It is not news to say that Australia has a persistent issue with violence. Recent events have brought the issue of domestic violence into particular focus, with Malcolm Turnbull pledging to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to domestic violence with a multi-faceted ‘Women’s Safety Package’, which aims to raise awareness and provide an extended range of services to female victims of domestic violence. And it’s important to specify female, because as far as Malcolm Turnbull, his new initiatives and the media narrative surrounding domestic violence are all concerned; domestic violence, or ‘family violence’ or ‘intimate partner violence’ as it is sometimes called, is an issue that solely affects women. Turnbull has gone so far as to say in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that domestic/family violence is ‘just violence against women’.
To be clear, most services that aim to support victims of domestic or other violence, define it as an umbrella term that includes not just physical or sexual assault, but verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. Some websites also mention economic or financial abuse, wherein the abuser will assume control over their partner’s finances, making them unable to support themselves, forcing them to depend on their abuser to survive. Research conducted in 2012 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Criminology demonstrates that, while men are victims of violence (and at a rate of 1 in 2, are more likely than women to be victims of physical assault), women were up to almost five times more likely than men to experience some form of violence, and men are three times more likely than women to be the perpetrators of violence.
When the statistics on violence generally (and domestic violence in particular) are divided strictly by gender, it is easy to see how the media narrative around domestic abuse became so overwhelmingly heteronormative; with woman invariably portrayed as victim, and man as aggressor, or at least potential aggressor, whose responsibility (according to recent awareness campaigns) is to make a solemn vow to never commit violence against a woman. In this narrative, violence between same-sex or transgender couples does not exist.
But speaking as a gay man, same-sex domestic violence is the only kind I have ever known or experienced:
When I was 19, my long-distance boyfriend confided in me that he had previously been involved with a man who not only beat and raped him repeatedly, but also physically assaulted his friends.
When I was 21, the first boy I ever kissed slammed me against a wall and screamed in my face before throwing me on the floor.
Once, a friend of mine living in the UK refused to have sex with a man he was seeing, and left his house, only to lose consciousness while driving home, and have his car end up in a ditch. He was hospitalised with minor injuries and a toxicology screen reported trace amounts of the popular date-rape drug, GHB.
Even in casual conversation, the frequency with which I encounter stories of gay men being assaulted by partners, ex-partners or dates is alarming: A party where a boy was thrown off a second-floor balcony for rejecting sexual advances (he landed on a couch and mercifully walked away with no lasting injuries). A friend who was abandoned by the side of a road because he wouldn’t perform oral sex on his date. A young man dealing with a stalker who has even threatened his victim’s boyfriend in public. Several incidents of boys in desperate situations being preyed upon by older men who subsequently abused them, using a position of financial control to keep them trapped in toxic relationships.
It’s no exaggeration to say that most, nearly all, of my social circle is comprised of gay/bi male victims of domestic violence, and that’s not counting the ones who were abused by family members. It would be nice to think this was merely a remarkable coincidence, but the AIDS Council of NSW reports that 1 in 3 LGBTIQ people experience domestic violence, and similar (or worse) statistics have been reported in the United States and the UK. In the United States, a study conducted in 2013 reported that 46% of lesbian women and a staggering 75% of bisexual women report experience with violent partners, while 47% of bisexual men and 40% of gay men have had violent relationships, compared to 21% of straight men.
When I consider my personal experience, and the fact that domestic violence in heterosexual relationships is also thought to be underreported, I suspect that the actual numbers are much higher. But the services that are available to LGBTIQ abuse victims are limited, to put it generously, and we face particular challenges in escaping and overcoming abusive relationships that the heterosexual community does not.
Firstly, heterosexist stereotypes about same-sex relationships make abuse difficult to identify. Both within the LGBTIQ community and without, there are prevailing assumptions that violence in same-sex relationships (between gay men especially), is ‘normal’, and occurs on equal terms. Victims may not realise that they are being abused, and onlookers may interpret the abuse as a brawl or ‘catfight’ with shared blame, or assume it is consensual, negotiated sexual activity that both parties enjoy. Abusers will often defend their actions by telling victims and their friends that they do not understand same-sex relationships, and that the abuse is natural, even inevitable.
Threatening to ‘out’ a partner to their friends, family and colleagues is another common tactic that abusers use to keep their partners from leaving; a very effective threat in Australia, where being outed can expose you to discrimination and further violence. Because our community is vulnerable, and our relationships are already under attack, many of us are afraid that acknowledging abuse would be taken by hypocritical bigots as a tacit admission of the ‘invalidity’ of LGBTIQ relationships in general. In fact, when I opened up to my family about being assaulted, I did my best to make my relationship with my abuser seem purely platonic. If any of my relatives reads this, it will be the first time that I ever openly admitted to them that I was romantically involved with another man.
Even if an LGBTIQ abuse victim overcomes the fear of being outed, or exposing themselves to bigotry, services for LGBTIQ people are underfunded, and not well advertised, making them difficult to find. Queer Without Fear, a comprehensive domestic violence information booklet, mentions that ‘general domestic violence services’ have ‘limited experience in working with LGBT domestic violence and therefore, may not offer the most appropriate service’.
Queer Without Fear specifically mentions a lack of services for gay men in particular. Most domestic violence refuges are ‘women only’, meaning gay men are unwelcome by default, and transwomen may be as well. Some shelters are run by religious or historically ‘anti-gay’ organizations like the Salvation Army, and can’t be trusted on to provide help, even if their official policy is one of non-discrimination. There are shelters that are open to LGBTIQ victims, but even if the staff are welcoming, there is no guarantee that other residents will be.
In some states and territories, law enforcement is legally required to offer the same protection and take the same care with LGBTIQ victims of domestic violence as it does with any other victim, but how well does that work in practice? The global LGBTIQ community has, at best, a rocky history with law enforcement, and I would not blame any queer individual for avoiding contact with police, or being sceptical of the level of help that would be provided. That said, the Australian Federal Police and several state police services have specially trained LGBTI liaison officers, who can be contacted on request. Most online services for LGBTIQ domestic violence victims recommend contacting the police in an emergency situation.
It is not likely that the situation for LGBTIQ victims of domestic violence will improve in the near future. Australia is far behind the United States and Europe in terms of LGBTIQ discrimination, and the Federal Government’s recent decision to discontinue funding for the Safe Schools Coalition (a program that educates the students of participating schools about sexual and gender diversity, credited with making many Australian schools more inclusive to LGBTIQ students) suggests that we can expect things to get worse. If the situation continues as it does currently, then Australia’s LGBTIQ community can look forward to a future where they not only cannot expect to be safe in any area of their lives, but will have little to no recourse or support when they experience violence at work, school or home.
For LGBTIQ people who are currently experiencing domestic violence, or are concerned that their relationships may be abusive, www.anothercloset.com.au is a valuable online resource that provides information and advice for domestic violence victims in a range of situations, as well as links to support hotlines and other services for LGBTIQ and Indigenous individuals.
Image: Joshua Earle
Kim saved a turtle when he was sixteen, and he’s been bragging about it ever since. He has a Bachelor of Creative Writing and an Honours in Arts from the University of Canberra. He enjoys sarcasm and long walks to the fridge.