12th October 2015
This article originally appeared on
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people experience higher rates of domestic violence than heterosexual couples, according to a large university survey.
Despite this, they’re often denied support, turned away from shelters, and face open discrimination from the services designed to care for them. Some LGBTQ domestic violence victims are even refused protection orders in their hour of need.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so we speak with Jenna Calton and Kris Gebhard (George Mason University, Virginia, USA) whose recent study suggests stigma, a lack of understanding, and system inequalities are all barriers to equal support.
ResearchGate: There is no LGBTQ partner violence in the public eye. What does that mean for the victims?
Jenna Calton: It means several different things. We know based on qualitative research that LGBTQ individuals have a hard time recognizing and responding to violence in their own relationships. Studies show people feel the violence is invisible: they struggle to see it themselves and doubt others will understand or respect it. While they may have seen advertisements in the US raising awareness about domestic violence, these are often directed towards non-LGBTQ people. That makes it hard for someone under the LGBTQ spectrum to identify with it. It also means victims may not seek help if they don’t see services tailored to their identity, needs, and history.
Kris Gebhard: Or they do try and go to a shelter but they’re turned away.
JC: Exactly. When people do come forward for help, we know a lot of times they’re experiencing explicit discrimination. It might not be purposeful discrimination, but providers can be less sensitive if they don’t have the training or education. This is ultimately because of deficits in funding. Social problems in the public eye get more attention, more funding, and more research. The problems we choose to broadcast are very political, and they affect the folks who could be suffering.
RG: What are some of the main factors that spark violence in LGBTQ relationships?
KG: Research on this is just getting started. Our best guess answer comes from talking to queer people in the community and to service organizations. Some factors are similar to heterosexual relationships, like patriarchal violence. Men can be violent because they feel the need to be in control, or because their masculinity is threatened. An example is when a partner feels like he needs to be a ‘real man’ and compensate for the fact he’s dating a transwoman. This comes down to homophobia or transmisogyny. Similarly, gay men can feel they need to be dating a really masculine man. They may then get uncomfortable when their boyfriend acts too femininely. But again, this is just from speaking to community members rather than from actual research.
JC: That’s right – there could be a lot of other ways in which LGBTQ Intimate Partner Violence is different but we just don’t have that kind of information yet. We’ve got so much rich qualitative research in other areas on the LGBTQ community. We can use the same methodologies and ask important questions, but we have to make sure people feel safe coming forward first.
RG: Same-sex marriage was made legal nationwide in the US this year, and in 2013 President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act to expand federal protection to LGBT individuals. How have these legislative changes affected the justice system for LGBTQ partner violence?
JC: In the wake of these legislative victories it’s easy to just be excited and think “Ok, the problem’s been solved” and move on. But now is the perfect time for more research that will tell us how we’re doing given these changes.
Over the next several years I’d love to see numbers on how many LGBT victims are given protection orders across the state. The language surrounding whether you’ll actually get one depends on the state you live in. Some states did not include, or specifically excluded, LGBTQ individuals historically. My guess is now that LGBTQ couples are able to marry they would be included under the definition of ‘spouse’ state-to-state. But only if they are married. If they’re not, they could still be denied a protection order for partner violence.
Prosecution and law enforcement also has its problems in this context. Police officers have responded to LGBTQ communities for years, and judges have been presiding over prosecution for years. We have a lot of evidence that there’s bias in both those areas. Whether that will change remains a question. The most current research we have suggests it hasn’t yet.
KG: So much of the violence LGBTQ individuals experience comes from police. There’s a ridiculously high level of police brutality against people who are gender non-conforming. That’s a training issue because police may be interacting with people who seem different from people they’ve interacted with before. This could make them defensive. It has to do with awareness in society as a whole: People feel such an intense need to patrol gender. They feel the need to perform their own gender correctly, and when they see someone performing gender in a way that questions the binary, they might get scared.
RG: Can you describe the current situation of emergency shelters designed to support LGBTQ domestic violence survivors? How can these support services be improved?
JC: It differs a lot across organizations. The biggest change right now is that most shelters will receive grant funding specifically allocated for LGBTQ services. If they receive funding as part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) then they’re required to have training and offer services by law. This should mean LGBTQ victims get access to a lot of the services they’ve previously been denied. But this funding distinction is an important one because some organizations are privately funded. These organizations might not actually be changing at all.
KG: And even for those organizations that receive federal funding, the implementation and enforcement of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act is up in the air in many ways. We’ve heard reports that shelters may not seek out the training unless they hear their federal money will be taken away. It’s a big question: The law is out there but is it really going to be enforced? If so, how?
JC: Right. Also, if you are receiving grant funding then you’re often required to track numbers and report to your agency on how you’re doing. I would be interested to see those numbers. Publishing that information would help answer a lot of questions: How many victims are walking through the door? Of these, how many are staying because they feel comfortable and supported? How exactly have services been altered?
RG: How did you get in to this field of research?
JC: I started volunteering in Gainesville, Florida. I was completing my undergrad in women’s studies, and learning about oppression and violence as part of that. I felt I couldn’t ignore it – I had to get involved in a more hands-on way. So I did: I started working as an intern for a domestic violence network called Peaceful Paths. I worked in communities as an educator and talked to youth groups about healthy relationships. That’s where I began to see a big deficit: I was working with LGBTQ youths but the stories I was telling them weren’t about them. I thought that wasn’t right because they had already experienced so much marginalization, and I wanted to ensure they felt safe seeking support for Iintimate partner violence if they experienced it.
KG: I’m trans and queer identified. I come from Minnesota and was involved in organizing to support my friend CeCe McDonald, who is black and trans, and was charged for second degree murder for surviving a racist and misogynist hate attack. I did a lot of media work to support her and became known in parts of the trans community. Because of that, many individuals started telling me about the violence they were experiencing. The general feeling in the community was, “well, we have to care for each other, because there’s nowhere else for us to go – if we report this to the cops we might suffer more misogyny and transphobia, or get beaten up.” I wanted to figure out what causes partner violence, and to build an understanding of it from members of my community. We should know how to prepare for it, know it’s not our fault, and be able to protect ourselves from it.
RG: What practical changes can ensure more encompassing treatment and protection in the future?
JC: My area of interest is help seeking, so a big one for me is making sure organizations specifically advertise for LGBTQ individuals, and make sure those ads are framed sensitively. Staff should also be on the ground networking with LGBTQ organizations in the community and ready to ask the important questions: “What do you need? How can we help? How can we make sure domestic violence survivors feel comfortable walking through the door, and take advantage of the LGBTQ services we have as a result of the Violence Against Women Act?”
KG: We need to use inclusive language, like “romantic partner” instead of gendered language, ask for preferred pronouns, ask for names people to prefer to use when seeking shelter… there’s much more that can be done along these lines but it’s a good start.
Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (here).