Outing Same Sex Partner Abuse: Where are the Services for Gay and Bisexual Men?

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by J. Roy Gillis


As Island and Letellier (1991, p.1) stated in their ground-breaking book on gay and bisexual male partner abuse, "gay [and bisexual] mens' domestic violence is not a new problem, just a newly recognized problem."

The incidence of abuse in male-male intimate relationships is thought to be the same as  in heterosexual relationships (Island & Letellier, 1991). Yet, some leaders of the 'queer' communities have expressed private discomfort and concern at the thought of gay and bisexual men (or lesbians, bisexual women, or transgendered individuals) being responsible for violence committed against members of the communities.  They prefer, instead, to conceptualize violence solely as something which is done to our communities by unfriendly external sources.

This alternative construction of reality may serve to foster a more favourable and sympathetic media portrayal of our communities, but, ultimately, it serves to deny the real suffering of individuals who are being abused by their same sex partner.  The rapid mobilization around HIV prevention education, and the subsequent development of services for people living with HIV should serve as a model for providing resources to deal with same sex partner abuse.  But we cannot leave the provision of counselling, education, and support services for violent and abusive relationships to the few under-funded and over-burdened counselling agencies in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities.

Focusing on heterosexual relationships, the traditional feminist conceptualization of abuse was something a man did to a woman.  Battering was understood to be caused by differences in perceived power, physical size, and economic resources which flowed from gender and gender roles. 

Within this framework, men abusing men in intimate relationships was conceivable, but of minor importance.  However, the thought of a woman abusing another woman in an intimate relationship was almost inconceivable. In addition, the thought of women abusing women could be used to lend credibility to critics who suggested that woman were as likely as men to batter.  And while 'out' lesbians or bisexual women may be welcome in some shelters for battered women, and more may gain access to services by disguising the gender of their partner, gay and bisexual male survivors of partner abuse are universally excluded from women's shelters. 

Most phone counselling lines for domestic violence refuse to take calls from abused gay and bisexual men or relegate them to the lowest priority.  This is not to suggest that women bear the responsibility for providing services to abused gay and bisexual men (despite the fact that many lesbians involved in the shelter movement feel unable to "come out", and are concerned about the neglect of lesbian and bisexual female clients). Rather, it is to highlight the lack of services for same sex partner abuse and the societal obstacles to making those services available.

Commonly-held gender role stereotypes also inhibit the societal recognition and effective policing of same sex male and female partner abuse.  The belief persists that men should be able to defend themselves, and that those men who cannot or choose not to, are 'weak', 'effeminate', or 'sissies'. 

Many gay men are subjected to this stereotype.  Police are often perplexed when arriving at a domestic abuse call involving two men (or two women) because the familiar gender dynamic is absent and they don't know who to charge.  Combine this fact with the pervasive police heterosexism and counter charges of abuse brought by the perpetrator, and police often wind up charging both partners, or dismissing the incident as a 'fair fight'.

J. Roy Gillis, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Adult Education, Community Development, and Counselling Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.