Abuse and neglect

Domestic violence occurs as often among gay couples as among hetereosexuals, according to a new study, but victims of same-sex battering do not have equal protection under the law.

By David Tuller
June 4, 2003 11:36PM (UTC)
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Patrick Letellier was shocked the first time his boyfriend punched him. And when "Steven," as he refers to him these days, fell onto his knees and began to cry, Letellier immediately forgave him.

"I started comforting him, telling him that I was OK," recalled Letellier. "And the pattern was set. He would hit me, and I would say we should try to work it out."


The violence gradually escalated, said Letellier, from a few times a year to monthly to weekly. During the last six months of their four-year relationship, Steven threatened to kill Letellier, pounded his head against the pavement in their San Francisco neighborhood, and beat him for chopping up carrots in a manner Steven didn't like.

Letellier became increasingly desperate, but he was reluctant to seek help. He had only recently come out to his family and was ashamed to tell them about the abuse. Some of his friends didn't believe him. He felt he couldn't go to the police because he was sure they wouldn't take the situation seriously. And he thought he should be able to defend himself.

Letellier also believed that he was more or less alone, the victim of an isolated case of bad luck rather than a larger, more significant, social ill. He was aware that domestic violence was an issue for heterosexual couples, but no one he knew ever talked about it as a problem in same-sex relationships.


"The turning point came when I saw a flier that said, 'Does the hand that holds you in public strike you in private?' and then in big letters, 'Gay Domestic Violence,'" he says. "All of a sudden I knew that what was happening to me was not about me. I hadn't had a language for it, but I thought, 'Omigod, he's a batterer, I need to get away from him.'"

Letellier finally left Steven for good in 1987. Now, more than 15 years later, a large-scale study has shown that abusive same-sex relationships are not rare. In fact, according to the research, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, more than a fifth of the 2,881 men surveyed -- in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- had been physically battered by an intimate partner during the previous five years. It is a rate comparable to the incidence of domestic violence among heterosexuals.

"This study demonstrates that intimate partner abuse among urban MSM [men who have sex with men] is a very serious public health problem," wrote the researchers, in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health. "It sheds light on a subject that has long been taboo both within and outside this MSM community -- that is, men are also victims of battering and not solely perpetrators."


In the past few years, most of the public attention on same-sex relationships has focused on the fight for the freedom to marry and obtain health insurance, custody rights and other benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples. The legality of sodomy laws that restrict the right of gay couples to engage in sexual relations is also currently under review at the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently heard arguments in a case brought by two Texas men who were arrested for having sex at home.

But gay and lesbian relationships are also prone to the same kinds of troubles as their nongay counterparts. And when it comes to gay domestic violence, not only has society largely ignored the issue, but the law itself also frequently discriminates against same-sex couples. Making the issue more complicated is the reluctance of some members of the gay community to publicize any dysfunction in their midst.


"A lot of people will say, 'We don't want to air our dirty laundry,' so it's not something they want to bring up," said Julia Sudduth of the Antelope Valley Domestic Violence Council. "You have a lot of the public to begin with condemning you because of your sexuality, and then it's kind of like, 'You deserved this.'"

According to a report last year from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Project (NCAVP), an umbrella organization of groups that address gay-related hate crimes as well as domestic battering, six states -- Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, New York, South Carolina and Virginia -- have laws regarding protection orders for victims of domestic violence that specifically exclude same-sex relationships.

Most other states have adopted gender-neutral language for their protective-order statutes, meaning that gays and lesbians should be able to obtain protective orders as easily as heterosexuals, although whether the system always works that way is open to question. Recently, for example, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court, in setting aside a criminal case against a gay man accused of beating up his boyfriend, ruled that the territory's domestic-violence statute could not be applied to same-sex couples.


And even when statutes are neutral on the matter, law enforcement officials often do not understand or know how to handle situations involving gay domestic violence, and they have tended to dismiss or ignore the seriousness of the issue. Although some police departments and district attorney's offices in cities with large gay populations, such as San Francisco, have taken steps to sensitize their employees to the issue, many officers and prosecutors treat these situations as cases of mutual battery.

"It gets minimized," said Shawna Virago, director of the domestic violence survivor program at San Francisco's Community United Against Violence, which documents cases of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender domestic violence. "If it's two men, it's 'boys will be boys.' If it's two women, it's a catfight. Some people will think, 'They're both the same size, so what's the problem? Why can't they just defend themselves?'"

The media response to the December study in the public health journals is perhaps indicative of the problem. While the research was widely reported in the gay and lesbian press -- along with some criticism of the methodology used by the researchers -- only a couple of mainstream newspapers picked up on the issue. Michael Relf, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Nursing and Health Studies and a lead author of the study, said he still holds out hope that the work will spark further research and encourage public agencies to commit resources and develop services to meet the obvious need.


"The American healthcare system isn't very good at screening for violence against women," he said. "When you add in that many healthcare providers aren't even aware of same-sex domestic violence, or that patients may not be comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation to the provider, then it gets enormously complex, and the questions don't get asked."

But even if the questions are asked, and the severity of the problem, as reflected in Relf's study, is revealed, can he and his fellow researchers assume that healthcare providers, social services agencies, and government-funded support for victims of domestic violence will be increased to accommodate the additional need?

Not necessarily, if history is any guide.

Advocates for the victims of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender domestic violence have long insisted that the incidence of the problem in same-sex relationships is similar to the rate for non-gay couples. For years, even as they have collected data to support their claim, these activists have been frustrated by a consistent lack of attention from researchers, public and private funders, and the extensive network of agencies serving battered (read: heterosexual) women.


There are currently, for example, no known shelters specifically for victims of same-sex domestic violence. Sudduth, the parenting and special programs advocate at the Antelope Valley agency, which runs the Valley Oasis Shelter in Lancaster, Calif., recalled that at a meeting of same-sex domestic violence advocates in Los Angeles, a police officer reported that he experienced intense frustration when he would receive calls from gay victims.

"He's appalled because he has no place to take them and has to drop them off at a Denny's," said Sudduth. "If this was happening to a woman and people found out she was being dropped off at a restaurant, there would be a public outcry."

But advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic violence acknowledge that they have also encountered resistance from some of the very people they have been attempting to help.

"For so long, we've been very closeted about this issue in our own communities," says Virago of Community United Against Violence. "The queer community has struggled for many years to be seen as having healthy and loving relationships, so people are hesitant to put forward anything that's not positive. But our relationships are like heterosexual relationships, just as healthy or just as [messed] up."


Still, over the course of the past decade, a small but growing social service industry has tried to focus attention on the problem. After surviving his experience, Letellier co-wrote a book on the subject -- "Men Who Beat the Men Who Love Them: Battered Gay Men and Domestic Violence" -- and began working for the San Francisco district attorney's office, one of the few local law enforcement agencies around the country that has generally been sympathetic to such concerns.

Now a lecturer on gay and lesbian politics and culture at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Letellier has counseled battered men and women and educated prosecutors and police officers about same-sex domestic violence. He and other activists learned that many gays and lesbians had experiences similar to his own: abuse by an intimate partner combined with denial that same-sex relationships could suffer from the same problems as heterosexual ones. He found familiar embarrassment among his clients about telling family and friends of the abuse, and a pervasive lack of interest on the part of many law enforcement agencies to address the matter.

For members of the NCAVP, the new study on gay domestic violence was way overdue. While they have long been aware of the extent of the problem, they say, it is significant that research published in a major journal confirms what they have been maintaining for years -- that gay domestic violence has steadily increased since they first started collecting numbers six years ago. Their report last year, released in September, cited 5,046 cases of domestic violence during 2001, which was about 25 percent higher than the previous year.

The new study included telephone interviews with men across the country who identified as either gay or bisexual or otherwise acknowledged sexual experiences with male partners. The researchers asked the men about physical battering, such as being hit with fists, being pushed or kicked, or having something thrown at them; psychological or symbolic battering, such as being stalked or verbally threatened; and sexual battering, defined as being forced to have sex. According to the results, 34 percent of those surveyed had experienced psychological abuse, 22 percent physical abuse, and 5 percent sexual abuse.


There is validation in the reported numbers, say victim advocates, who add that the study's documented rates of abuse were pretty much in line with their own overall impressions. But they also outlined problems with some specifics of the research, noting that the study blurred some important issues and ignored others entirely.

For one thing, the study completely failed to distinguish between men who were abused during a one-night stand and those who suffered repeatedly at the hands of a regular boyfriend or sexual partner -- a limitation Relf himself acknowledged, saying he hoped a subsequent study would shed light on the "intensity" of the violence. "In the five years we asked about, it could have happened once, it could have happened once a week, or every day," said Relf.

Another common objection, and perhaps a more significant one, was that -- despite the apparent efforts of the researchers to cast a wide net -- the vast majority of the respondents were white. As a result, said same-sex domestic violence advocates, African-American and other ethnic minorities were significantly underrepresented relative to their numbers in the urban areas covered by the study.

"We were really disappointed when we read the study," said Rachel Baum, coordinator of the domestic violence program for the NCAVP. "If a study had a sample that was 80 percent Asian men, it would be considered a study about Asian men. In this case it was 80 percent white, and that's very difficult to apply in areas where the percentage of the white population is actually half that."

Also disappointing is the reality that, despite the high incidence of gay domestic violence, the options for victims remain limited. Understandably, men -- including gay men -- are not generally welcome in women's shelters. Lesbians, for their part, may seek to stay in shelters, but they may feel uncomfortable or not accepted by heterosexual women or forced to stay closeted to other residents. Some of the organizations participating in the NCAVP can provide vouchers for short-term stays in hotels or may be able to arrange housing in private homes for someone in a dire situation.

As far as advocates for victims of same-sex violence are aware, Valley Oasis, near Los Angeles, is the only shelter in the country that accepts all domestic violence victims, of any gender and orientation, as residents. Despite the organization's openness, Sudduth said she has heard co-workers laugh at a transgendered person staying in the shelter or express concern that a lesbian might make a pass at them. And gays and lesbians can still feel uncomfortable in a support group in which all the other domestic violence victims are heterosexual.

Leaders in the broader domestic violence awareness movement acknowledge the problem. Juley Fulcher, public policy director of the Colorado-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that the organization has a caucus for non-heterosexual women and has sponsored two national gatherings on same-sex domestic violence. But she acknowledges that gay men, in particular, are not well-served by existing services.

"We know that domestic violence exists in the gay male population," she said. "But men are far less often victims than women, and because most of our work focuses on female victims, gay men aren't always included in our work as well as they could be or should be."

Baum and others in the field say that while the pace of change is slow, they have definitely noticed more mainstream interest in the subject. "We see more and more mainstream domestic violence programs understanding that there's a need," she said. "When we go to conferences, a swarm of people comes up saying they had a lesbian come in, they had a gay man call, here's what they did, is that OK."

Most of the time, however, Baum said that openness to the issue depends upon the presence of a particular person working at the agency with a special understanding of the problem. While in many ways same-sex domestic violence resembles the heterosexual variety, she said, it also differs in significant respects.

It is not unknown for women to batter men in heterosexual couples, but in the vast majority of cases it is the male who is the batterer. With a same-sex couple, it can be much harder for those outside the relationship to determine which one is the victim. Since some gays and lesbians may also be more likely than heterosexual women to defend themselves physically, both parties may end up bruised or bloody.

But many people automatically -- and wrongly -- assume that the partner who is physically larger, or the one who is more butch, is always the perpetrator. Moreover, gays and lesbians themselves may not recognize the abusive situation. Gay men may feel that they're supposed to be able to fight back; lesbians may not want to believe that other women are capable of hurting them.

Another factor is that batterers in same-sex couples often have a potentially powerful weapon that straight people do not. If victims are not open about their sexual orientation to family, friends or employers, the threat of being outed can be an effective way for the abuser to maintain a significant measure of control and domination. And even when gays and lesbians have already come out, they are sometimes, as Letellier was, ashamed to disclose the abuse to anyone, especially if family and straight friends remain uncomfortable with the whole issue of homosexuality. Given the rising incidence of abuse, and the failure of the law to protect its victims, silence is a dangerous choice for victims to make.

David Tuller

David Tuller is a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."

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