Who We Leave Out When We Talk About Domestic Violence

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s DOMA decision and the Prop 8 ruling still fresh in our minds, it may seem like the LGBT community and advocates have few hurdles left to face.

That’s not entirely true. Domestic abuse in the LGBT community is rarely discussed in our national dialogue despite its prevalence in society. This needs to change.

Domestic abuse doesn’t typically make for cheery, feel-good stories, so it’s already a challenge to shine a light on it. It can be even harder to talk about in the LGBT community because addressing it can be perceived as a disservice to the larger LGBT movement.

“The challenge for those of us that are LGBT-positive and interested in looking at sexual violence is that, sometimes, we fear that if we share these things we will somehow pathologize the LGBT community,” says Casey C. Condit, a former programs manager at Wingspan, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center in Tucson, Ariz.

But domestic abuse happens. And it happens in the LGBT community about as frequently as domestic abuse in heterosexual relationships. If you’re a straight female, for example, the chance that you’ll be in a domestic-abuse situation is one in four. If you’re in a same-sex relationship, the chance is one in four to one in three, according to the Center for American Progress. But when was the last time you read a news story about a domestic abuse case that involved a same-sex couple?

So although challenging or maybe awkward to address, this population of victims can’t be ignored.

If you identify as LGBT, there are added complications to a probably already turbulent cycle of abuse. There can be fears of being “outed” if help is sought. Police might not be trained to handle LGBT domestic violence cases, women have been denied resources at shelters because of their sexual orientation, and how many domestic-violence shelters are there that serve gay men? Not many.

Additionally, if you identify as LGBT and are a survivor of domestic violence, there’s about a 50% chance that shelter safety won’t be accessible for you and a 25% chance that the authorities will think you’re the aggressor and arrest you, according to a Huffington Post article by Pierre R. Berastaín.

In Tucson, where I attended college and wrote my thesis on domestic abuse, Wingspan serves as Southern Arizona’s LGBT community center. And although they have an entire program dedicated to domestic violence prevention and victims, they don’t have space or the resources to house victims at their center.

And another, more controversial thought that my thesis provoked: Is sexuality innate? I read about this idea and interviewed victims who said that their trauma history had an impact on their sexual orientation. Jennifer Baumgardner, a feminist activist who identifies as bisexual, told a discussion panel in Tucson this past April that her sister's rape made her wary, and even afraid of, sex. It was through her relationships with women that her fears of fornication diminished and enabled her to trust men in a sexual setting.

“But it really wasn’t until I began having sexual relationships with women that I really felt myself be calm enough, or connected to myself enough, that I think I grew sexually,” Baumgardner says. “And now I think I can be a pretty full and connected sexual person regardless of the gender of my sex partner. But I’m not sure I could have gotten there without having had long-term relationships with women.”

She was quick to add that she doesn’t want her story to be reduced to the idea that women can’t hurt other women, and I can understand her concern. When people hear the words “domestic abuse,” a male aggressor and a female victim are probably what comes to mind.

I still think, of course, that some people are born gay, or straight, or bisexual, but writing my thesis forced me to think about the people whose experiences altered their sexuality. It’s saddening that domestic abuse happens, but it’s OK that people are affected by their experiences, Condit says.

I agree. The ability to be affected by our experiences is what makes us human.

So the next time you read a trend piece on domestic abuse, try not to think in stereotypes. Anyone can commit an act of violence and anyone can be a victim, so we can’t forget about the LGBT domestic abuse cases out there.