Interpersonal Abuse in the LGBTQ+ Community
The statistics are clear. People in the LGBTQ+ community face disproportionately high rates of intimate partner and sexual violence compared to cisgender, heterosexual people. The issue is likely as complex as the community itself.
According the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 44% of lesbian women and 61% of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, compared to 35% of heterosexual women. For gay men, it’s 26%, and for bisexual men, it’s 37% of bisexual men compared to 29% of heterosexual men.
A 2015 survey from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence found that 54% of respondents who identified as being transgender experienced some form of intimate partner violence, including acts involving coercive control and physical harm. Forty-seven percent of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and 10% were sexually assaulted in the previous year. Fifty-six percent of Black respondents to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence. Black transgender men – 62% of them – are most likely to have experienced some form of intimate partner violence.
Most troubling is that while individuals in the LGBTQ+ community experience high rates of violence, survivors also face significant barriers to finding personal safety and accessing services, according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.
Ash Powell has been working for the Domestic Violence Network in Indianapolis for three years working on prevention as the training services coordinator. They are primarily focused on adult training – Domestic Violence 101 and LGBTQ+ training. Ash also leads DVN’s LGBTQ Task Force. The organization holds domestic violence prevention programs at area middle schools and high schools.
“A lot of sex ed programs are focused on cis/hetero relationships,” Ash says. “Often, when someone identifies as LGBTQ+, there’s no context for what’s healthy or unhealthy in a relationship. We just didn’t talk about it.” Ash speculates that part of the reason the numbers are high in the community is a lack of healthy relationship modeling and awareness.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had people come up to me after a program and say, ‘I thought domestic violence was only physical, and if that’s not present, it’s not domestic violence,’” Ash says. “There are so many misconceptions in general about domestic violence, and they are amplified in the LGBTQ+ community. We want to disrupt the processing before they date people who are unhealthy. And what we need are inclusive conversations about what domestic violence is and how it impacts our community.”
In addition to a lack of education and modeling, the normalization of violence and traumatic experiences play a role. “Just because someone experiences something traumatic as a child doesn’t mean they will perpetuate it as an adult, but it can increase risk,” says Ash.
Young LGBTQ+ people are experiencing high rates of bullying at school, and if they are living in an unsupportive home where a family member is putting them down or treating them negatively, they come to expect that. “What does a relationship look like to individuals if they are coming out in their home and are met with abuse?” says Ash. “That impacts them and their future relationships because that’s the experience they have from a loved one.”
“We need to talk about young people in our community,” Ash says. “The Human Rights Campaign study identified top stressors in young people. For cis hetero kids, they are worrying about college and their careers. It’s future-focused. For LGBTQ+ kids, it’s ‘What happens when people find out? Are they going to kick me out? Am I going to lose friends?’”
Ash speculates that if LGBTQ+ youth feel family rejection – which 30% of them report – and feel like there’s no one to talk to, they may seek out older community members, and that can create a power dynamic. Another issue is the community itself and the fear of losing it.
“Unless you’re in a big city like L.A. or New York City, the communities are pretty small,” Ash says. “Everyone either knows everyone or knows of everyone, so there’s a fear of gossip that makes people hesitant to acknowledge abuse. These are their friends and their dating pool and there’s a fear the abuser will turn the community against them.” Not only that, but survivors can be reluctant to make the community look bad.
One tactic of an abuser unique to the LGBTQ+ population is outing. If someone isn’t out to their family or their workplace, the fear can create a power dynamic. Another issue is abuse related to someone’s specific identity. “Tearing a person down is a piece we see in the bisexual community,” Ash says. “We see a lot of microaggressions – ‘you’re a lesbian, you’re not bi, you’re confused, I have double the competition because you’re attracted to everyone’ – actually tearing down how they know themselves.” If there are children in an LGBTQ+ relationship, the threat of withholding access to them can be another form of abuse when one person is not the adoptive parent.
The barriers to reporting are great. First, there are stigmas that go with the LGBTQ+ community – a “boys will be boys” attitude when the abuse is in a gay male relationship, and with lesbians, the idea that if there’s no man, there’s no abuse. There’s a fear of not being treated well by law enforcement, especially with BIPOC community members, and a lack of shelter access. The NRCDV also notes discrimination by service providers and a lack of culturally responsive services as factors that could result in revictimization. LGBTQ+ people often use more than one support service when reporting, and that means having to come out in every new encounter.
Ash says simple things – like removing gendered language from intake forms, asking what a person’s preferred name and pronouns are and asking questions in a neutral way – are important steps for advocates working with LGBTQ+ survivors and creating a safe space.
“There’s a misconception that domestic violence only happens to women and that only men are abusers,” says Ash. “Ultimately, it’s about making everyone feel safe.”