Suffering in silence: Domestic violence in the LGBTI community
With much of the language and media coverage on domestic violence focusing on heterosexual relationships, many LGBTI people don’t even realise they are in an abusive relationship. By Ron Hughes and Reg Domingo.
When Hayden Jamison* began his transition from female to male five years ago, finally, he thought, everything would be set right. All roads had led up to this. He had been in a relationship with a female partner for a decade. Sure, she proved to be a handful and sometimes the boat was a bit rocky, but what relationship wasn’t? They had their disagreements but Hayden simply took it on board. It’s just what couples do. Besides, they have two wonderful children and they lived in a terrace in Sydney. With his transition, he could now be the person he always wanted to be and live the life he always wanted. All would be as clear as day.
Yet despite his profound transformation, or perhaps even because of it, things were in fact far from good.
“When I began to see myself as male, I could tell things weren’t right, that life didn’t sit right anymore.”
“When I began to see myself as male, I could tell things weren’t right, that life didn’t sit right anymore.”
Slowly, Hayden came to the realisation that the occasional scuffles with his partner were not just acts committed in the heat of the moment, or that the times he was being blamed for something he hadn’t done were not just lapses of his judgement or memory. The reality of his situation finally sunk in when his three-year-old daughter started to display violent behaviour.
Hayden was in an abusive relationship.
Hayden is just one of many LGBTI people to become a victim of LGBTI domestic and family violence.
While much has been written and said about domestic violence against women – which, thankfully, have produced much-needed action on all levels of government – very little is known about LGBTI domestic and family violence (DFV). This is despite high rates of DFV in the LGBTI community.
A recent survey of LGBTI people in NSW found more than half have experienced abuse in their relationships. It also found nearly three-quarters experience emotional abuse from their partners. Moreover, the survey – Call It What It Really Is – found that experiences of abuse were most pronounced among transgender respondents. Another survey found up to 70 per cent of trans men have indicated some experience of DFV.
Hayden didn’t realise he was in an abusive relationship with his partner because much of it occurred while Hayden was still living as a woman. With much of the language and media coverage on domestic violence focused around a ‘male-female’ framework, it just didn’t click that Hayden was being abused. Moreover, the emotional grip that tightened against him clouded the waters further.
“The big problem wasn’t really the physical violence, I would take that any day over the psychological stuff, messing with your brain,” Hayden tells SX. They were simple things like being accused of something he hadn’t done. “That’s the more damaging part,” he says.
“The big problem wasn’t really the physical violence, I would take that any day over the psychological stuff, messing with your brain.”
When Hayden sought advice from those around him, some asked ‘Why don’t you just hit her back?’ “It’s not going to happen,” Hayden says. “I’m not going to hit anybody.”
That he was being abused by a female – before and after he transitioned – only made it harder for people to understand Hayden’s situation.
It wasn’t until he told someone at work what was happening at home that he knew he had to act. “It helped me realise the things I was experiencing weren’t normal behaviours,” he says.
Hayden’s transition also gave him some clarity. When his daughter, who was three when he left, started throwing punches, Hayden knew it was time to go. And though it was a relief, the ordeal was far from over.
“When I left, I had really high anxiety and I couldn’t really tell you what I felt about anything. It took me a week to realise how I was feeling. It’s been five years and I’m still seeing a psychologist.”
Hayden’s story highlights how little we know about LGBTI DFV, and in particular, transgender DFV, and underscores the urgent need for more studies in the area.
“There’s actually very little research done in Australia and even world-wide,” says Dr Philomena Horsley from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.
“We really don’t understand in any great detail the different dynamics that can occur that are more specific to same-sex relationships or relationships involving transgender people,” Horsley said.
Horsley recently made a submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence on behalf of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria who said too many LGBTI victims suffer in isolation.
Indeed, had we known more about LGBTI DFV, particularly towards trans people – how to spot the signs, when to get help – Hayden may have been able to get out of his situation much sooner.
What we do know is that there are unique aspects to DFV among LGBTI attracted and gender diverse people. As well as physical violence and emotional abuse, many LGBTI people have the added fear that their abusive partner will ‘out’ them to family, friends or colleagues, or their HIV status will be publicly revealed. Cultural factors and entrenched homophobia also put LGBTI people at greater risk of violence than their counterparts, especially at the hands of family members. And because of stigma and discrimination, many LGBTI people have a distrust of the police and court system, and thus their abuse goes unreported. Another NSW survey found that as much as 85 percent of those who experienced DFV never reported abuse. Some also stay silent for fear of being outed, ostracised, blamed, not believed and shamed. And when they do report it, services and programs catering specifically to LGBTI victims of DFV are non-existent or inadequate. For gay, bisexual and transgender men, there are no specific services available whatsoever.
“There’s actually very little research done in Australia and even world-wide.”Dr Philomena Horsley
What we also know is that there are people and organisations making inroads into LGBTI DFV, such as Domestic Violence NSW, an organisation that advocates for better outcomes for victims of domestic violence, and ACON.
Indeed, shedding more light on the issue, delivering help to victims of LGBTI DFV and training service providers on the needs of LGBTI people are areas ACON is determined to fulfil. With funding from the NSW Government, the LGBTI health agency recently launched its 3-year strategy aimed at addressing specific challenges the LGBTI community faces in relation to DFV.
ACON’s Director, Community Health and Regional Services, Shannon Wright says part of the challenge is educating support services to be sensitive to LGBTI specific needs, especially services outside of Sydney.
“We [ACON] need to get ourselves into a position where we can train those support services – particularly regional support services, because this isn’t just a city problem – so they can respond appropriately to LGBTI people,” Wright says.
Hayden took a long time to recognise the abusive nature of his relationship and Wright says that’s not uncommon. Part of ACON’s job is to educate the community on just what DFV is.
“Sometimes in the LGBTI community, in our relationships we don’t really recognise violence until it becomes physical violence,” Wright says.
Among ACON’s strategies moving forward include developing campaigns and resources for LGBTI people to help them recognise the signs of an abusive relationship, running community workshops and forums on LGBTI DFV, and looking into effective prevention strategies for DFV. ACON is also continuing to build and strengthen relationships with support services, police, researcher and peak and state-wide bodies.
But once a person recognises they are in an abusive relationship, the question is what to do next? In Hayden’s case, he went to the police and reported the violence. It was a ‘positive’ experience, Hayden says, one that helped him start to heal.
NSW Police have been working extremely hard over the last few years to develop closer ties with the LGBTI community and have concentrated quite closely on DFV.
“Our Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers work closely with police taking DFV reports and our DVLOs (Domestic Violence Liaison Officers) to ensure the best possible support is provided to LGBTI community members,” Superintendent Anthony Crandell tells SX.
DVLOs also get specific training in LGBTI issues so they can better serve the community.
“We hope that positive experiences with police will encourage community members to come forward and report matters to us,” Crandell says.
While Hayden says his experiences with police and social workers was positive, getting through the court system was more of a challenge. Such was the animosity between him and his ex-partner that she tried to use Hayden’s trans status against him.
“We hope that positive experiences with police will encourage community members to come forward and report matters to us.”Superintendent Tony Crandell
“Her first argument was because I’m trans I just don’t exist in the legal system,” Hayden says. “That didn’t work!”
Nonetheless, not being the biological parent as well as his trans status worked against him and his ex-partner got the lion’s share of their assets and greater custody over their children.
Hayden’s experiences through the judicial system may have been less than happy, but according to Cedric Hassing of the Inner City Legal Centre, things are improving through the courts as greater understanding of the nature of LGBTI relationships slowly filters through.
“We have an LGBTI safe room at the Downing Centre, which hears a lot of domestic violence matters; it’s the first LGBTI safe room in Australia and probably the Southern Hemisphere,” Hassing says.
“I do a lot of training work with the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Assistance Service and the people who work there are happy and keen to know that there’s a same-sex, transgender, queer referral service; we’re trying to roll that training out, as much as we can, throughout New South Wales.”
The Inner City Legal Centre helps quite a number of LGBTI-attracted people affected by DFV. They have a very large reference list of LGBTI-friendly support services, counsellors and GPs. And those services are vital: as Hayden says, he is still seeing a psychologist regularly to help repair the emotional damage done to him.
It’s clear that it will take a lot of work to combat DFV in the LGBTI community from educating support services to educating the community, to changing community attitudes from the old ‘male vs female’ mindset, to creating safe spaces for victims to go.
As part of that work, ACON has recently received $115,000 in funds from the NSW Government to help with their anti-DFV strategy.
Announcing the funding, the NSW Minister for Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Pru Goward said it was important that LGBTI people and their families feel safe and supported.
“ACON’s new strategic plan for its DFV work demonstrates that the organisation is committed to improving the safety of LGBTI people and their families,” Goward said.
“The Government looks forward to working with ACON and its partners over the next five years to reduce violence experienced by LGBTI people in relationships and households.”
For Hayden, there is light on the horizon. Despite the occasional upsets, Hayden is in a much happier place today than he was five years ago and doesn’t regret breaking off his abusive relationship and going to the police. He urges anyone who is being abused to report it to authorities and seek help from others.
“Go and talk to the police because they will believe you,” Hayden says. “And also tell the people around you. Having someone on your side is a game-changer.”
*Names have been changed
For more information on LGBTIQ domestic and family violence, including where to get help, visit anothercloset.com.au.
For more information on ACON’s Domestic and Family Violence Strategy 2015-2018, visit acon.org.au.