It’s a scene we all know well. We’ve seen it in government ads, in sad movies. There’s a man. He’s smashing his fists on the locked bathroom door and howling threats through it. Broken plates and a shattered lamp lie at his feet. In between his screams, we can hear someone sobbing from behind the bathroom door, pleading quietly. Look: the lock is splintering now – it’s only a matter of time before it breaks open. It’s a scene we all know. But something here is different. Behind the bathroom door hides another man. He’s tall, fit, and looks as though he’d be perfectly capable of holding his own in a fight. But he’s just been beaten up, called a faggot, and heard death threats from the person he loves the most in the world: his boyfriend. Right now, his muscles are no good to him. And the door breaks open.
Domestic violence is a problem that has been on the feminist agenda for decades. Since Carol Hanisch declared that “the personal is political” in 1969, women’s rights advocates have worked tirelessly to ensure that men who commit acts of violence against their wives or partners are not shielded from state retribution within the privacy of their own homes. And, thanks to movements such as White Ribbon Day and the “Violence Against Women: Australia Says No”, most of Australia is now well aware that “wife-beating” is both illegal and abhorrent. But, in 2013, we’re becoming increasingly aware that not all domestic violence victims are wives, and not all abusers are husbands.
In fact, not all perpetrators are men, and not all victims are women. In 2013, evidence suggests that domestic violence occurs in gay and lesbian relationships at almost exactly the same rate as it does in heterosexual relationships: about one in three. Among relationships that involve at least one transgender or intersex person, the statistics are much, much higher. Why, then, is this still such a marginal issue?
For the past fifty years, LGBTIQ Australians have been fighting battles on virtually every front. Today, thousands of LGBTIQ Australians are still waiting on the rights to marry, to adopt, and to not be described as “immoral, unnatural and abnormal” by the longest-serving member of the NSW State Parliament (cheers, Fred Nile). Given this history of institutionalised discrimination and demonisation, it’s unsurprising that the LGBTIQ community has gone to extraordinary lengths to present a positive image of itself to society at-large. Events such as Mardi Gras and the Sydney Pride Festival are designed to (among other things) promote a happy, fun, fabulous image of LGBTIQ relationships, lifestyles, and communities.
Meanwhile, organisations such as Australian Marriage Equality and GetUP! place great emphasis on the loving and committed nature of LGBTIQ relationships in their fight for same-sex marriage rights.
According to Elizabeth*, a queer-identifying Sydney resident, glitter and Mardi Gras are all very well, but can come at an unforeseen price. She worries that the emphasis that LGBTIQ advocacy groups place on promoting a positive image of the queer community can mean that its more problematic elements can be swept under the carpet.
Some time ago, Elizabeth’s relationship disintegrated when her girlfriend assaulted her while they were in bed together.
“It was late, and I was wondering what she was doing afterwards,” she says.
“I said something like ‘It would be good to know what’s happening.’ Next thing I know, she was pummelling her fists into my legs, [and she said], ‘I want to hurt you.’”
Elizabeth ended the relationship then and there.
“I have a line,” she says. “When it happened the first time, I just knew it would happen again.”
“I think [this sort of thing] happens quite often, but I don’t think people take as hard a line as I did. But violence in a relationship is just not acceptable.”
According to Elizabeth, more substantive measures need to be taken within the LGBTIQ community to address the widespread occurrence of violence in relationships such as her own.
“Let’s stop pretending we’re all having the best fun ever all the time,” she says. “We need to get real and discuss strategies to look after and protect each other better.”
“Getting real” about domestic violence in LGBTIQ relationships is a long and confronting process. In many ways, the patterns of domestic violence in queer relationships mirror those seen in abusive heterosexual relationships. Abusive behaviours common to both queer and heterosexual relationships include physical aggression, jealousy and possessiveness, withholding money or other basic necessities, and verbal humiliation. Moreover, queer domestic violence tends to follow a similar “cycle of violence”, wherein periods of abuse are followed by “honeymoon” periods that allow abusers to regain control over their victims.
More alarmingly, though, abusers in queer relationships often use their LGBTIQ status to control their partners. Tragically, abusers are readily able to rely upon their queer partner’s assumptions of societal heterosexism and homophobia as means to isolate and manipulate them. The threat of “outing”, for example, is regularly used as a devastatingly effective tool for exerting control, a recent study from Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria found that 16% of LGBTIQ Australians still fear having their sexuality discovered (a figure which grows exponentially in remote regional communities.)
Elsewhere, a study from ACON suggests victims are often told by their partners that, if they report violence to the police, they will be betraying the queer community to its historical oppressors. Abusive male partners exploit the misconception that men are naturally violent, telling young or inexperienced partners that violent behaviour is inevitable in gay male relationships; meanwhile, trans* and intersex victims are told that society regards them as freaks, and that, as such, they are lucky to have any partner at all.
Unfortunately, though, many queer victims of domestic violence struggle to recognise the fact that they are in an abusive relationship. The narrative of domestic violence that has traditionally been constructed in the media is almost exclusively heterosexual, which makes it difficult for women to see themselves as abusers, and for men to see themselves as victims. The result is that the majority of queer victims of domestic violence stay in abusive relationships for long periods of time, unaware of the fact that they are being abused, and unaware or afraid of the institutions, programs, and systems that exist to help domestic violence victims.
In large parts of the queer community today there still exists a suspicion of mainstream institutions – such as the police and the courts – that, in the past, have been responsible for the oppression of LGBTIQ Australians. Allegations of serious assault by police officers at this year’s Mardi Gras, for example, have exacerbated concerns that homophobia is still prevalent in the ranks of the Australian police force. Many queer Australians have voiced concerns that, although the police force no longer actively prosecutes the queer community, they are unlikely to want to step in to assist them in times of need. Given that there are substantial barriers preventing even heterosexual victims of domestic violence and sexual assault from reporting crimes and seeking help, queer victims’ suspicion of the institutions meant to help them can compound their isolation and confusion.
McKenzie Raymond is one of these victims. After a night out at a lesbian event on Oxford Street, she was sexually assaulted by the woman she’d agreed to go home with. “I’d decided I’d walk her home. I should’ve just gone home myself, but she was an incredibly persuasive personality,” McKenzie recounts.
“We started making out, and ended up in bed. I was overwhelmed with an unsettling feeling; something wasn’t right. I said I had to go, [but] she didn’t stop kissing and touching me. Then she held me down on the bed and told me to stay,” she says.
McKenzie believes she was forcibly held to the bed for over an hour, but “it felt like six.”
“It took me months to forgive myself,” she says. “I wish I could say I don’t think about that night, but I do. I still feel sick when people grab my wrists. I feel disgusting when I think back to how she looked at me.”
Despite quickly realising that she had been sexually assaulted, McKenzie says she never considered reporting the incident to the police.
“I have absolutely no faith in the police force as a whole,” she says. “I know how average police are at responding to homophobic abuse and assault, let alone sexual assault.”
This is a common accusation levelled at the police force, and one with which it has been trying contend for over a decade. The NSW Police Force has continually reaffirmed its commitment to working productively with the LGBTIQ community, and has recently introduced specialist Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers at various branches around the state. These efforts have been reflected in recent statistics from Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria that suggest an improved police competency in dealing with queer citizens: among queer respondents to the survey, 56% said that they had been treated with courtesy and respect when reporting incidents; 54% said that they believe police had taken appropriate action in dealing with their report.
But, according to ACON CEO Nicholas Parkhill, mainstream domestic violence service providers – including the police, the court system, and women’s refuges – need to do more to ensure they are equipped to work with queer victims. They key message here, Parkhill believes, is that “one size does not fit all”. In an effort to avoid offending queer victims of violence, mainstream providers often consciously endeavour to treat them in the exact same way as they do heterosexual victims. And, although these efforts may be well-intentioned, inadvertently heterosexist or homophobic behaviour – such as the assumption that a victim arriving at a women’s refuge has been abused by a male partner, and not another woman – have the potential to “re-victimise” those seeking help. The practice of treating everyone the same fails to recognise the difference in the types of issues that people experience, and means that LGBTIQ people can often fall through the cracks of the system designed to help them.
And then there are the drastic differences from heterosexual treatment, differences that make no sense. Police and courts, for example, regularly operate under the assumption that any violence occurring in male relationships is mutual violence, rather than one-way abuse. There is thus an institutional tendency to minimise the seriousness of queer male victim’s complaints, exemplified in the courts’ tendencies to issue AVOs to both members of a male relationship, even when only one partner makes an application. Meanwhile, women’s refuges have often been known to permit queer female victims’ partners to seek them out inside the shelters, in order to apologise and persuade them to come home. If a man tried the same thing with his female partner, the police would be called within minutes.
We think we all know what domestic violence looks like. But, in the end, that scene we all know well – the man hammering on a bathroom door while a woman cries inside – is just one face of the many-headed monster that is domestic violence in Australia. Men are beaten by other men; women are raped by women. And, around the country, men and women, queer and straight, are being threatened, insulted, and demeaned. They’re having their money withheld, being isolated from their families, and experiencing ongoing emotional manipulation. Their property is being destroyed, or stolen; they’re being told that they’re worthless. In 2013, all of these behaviours are regarded as domestic violence, and all of them are illegal.