Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

When doors close, we die: Domestic violence is an LGBT issue.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Domestic violence is first and foremost about power and control. In a sexist society that teaches us heterosexual relationships are the norm and that men are only properly masculine if they exercise control and dominance, it is no surprise that in the overwhelming number of cases of domestic violence the survivor is a woman and the perpetrator a man. Domestic violence is fundamentally gendered. However, being LGBT can be a further risk factor when it comes to abuse at the hands of family members or partners.

When when we look closer at the statistics around  domestic violence and sexuality we notice some harrowing dynamics: around a third of all LGBT people, regardless of gender identity, experience domestic violence. This can be broken down further: 36% of LGBT women, 39% of gender non-conforming people, 51% of disabled people or people with long-term illnesses, 44% of bisexual people and 64% of trans people reported experiencing domestic violence in a 2007 study.

A significant portion of this abuse is perpetrated by family members, meaning young LGBT people living in the family home can be highly at risk. It is no coincidence that the rates of homelessness for LGBT teenagers are particularly high (research by the Albert Kennedy Trust states that 40% of homeless teens are LGBT.) Being on the street is then a further predictor of abuse. Lack of refuges and social housing is condemning many LGBT people to continued violence and abuse.

When it comes to sexual violence, we know that bisexual women are particularly at risk. Not many statistics are available for the UK, but we know that in the US nearly half of all bisexual women will experience rape in their lifetime, and are twice as likely to experience abuse by both people they know and strangers. A culture of sexualisation and objectification of bisexual women may contribute to dynamics of sexual violence against them within and outside intimate relationships. The lack of social support and high incidence of poor mental health among bisexual women further undermine their abilities to leave abusive relationships.

There are also unique issues around partner abuse within same gender relationships. Because same gender relationships, particularly between women, make up such a small minority of all relationships (and oppression often means same gender relationships need to be kept hidden) the dynamics that cause domestic violence in such relationships tend to be invisible in the usual statistics and narratives around domestic violence.

Even within same gender relationships power dynamics can exist along lines of ability, class, gender identity, sexuality, race and migration status that enables a partner or ex-partner to exercise power and control.

Harmful myths surrounding domestic violence in same gender relationships* helps to minimise the experience of LGBT survivors and often reinforces the tendency for LGBT people to remain silent about domestic violence.

Some of these myths include:

Myth: Domestic violence within lesbian relationships is not as bad as in heterosexual relationships because the perpetrator is a woman and women don’t have the same societal power as men, so, can’t be as violent.

Reality: Intersections of ability, class, gender identity, sexuality, race and migration status mean that women can, and do, exercise power and control over other women in relationships. Women in relationships with each other do not necessarily have equal levels of power just because they are both women. To argue this is to assume there are no intersections of power beyond gender. Huge power differentials can exist between, for example, cis and trans women in relationships: where cis women can use positions of power granted to them by transphobia to exercise control over their partners. Biphobia can play into abusive dynamics where one partner is monosexual and the other bisexual.

Our narratives around domestic violence should never erase these intersections of power and oppression.

Myth: Domestic violence in lesbian relationships is received less by the survivor because the perpetrator is a woman.

Reality: Abuse is abuse and suffering is not quantifiable in this way. Abuse by someone that is supposed to care about and love you is painful and harmful regardless of gender.

Though domestic violence exercised along lines of power granted by sexism and misogyny is common this does not mean domestic violence exercised along other intersections of power such as sexuality, race, class, ability, gender identity, migration status etc are less painful and harmful.

Myth: It is only ‘butch’ women in lesbian relationships who abuse their partners.

Reality: Some lesbians do adopt a type of masculinity that prides itself on exercising power and control over femme-identified women. However some lesbians also exercise homophobia, power and control in order to force their butch partner to ‘act more straight’ and ‘fit in’. Butch women in lesbian relationships can be survivors as well as perpetrators.

When talking about domestic violence it’s important to emphasise that emotional violence as well as physical violence is used to exercise power and control. LGBT people disproportionately go through difficult things such as homophobic/transphobic harassment, dealing with homophobic/transphobic family and friends, coming out, passing etc. Perpetrators in same gender relationships often use the social conditions of homophobia and transphobia to emotionally abuse their partners. Mothers may be threatened that their sexuality will be used to remove access to their children.

Homophobia and transphobia means that many same gender relationships between women are secret; for some coming out can often be too daunting. Perpetrators often use a relationship shrouded in secrecy to make survivors utterly invisible and dependent on them. Internalised homophobia and transphobia means perpetrators often force their partners to come out or not come out, ‘act straight’ or pass as a way of controlling their partner. Biphobia and prejudice around bisexuality is often used by perpetrators as a way of undermining and belittling the sexuality of their partner.

Busting these myths and recognising the dynamics at play in same gender relations is crucial to a feminism that seeks to liberate all women at every intersection from domestic violence.

Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia means that LGBT people are already more likely to be homeless, under and un-employed and have poor mental health. This makes LGBT people more vulnerable to domestic violence and makes it that bit harder for us to leave. Transphobic feminisms dominant in some refuges means that domestic violence services are often not open to trans women: forcing more women and girls to remain in abusive relationships or family homes.

LGBT people often fear the homophobia and transphobia they might face when accessing domestic violence services and this often forces them to stay in abusive situations. People are less likely to report abuse if this means coming out to institutions like the police who have a history of institutionalised homophobia and transphobia.

The Conservative government’s austerity agenda will disproportionately affect LGBT people which will reinforce the reality that LGBT people are amongst the most vulnerable in society. So while the Tories may have brought in gay marriage, the lives of ordinary, working class LGBT folk in Britain is worsening under them. Austerity is homophobic and transphobic to the core. The economic violence of austerity and cuts is helping to make LGBT people more vulnerable to the interpersonal violence of domestic abusers by making it harder for us to escape and live independently. Violence in the home and in our relationships cannot be separated from the violence of the state in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic capitalist society.

In January Broken Rainbow (one of the only LGBT specific domestic violence services in the UK) announced that its helpline faced closure due to government cuts. Thanks to a very public and broad campaign, the Home Office was forced to provide Broken Rainbow with funding for another 12 months. But life-saving domestic violence services should not have to exist on annual life-lines.

Domestic violence services should never face closure: when those doors close, we die. Domestic violence is an LGBT issue and it is for specialist LGBT services that we will be marching for on the 28th November. Join us.

*we are focusing here on same gender relationships between women, but many analogous dynamics are at play in same gender relationships between men