The stereotypical image of domestic violence is of a man hurting and controlling his female partner. While the majority of abusive relationships do fall into this demographic pattern, this is by no means the only dynamic in which abuse can occur. Abusers can be any gender and controlling relationships are not limited to heterosexual couples. As June is Pride Month, now is a pertinent time to talk about domestic violence in the LGBTQIA+ community.
What Does LGBTQIA+ Stand For?
This initialism is used to describe the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of a wide range of people: basically, anyone who does not identify as heterosexual, straight, or cisgender. Sexual orientation refers to someone’s physical, emotional, and/or romantic attraction, while gender identity refers to their internal sense of being male, female, nonbinary, or gender fluid. An individual’s gender identity may be different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Cisgender (often shortened to “cis”) is a term coined in the 1990s as the opposite of transgender. It comes from the Latin word “cis”, meaning “on the same side”, and describes when one identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Originating in the 1970s as “LGB” for lesbian, gay, and bisexual, “T” was added in the 90s to include transgender individuals. More recently, “Q” was added for queer or questioning. “Queer” is also sometimes used as a general term for all of these identities. Many people stop there and use the shorter initialism LGBTQ or LGBTQ+, with “+” representing any other non-hetero, straight, or cis identities. In the last few years, it is becoming more common to use the longer initialism LGBTQIA+, which includes “I” for intersexual and “A” for asexual (sometimes shortened to “ace”). This is still not fully representational of the community, however, and likely to continue to change. Some already include a “P” for pansexual, “2S” for two-spirit, and the “A” can also stand for ally. For this post, we chose the current most inclusive commonly-used initialism but recognize there are diverse others represented by “+”.
With such a wide array of identities covered by LGBTQIA+, gathering accurate statistics is complex, and some terms may be used to more broadly categorize, encompassing multiple more specific identities. There is very little research into domestic violence in LGBTQIA+ relationships compared with heterosexual relationships, but this does not mean it is less common. In fact, intimate partner violence occurs at an equal or higher rate between LGBTQIA+ partners than heterosexual partners (NCADV). 25-33% of LGBTQIA+ people experience abuse by a partner. Among transgender people specifically, it is significantly more common, with 54% experiencing some form of partner abuse. (The Network La Red).
The abuse itself is also equally or more damaging to LGBTQIA+ victims. Gay men and bisexual women, in particular, are more likely to experience severe physical violence than straight men and women (HRC). Anyone can be an abuser or a victim but there are certain groups at higher risk. In the LGBTQIA+ community, trans, black, bisexual, and those on public assistance are at the highest risk for intimate partner violence (NCADV).
Unique Aspects of LGBTQIA+ Abuse
LBGTQIA+ victims experience many similar types of abuse and tactics as heterosexual victims. There are, however, certain aspects that are unique to domestic violence in LGBTQIA+ relationships. For those wishing to be more private about how they identify, “outing” or threatening to “out” a partner can be used as a way to control them. It may also be a reason why a victim would choose not to tell anyone about the abuse or to seek help. LGBTQIA+ people often experience other sorts of trauma, such as bullying or hate crimes, that can also make them more susceptible to manipulation and less likely to seek support.
Due to the erroneous perception that LGBTQIA+ individuals are more promiscuous, an abuser may “slut-shame” them by deriding their choices, bringing up past experiences, or telling them they are untrustworthy due to the number of previous partners (sexual, romantic, or both) they have had. This is more likely in couples where the victim identifies as LGBTQIA+ but the abuser does not. In those cases, the abuser may also “other” their partner by insisting their queer identity be a secret from the abuser’s friends and family or by referring to themselves as the “normal” one in the relationship. Feeling they are not “normal” can wear down victims’ self-esteem and independence. They may feel they are causing the problem by not conforming to traditional roles.
Beyond experiencing abuse at a higher rate than other LGBTQIA+ identities, those who are transgender may suffer even more specific forms of abuse and ridicule. An abusive partner may tell them they are not a “real man” or “real woman” and make derisive comments about their bodies or appearance. They may question or make fun of their partner’s gender identity by calling them “butch” or “femme”, refuse to use their partner’s preferred pronouns, or even use the denigrating pronoun “it” when referring to them. Withholding medications and not allowing their partner to heal from surgery are some physical forms of abuse that are particular to transgender individuals.
Difficulties in Seeking Support
Unfortunately, some requests for assistance may be scorned, mishandled (deliberate or not), or denied due to homo/trans/bi-phobia on the part of the person, organization, or public official providing support. There is a lack of education and understanding surrounding LGBTQIA+ abuse victims. While the law should protect everyone equally, sometimes individuals tasked with upholding the law allow their own prejudices to color said protection. Because of this, many LGBTQIA+ individuals do not feel they can reach out for help and may fear reporting any abuse. In fact, 45% of LGBTQIA+ domestic violence victims do not report violence they experience to the police because they do not believe it will help (NCADV). Less than 5% seek protective orders from the court system (VeryWellMind).
Even if they wish to, support and legal staff may not have the resources to provide assistance. Many shelters are female-only and some are not friendly to transgender people, leading to confusion and refusal of service to non-female, non-cisgender individuals. Some LGBTQIA+ people may also fear that putting their problems out in the world could add to anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments and negatively impact the equality progress that has been made.
With LGBTQIA+ communities typically being smaller and tight-knit, victims might feel they are risking losing vital friends in their community who may side with their partner. The added stress and potential isolation are factors against telling anyone about the abuse. Gender stereotypes also play a role, especially concerning belief. Victims who do not physically fit victim stereotypes or who are abused by a partner who does not fit abuser stereotypes, may feel no one will believe them. People assume that the more “masculine presenting” partner must be the abuser. This is certainly not always the case, but it may impact whether the victim is believed and/or keep them from seeking support due to the fear that they will not be believed. (For more on the importance of belief, check out our May 2022 blog post, “Listen & Believe: That’s All You Need to Do”.)
However you identify, there are some great resources out there to learn more about domestic violence in LGBTQIA+ relationships and about the community in general. The following organizations provide lots of information and some offer direct support in Massachusetts.
The Network/La Red is a Boston-based, survivor-led, social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, BDSM, polyamorous, and queer communities. They provide a 24-hour hotline, individual and group support, housing programs, information, trainings, and additional resources.
Forge is a national organization providing resources, support, and trainings for transgender and non-binary people and those who work with them.
LGBTQ Domestic Violence Foundation works to support survivors and end abuse through awareness, education, and reducing barriers to accessing help. While they are an Australian organization as far as local support, they provide great resources for education and awareness worldwide.
While domestic abuse can occur in any relationship regardless of how the partners identify, there are added complexities, unique ramifications, and fewer resources for LGBTQIA+ victims. More awareness, education, understanding, and support is needed to ensure everyone feels they can reach out for help and to work toward ending domestic violence in all communities.
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