What is Domestic Abuse?
In March 2013, faced with a rising awareness of domestic violence against women, the government redefined what it meant by ‘domestic abuse’ to underline the fact that it involved more than physical violence. It defined it as follows:
“Any incident or pattern of incidents of coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or who have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.”
Thus for the first time it was at least implicitly acknowledged that abuse could be directed against LGB and transgender people (and indeed committed by them) and that it was not just between partners but could be ostracism directed against someone coming out to their family as gay, and could be directed against those aged 16-18 as well as over.
This abuse can cover, as well as violence, psychological, sexual, financial and emotional abuse. Controlling or coercive behaviour were included within this definition but the definition is not a legal one. Thus not all types of domestic abuse as currently defined are criminal offences. There is considerable debate among advocacy groups of the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.
The common view, however, has remained that domestic abuse is domestic violence and that domestic violence is only visited upon women by men. This is simply not true. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that this is still underestimated either because the law is inadequate, or poorly policed, or women are still reluctant to come forward , or cases are badly dealt with by the courts, or, most likely, a combination of all of them, there is virtual denial that men too are the victims of abuse (up to one third of all cases) and so are LGBT couples and individuals. Indeed ,what research there is suggests that the incidence is greater among LGBT people.
In broad terms, we are in the position that women were in decades ago — and their problems are not yet resolved– that Like Admiral Nelson placing his eyeglass to his blind eye we see no problem (including regarding abuse within the LGBT community) and that therefore very little is done and that help is minimal.
The Extent and Nature of LGBT Domestic Abuse
Research done by organisations such as Broken Rainbow – the truly admirable charity in this area -, Stonewall, Domestic Abuse Oxfordshire and others suggests that domestic abuse in the LGBT Community is a serious issue. About 25% of LGBT people have been victims—about the same rate as against heterosexual women (and probably higher in reality because of under-reporting). LGBT people suffer many of the same types of abuse as heterosexual people but there are also additional factors – some of which the LGBT Community itself have been reluctant to recognise. These include:
1. Violence not by partners but by families – especially acute in the case of LGBT youngsters who come out to their families and are rejected. A disproportionately high number of homeless youth are homeless for this reason – many others have their lives made hell at home but put up with it because they have nowhere else to go.
2. ‘Outing’ as a method of control. The abuser may threaten to ‘out ‘the victim to their friends ,family, workmates and others as a very effective method of control against those who have hidden their sexuality. Bisexual people can be particularly vulnerable here.
3. The offender using the close knit nature of the LGBT Community to ostracise complainants (‘we are not macho men–we do not do things like that–it is just a lovers tiff’ -or whatever). The threat of social isolation can be a very effective means of control.
4. Lack of support for LGBT people outside the LGBT Community both because the problem is not recognised or people do not know how to deal with it effectively.
5. Sadly, just as in the old days too many women accepted being knocked about a bit was a natural part of married life , the police were not interested in ‘domestics’ and – most shockingly of all – the widespread belief that abused women ‘must have asked for it.’ Many LGBT people believe that they are suffering this abuse BECAUSE of their sexuality—that it is a natural part of it.If they were straight they would not be experiencing it. Therefore in some cases they blame themselves for the abuse they are subjected to. Just as many abused heterosexual women returned to their partners believing that they must have ‘provoked’ their partner or out of economic need.Abuse is abuse whatever your sexuality and nothing excuses it.
6. LGBT domestic abuse is not widely recognised as a problem in the LGBT Community. Many simply do not believe it happens. Others do not recognise it as abuse when it happens to them and simply do not know what to do if they become aware of it happening to a friend – or are afraid to do so.
7. LGBT Communities are often hidden and indeed many LGBT people are not part of them. This problem can be particularly acute in small towns and rural areas where LGBT people are still largely out of sight.
8. They may be ashamed of the abuse and blame themselves for it .This was the classic reason that women did not complain of abuse by men. Sexuality is irrelevant here. Abuse is abuse. It is unacceptable.
9. The abuser may try to turn the LGBT Community against them and isolate them from social contact or indeed they may not be in contact in the first place.
10. It is hard for LGBT victims to seek help because they do not want to disclose their sexuality to the police and other organisations.
11. They may have no confidence that their complaints will be effectively dealt with. And sadly they may be right not to.Agencies may make heterosexual assumptions about clients which make things more difficult.
12. People might be scared that if they complain they will give LGBT relationships a bad name and seem to justify homophobic attitudes.
What Needs to be Done
1. Raise the profile of the problem of LGBT Domestic Abuse in society generally.
2. Raise the profile of the problem in the LGBT Community. Make sure that our community acknowledges that it has a problem. Make sure that it gets the message to LGBT people that this is unacceptable, advise them, support them, investigate whether present support is adequate – or more precisely in what ways it is inadequate. We need to gather information as well – until we know the true nature and extent of the problem it will be difficult to lobby for adequate support.
3. Unless victims have the confidence to come forward – which they will only do if they have confidence in the system this will be virtually impossible to do.This is a truly vicious circle because if they do not come forward we will never have the resources to cater for their particular needs. If officialdom does not believe there is a problem there will be no specialist support and therefore people will be reluctant to seek non-existent support.
4. As charities such as Broken Rainbow have repeatedly pointed out advice and training must be given to those (where they exist) who are responsible for domestic abuse policy in mainstream and specialist organisations, or who are otherwise involved with the survivors or perpetrators of those suffering from domestic violence or abuse with a view to increasing the physical safety and mental well being of LGBT people who experience violence or abuse.
5. Such help must be statutory and not on a ‘one size fits all’ basis as is too often the case at present. This applies to NHS services -especially mental health – but also to refuges and housing.This situation is worsened by the horrific cuts imposed by central government on local services. We are aware that refuges for women fleeing violence are shamefully being closed across the country as a result of government austerity cuts but LGBT people have SPECIALIST needs -for example for the 16 year old thrown out of the family home or fleeing it when subjected to homophobic abuse. They form a totally disproportionate section of youngsters homeless on the streets.and once there they are vulnerable to numerous other problems such as sexual exploitation, sexually caused infections and alcohol and drug abuse. Similarly specialist support – including housing-for transgender people is usually laking and scarcely even recognised. It is not surprising that suicide rates among both groups are high.
6. Proper advice, information and support must be offered. The LGBT Community itself – as well as charities and official bodies must play a full part in this. They must recognise that there is a problem. Until they do we will be unable to lobby effectively for more specialist support.
7. As well as looking at whether the present law is being properly implemented and supported we must look at whether the law itself is adequate . This of course is one of the most difficult areas of all as rape and violence against women has proved over several decades. If the law is perceived to be inadequate is that a fault with the law itself or the way it is being operated – or indeed both? Again, we need information.
8. Finally, young people must be taught in school what is acceptable in relationships and what constitutes abuse. Atrocious though the level is of violence against heterosexual women by heterosexual men men suffer domestic abuse too, So do LGBT people. All schools must teach sex and relationships education and that must be LGBT inclusive.All abuse is unacceptable.
There is a lot to do. The first is to recognise that we have a problem.
By Colin Livett 23/11/14