Gay-on-gay violence

The gay community's dirty secret -- domestic violence -- is finally coming out of the closet.

Published February 27, 1997 8:10PM (EST)

gays in America, for all the progress that's been made, are still discriminated against, beaten up and sometimes worse. One of the targets of Atlanta's so-called "serial bomber" last Friday was a gay night club. Wednesday's New York Times reported that more gays than ever are being ejected from the military, despite President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell policy."

Such discrimination from the outside, along with the destructive force of the AIDS epidemic, has tended to obscure the internal problem that plagues the gay community: domestic violence. In fact, several recent studies suggest that same-sex domestic violence may be occurring at a similar rate -- approximately one-third of all relationships -- as heterosexual domestic violence.
A six-city survey conducted by gay activists last year turned up 1,566 reported incidents of gay domestic violence, several hundred more than reported incidents
of anti-gay harassment and violence.

Salon talked with Crystal Weston, the nation's first full-time advocate for
victims of gay, lesbian and transgender domestic violence. She
has been with the Family Violence Project at the San Francisco
District Attorney's Office since mid-November.

Most people have at least heard about "gay-bashing," but may be surprised at the extent of violence inside the gay community. How does it differ with domestic violence between a man and a woman?

The cycle is very
similar to heterosexual domestic violence -- tension-building, actual violence, and then a renewed honeymoon phase where the cycle starts all over again. It's really about power and control, and that's regardless of gender or sexuality.

How do the issues of power and control get played out in the gay community?

The closet plays a role in cases where the batterer is out and
the person who's being battered is not. In that case, the victim has no one to
turn to because no one even knows he or she is in a homosexual
relationship. Using children is another method, where the batterer would threaten to "out" his or her partner -- who is not out of the closet -- to the children or other members of their family.

Is AIDS a factor?

Yes. A recent study by CUAV (Community United Against Violence)
revealed that if the batterer is HIV-positive,
sometimes the batteree doesn't want to leave them. They feel
sorry for them because they might get sick and they want to help
them. If the person who is battered is HIV-positive, they may be
too scared to leave because they may feel, "I'll die alone," or, "He's
better than nobody at all." Or the person being battered may be
frightened to leave the relationship because of the prevalence of HIV on the dating scene.

Depending on whose figures you believe, up to 10 percent of the U.S. population may be gay, which means there may be much more violence in the gay community than anyone thought. Why are we only beginning to recognize this now?

There have been books on the subject, going back to the 1980s. But there has been resistance to the idea because it hasn't conformed with the traditional concentration on heterosexual domestic violence -- especially by feminists.

What do you mean?

Much of their theory is based on gender dynamics, misogyny,
men hating women. Bringing male-male and female-female violence into the equation
undermines their whole gender-based power theory of why domestic violence occurs.
It kind of throws a monkey wrench into their whole underlying philosophy.

What about resistance from the gay and lesbian community
who don't want their dirty laundry aired in public?

Definitely. Straight battered women have tremendous shame
and denial, and the same thing is felt on a
community-wide basis for gay people. Added to that is the sense of not wanting to increase the negative attention and attacks and pressure the gay community already feels itself under from the outside.

How easy or difficult is it for victims to get help? Is it fair to assume the police don't take cases of homosexual domestic violence very seriously? Talking
with others about gay domestic violence, I've heard that police might assume it's a "cat fight" or something sexual.

In general, police don't like any domestic violence calls because they don't want to
play so-called "social worker." Gays are deterred from seeking help
because they feel that the police will be heterosexist and homophobic and oftentimes they are. San Francisco, I must say, probably has a leg up because the District Attorney's office has made it a priority. We're working
to teach the police not to make assumptions based on gender or anything like that.

What other assumptions should they not make?

Don't assume that the person who is perceived as more
masculine is the aggressor. Sometimes it's the smaller
person who is wreaking havoc.

Are there shelters for victims of gay violence, like battered women's shelters?

There are no shelters for gay men. Lesbians can obviously go to the women's shelters,
but studies show that oftentimes they don't feel very welcome
there because everything -- all the literature, all the help -- is
heterosexually oriented. They don't feel like their situation
is really understood or acknowledged.

The extent of lesbian violence may be an even bigger surprise to straight society than gay male violence.

People are really surprised, especially around lesbian
battering. The notion among feminists,
lesbians -- among women in general -- is that this is a male problem:
Men beat woman and, yes, we can imagine men beating other men, but
women would never do such a thing. As if it's genetic. It's part of an older lesbian-feminist paradigm which says most of the problems in the world come from
men and if we could isolate ourselves from them, then things would
be kind of idyllic. It's not true. But people
in lesbian communities don't want to talk about that publicly.
It's like airing dirty laundry.

So you're having a harder time reaching lesbian victims of violence?

Women don't come in. Of the 95 cases I've seen since last June, less than five were women. A lot of women internalize the bad things that happen to them. They believe that
it's their fault, or "If I'd just done X, this wouldn't have
happened." I think there's less of an expectation that the
authorities would do something, that they have a right to be

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Ros Davidson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------