Thanks to the media, legislative change and the extensive hard work of many passionate individuals, our social consciousness has begun to accept that queer relationships are fundementally very similar to straight relationships.
Queers deal with flirting, rejection, break-ups and infidelities; we can all fall in love, fall out of love, get our hearts broken, get married, have kids, get divorced, etc. One aspect of queer relationships and queer love that is on par with straight relationships but hardly acknowledged are the realities of family violence. It’s sad to say, but LGBTQ people suffering an abusive relationship are often ignored, by everyone. The straight establishment often fails to understand abuse within a queer relationship (ie. what happens when two women in a relationship claim the other is abusive and call the same shelter looking for a bed?) and the gay community is often hesitant to acknowledge this darker side of queer love when socially and legally fighting for legal recognition of their relationships (aka presenting the rosiest picture possible to the cons).
I’m going to be using the word “abuser” for the person using violence, and the word “victim” for the person who is experiencing the violence for simplicities sake. But please understand that I acknowledge that both people, abuser and victim, are complex individuals whose lives expand beyond these labels.
Is It Family Violence?
Family Violence, also known as Domestic Violence, Domestic Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence, is the systemic (on-going), unilateral (going one-way) use of single or multiple forms of violence by the abuser to gain power and control over the victim. It is not mutual, it is not consensual and it is not justifiable. It often escalates over time, and can have a profound, lasting impact on any children who are witness to it. There are many types of violence that could be used by an abuser to get what they want from the victim:
This is the most recognized form of violence in abusive relationships. Physical violence can include hitting, kicking, slapping, pinching, hair-pulling, pushing, shoving, restraining or physically preventing the victim from moving or leaving, choking or using a weapon against the victim.
Using putdowns, insults, criticism, isolating the victim from friends, family and the community, blackmailing the victim, false accusations, humiliating and doing other things for the purpose of lowering the victim’s self-esteem. In queer relationships, this could also mean threatening to out a partner who isn’t openly gay.
Forcing or coercing the victim to accept or perform unwanted sexual acts, forcing or coercing the victim to accept or perform unwanted sexual acts for money or gifts, filming an unconsenting partner in a consensual or unconsensual sexual act or performing sexual acts on a partner who is asleep or intoxicated to the point they cannot consent. Sexualized violence is NOT sex; it is using sexual acts as a weapon. This also includes refusing the victim access to or use of safer sex information or birth control (including condoms)
Controlling the victim’s assets and income, demanding money, threatening or committing extortion, controlling the victim’s financial autonomy and work and forcing the victim to sell or buy goods and services.
Threatening to harm the victim, people the victim cares about, the victim’s pets or the victim’s property.
Damaging or destroying the victim’s property and harming or killing the victim’s pets.
This mostly applies to relationships where one or both persons are suffering from chronic health conditions or disabilities. Denying the ill or disabled person of their medications or support equipment, stealing these items and preventing the victim from accessing appropriate medical and psychiatric care.
No, It Isn’t Just A Bad Temper
Family Violence is not caused by anger, a ‘bad temper’, their own past victimization, alcohol or drugs; the abuser chooses to use violence to get what they want. We know this because the abuser can maintain control of their ‘anger’ or ‘alcohol’ in situations where it won’t serve their purpse to ‘blow up’ (they won’t punch their boss if she pisses them off and they won’t start punching the victim in the middle of a crowded supermarket). That does not mean that the abuser is a bad person; it means that they are making bad decisions, and they can choose not to use violence. But this needs to be their choice. No amount of pleading, asking or complying with the abuser’s demands will guarantee that they will decide not to use violence.
Why Don’t They Leave?
A lot of people who know someone who is a victim of Family Violence ask “Why don’t they just leave”? Watching a friend or family member being victimized is just awful, and it can be very frustrating to watch someone you care about suffering and ‘deciding’ to stay with an abusive partner. But victims of family violence don’t often have as many choices as we’d like to think. They may love their abuser genuinely and hold out hope that they may change one day (as many abusers often claim that the abuse will stop many times). If they suffer from low self-esteem they may feel like no one else will ever want them. If the couple has children together the victim may not want to break up their family. He or she may rely on their abuser for financial support, and fear that they will not be able to support themselves financially, especially if they lack education or employable skills. They may lack access to a suitable emergency shelter (especially true for gay or male-identified men), housing, emotional or social supports.
The Queer Reality
All of these facts are multiplied for queer people who are in the closet and fear exposure and the loss of their partner, and for people living in areas that are unfriendly or unsupportive to LGBTQ people. Gay victims of Family Violence may also experience isolation from the LGBTQ community, that at times may try to stifle any negative aspects of queer relationships in their efforts to paint a rosey, defendable image to conservative legal opponants. Additionally, the victim may be afraid to leave the abuser. It is a statistical fact that the most dangerous time for a victim is after they leave their partner. During this period they are mostly likely to be physically harmed, maimed or killed by their partner.
But, it’s a misconception that victims are passive participants in their own abuse. Victims of violence, any violence (whether raped by a stranger, attacked in a bar or abused by a partner) will take physical, verbal and emotional actions to resist, minimize or stop the violence. This resistance is a crucial componant of their self-preservation, used to preserve and protect their dignity as a human being. A man being assualted with a baseball bat by his lover may put up his arms to protect his head; a woman receiving daily and unrelenting criticism about the food she cooks for her wife may just stop making any, and a person being raped by a person they love may close their eyes and imagine they are somewhere else. A person experiencing systemic family violence may also appear to align themselves with their abuser in court, when questioned by the cops or family and friends (knowing that if they don’t, they’ll get it later). Their resistance must be honoured and acknowledged if we are to provide useful support.
So, what can you do if someone you love is a victim of family violence? The most important thing to remember is to be non-judgemental. When I talk about judgement here, I’m talking about the attitude that you a) understand their situation as well or better than they do and b) know the best solution for their problem. If you pass judgment on your loved one through either words or actions, it is not likely that they will confide in you or ask you for help when they need it. You need to accept that they know their situation the best (ie. they know if it’s too dangerous to leave their partner) and that they are responsible for their own choices just like the abuser. The best you can do is lend a supportive ear, offer any help you can, learn about family violence and talk to them about it. Let them know that you are there for them, and that you will support them with their decisions. Sometimes just knowing that someone’s got your back can be a big self-confidence boost.
You can also support victims by suggesting and helping them to create a safety plan. This is a plan that they (and their children) can use to escape when their partner becomes violent. Making sure all important documents (birth certificates, SIN cards, Band Status cards, insurance papers, mortgage papers, leases, etc) are all in one place and easy to grab if they need to leave, and having an emergency stash of money in a separate bank account or with a trusted friend.
If you are, or think you may be, in an abusive relationship, there are many different supports available to you and any children you may have, whether you choose to leave or stay with your partner. And contrary to popular belief, unless you have children who are in danger, your choice not to go to the police about the abuse will be respected by most family violence supports. There are also supports available to abusive people who want to change their behaviour but aren’t sure how. Below are a few places to get started; remember that even if you don’t live in one of these cities, most have 1-800 numbers that you can call toll free and they will help refer you to services closer to home. Remember that you can always contact your local LGBTQ/Pride centre, University and college LGBTQ supports, counselling centres and women’s centres, any Family Violence shelter or your closest YWCA (that’s yWca not yMca).
Provincial/Territorial Government pages on Family Violence with resource listings:
Hot Peaches – A great info site and directory for services within Canada and around the globe
Discussion Paper on Family Violence in Gay male relationships from the Government of Canada – lists resources, myths about family violence in gay relationships and websites with more information
Directory of Services for men who are victims of Family Violence – listed by province/city
Discussion Paper on Family Violence in Lesbian relationships from the Government of Canada – a little bit older, but great information nonetheless
Directory of Services for men who abuse their partners – listed by province/city
Directory of Transitional Housing and Shelters for abused women – some of these resources are available to men, and will often referr to other services if not.
Photo Credit: Love The Way You Lie by Rihanna and Eminem