THE BLOG
02/14/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Invisible Darkness: Domestic Abuse in LGBTQI Relationships

Once an ex-girlfriend tried to strangle me. She was drunk and much smaller than I, so it wasn't a scary experience, but it was a sad one, as it marked our turn onto a dark path together. It was the beginning of a very long and painful journey to the end of our relationship.

If you ask people today what domestic violence looks like, most of them might point to photos of Rihanna after Chris Brown savagely beat her. When we think of LGBTQI relationships, the images are far sunnier: maybe a lesbian couple cozied up in Brooklyn with their fat kitty, or perhaps a couple of Chelsea boys holding hands in Thom Browne suits, or even a trans woman out on the town with a sweet gentleman.

What we don't hear about is the violence and emotional abuse in intimate LGBTQI relationships. The CDC recently released a study on intimate partner violence. Did you know that one in three lesbians has been slapped, pushed or shoved by a girlfriend? Bisexual women have it worse, with 61 percent reporting incidents of physical violence. But men aren't exempt from hard times; 16 percent of gay men said they have experienced severe violence from an intimate partner. Violence against intersex and trans individuals is so underreported that it's difficult to obtain clear statistics.

Acknowledging a problem and finding out the facts are only the first steps in making positive change. United 4 Safety, a Georgia-based nonprofit, is working hard to provide support for people in our community who are suffering from intimate partner violence.

Alexis Champion is the executive director of the organization. I met Alexis when we were 10 years old, living in Carrollton, Ga. We spent whole weekends together making crafts projects and tributes to The NeverEnding Story and exploring houses we thought might be haunted. We lost touch over the years but recently reconnected on Facebook. I was blown away by her dedication to the cause, particularly given that she's a straight, married mom. Don't think I'm swayed by our friendship, though. Alexis has a master's degree in social work and 10 years of experience in the domestic violence field.

I recently interviewed her about the special issues our community faces and how her organization is raising awareness.

Jincey Lumpkin: The statistics are pretty staggering. Having experienced a lot of sex abuse, violence and emotional abuse in my life, even I was shocked by the prevalence of intimate partner violence in the LGBTQI community. How do you help people get out of these horrible situations?

Alexis Champion: There's not one answer to that question, really. All relationships are different. However, we received a grant from Allstate for domestic violence training. One big reason that people stay in abusive relationships is because of finances. Often the abusive partner controls the money or prevents the other person from working. We help them to stabilize their lives by giving financial training. Also, leaving the relationship is the most dangerous time for victims. It's the time when many abusive partners seriously retaliate, sometimes even with murder.

Lumpkin: One thing people always say is, "Why do they go back to the person who beats them? Don't they deserve what they get after that?" So what's the answer to that?

Champion: Again, it's different in every case, but there are some patterns we see a lot. Most relationships don't start off bad. Abusers can be romantic and charming -- even to an exaggerated degree. Even the worst person might have some good qualities. Sometimes violence can be seen as "passion," an intense, albeit distorted, expression of love. Childhood violence survivors are particularly susceptible to repeat the patterns that they were exposed to growing up. Other times, in extreme cases, the abuser is so dangerous that leaving can be deadly, so victims think they have better control by staying. They often think that the danger they know is better than the one they don't know.

Lumpkin: OK, having survived that myself, I have a lot of compassion for what they go through. What I don't understand at all and have not heard discussed so much is why in the hell the abusers do what they do. Why would someone be abusive?

Champion: Because it gets results. It's self-perpetuating in a way, too. By leveraging control, they get their way. Abusers often feel entitled to get what they want, no matter the cost. They want what they want, and they will take whatever means necessary to get and maintain that. It's tempting to look for a diagnosis of mental illness. There may be a link in narcissism in some cases, but for many people, it's a pattern of learned behavior that they picked up from their parents.

Lumpkin: How are LGBTQI relationships different?

Champion: Well, there are just more barriers to seeking help. There is a fear of being outed to family or employers. Getting fired or being rejected by your family is an added control tactic for abusers, not to mention there is still a lot of homophobia in general. Many times domestic violence shelters and programs are not adequately trained in how to deal with gay people. That's one of the important things we are doing now; we give training, tools, education and support to other domestic violence organizations throughout the Southeast.

Lumpkin: What are some of the challenges you face in doing this work?

Champion: Lack of funding is a huge problem. Grants are already difficult to get because of the economy, but the political climate makes it even more difficult. The LGBTQI angle has a particular difficulty, since many politicians find it a divisive issue. We face a lot of problems because of the prevalence of bigotry in the South.

Lumpkin: Are there any issues that trans and queer people might face that are different?

Champion: Yes, for sure. Trans women and trans men especially may be denied services because of gender discrimination (i.e., "women's shelters") or forced into a men's shelter even though they identify as female. They may receive negative reactions from other survivors in a support group or shelter setting. They sometimes have negative, dismissive attitudes from law enforcement and court systems. They may be especially isolated due to not having other trans or queer people available to act as a support system. There is zero language that applies to them in domestic violence brochures, posters or hotline cards. On a positive note, United 4 Safety did receive a call from a local solicitor's office victim assistant who was seeking alternative pretrial diversion counseling options for a trans person who had been arrested for prostitution. It turned out that he was not a survivor of domestic violence, but if he had been, U4S would have provided counseling services in order to collaborate with the solicitor. I was just so glad that victim assistant thought to call us!

Lumpkin: How could we change the legal process to make it less intimidating?

Champion: Funding to pay for victim advocates would really help. To have a trained professional in the courtroom when you are seeking a temporary restraining order ("TRO") gives a lot more credence to the victim's story. It's also helpful to just have support when you're going through that process. Advocates help to be the voice of the victim, so that the person does not have to tell the same story of abuse over and over again and feel re-victimized. We have to stop seeing these kinds of programs as handouts. Look, domestic violence, stalking, sexual abuse and coersion -- these are all crimes. As such, the focus must shift from the victim to the perpetrator. These are crimes like all other crimes. Perpetrators must be held accountable. When someone breaks into your car and steals your radio, no police officer says, "So why did you park there? Why didn't you move your car to a more lighted area? What could you have done to prevent this?" Intimate partner violence should be no different. We have to stop blaming the victim and punish the abuser.

Lumpkin: I've been hearing a lot about the Violence Against Women Act in the news. What's your take on that?

Champion: First of all, it's a misnomer. Violence happens to all people, regardless of gender. The feminine language in the name of the act leaves out a lot of people. We need broader language to include the people who fall between the cracks. Straight people don't think that domestic violence exists in gay relationships. Part of the reason for that is the prevalence of this idea that domestic violence only happens to straight women. But the statistics clearly show that's not the case.

Lumpkin: When you provide training to other organizations on LGBTQIA issues, how do they respond?

Champion: Most organizations who attend our trainings have very positive attitudes and welcome the information. They are often surprised to hear about the prevalence of domestic violence in the gay community. I do believe that the United 4 Safety trainings have had a lasting impact as far as implementation, although there is still much room for improvement with genderized language. There needs to be more inclusive language for gay men/male victims, queer and trans. I'm not personally aware of any negative feedback regarding the training material; most attendees ask for more information or more specific survivor stories/speakers.

Lumpkin: How can you help a friend who's experiencing intimate partner violence?

Champion: Listen and believe them! Don't go to a place of judgment and immediately say, "Leave now!" What you can do is help by doing the leg work for them. Find resources to help them, like support groups, help lines and advocates. Be patient and hopeful. It also helps to get educated on the facts or go through domestic violence training yourself. Be mindful of water cooler conversations that come up, and share your voice. Help get the facts out into the open.

* * * * *

A huge thanks to Alexis for an illumining interview full of great information.

If you are experiencing domestic violence or stalking, you can call United 4 Safety at 1-404-200-5957 or the National Domestic Abuse hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

If you are experiencing sex abuse, you can contact the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Get ready to talk about sex and Web television! I've got a special interview that I'm excited to share. As always, if you have questions to ask or stories to share, you can tweet me @juicyjincey, or reach out to me at Facebook.com/JinceyLumpkin.

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