Within the wide scope of LGBT youth services offered at the Florida-based Zebra Coalition, and in many social service organizations, one of the most challenging and critical issues faced by young clients and their case management team is LGBT domestic violence. With so many social and legal issues that the modern day LGBT movement takes on, one of the most ignored is the inter-relationship violence that occurs in many LGBT couples. Even more overlooked is the lack of public policy, law entitlements and resources available to properly treat the issue and its root causes.
A young gay male reached out for help to the Zebra Coalition recently in need of emergency shelter and help to get away from his physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend. Fortunately, the Coalition was able to provide him with a safe place to stay, case management and counseling to be able to live independently and in a safe environment.
The sad reality of this example however is that if there was not a safe bed and counseling available at the Coalition, this young man would have had nowhere else to go and nowhere to escape his abusive partner. Accessible and effective housing options for abused LGBT individuals are few and far between.
It is estimated that one in three same-sex relationships are involved in a form of relationship violence whether physical, emotional, or psychological. The urgency of this issue is highlighted by the ratio that one in four heterosexual women is the victim of domestic violence. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or any other demographic factor, domestic violence in any capacity is an awful and unnecessary thing that no one should have to endure. While no one within the scope of victims is at any sort of “advantage,” LGBT individuals are unarguably at a disadvantage when it comes to available resources.
Current laws and social service guidelines do not allow for the effective prevention, intervention and treatment of LGBT domestic violence and its’ lasting effects. As in heterosexual relationships, the “abuser” in LBGT relationships has often times themselves been abused, whether by a former partner, parent or other figure in their past. A lack of open dialog about past abuse, affordable and available counseling and the perceived shame of being victims are often barriers for abusers to not receive proper prevention and treatment messaging in order to successfully break the cycle of abuse.
Safe and emergency based housing for men who are victims of domestic abuse and violence is virtually non-existent. This is just one of the many reasons why gay men may be reluctant to report abuse or feel they even have options to escape their abuser. Being the victim of abuse can case a severe sense of isolation brought on by feelings of guilt or embarrassment that they are somehow responsible for the treatment they are subjected to. Additionally, gay victims may be reluctant to file reports to law enforcement over threats by their abuser to “out” them to family members or co-workers who may be unaware of their sexual orientation. If the victim is not out to family, co-workers or even friends they may feel there is nowhere for them to turn and no one to talk to; their sense of isolation may intensify and cause depression and anxiety to set in.
Gay victims may also hesitate to formally report violence to police because a perceived lack (and actual lack in some cases) of proper training for officers to intervene and effectively deal with LGBT domestic violence. Studies of LGBT domestic violence show that same-sex couples are more apt to fight back than their heterosexual counterparts. Upon hearing of a physical defense from the victim, police often times view the violence as mutual and overlook the history of abuse and control that exists within the same-sex relationship and simply do nothing to prevent further abuse from occurring. Police may also have a lack of resources to refer victims and couples to due to a lack of exposure to culturally appropriate services available to the LGBT community.
State by state laws that define various rights and protections for LGBT citizens also make it difficult to understand victims’ rights. LGBT couples that live in states with little-to-no formalized recognition of same sex couples may find it difficult to report abusive partners for fear of losing the roof over their head, access to joint bank accounts or other shared physical assets. In extreme and perhaps the saddest of cases, unfavorable child adoption laws may interfere with resolution to domestic violence. In states where adoption laws do not allow for both same-sex parents to be listed legally as parents, the abuser may hold children as emotional collateral against the victim in doing what is right and best for them.
To bring this issue of LGBT domestic violence out of the shadows, growing acceptance and assimilation of LGBT individuals and couples must continue. Acceptance of LGBT individuals within families, schools, workplaces and communities will attribute to pro-LGBT attitudes and ideally reflect within local, state and federal laws. Through more inclusive and equal laws LGBT victims of domestic abuse will have additional protections and in time greater resources in which services and housing options will be available. Greater conversations and open dialog is also necessary within the LGBT community regarding prevention and intervention practices to keep victims safe.
ANTHONY ARMSTRONG is the development manager and grant writer for the Center For Drug Free Living Inc., the largest AIDS service organization in central Florida. Armstrong is also a founding board member of the Zebra Coalition, one of the first full continuum of care housing programs for LGBT youth in the United States.