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Same-sex domestic
violence in the spotlight

Same-sex domestic
violence in the spotlight

After years of fighting what one service provider called an ''invisible epidemic,'' lawmakers and government agencies are taking steps to abandon the assumption that spousal abuse does not occur in couples of the same gender. The California legislature is considering a law requiring gays and lesbians who register as domestic partners to pay $23 toward domestic violence programs aimed at same-sex couples. If it passes as expected, the measure would be the first of its kind in the nation.

That would be welcomed news for Patrick Letellier. After he was beaten and abused by a partner about 20 years ago, Letellier's injuries were often dismissed as nothing more than rough ''sex play.'' Back then, there were no shelters or domestic violence services for battered gay men. And police were often not inclined to get involved in household disputes involving same-sex couples. ''I got really good at hiding things and wore long pants and long-sleeve shirts,'' said Letellier, a 43-year-old journalist from San Francisco.

Now as gays and lesbians have achieved greater recognition, so too has the darker side of same-sex relationships. California's proposed domestic violence fee for gay couples mirrors a similar surcharge on California marriage licenses that funds battered women's shelters and other domestic violence services. The measure also would require the state to train law enforcement and social service agencies on gay domestic violence and to make sure that gay representatives are included on committees that dispense domestic violence grants.

In New York State, where same-sex couples do not have domestic partner or civil union status, advocates are pushing a bill to dedicate money for domestic violence programs that serve a gay clientele. They also want to win same-sex couples access to family courts, making it easier for battered gays to obtain restraining orders against their abusers, said Clarence Patton, of the New York-based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

In the absence of government mandates, a growing network of nonprofit agencies that specialize in same-sex domestic violence has sprung up in cities like Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Houston; Kansas City; and Tucson, Ariz. Many police departments also have started training officers to know how to respond to gay or lesbian victims.

A 2003 survey by Patton's organization of 10 U.S. cities and Toronto reported 6,523 cases of same-sex domestic violence, including six homicides. That was a 13% increase from the year before, but the number is assumed to represent a fraction of the true number of incidents.

Like many victims, Letellier took years to summon the courage to recognize himself as a victim of domestic violence. ''It's not supposed to happen to men--or it doesn't happen to men--is still the thinking about it,'' he said.

Matthew Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said tales like Letellier's show that police and government officials are not alone in their tendency to minimize or misunderstand domestic violence when it occurs in gay relationships. ''There is enormous stigma attached to all domestic violence, but if you are a gay man and want to talk about it with friends, they will say, 'Why didn't you hit him back?' or 'How come you can't protect yourself?''' Foreman said. ''And since women are perceived to always be the victim of domestic violence in heterosexual situations, there is a stereotype of, How could two women be living in a domestic violence situation?"

Susan Holt, who runs the domestic violence program at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, said the program serves 400 clients a month, including batterers and their victims. Yet Holt still feels she's fighting ''an invisible epidemic,'' noting that Los Angeles County has 150 abuse prevention programs geared toward heterosexuals, compared with a handful designed for gay men and lesbians nationwide.

''Domestic violence, on some level, is so amazingly unoriginal,'' said Letellier, who has counseled other survivors, both gay and straight. ''It's so the same everywhere, so painfully the same.'' (AP)

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