IPV Within LGBTQ Communities: A Closer Look at the Challenges and Opportunities of Intersecting Identities By Catherine Shugrue dos santos
Survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and advocates in the movement to end this violence have long insisted that abuse in intimate relationships affects people of all walks of life — regardless of race, ethnicity, age, immigration status, HIV status, class, education, or ability. Research, funding, and services have more recently focused attention to the diversity of experience of survivors of IPV, which has brought an important and welcome focus on culturally competent practice.1 However, until recently, attention to the diversity of experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender2, and queer3 (LGBTQ) survivors of IPV has been limited.4 The key to ending IPV is to focus on intersectionality of identities for all survivors of intimate partner violence, including LGBTQ survivors5.
IPV Risk Differs Across Identities
There is no one LGBTQ experience. Research indicates that while LGBTQ people may be nearly twice as likely to experience IPV as their non-LGBTQ counterparts, bisexual people are nearly twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence as those who identify as gay or lesbian.6 Transgender people are at much higher risk for IPV and sexual violence than non-transgender7 people,8 and face pervasive institutionalized discrimination when seeking services and support from health care, law enforcement, and domestic violence shelter. This discrimination is much higher for transgender identified people of color.9 Male-identified survivors are far less likely to be able to access services, particularly safe haven at domestic violence shelters, due to the historical view of survivors as female-identified.10 LGBTQ survivors who are also immigrants are among those most vulnerable to LGBTQ IPV.11 Every survivor of IPV has a unique experience and must have access to safety, services, and support that are sensitive to their individual needs and experiences. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) annual report, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Domestic/Intimate Partner Violence in the United States in 2009, showed an increase of 15% in reports from LGBTQ survivors of IPV from 2008 to 2009, reflecting an overall increase of 6.5% from 2006 – 2009. NCAVP’s report shows that IPV within LGBTQ communities is increasingly lethal. In the same three-year period, rates of murders among LGBTQ victims of IPV rose by 50%.12 As reports from LGBTQ people about violence within their intimate relationships and murders related to that violence rise, LGBTQ survivors face grave obstacles when seeking access to safety and services.
Obstacles and Barriers to Safety and Support for LGBTQ Survivors
The landmark 2010 report, Why It Matters: Rethinking Victim Assistance for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer victims of Hate Violence & Intimate Partner Violence,
demonstrated that, due to widespread discrimination and scarce resources, LGBTQ survivors are consistently deprived of access to culturally competent services such as counseling,
advocacy, and shelter. The report found that “[w]ithout access to culturally competent advocacy, intervention, and other critical services, LGBTQ victims will continue to suffer
disproportionately from violence and the after-effects of victimization.”13 Why It Matters highlighted the stark inequality and the numerous barriers LGBTQ survivors of violence face in trying to obtain culturally competent services to prevent and address the violence against them. Too often, mainstream victim assistance agencies cannot meet the needs of LGBTQ survivors of crime in culturally sensitive ways, while LGBTQ-specific anti-violence programs either lack the resources to do so or do not exist. Based on responses from 648 organizations including domestic violence agencies, sexual assault centers, prosecutors’ offices, law enforcement agencies and child victim services, the report found that 94% of the respondents said they were not serving LGBTQ survivors. The majority stated that their agencies did not have mechanisms to track the number of LGBTQ survivors served. Sixty-nine to 93% said they lacked outreach materials; 78% of prosecutors’ offices, along with 50% of law enforcement agencies and 43% of domestic violence and sexual assault agencies, said they did not collaborate with LGBTQ-specific organizations. The report identified four obstacles to providing LGBTQ-competent services: lack the ability to outreach to LGBTQ survivors, lack of LGBTQ cultural competency training, lack collaborations with LGBTQ-specific service providers and lack funding to correct these barriers to LGBTQ-specific services. However, 81% of responders said they would be somewhat or very likely to use LGBTQ-specific training materials.14
Homophobia Preserves Patriarchy
Barriers to accessible, culturally competent services for LGBTQ survivors IPV are myriad and interconnected. Some rest in the legalized discrimination, such as a refusal to recognize LGBTQ relationships as lawful and legitimate. Even as LGBTQ communities make historic gains in equality in military service, marriage rights, and non-discrimination protections, national reports of hate violence against and IPV within these communities rise.15 Some barriers are complicated by the history of the anti-domestic violence movement, which has strong roots in the battered women’s movement. Guided by a focus on promoting equal rights and empowerment for women, many of the battered women’s movement advocates seeking to end IPV have historically identified the root cause of this violence as patriarchy—the political, economic and social domination of women by men and male dominated institutions. Many fear that focusing on gay, bisexual and transgender male-identified survivors somehow minimizes the deadly consequences of pervasive patriarchy for women. Resistance to discussing and addressing IPV for LGBTQ survivors also comes from within LGBTQ communities. No community wants to advertise its internal domestic problems to the outside world, especially when it is subjected to pervasive discrimination and bias. LGBTQ communities are no different.
One theme throughout all of this resistance is the hesitancy to expand the lens with which we view gender to be inclusive of the ways in which gay, bisexual and transgender male-identified survivors experience IPV. Yet it is clear that a binary gender analysis, where roles for men and women are rigidly and narrowly proscribed is not only patriarchal, but does not include the reality of LGBTQ people’s experiences of violence within intimate relationships. In 1988, Catherine Pate introduced the idea of heteropatriarchy, suggesting that homophobia—the irrational fear of LGBTQ people, as well as the failure to recognize LGBTQ people and their relationships—preserves patriarchy. Heteropatriarchy16 contributes to the invisibility of lesbian survivors of IPV, promotes tolerance of violence in relationships between male-identified intimate partners, and perpetuates the idea that female-identified survivors must be protected at all costs by men and male dominated institutions.17 Over the past forty years, the battered women’s movement has overcome similar resistance for other marginalized communities, and has evolved in response to the voices of survivors. Funders, researchers, and advocates are working actively to create promising practices to address intersectionality when developing interventions, including within communities of color and with immigrants.18 This persistent heteronormative19, binary gender context misses the intersecting barriers related to sexual orientation20, gender identity21, and gender expression,22 which shape the unique experiences of LGBTQ survivors, as well as those who might serve them. Without an understanding of how sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and other identities – such as race, ethnicity, immigration status, and language ability – intersect, service providers cannot adequately address LGBTQ survivors’ safety. In fact, staff at mainstream victim services organizations stated in Why It Matters that “most of our agencies are not even providing … safe space for LGBTQ employees, much less a safe environment for LGBTQ victims/survivors.”23 Law enforcement – often a primary resource identified by some advocates to support survivor’s safety – is also a problematic “solution” for LGBTQ survivors, because officers may use gender identity and expression models created for heterosexual relationships that are of little use in assessing safety and danger in LGBTQ relationships.24 All of these assumptions, biases and barriers exist in a world where we have struggled to understand gender identity and expression generally and often without large scale mainstream success.
The fear of facing intensified discrimination and bias is a real one, but we at AVP firmly believe we must continue to shine a light on the unique ways that LGBTQ people experience violence within their intimate relationships, and create access to safety, services, and self-determination, as we have sought to do for decades for battered women. Progress has definitely been made. 2010 brought substantial legal gains for LGBTQ survivors. Noteworthy changes include the federal Department of Justice opinion that the criminal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act applies to same-sex couples25 and the inclusion of same-sex couples in many state laws.26 Increasingly, government and private funders are creating requests for proposals that include the need for programming targeting LGBTQ survivors.
Resources for LGBTQ Survivors Some resources do exist. LGBTQ-specific anti-violence programs are a great resource where they exist, but NCAVP has only 43 programs in 26 states, leaving many areas of the country without resources. Many anti-violence programs throughout the country, including the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), are available as a resource for technical assistance, training, support and consultation to advocates working to increase their organization’s LGBTQ cultural competency. At AVP, we have developed several key initiatives to respond to the unique needs presented by LGBTQ survivors who come to us for safety and support. In addition to the only mixed gender groups for LGBTQ identified survivors of IPV and sexual violence, AVP has developed an assessment that focuses on power and control dynamics within intimate relationships, as they relate to intersecting identities. This assessment will be piloted and evaluated over the next year, to create a replicable model for LGBTQ and mainstream programs for survivors of violence. AVP has also developed expertise in unique safety planning for LGBTQ survivors, recognizing that advocates must work with the survivor to assess safety not only around their abusive partner, but also around their identity. Who is aware of their LGBTQ identity and their relationship? Who is supportive of them in their LGBTQ identity? Who and where can they turn for support and resources? This model, which does not force survivors to choose between multiple identities, best gets to the root of the barriers for the fact LGBTQ people, exposing them, breaking them down and ultimately finding resources that truly meet the needs of LGBTQ survivors. But relying on LGBTQ-specific programs is not enough. Instead, each provider serving survivors of violence must acknowledge and integrate the needs of LGBTQ survivors within their programs. This is not easy work, as it means challenging not just gender and sexual orientation norms, but also changing policies and procedures when working with all survivors. But it is critical work. IPV within LGBTQ communities, as in all communities, is a life or death issue. LGBTQ survivors have a right to culturally competent services. In the movement to end IPV, we need to adapt to emerging needs of LGBTQ survivors. As LGBTQ IPV comes out of the closet, services must also emerge to help survivors reach safety, support and self-determination.
If you or someone you know identifies as LGBTQ and is experiencing violence within an intimate relationship, or you want information or training to increase cultural competency with LGBTQ survivors, call the Anti-Violence Project’s confidential 24-hour hotline at 212-714-1141 or report violence anonymously on our website at www.avp.org.