De-Closeting Same-Sex Partner Abuse

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In an interview, social workers Nora Angeles, Laurie Chesley and Nick Mule address questions relating to same-sex abuse, their philosophical and theoretical frameworks, the role of homophobia and heterosexism in abuse in same-sex relationships and suggestions for organizations wanting to improve their service provision.


Do you incorporate a gender analysis into your understanding of same-sex partner abuse?  If not, what philosophical framework or paradigm do you work from?  And how does this impact on your prevention/treatment work?


NA:  Yes, I do incorporate a gender analysis into my understanding of same-sex partner abuse. Without it, I think it will be far more difficult to understand why in same-sex relationships partners could be abusers at one time and victims at others. This is a product of people  reacting differently to the strict gender roles they are socialized into. In my community (Filipino) there are couples who play strict butch/femme roles in their relationships. The femme sometimes sees herself as someone who is with a man and does not identify herself as a lesbian; the butch identifies as the man, and at times believes herself to be a man.


I try not to take the easy route in my work. I think it is so much easier to have rigid beliefs about how people should behave, because then we can put people into boxes and call them misfits when they don't conform. Then we can quickly list solutions on how to get them back in the box. As much as gender is a product of one's socialization, it is fluid. Some of us have strict roles, some of us go from role to role. Some are comfortable with that, some are not. I strive in my work to listen and empathize, to remain open and to constantly be in a learning mode.


NM: Lesbians, gays and bisexuals have been traditionally exposed to heterosexual relationships in their upbringing, and we know the data shows that men abuse women quite significantly compared to the reverse.  Through this, male and female traits become defined, and people become socialized.  Some in the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities will ascribe to certain gender traits and characteristics regardless of whether the sex is the same.  This can result in lesbians and bisexual women manifesting traditional male power in a destructive way and gays and bisexual men who ascribe to traditional female traits of care and nurturing being non-violent. If these very people happen to pair up with someone of the same sex who ascribes to the traditional characteristics of their own gender, then domestic violence is a very real possibility.


I incorporate a gender analysis based on this. Traditional feminist theory's gender analysis does not always translate well when it comes to same-sex relationships but a heavier emphasis is placed on the feminist paradigm of power imbalances. Power imbalances are based not only on gender ascription, but also on socio-economic class, age, disability, ethno-racial background, health status (HIV+), refugee status, or whether a partner is 'out' or not.


What role do you think homophobia and heterosexism play, if any, in abuse in same-sex relationships?


NA:  I think heterosexism encourages abuse in both straight and same-sex relationships.  Homophobia stops people from acknowledging the LGBT communities and, with that, abuse in same-sex relationships. It makes it extremely difficult for gays and lesbians who need support to reach out to existing services because of homophobia. Internalized homophobia gives us a reason to deny abuse in same-sex relationships. As a community, it prevents us from talking about it because we do not want to expose our community to more criticism and attacks. 


LC :  There are many different aspects to this.  Some are: 


a)  The les/bi/gay communities have had difficulty acknowledging the existence of same-sex partner abuse because it is one more negative impression from society that we want to avoid - in other words, fear of homophobic reactions.  Thus it isn't easily discussed and help is often not sought. 


b)  When individuals have sought help, some have been dealt with appropriately by (largely heterosexual) social and legal services, but there are many examples of same-sex abuse situations being met with dismissal, laughter, minimization or a reinforcement of negative stereotypes.  A more benign response is surprise that this issue affects our community along with a lack of knowledge and understanding about how to respond.


c)  It is very likely that les/bi/gay/trans individuals have internalized the negative connotations assigned to us by society in general (internalized homophobia).  This certainly has an impact on self-esteem. How this might play out in an abusive dynamic is "everyone says I'm sick so I deserve this" (victim), or, "I'm hitting out at that which I hate in myself" (abuser).


d)  One of the threats an abuser may use is to "out" the victim to family, friends, children, work, immigration authorities; in other words, to anyone the victim is not already out to.  This is one of the specific ways same-sex partner abuse is different from heterosexual relationships.


NM:  For some in same-sex relationships, there is a need to model themselves after heterosexual ones.  Given the prevalence of abuse in straight relationships, this may not altogether be the most inspirational direction to move in.  For others, it's the added pressure of having to define their own relationship in the absence of role models.  Fortunately this is now changing.  Homophobia can create great tension in relationships, be it experienced externally (e.g. a same-sex couple rearing children) or internally (one partner who is not as 'out' as the other).  If people do not have a healthy sense of self (which is the case with internalized homophobia), they may be more apt to deal with issues destructively, which may be played out in the form of domestic violence.


How does same-sex partner abuse affect your understanding of the causes and nature of abuse and ways to intervene with gay and lesbian clients?


LC:  The causes and nature of same-sex abuse is an analysis that continues to be developed. 


Setting aside complexities, the simple and immediate clarity is that abuse involves using power and control over someone else, whether that be physical, psychological or sexual.  In this sense it is similar to heterosexual domestic violence.  Similarly, those affected by same-sex partner abuse are subject to police/court intervention and will require clinical, medical, social and legal services.  What is different here is long-standing experience and fear of negative treatment of les/bi/gay/trans individuals by the larger social and legal systems.  The lesbian and gay communities need to take leadership, through education and collaboration, to integrate an intolerance of same-sex partner abuse within our community, as well as to advocate and educate within the broader systems so that they respond appropriately.


For workers, the lack of information and resources for the les/bi/gay communities on this issue means they must be very creative in finding ways to help people stay safe, take stock of what has happened to them, make changes, and get assistance.  Even in a large metropolitan city it can be hard to avoid a partner (ex-partner) because of  a finite number of places gay people can go to comfortably and openly socialize.  People are therefore are risk of losing their social supports, friendships and a sense of community belonging.  Shelters for gay/bisexual men do not exist and general men's shelters are functionally dangerous for gay men.  Existing women's shelters may not have explicit services for lesbians; there are questions as to the ease of integrating lesbians with a traditionally heterosexual shelter population, and it can be impossible for workers to distinguish the lesbian perpetrator who tries to gain entry by presenting as a "victim". 


The lack of identified les/bi/gay services to respond to this issue reduces the capacity to offer a range of service (individual, group) as well as to deal with both members of a couple seeking help.  The overlaps of workers and clients running into each other socially creates difficulties and this is intensified for workers providing service within the minority ethnic or racial communities, and in small or rural areas.


NM:  When working with this population, it is essential that one has an understanding of the oppression experienced by these people first and foremost.  From that, it becomes apparent which needs and issues are truly unique based on the sexual orientation involved. An understanding and sensitivity to these issues is required to do effective work.  Confidentiality may be of the utmost importance particularly with 'closeted' individuals.  Because most law enforcement, health care and social services lack equitable service delivery to this population, alternative support systems may be required, such as friends and family, if appropriate.


What suggestions do you have for organizations/agencies to increase access for lesbians and gay men who are abused in intimate relationships?


NA: Systemic homophobia and heterosexism prevent organizations from being there for the LGBT community, just as systemic racism prevents them from being accessible to immigrants. If we look at the volumes of reports from the immigrant community about access issues, the same recommendations would apply here: more education, change of attitude, training and  networking. Acquiring lesbians and gays as staff, board members, etc., making a commitment as an organization to show support by displaying appropriate posters and developing anti-homophobic policies would also go a long way. Networking, having dialogues with LGBT organizations and groups and participating in partnership with them in celebrating such events as Pride Day and film festivals, as well as supporting and lobbying with them for legislative changes would also help.


LC :  Many clients want and would benefit from services delivered within the community, that is, by counsellors and other workers who are openly lesbian or gay.  Where this doesn't exist, it is important workers familiarize themselves with this issue and seek consultation. If you are heterosexual, come out to your clients.  It is often important for les/bi/gay/trans clients to know what service they are receiving, your knowledge of their life, community, history and resource available to them.  Utilize les/bi/gay/trans consultants as part of your work.  Develop and maintain your resource list and make this available to your clients.  Keep yourself informed on this issue as you do with other issues.  Hire lesbians and gay men to directly provide the service to their community.  This is an important staffing choice for clients who want and clearly benefit from the opportunity to work with someone with whom they can identify.  Organizations committed to providing these services need to do anti-homophobia and anti-oppression work as well as education about abuse in same-sex relationships.  There needs to be support at all levels of the organization including the board.


NM:  Organizations and agencies need to review their policies and update them so that they are not principled on heterosexist values. Sensitivity training would be needed for all staff on all levels to ensure consistency and equity from policy development through service delivery. Hiring openly lesbian, gay or bisexual workers in the field of domestic violence can go a long way in addressing the issues. Finally, organizations and agencies need to challenge themselves to create new modes of service provision, so that members of these communities have their needs adequately met. It should be possible for members of these communities not to fear reporting these crimes to the police in the first place; or for a lesbian or bisexual woman not to fear that her same-sex partner may gain access to the shelter she's staying in; or for a gay or bisexual man who is being abused by his same-sex partner to have a safe space to turn to. 


Interviewees:

Nora Angeles , BSW, is Coordinator of the Coalition Against Homophobia projects as well as the Asian Lesbigay Support Services and Peer Counselling Training Project. She is also a part-time counsellor at a community centre.

Laurie Chesley is Team Leader at the David Kelley Counselling Program for Lesbians and Gay Men at the Family Services Association of Toronto.

Nick Mule , MSW, CSW, is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Epilepsy Association, Metro Toronto and a psychotherapist in private practice serving the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities. Nick is also a director of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO).