When Elizabeth* first fell in love with Janie* nearly two decades ago, the future looked rosy. They built a home together and had two children.
But eight or nine years later, as the stresses piled up — the death of loved ones, the need to field the parenting opinions of their children’s biological fathers — Janie began subjecting the family to lashings of verbal abuse.
She would scream at Elizabeth and the children, Elizabeth said, for items that went missing in the house, or if something fell out of the cupboard. Later, Janie would swear at Elizabeth, accusing her of flirting with men and threatening to “go straight and leave her”.
Family violence support services:
- 1800 Respect national helpline 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line 1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line) 131 114
- Relationships Australia 1300 364 277
Then there was the violence towards the children, now primary school-aged.
“There was some physical discipline that we would never have agreed on, smacking, that kind of thing,” Elizabeth said. “One particular incident went further than that. She really hurt one of the kids, [saying she] did it because our daughter was ‘out of control’.”
Elizabeth now believes she had been blinded to the abuse because she was in a same-sex relationship.
“When you have a woman [partner] that purports to be a feminist, and is quite outspoken about feminist issues, you kind of doubt yourself,” she said.
“Did these things really happen? Are they really as bad as you thought they were? You have expectations that women aren’t violent, and that women will never hurt their children.”
Elizabeth sought help from a counsellor and GP, confiding in them about Janie’s behaviour. But the GP failed to report the abuse of the children, she said, which made her feel abandoned and guilty.
“You feel like you’re being sent back into the warzone,” she said. “The GP … not once asked me how I was going, and what did I need. He did refer me to individual counselling, but never labelled what was happening as violence.”
Studies show people in same-sex relationships experience domestic violence at similar — and possibly higher — rates as opposite-sex couples.
But until recently survivors have suffered in silence and worse, been ignored and misunderstood by the health professionals and police who are supposed to help them, because of the persistent stigma and shame surrounding LGBT abuse and misconceptions that especially lesbian couples are immune from it.
Now, six months after Australians voted to legalise same-sex marriage, survivors and advocates are hopeful a suite of new programs addressing the nature and dynamics of LGBT violence will kick-start a long-overdue conversation by bringing the issue out of the shadows and reversing generations of neglect.
‘This is what happens when two blokes are together’
Much of the ignorance about how the LGBT community experiences domestic violence stems from the long-held understanding that gender inequality can foster and cultivate environments where men seek to control or abuse women.
In addition, the overwhelming majority of murders between couples who have a history of domestic violence are committed by men.
But according to experts and survivors, this has created a false assumption that LGBT people are immune to intimate partner abuse. There is a lack of consensus and data on prevalence: many studies indicate rates are on par with the mainstream community — about a third of LGBT couples — however some evidence suggests this might be higher.
And experts say the previously unacknowledged reality is that the same patriarchal forces that disempower women and enforce a narrow script of what it means to be a man are leading contributors to domestic violence in the LGBT community.
“Gender inequality and patriarchy still affect our relationships as well, because we exist in the same society with the same messages,” said Kai Noonan, domestic and family violence coordinator at the Aids Council of NSW (ACON).
It is not uncommon, survivors and counsellors say, for gay male perpetrators of domestic violence to justify their behaviour by telling their partners that all men are simply violent by nature.
“He told me, ‘This is what happens when two blokes are together, arguments turn violent, just cop it sweet, because this is how it works, mate’,” said Thomas* of his ex-partner Harry*, who once threw him down the stairs, in front of Thomas’s children and beat him so badly with a phone that he cracked his skull.
Harry was the first male partner for Thomas, who had previously been married for 17 years to a woman, with whom he had three children.
He had no role models for how a gay relationship should be. “That’s how I was groomed,” said Thomas, who was in the relationship for five years.
The influence of childhood abuse and homophobia
And the fact that LGBT people experience childhood and sexual abuse at higher rates than straight people — abuse that often stems from homophobia — is another driver of domestic violence in the community, says Ms Noonan.
“It’s our families who have abused us, then our partners abuse us, [we learn] ‘This is relationships, and this is love’,” said Ms Noonan, who is currently investigating whether family violence increased during last year’s same-sex marriage debate and postal survey, which unleashed a torrent of gay hate literature and other acts of homophobia.
(The research is being conducted in partnership with the University of Western Sydney, and funded by a grant from Parramatta Council.)
“I received one report from a lesbian [who said her] family took her out and stoned her, literally,” Ms Noonan said of a woman in western Sydney, the area of Australia that had the lowest ‘yes’ vote in the postal survey. The woman survived and her story, which Noonan is still investigating, will be included in the study.
It’s this sort of family-of-origin violence that can lead to both partners inflicting violence in intimate relationships, says Karen Field, chief executive of Drummond Street Services in Melbourne.
“You play out [experiences of trauma, violence and prejudice] on the people that you love, because you’re fearful and distrusting,” Ms Field said.
“So we’ve seen this in the literature, within some of our lesbian relationships, for example, where both [partners] have histories of … child sexual abuse.”
The end result, Ms Field says, can be a situation of mutual violence that is driven by trauma, and a primal “fight or flight” response, rather than a desire for control in and of itself.
Suffering in silence
Until now, LGBT people who are in a relationship where both they and their partner are abusive have largely remained traumatised and untreated as mainstream domestic violence services traditionally label people either perpetrator or victim, or don’t recognise the abuse at all.
This has meant victims who have also been perpetrators have been shut out of victim assistance programs or treatment.
But a new trial intervention program for women and gender-diverse perpetrators of family violence who have been convicted of crimes will tackle this problem head-on.
“Very few services recognise the complexity of their offending, [and] the complexity of their life story,” Ms Field said of the up to 30 perpetrators who are taking part in the trial, which was launched this month by Drummond Street Services.
The trial, which will also include up to 60 victims, will look at each perpetrator’s case individually, rather than slotting each person into the ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’ template, and will aim to address underlying trauma, if it is the source of abuse.
Complementing this is a new two-year project training mainstream domestic violence services across Victoria to be more LGBT-inclusive and become “rainbow tick certified”.
The project, run by Drummond Street Services and La Trobe University’s GLHV centre, aims to teach counsellors that although the nature of domestic abuse in LGBT relationships is generally similar to straight relationships — in that abusers typically attempt to control partners through financial, emotional and physical abuse — many of the specific tactics they use are different.
Forcing a partner to take hormones against their will because they’re “not woman enough”, for example, is a form of medical abuse that transgender people can face in relationships, says Matthew Parsons, who is delivering the training.
Conversely, abusive partners of transgender people who are transitioning sometimes deny them access to testosterone, Mr Parsons says, because it’s a way of controlling them.
Mr Parsons says he has been told of incidents where members of the LGBT community have refused their partner access to HIV medication or threatened to disclose to their family or others that they’re HIV positive.
The Anti-Violence Project of Victoria is also developing an app that will enable members of the LGBT community to more easily report instances of violence, and have it swiftly received by the appropriate authorities.
(Evidence suggests LGBT people experience additional barriers to reporting abuse, including a belief that they will be discriminated against by frontline responders.)
The initiatives, some of which are the result of recommendations by Victoria’s 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence, build on strategies being implemented in other states.
In February, for instance, the Queensland Government committed $155,000 to training frontline responders to better assist LGBT victims and perpetrators.
“It’s seen to be a heterosexual female problem,” Police Senior Constable Ben Bjarnesen said of domestic violence. “We need to start a conversation … and get the understanding out there that it is a problem, it is happening and we all need to be aware it’s there.”
‘There’s so much change happening’
According to Karen Field, the new programs could be revolutionary for the community.
“Unfortunately, what we tend to see is that kind of revolving door,” Ms Field said, referring to LGBT perpetrators of family violence who end up either convicted of crimes or in a mental health service, without having addressed the root of their problems.
“You can’t just provide an alcohol or drug service, or acute mental health service, without understanding the complex role of trauma in driving those things, that includes their use of violence.”
But there are signs of progress. At least 19 family violence service providers across Victoria have already signed up to undertake La Trobe’s “Rainbow Tick accreditation” program.
And it can be easy to forget the bulk of LGBT relationships are happy and healthy, says Ms Field.
Elizabeth, who is now separated from Janie, feels hopeful about the new initiatives being rolled out.
“I think it will validate a lot of people’s experience [with domestic violence] that’s been invisible … or kept quiet either because you’re ashamed, or there’s a lack of recognition that it exists, or you’re trying to paint a picture that we’re a perfect community,” she said.
She might have had the “strength” to leave her violent relationship earlier, she says, had these services been around when she and her children were being abused.
“Being told [by health workers] that my abuse ‘wasn’t that bad’, and minimising [my pain] made me doubt myself even more, which you do so much anyway as a victim.”
And it feels good, she adds, that these efforts are part of the Victorian Government’s broader commitment to addressing family violence.
“There’s so much change happening, it’s so much more visible, so to feel that we’re part of that, and not left out, is really important.”
*The names of domestic violence survivors have been changed for security and legal reasons.
This feature was edited by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson, who for the past 18 months have been investigating and reporting on domestic abuse in Australia.