tools to adjust the way we think and speak about LGBTQIA+ IPV.

Perhaps you don’t have enough spare time to singlehandedly dismantle institutional heterosexism and cissexism. However, as an ally, there are some steps you can take to lend safe and affirming support to LGBTQIA+ IPV survivors:

1. Believe Them

Simple enough, right?

Given the (internal and external) disbelief of IPV in LGBTQIA+ relationships, your first response when someone discloses IPV to you should be to affirm the experience they are sharing. Let them know you believe them.

“That seems really hurtful,” “Thank you for trusting me,” or “I understand you’re expressing that you’re scared”, open up space for honesty in a different way than “Are you sure?,” “I think he must be going through something,” or “But she’s so nice.”

2. Be Clear That It Is Serious – And Seriously Not Their Fault

Many survivors will justify the abuse by blaming themselves or questioning if there’s something they could’ve done differently.

Be gentle, but forthright: IPV is to be taken seriously, and it isn’t the responsibility of the survivor to change the behaviors of the abusive partner.

3. Support LGBTQIA+ Safety Planning

Survivors stay in relationships for many reasons. Convincing someone to seek couples counseling or to leave a relationship can be dangerous – it can even be life threatening.

Instead, support them in developing a safety plan. Safety plans assist survivors in considering the supports available to them should they encounter further violence or make a decision to leave.

For LGBTQIA+ survivors, the safety plan needs to take a dual approach to ensure physical safety, but also to acknowledge that the survivor may not be out to everyone as LGBTQIA+.

Are they out to their friends and family, and is there a risk their family will reject them? Is there a chance that a judge may use a birth name that will out them as transgender? Do they have trusted confidants who will support them?

4. Affirm the Context

The heightened vulnerability associated with being a target of racism, xenophobia, ableism, adultism, and other external pressures means that an LGBTQIA+ survivor’s experience will vary greatly, and supports should be tailored to recognize that variation.

For example: Will they require supports in Spanish, and are those available? Is the available shelter ADA compliant? Exiting a relationship can be expensive: Do they have the financial resources for transportation, food, and shelter? Is the threat of deportation or arrest a factor?

For an example of what intersectional advocacy is like in practice, check out this Community Action Toolkit for IPV among LGBTQIA+ folks of color by NCAVP.

5. Don’t Breach Confidence

Don’t.

When we’re afraid for someone, we often want to seek support for our secondary trauma. But in this situation, you need to seek permission from the person you are supporting prior to any disclosure, specifically given that LGBTQIA+ folks often live and play in tight-knit communities

6. Screen and Offer Resources with Established LGBTQIA+ Competency

As an ally, you can contact resources to check out their competency working with the LGBTQIA+ community.

Does the local women’s shelter have a screening tool to ensure an abusive partner doesn’t follow? Is it safe there for trans women? Are medical providers available who have received training in working with trans and gender nonconforming survivors? Is the hotline versed in asking gender neutral questions? Is there an LGBTQIA+ liaison or advocate available within local law enforcement?

7. Be Upfront About Legal Rights

VAWA aside, the LGBTQIA+ community still faces restricted rights. Inform yourself on your local legislation to support LGBTQIA+ survivors in making informed decisions.

For more information on state-by-state survivor rights, contact Lambda Legal or the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

Supporting Our Community

Supporting survivors is only one leg of the work. When not in a position of direct support, take a role in broader change efforts.

1. Make Space for Survivor Leadership

The Network la Red is an excellent organizational example of survivor leadership. Elicit feedback from and defer to the insights of those who have experienced LGBTQIA+ IPV.

2. Don’t Support Relationship Violence

Just as rape culture exists, so does a culture of normalized relationship violence among LGBTQIA+ folks.

Whether it’s the myth that hormones make someone violent or emotionally abusive, that cis gay men will naturally be more combative with one another, that women cannot be abusive and men cannot be victimized, or that one partner must exert a more masculine – and thus powerful – presence in a relationship, challenge these damaging stereotypes when you hear them.

3. Raise Awareness in Yourself and Your Community

Attend trainings on LGBTQIA+ IPV.

Read up on it.

Share awareness-raising campaigns and news articles on social media.

Approach the topic with your friends: Have they heard about it? What are their thoughts?

Dispel the myths that arise in conversation while making space for LGBTQIA+ friends to share their experiences.

4. Advocate for Policy Change

Institutions shift at a glacial place – stimulated by the individuals chipping at them from the ground and the slow warming of top-down policy change. Pay attention to proposed policy or legislative movements, and put pressure on your local legislators to do the right thing.

Links and Things

If you are or think you might be experiencing intimate partner violence, check out this resource or contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 24-hour Hotline at 800-799-7233 (TTY 800-787-3224) or the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 24-hour bilingual hotline at 212-714-1141.

For more tips on supporting LGBTQIA+ survivors check out some of these resources. For information on specifically supporting trans* survivors, check out this article.

Organizational Supports:

Kel Kray is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. Kel is a fiercely friendly social justice warrior who spends their days advocating with and on behalf of queer youth at an LGBTQIA+ youth center in Philly. A firm believer in the transformative power of dialogue, Kel coordinates a youth-driven education and training program that facilitates community workshops on gender and sexuality with an intersectional lens. Read Kel’s articles here.