When you hear the words “domestic violence”, “abusive behaviors” or “relationship violence”, what do you picture? Who do you picture?
For many of us, that picture is one of a man abusing a woman. Gender stereotypes are so engrained in our minds that it’s only natural for this to be the image that comes to mind.
However, it is a stereotype that has created a blind spot for the abuse that occurs in LGBTQIA+ relationships. And like many marginalized communities in our society, individuals that exist across the spectrum of gender and sexuality face unique barriers in asking for help.
LGBTQIA+ Abuse Statistics
According to Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), more than 2 in 5 lesbian women and 1 in 4 gay men experience abusive behaviors in a relationship. The numbers are even more startling for individuals who identify as bisexual with more than 3 in 5 women and 1 in 3 men reporting relationship violence in their lifetime.
“Most barriers unique to LGBTQIA+ people who use abusive behaviors arise from homophobic and heteronormative myths,” said Peter DiLeo, a Denver-area treatment provider who helps LGBTQIA+ individuals change their abusive behaviors, “such as, ‘two men fighting is a normal way to resolve conflict in gay relationships’ or, ‘boys will be boys’ or, ‘lesbians don’t abuse each other because women always find a way to get along’ – also promoted as a kind of ‘Lesbian Utopia’. These myths often lead to few helpful resources being available.”
Among people who identify as transgender, more than 1 in 3 say they’ve experienced relationship abuse. Their marginalization in society has also led to a culture that tolerates this violence, as they are 2.5 times more likely than cisgender individuals to experience physical abuse in public.
“Isolation plus higher likelihoods of experiencing violence present a unique subset of challenges for trans and non-binary people to navigate,” said Elizabeth Bringier, a community advocate for The NW Network – a Seattle-based organization working to end abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities. “(They) experience higher levels of violence in the world interpersonally and within systems and have even less access to resources like shelter and domestic violence assistance programs.”
The Role of Gender Stereotypes
Helping limit services and perpetuate abuse in LGBTQIA+ relationships are gender stereotypes that promote the message that biological sex predisposes males to being abusive and females to be victimized.
“One important consideration about gender stereotypes hindering our ability to address abuse in queer and trans relationships is the assumption that abuse cannot – or will not – happen because people are of the same gender,” Bringier said.
By adhering to this perspective, the root causes of relationship violence risk falling into the shadows.
“Often, male-female gender stereotypes distract us from the power-and-control dynamics present within LGBTQIA+ relationship abuse,” DiLeo said. “Heteronormative perspectives also distort or obscure our understanding of what types of abuse are going on as well as who is the predominant aggressor in the rare mutually abusive cases.”
The impact of these societal stereotypes can even infiltrate people on an individual level – impacting the perceptions of LGTBQIA+ people themselves. It becomes part of what they perceive as being normal in their own relationship.
“Internalized homophobia greatly reduces the likelihood of LGBTQIA+ people who use abusive behaviors asking for help in that they might mistakenly believe that same-sex relationships are incapable of healthy, violence-free functioning,” DiLeo said. “So, they normalize abuse as inherently entrenched.”
Change is Possible
Abuse in LGBTQIA+ relationships isn’t inevitable. If you know someone who is engaging in relationship violence, you can play a critical role in helping them find a better life with healthy relationships.
“Friends and family members can distinguish between support for the abusive person as LGBTQIA+ versus concern for them about being abusive,” DiLeo said. “(For example), ‘We love and support you – as the LGBTQIA+ person you are – but we are very concerned, saddened, puzzled, etc., about how you sometimes treat your partner. Is there anything we can do to help?”
If you don’t know anyone using abusive behaviors – or even someone who is LGBTQIA+ – you still have a role to play in breaking down the gender stereotypes that allow relationship violence to perpetuate.
“The impression that relationships between same gender couples aren’t ‘real’, or don’t exist lends itself to increased isolation for those folks in abusive relationships,” DiLeo said. “A wonderful parallel to the recent swift and strong acceptance of marriage equality by society will be the correspondingly swift and strong transformation of previously abuse-burdened LGBTQ+ relationships into the safe and loving resources they were always meant to be.”
The Stand Up Colorado Campaign is paused for 2023. To get help to change your behaviors, call the A Call For Change Helpline at 877-898-3411 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. MT. Friends, family, and professionals who want to help someone stop harming their partner are also encouraged to call.