LGBTQ+ domestic abuse needs more than rainbows and hand-wringing

In light of the report into the demise of Broken Rainbow, an LGBTQ+ domestic violence charity, Karen Pollock explores what is needed to support LGBTQ+ survivors.


There was a sad synchronicity in being at a conference looking at LGBTQ+ domestic violence on the same day as the report into the failure of Broken Rainbow came out. The event, organised as it was by the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association (LAGLA) and Northumbria Police LGBT showed how mainstream discussion of both domestic violence and LGBT issues has become, on the surface at least.

The history of approaching domestic violence as a discrete and understandable (in the sense of can be studied, and explained) pattern of behaviours is intertwined with the history of feminism. A movement which explicitly said that the power dynamics of different genders led to abuse was ideally placed to demand that violence which had so often been ignored be challenged. The move to build refuges and provide specialised services, often peer led, with lived experiences mattering, led to a transformation of domestic violence services.  However, as Professor Catherine Donovan, one of the leading LGBT domestic violence experts in the world,  made clear at Thursday’s conference, a  narrow public story of what domestic violence looks like has been the downside of this increased awareness.

The average person, when thinking about domestic abuse, imagines physical acts of violence perpetrated on a cis heterosexual woman by a cis heterosexual man. They may also add in assumed ideas about class, race, educational level and disability. This “average person” includes not only support services, counsellors, the police, but victims and survivors themselves. All the research into LGBTQ+ domestic violence shows that because of the dominant narrative non cis/het victims exclude themselves from the category of victim of abuse. This exclusion is so strong that in Donvan’s original COSHAR research the word harm, rather than abuse was used, as in have you ever harmed/been harmed by a partner. The public idea of what domestic violence looks like is so fixed, and gendered in one direction that it is assumed that same sex relationships cannot involve it. Bisexual and transgender people (and its important to remember trans people may also be LGBQ) are doubly erased, since the public story often assumes they must be either the perpetrator, or in a heterosexual  relationship (and not therefore LGBTQ+)

…a  narrow public story of what domestic violence looks like has been the downside of this increased awareness.

It seems clear to me that we have forgotten the origins of our understanding of domestic violence. Campaigners identified not only patterns of behaviour, but the need for specialist training, and support, often working with victims who did not identify as a victim. Consciousness raising may seem like a hangover from the 60’s but it was part of turning the narrative around about domestic violence. The etiology of victimhood is something which is complex, and all too often ignored. Not only are there the arguments and debates around whether to use the term victim or survivor, but there is often a failure to identify abuse, because one does not identify as a victim. Sometimes this can be about gender essentialist norms. Did you know for example that if the public is asked to identify the victim of abuse, from pictures, in a lesbian relationship they will chose the more conventionally feminine one? At other times it may be about what the word victim means to someone, whose self perception does not allow the idea of not being strong and in control.

The public idea of what domestic violence looks like is so fixed, and gendered in one direction that it is assumed that same sex relationships cannot involve it.

Just as the conventional narrative may mean people do not see themselves as a victim of abuse, so what counts as abuse is often erased. A commonality within abusive same sex relationships is the abusive partner exploiting a lack of knowledge of community norms and standards. Demanding bareback sex for example, with the justification that “this is how it is done” or withholding access to community spaces, the lack of relationship role models combine with the lack of LGBTQ+ sex and relationship education to leave newly out LGBTQ+ people vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Outing itself is a specific feature of LGBTQ+ domestic abuse, often underestimated, and therefore ignored by mainstream organisations.

The need to understand that LGBTQ+ domestic abuse may be expressed in different ways to the common narrative is still one that many struggle with. All too often I see organisations simply tack the disclaimer of “abuse can happen to all genders and sexualites” as if this is enough. Consider a trans woman, told by her partner that she can not dress in appropriate clothes for her gender. Control of how a partner dresses is a classic feature of coercive control, but how many mainstream organisations would recognise coercive control in this scenario? I fear far too few.

if the public is asked to identify the victim of abuse, from pictures, in a lesbian relationship they will chose the more conventionally feminine one?

When it comes to the police, we have a combination of issues, from community distrust, to reporting procedures which limit how an incident can be listed. Something currently can be a hate crime, or an incident of domestic abuse. How then are we to describe, for example, a teenager who is assaulted by their parent for being gay? It may on the surface look like a hate crime, but the support needed may be only available via domestic violence recording.

The public story of domestic violence again comes into play when we look at police responses. Much of their training tells them to look for patterns of abuse, frequent calls to a house for example. However research shows that LGBTQ+ victims are far less likely to contact the police, so any call should be treated as high priority. The need to go further than saying LGBTQ+ abuse exists, and into the way it might present differently, in a number of ways, is clear.

Consider a trans woman, told by her partner that she can not dress in appropriate clothes for her gender. Control of how a partner dresses is a classic feature of coercive control, but how many mainstream organisations would recognise coercive control

Each strand of the LGBTQ+ community has its own specific needs, issues, and iterations of domestic abuse. Almost two years ago Steph Farnsworth covered this issue, and it seems that while some progress has been made, we are still fighting the idea of including the letters LGBT is enough. Whilst of course there are common features to all domestic abuse, including that most traditionally thought of, we know the importance of specialised knowledge and training.  We need more than blanket disclaimers of “DV can happen to anyone”. It even needs to go beyond “LGBTQ+ domestic violence exists.” Instead we must  look at our already gained knowledge, and into the different ways lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people may experience domestic abuse. This will take a willingness to let go of simple narratives, and the communities to be honest about their own flaws. However until this is done, it is not just rainbows which will be broken, but lives.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

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