Introduction to Gay Male Domestic Violence



Stages of Healthy Gay Relationships

Intro To Domestic Violence

Intro to Gay Male Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

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Intro to Gay Male Domestic Violence
Mutual Combat

Domestic Violence in Gay Couples

Some people view the violence that happens in some gay and lesbian relationships as "less serious" than the violence in straight relationships (Wise and Bowman, 1997) or feel less empathy for gay victims (Harris and Cook, 1994; Howard, 1984a, 1984b; Ford et al, 1998; Davies et al, 2001). However, the violence that abusive gay men inflict on domestic partners is no less serious than the violence inflicted by abusive heterosexual men on their domestic partners. One study found 79% of gay victims had suffered some physical injury, with 60% reporting bruises, 23% reporting head injuries and concussions, 13% reporting forced sex with the intention to infect the victim with HIV, 12% reporting broken bones, and 10% reporting burns (Merrill and Wolfe, 2000). Thus, the issue deserves the same attention in gay relationships as it does in straight relationships.

While the gay and lesbian community is far more willing to discuss domestic violence today, this was not always so. Many in the 1980's and 1990's feared open discussion of this kind of issue would make gays and lesbians "look bad" in an already homophobic society, and take the focus off of fighting heterosexism. While that argument may seem outdated, reasons to continue with this concern are still present today (see Citizens for Parents' Rights). Other noted that dealing with the AIDS crises in the 1980's took tremendous energy for the gay community, and exposed gays to significant hatred, fear, and negative attention. As a result, there was little energy and attention left over for concerns about domestic violence (Elliot, 1996).

That being said, several points must be noted in attempting to understand the data on gay and lesbian domestic violence. For example, only since 1987 have statistics regarding gay and lesbian domestic violence been collected. Estimates have varied considerably since then, with numbers ranging from 11% (Bryant and Demien, 1994), to 17% (Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council, 1987), to 25-26% (Brand and Kidd, 1986; Lie et al, 1991), to 38% (Gardner, 1989), to as high as 46% (Coleman, 1990).

While 15 years of statistics might seem to be a sufficiently large body of numbers to draw solid conclusions, this is not the case. There are several concerns that must be taken into consideration.
  • For example, one has to be concerned with how well these statistics have been collected. A recent (2004) news story told of a government agency that, under the director's decision, simply stopped collecting statistics on gays and lesbians experiencing discrimination in the workplace (see story but this was corrected). Some states do not participate in the FBI collection of hate crime statistics as well. Thus, some of the data available may not have been consistently, diligently, or thoroughly collected.

  • Another concern is that the violence may have been denied by victims, or incorrectly recorded as "mutual combat." The logic behind this is simple: If a community refuses to acknowledge gay relationships, it can not acknowledge the violence in the relationship. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported in 1997 that seven states did not consider gay and lesbian relationships to be "domestic." Thus, they did not included gay and lesbian relationship violence as a kind of "domestic" violence (IPARV, 2002). Murphy (1995) found that six jurisdictions in the US had laws protecting victims who lived with their abuser, but specifically excluded gays and lesbians from protection under these laws. Jablow (2000) notes that only one US State, Vermont, clearly classifies same-sex relationship violence as domestic violence in their State laws.

  • Another concern relates to the source of the sample. Some studies fail to exclude the second partner from the relationship. These studies sample gay men from a community and ask only about a "history of domestic violence," and thus for some relationships may count both the abuser and the victim, effectively inflating the resulting estimates. Others have questioned men who used violence, and failed to differentiate between violence that was inflicted as abuse and violence that was inflicted in self-defense, again possibly doubling estimates by counting both abusers and victims. Other studies have sampled men from very small communities or from agencies providing mental health services, and introduced other confounds with regard to the representativeness of the sample (Burke and Follingstad, 1999).

  • Other studies have sampled very narrow populations, such as only gay men from clubs and bars. Such men are more likely to be extroverted, to live in urban areas, to use alcohol, and to be single or in short-term relationships. Relationship status may be an important confound. For example, Brand and Kidd (1986) found 72% of the violence reported was perpetrated by men, and 28% perpetrated by women. These differing rates were seen only in short-term relationships, however. When violence only from committed relationships was examined, only 27% of straight couples and 25% of lesbian couples had experienced violence. Thus, estimates based on a sample of mostly younger and single gay men may be inflated when compared to estimates based on committed couples (Burke and Follingstad, 1999).

  • Differing definitions of domestic violence or abuse lead to different rates. Potoczniak and colleagues (2003) offer that domestic violence is basically "a pattern of violent or coercive behavior [used by one person] to control the thoughts, beliefs, or conduct" of his or her partner. What constitutes "violent or coercive behavior?" Some differentiate physical violence (hitting and punching) from property violence (kicking in doors and smashing things), sexual violence (forced sex), and psychological violence (intimidation and verbal threats) (Burke and Follingstad, 1999). More "lenient" definitions (e.g., including general insults and withholding sex to hurt a partner, or verbal threats to harm the victim of his possessions) produce higher estimates of violence in both the straight and gay community, while more "severe" ones (e.g., choking, stabbing, or hitting with a closed fist) produce lower estimates in both communities.

  • One might think the field would simply agree on one definition to clarify the data gathered. However, this has been difficult, and is perhaps unwarranted. Research shows that abuse meeting "lenient" definitions generally leads to abuse that meets more serious definitions (REFERENCE). Thus, while verbal attacks and insults do not leave bruises, over time, they are likely to lead to physical assaults that do. Thus, research is needed to understand not only "serious" abuse but also the "lenient" abuse that would possibly predict it.
As noted above, critics of gays and lesbians often use citations of higher rates of domestic violence as "proof" that gay and lesbian relationships are dysfunctional. On the one hand, as noted earlier, these numbers may not be accurate. Results based on questions about the presence domestic violence might be inflated, results based on questions about the absence of violence should not be subject to the same problems. Gardner (1989) had straight, gay, and lesbian couples rate the violence in their relationship on a scale ranging from 36 (no violence) to 288 (severe violence). The average score for straight couples was 38.51, for gay couples was 39.6, and for lesbian couples was 40.22. Thus, as noted earlier, there is some reason to believe that the incidence of domestic violence in gay and lesbian couples may not be any higher than in straight couples. Thus, non-violent relationships would seem as prevalent in the gay and lesbian community as in the straight community.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that it is reasonable to assume that gay and lesbian relationships would show higher rates of domestic abuse because there are more ways that gays and lesbians can be abused. For example, batterers can make specific threats to "out" the victim to family, coworkers, and friends. This may mean greater isolation and painful rejection by loved ones, loss of employment, and loss of emotional support and aid.

Where the victim is a parent, threats to out the victim could lead to loss of custody or contact with their children. Fray-Witzer (1999) tells of a 1996 case in which a judge awarded custody of an 11 year old girl to her father, a convicted murderer, rather than give custody to the mother, a lesbian. The judge argued that the child had a right to grow up in a heterosexual home.

While some might argue the risk associated with being out these days is very limited, this is a dangerous assumption. The reader should consider a gay man who today in 2004 is 27 years old. This man would have been born in 1977.
  • He would have been 14 in 1991 when the police found 14 year old boy named Konerak naked and bleeding, and returned him to a man who claimed to be his lover and who later killed him, Jeffrey Dahmer (Potoczniak et al, 2003).

  • Between his 18th and 21st birthdays (1995 to 1998), the number of hate crimes based on sexual orientation reported to the FBI would increase 24%, to finally comprise 16% of all hate crimes in the US and become the third largest category of hate crimes after race and religion (see link1 and link2, as well as link3 and link4).

  • He would have been 21 in 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old Wyoming college student, was brutally beaten and left to die on a frigid night, tied to a fence, in the middle of nowhere. After this event, Republicans in the House and Senate rejected the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 twice, with the second time being after President Clinton vetoed the original bill they brought him because it omitted this legislation.

  • He would have been 26 when the US Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws that made consensual sex between men illegal, and he would turned 27 as hate crimes against gays and lesbians rose in the six months after this, doubling from their 2002 levels in Chicago, Illinois for example (NCAVP, 2004).
Whether or not the risk associated with being out today in rural areas is or is not high is irrelevant. Most gay men have already learned to be very cautious about being out, especially in rural and suburban areas.

A further example of the risks of being out occur when a victim has resorted to some violence to defend themselves. Merrill (1998) reported that 58% of gay males who had been victimized fought back. The police and courts are less likely to take the time to figure out who is the abuser and who is the victim, and more likely to simply assume the violence is "mutual combat" rather than abuse. Thus, the batterer may actually threaten to call the police himself, claim the victim is the abuser, and press charges against the victim. The victim could then be listed as an abuser with the county or city hall, and be further victimized.