“It must be a lot safer to be in a relationship with another girl. She understands you and you understand her. You probably get in fewer fights.”
I worked in law enforcement, so when my female coworker said this thought aloud, it was at least slightly relevant. We had just processed an emergency phone call after a man got angry at his wife and pushed her over the back of a couch. It’s normal for us to discuss each call in the awkward period of time between the call’s initiation and its resolution, and for some reason, my coworker had begun to think about similar scenarios with same-sex couples.
At the time, I actually agreed with her. Her reasoning made sense: Women understand the way women think. Men understand the way men think. Pair two of a kind, and you’re bound to have a more perceptive and empathetic relationship. Right?
As it turns out, she was wrong―and as a result, so was I. Much in the way that domestic violence occurs across social classes, tax brackets, levels of education, ages, and races, domestic violence occurs across all relationship orientations. Male-female relationships experience it. Female-female relationships experience it. Male-male relationships experience it. Relationships including intersex, genderqueer, and agender folk experience it. It’s unfortunate, but there’s no escaping the possibility of a full-fledged verbal or physical incident by simply “going gay.”
One in every four heterosexual women experiences domestic violence at some point in her life. Similarly, one in every four (and by some estimates, one in every three) same-sex relationships has experienced domestic violence. Though it may come as a surprise to some, it makes sense when you recognize that domestic violence isn’t a gender-versus-gender issue; it’s a power issue. Women who abuse other women “may do so for reasons similar to those that motivate heterosexual male batterers,” says Dr. Suzana Rose of the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center at the University of Missouri. “Lesbians abuse their partners to gain and maintain control.” Similar motivations can be found in men who abuse their male partners.
Most perpetrators of domestic violence commit harmful acts against their partner because they feel inferior, insecure, or unimportant, and they see physical or emotional abuse as a method of gaining the upper hand. Others act in harmful ways toward their partner because they’re wrapped in the illusion that their partner makes them whole and is responsible for their happiness. Both causes involve the buildup of control over another person for the benefit of the perpetrator. For this reason, domestic violence can occur in any type of romantic relationship―not just straight ones. (Aside: Domestic violence also occurs in familial relationships and even those between roommates.)
And while there is a large gap between the number of straight women who experience domestic violence and the number of straight women who report it, people within the LGBT community endure unique challenges when it comes to seeking justice.
In order to make a domestic violence report, an individual has to disclose what type of relationship they share with their abuser. For some, this isn’t an issue; for others, it can be nerve-wracking and even dangerous. A “closeted” individual may not feel safe disclosing their sexuality to law enforcement, friends or family they’d stay with, or nosy coworkers. Consequently, the victim may be afraid of reporting the abuse at all.
Depending on the area in which the victim lives, they may have a difficult time garnering respect and sensitivity from law enforcement and court staff. Some law enforcement agencies participate in specialized LGBT sensitivity and awareness training, which allows them to improve the way they serve queer citizens. However, in other areas (traditionally conservative ones or those that lack diversity), domestic violence victims from the LGBT community struggle to share their experiences without being ridiculed or dismissed. Even in moderately progressive areas, queer victims run the risk of making their report with the one intolerant officer on-shift.
One hopes that reporting domestic violence will result in prosecution, but the actual justice process brings another slew of people into the picture. Court staff (namely the judge) may be insensitive to LGBT identities and issues. Defense attorneys might resort to calling physical abuse of a woman by another woman a “cat fight;” they may call say that because a man hit another man, it was a “fair fight.” Intolerant juries could be wary of convicting defendants with whom they can’t relate. Though acceptance of and education about the LGBT community is generally on the rise, victims of domestic violence in same-sex relationships are often anxious about whether they will be treated with empathy as they seek justice for abuse.
Finally, the law itself may prevent victims of domestic violence from achieving justice. It was only summer of this year that the Supreme Court of South Carolina realized a portion of its domestic violence law were discriminatory against unmarried same-sex couples. (The law protected spouses, former spouses, people with children in common, or men and women have lived together―not same-sex couples who had never been married.) The Supreme Court of South Carolina has ruled the law unconstitutional and sought gender-neutral terminology similar to that of California’s law. But how many states remain sneakily biased against queer victims of domestic violence? How many judges will deny victims protection orders simply because they were in a same-sex relationship with their abuser?
Not only are same-sex relationships just as prone to domestic violence as straight relationships, but queer victims face exceptional challenges when it comes to seeking justice against their abuser. Law enforcement professionals, court staff, lawmakers, and the public must recognize this unfortunate reality in order to effect change and make domestic violence a rarity for people from all sorts of relationships, regardless of sex or gender.
American Psychological Association. Violence & Socioeconomic Status. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/violence.aspx
Center for American Progress (2011). Domestic Violence in the LGBT Community. CAP. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/news/2011/06/14/9850/domestic-violence-in-the-lgbt-community/
Rose, S. (2000). Lesbian Partner Violence Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://mainweb-v.musc.edu/vawprevention/lesbianrx/factsheet.shtml
Shwayder, M. (2013). A Same-Sex Domestic Violence Epidemic is Silent. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/a-same-sex-domestic-violence-epidemic-is-silent/281131/
Miraglia, G. (2017). Training For Law Enforcement. Out To Protect: Coming Out From Behind The Badge. Retrieved from http://www.comingoutfrombehindthebadge.com/announcements/training-law-enforcement/
Firestone, L. (2012). Why Domestic Violence Occurs and How to Stop It. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201210/why-domestic-violence-occurs-and-how-stop-it
NBC (2017). Domestic Violence Law Unfair to Gay South Carolina Couples, Court Rules. NBC Out. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/domestic-violence-law-unfair-gay-south-carolina-couples-court-rules-n786831