As with domestic abuse within heterosexual relationships, we define LGBT domestic abuse as a pattern of tactics and behaviours designed to exert control over a partner or ex-partner. These include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and mental and emotional abuse.
There are a number of aspects, however, that are unique to domestic abuse in LGBT relationships. Service providers need to ensure that they are aware of these dynamics and are able to respond appropriately when supporting LGBT survivors.
If the abused partner isn't out to their family, friends, and workmates, the abusive partner may use 'outing' or the threat of 'outing' as a method of control.
Sexual orientation or gender identity
For many LGBT people experiencing domestic abuse, their partners will undermine their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
Lack of recognition in the LGBT Community
Domestic abuse isn't well recognised or acknowledged in the LGBT community. Given that most public information on domestic abuse relates to the experiences of heterosexual women, this lack of understanding means that some LGBT people may not believe or recognise that it could happen to them.
Confidentiality and isolation
The relatively small numbers of LGBT people, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, can make it difficult for someone to seek help. They may feel embarrassed about the abuse, may not know what services will provide support, they may not be 'out', or their partner may have tried to turn others in the community against them.
A perpetrator may further isolate their partner from contact with the LGBT community by preventing them reading LGBT literature, engaging with LGBT media, going out on the scene or seeing friends. This is especially true for people in their first same-sex relationship who may not have had much contact with the LGBT community before the relationship began.
In some cases the abusive partner is the one with the illness while in others it is the one without the illness that is abusive.
There are a number of forms of domestic abuse that are specific to situations where either or both partners have a serious illness:
If the abusive partner does not have a serious illness they may use their partner’s health status as a form of control, withhold medication and treatment, threaten to cut off support, or threaten to leave.They may also verbally abuse their partner by saying they are diseased and dirty.
If the abusive partner does have a serious illness they may use guilt or other psychological abuse to manipulate their partner; refuse to take medication or seek medical services; or use their illness to manipulate services (e.g. saying ‘I’m weak and sick, how could I be controlling?’).
As sexual assault is a common form of domestic abuse, sexually transmittable infections (i.e. HIV; Hepatitis B) pose a special risk to the uninfected partner.
If one or both partners is HIV positive, the abusive partner may threaten to disclose this to others such as friends, family, or work colleagues.
Transgender people experience high rates of gender based violence. Trans people are those whose gender identity or expression differs in some way from the assumptions made about them based on society’s understanding of gender. In this system, there is the expectation that all males must be masculine and identify as men and all females must be feminine and identify as women and that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only two possible gender identities. As a result, strict expectations are placed on behaviours and expressions which underpin sexism and feed into homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and gender based violence. Gender based violence is defined as:
“Any form of violence used to establish, enforce or perpetuate gender inequalities and keep in place gendered orders. In other words gender based violence is a policing mechanism” - James Lang 2002
This violence can cause physical and emotional harm, and the fear that it may occur can be debilitating or constrain how individuals live their lives. Gender based violence perpetrated against transgender people includes all actions and behaviours intended to undermine or curtail their gender identity or expression in any way. The violence isn’t limited to murder, suicide and rape, but includes assault, groping of transgender people to highlight their physical bodies, verbally undermining their sense of self, or threats to harm or out them to others. It also includes transgender people’s experiences of domestic abuse and the way that trans people—particularly trans women—are sexualised in LGBT specific media and pornography aimed at heterosexual men.
The Equality Act 2010 currently only protects transgender people from discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of gender reassignment and not transgender identity (as protected in Scottish hate crime legislation). This narrow approach serves to reinforce the binary system of gender and could be seen as structural violence.
Rather than feeling helpless in response to the high levels of violent abuse perpetrated against transgender people, you can take action to interrupt the everyday forms of violence. They are often dismissed as ‘harmless’, go unnoticed by others, or are unreported by transgender people due to fears of retaliation or discrimination, or previous experiences of discrimination. Some violence may appear to have fewer negative consequences because the violence is not as visible. Exclusion and verbal rejection breed transphobia, including internalised transphobia, which can have dire consequences for emotional, physical and mental health. These forms of violence create social acceptance of the marginalisation of transgender identities.
Confronting discrimination and violence against transgender people sends a clear message that they are valued and included in your service. You have the power to interrupt everyday violence through simple steps: challenge language that degrades transgender people or reinforces a gender binary, raise awareness of transgender people’s experiences, review your policies to ensure that they are trans-inclusive, ensure that all staff understand the support needs of transgender service users, and undertake anonymous monitoring of staff and service users that includes a question on transgender identity to highlight potential service needs.
The LGBT Charter programme can help you ensure that your service is inclusive and the Stronger Together guidance on single-sex services can help you inform your plans for transgender inclusion.
A lot of positive work has taken place over the past decade toward improving service responses to lesbian, bisexual and transgender women experiencing domestic abuse, but there are still large gaps in awareness and support for gay, bisexual and transgender (GBT) men and non-binary people.
GBT men who experience domestic abuse often don’t seek help because they don’t see themselves reflected in the public conversation about domestic abuse. Although one in four LGBT people will experience domestic abuse in their lives, research shows that they are often unaware that they can experience domestic abuse, with particular risk of experiencing domestic abuse in their first same-sex relationships (Donovan et al. 2006: 13).
Gender can be used as a tool in abuse experienced by GBT men and those with non-binary identities. For instance, gay and bisexual men may be told that they’re too masculine or effeminate to attract other partners, trans men may be told that they’re not ‘real’ men or have their gender identities undermined through intentionally using incorrect pronouns (misgendering), inappropriate physical touch or gender inappropriate gifts or demands, and non-binary people may not have their gender identities believed, respected, or they may be misgendered.
In addition to the ways that gender is used within the abuse experienced by GBT men and non-binary people, gender itself can be a barrier to accessing support. GBT men have expressed how pressures of masculinity can make individuals feel as though they should not seek support when experiencing domestic abuse (Roch, LGBT Youth Scotland 2012). This shows the persistence of the myth that domestic abuse is about physical strength rather than power and control. Individuals who do not identify as either men or women may not feel as though there are any support services available to them or be forced to express a particular gender in order to access services. Definitions of domestic abuse that aren’t inclusive of LGBT people can keep LGBT people hidden and ensure that society does not recognise or acknowledge their experiences.
Research on relationships has found that men in same-sex relationships were more likely than women in same-sex relationships to experience physical violence and sexual abuse; being forced into having sex, being hurt during sex or having safe words and boundaries disrespected, requests for safer sex refused, or threatened with sexual assault (Donovan et al. 2006: 10; see also: Donovan and Hester 2014).
One of the first steps to improving things for GBT men and individuals with non-binary identities experiencing domestic abuse is to speak about the issue and raise awareness of their specific needs and experiences. Individuals can speak to personal and professional networks to raise the issue, and services and organisations can speak out on social media, with partner organisations or through networks. If you are involved in any sector that GBT men and gender non-binary people access (be that health, education, social work, housing, advocacy and support, criminal justice or any other), then you can help.
Young people can experience LGBT domestic abuse in a range of ways that influence the type of support they require.
The Voices Unheard project was established by a group of young people from LGBT Youth Scotland. Using peer research, complemented by a national online survey, members researched lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people’s understanding, knowledge, and experience of domestic abuse in their families and relationships. They developed this video for service providers on young people’s experiences.