Intimate Partner Violence in LGBT Communities Research Paper

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Intimate partner violence among queer, transgender, and bisexual people is underresearched and undertheorized. Insights from studies of same-sex domestic violence apply to these populations, but such studies may not address identities that transcend or trouble conventional sex and gender categories. Mainstream domestic violence discourses, criminal justice interventions, and social services have marginalized queer, trans, and bi populations along with, and sometimes to a greater degree than, lesbian and gay populations. Some service agencies and community groups have begun to ‘‘queer’’ the discourse on domestic violence by acknowledging a fuller range of gender and sexual identities that contribute to multiple and divergent contexts for, and experiences of, domestic violence.


  1. Introduction
  2. Queer Movements and Identities: Terms and Concepts
  3. Queering Understandings of Domestic Violence
  4. Isolation, Power, and Control
  5. Victim and Perpetrator Roles
  6. Interventions and Services


‘‘Same-sex’’ violence in lesbian and gay relationships is addressed in a number of edited volumes (Kaschak 2001; Leventhal and Lundy 1999; Lobel 1986; Renzetti and Miley 1996) and in many additional articles from a range of academic, clinical, and social service fields. Several foundational studies provide in-depth analysis of lesbian partner abuse (Renzetti 1992; Ristock 2002), lesbian sexual assault (Girshick 2002), and battering among gay men (Island and Letellier 1991).

In contrast, extremely limited research specifically addresses intimate partner violence involving nonheterosexual people who do not identify as ‘‘lesbian’’ or ‘‘gay,’’ including transgender, bisexual, and queer-identified people. Diana Courvant (1997) has written a landmark article on domestic violence affecting trans and intersex people. Sulis (1999) provides a groundbreaking article on battered bisexual women, and Crane et al. (1999) discuss lesbian and bisexual women’s caucus work in a domestic violence intervention agency. Bisexual men’s experiences of violence are discussed together with gay men’s experiences (Johnson 1999; Letellier 1996) and as part of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) experiences in general (Merrill 1999; Toro- Alfonso 1999), but specific information on domestic violence involving bisexual men per se is sparse.

The shortage of empirical research results in part from impediments to obtaining accurate data. These impediments include pressures on queer, trans, and bi people to remain closeted, decreased reporting of violent incidents among these populations, lack of documentation of this violence by criminal justice and social service agencies, and widespread lack of general understanding of these populations and their differences from straight, lesbian, and gay populations. In 1997, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) began producing annual reports on LGBT domestic violence in the United States and Toronto. Compiling data on violence against transgender and bisexual people is integral to NCAVP’s ongoing research efforts. The number of service sites contributing data, and the capacity of these sites to collect accurate data, has increased over time (Moore and Baum 2004).

Aside from the limited but productive and growing literature that documents and analyzes LGBT intimate partner violence, the vast majority of research on domestic violence focuses on heterosexual relationships, with two results pertaining to queer, trans, and bi communities. First, scholarly theories and institutional discourses on domestic violence have marginalized lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) populations, contributing to a scarcity of resources suited to LGBTIQ people experiencing violence in their intimate relationships. This scarcity is even more pronounced for trans, bi, and queer-identified people than for those who identify as lesbian or gay.

Second, most theories about, empirical research on, and criminal justice and social service approaches to domestic violence are constrained by heteronormative assumptions about the identities and roles of individuals in intimate relationships, intimate partner violence, interventions, and service provision. These assumptions have the effect of forcing both queer and nonqueer individuals seeking institutional or community support to fit themselves and their experiences into a narrow set of frameworks in order to garner recognition and support from the system.

Queer Movements and Identities: Terms and Concepts

Understanding intimate partner violence among queer, trans, and/or bi people requires some familiarity with concepts related to their identities. Especially among younger generations of LGBTIQ people, a growing proportion of nonheterosexual people do not identify themselves exclusively as ‘‘lesbian’’ or ‘‘gay.’’ Many align themselves with queer identities and movements instead of, or in addition to, lesbian or gay ones. The word ‘‘queer,’’ now commonly used in a variety of social, scholarly, and political contexts, has at least three interconnected meanings. First, it has been reclaimed from its original negative labeling purpose and deployed repeatedly as a positive expression of group identification and pride by various LGBTIQ communities and movements.

Second, ‘‘queer’’ is used as an umbrella term for individuals, communities, identities, and practices commonly defined as outside normative social constructions of sexual orientation and gender. Sexual orientations under the ‘‘queer’’ umbrella include lesbian, gay, and bisexual as well as other forms of desire that defy normative gender and sexual boundaries. For example, polyamory, sadomasochism (S/M), and the communities that practice them are sometimes referred to as ‘‘queer.’’ ‘‘Queer’’ as an umbrella term also encompasses non-normative gender identities, namely those of people whose lives and forms of self-expression do not fit within society’s binary system for categorizing bodies and gender identities as either male or female. Transgender(ed), transsexual, transvestite, FTM (female-to-male), MTF (male-to-female), transman, transwoman, and gender-queer are examples of gender identities often included under the ‘‘queer’’ umbrella. Bornstein (1994), Feinberg (1996), and Halberstam (1998) offer analyses of MTF, FTM, and transgender identities and histories, and Nestle et al. (2002) provide an edited volume of gender-queer narratives.

It is important to respect each individual’s chosen language for identifying her or his own gender and sexual identity. Many self-identified queer people prefer not to be called ‘‘queer’’ by straight outsiders to their communities, and not everyone considered ‘‘queer’’ by someone else considers themselves so. For example, many transsexual and intersex people do not identify as queer, and although queer theorists may consider transvestitism queer as a practice, many transvestites do not claim a queer identity.

Third, queer theoretical and political movements challenge systems that construct and uphold binary categories of sex (i.e., male/female), gender (i.e., man/ woman), and sexual orientation (i.e., straight/gay). Participants in queer movements tend to see gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, rather than as strict binary systems for categorizing individuals and relationships. Queer communities, activists, and theorists deploy queer ideology and identities to dismantle polarized categories of sex, gender, and sexual orientation, along with the implications of these categories, in a range of social and institutional contexts (Butler 1990/1999; Gamson 1995). Transgender and intersex movements have gained visibility and influence in queer theory and politics as well as in medical and other arenas (Bornstein 1994; Chase 2002; Fausto-Sterling 2000).

Complete understanding of intimate partner violence in queer, trans, and bi communities requires attention to aspects of identity other than gender and sexuality. Numerous empirical and analytical studies highlight the importance of race, ethnicity, class, citizenship status, HIV status, age, parenthood, and physical ability or disability in the roles and experiences of LGBT people in intimate partner violence, criminal justice interventions, and service provision (Bograd 2005; Garcia 1999; Hanson and Maroney 1999; Letellier 1996; Mendez 1996; Toro-Alfonso 1999; Waldron 1996). Queer theory investigates intersections of gender and sexuality with race, ethnicity, nationalism, class, and other dimensions of identity (Butler 2004; Ferguson 2004; Gopinath 2005; Halberstam 2005), and the implications of these intersections for violence affecting LGBTIQ communities. Insights from queer theory and politics illuminate dynamics of violence, particularly those related to identity, that are ordinarily obscured in domestic violence discourse. These insights are valuable for developing more effective service and intervention models.

Queering Understandings of Domestic Violence

Several analyses of violence against LGBT people subsume bisexual, transgender, and queer identities under the populations and relationship categories they discuss, and insights from these analyses do apply in many respects to queer, trans, and bi populations. For example, Onken (1998) and Allen and Leventhal (1999) discuss contextual factors contributing to violence against and within LGBT communities, including trans, bi, and queer-identified people. Hate violence, dominant gender norms, and isolation contribute to violence in queer relationships and to the lack of resources available when violence occurs. Violence against LGBT people is socially sanctioned (Onken 1998), and acceptance of this violence may be reinforced by a cultural climate that supports anti–gay rights ordinances and anti– gay marriage legislation. Trans and intersex people experience elevated levels of violence beginning in childhood that may in turn contribute to future violence in relationships. As a result, it may be harder for LGBT people to stand up to violence or to ask for help in the face of violence. Further, LGBT people may internalize blame for violence that happens against them or other members of their communities (Allen and Leventhal 1999).

Gender norms play a significant role in domestic violence in queer, trans, and bi communities, as they do in all communities. There is general consensus in mainstream domestic violence discourse about how masculine and feminine gender socialization manifest in heterosexual relationship violence (although gender dynamics do not play out according to formula in every heterosexual relationship). Violence committed by men is linked with masculine gender socialization that reinforces sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and physical and sexual violence. Feminine gender socialization may lead women to internalize blame and to resist leaving abusive relationships.

Queer, trans, and bi people, too, are affected by dominant gender norms, but in ways rarely discussed in mainstream domestic violence discourse. Men and masculine-gendered people are not easily believed when they report violence, whether their partners are masculine or feminine. This disbelief may be heightened for a masculine person whose abusive partner is either a woman, feminine in gender expression, or perceived as feminine or effeminate. Masculine gender norms dictate that men should be able to defend themselves, are not victims, and enjoy sex at any time, in any place. These expectations delegitimize masculine persons’ claims of physical and sexual abuse. For example, abusive partners of butch women, transgender people, and FTM transmen may suggest that they are not butch enough or man enough to take forced sexual activity (Allen and Leventhal 1999).

On the other hand, masculine-gendered partners’ abusiveness may be overlooked by the community as part of being masculine. A butch woman or FTM transgendered abuser may garner more sympathy from the surrounding queer community as the more ‘‘out,’’ visible, or at-risk member of a couple. At the same time, enduring abuse may be viewed as part of being feminine. For example, MTF transgender victims of abuse may be falsely blamed for acting too effeminate or ‘‘victim-like.’’ Thus adherence to gender norms, rather than the behavior and motivations of the abuser, can become the defining feature that legitimates claims of violence. In all segments of the LGBTIQ community, internalized gender and sexual stereotypes may be used to justify intimate partner violence or to deny that it is damaging to its victims.

Masculine gender norms may be the main cause for the underrepresentation of domestic violence among bisexual and gay men in the literature, and for the secrecy surrounding male bisexuality in general. Discussions about domestic violence in the bisexual community have emerged in part from a growing bisexual feminist movement (Sulis 1999). Domestic violence against both bisexual women and men has received little research attention, perhaps because bisexual people are often misunderstood and maligned by straight, lesbian, and gay men’s communities. These misunderstandings may contribute to increased violence and lack of appropriate services for bisexual victims of domestic violence. Although bisexual people’s experiences and needs regarding domestic violence are often assumed to be identical or interchangeable with those of straight, lesbian, and/or gay people, this is not necessarily the case.

Isolation, Power, and Control

The U.S. domestic violence movement has converged upon the importance of patterns of power and control in relationship violence and abuse. Although patterns of coercion and control are fundamentally similar across relationships, conditions related to sexual orientation and gender identity influence how the batterer achieves control, how battering affects the battered partner, and the resources available for support. Power and control can take particular forms when abusers or their partners are queer, trans, or bi. Just as abusers in straight, gay, and lesbian relationships may draw upon sexism and homophobia to threaten and intimidate their partners (Allen and Leventhal 1999; Pharr 1988), abusers of queer, trans, and bi people may use intimate knowledge of their partners’ particular gender and sexual nonconformities against them. On the other hand, queer, trans, and bi abusers may enact power and control in ways that are specific to their own identities and those of their partners.

Isolation is a central tactic of power and control, with profound effects upon queer, trans, and bi survivors of domestic violence. Social homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia force LGBTIQ people to constantly negotiate the socially constructed phenomenon of ‘‘the closet,’’ and to decide, repeatedly, whether and how to ‘‘come out’’ (Sedgwick 1990). If not out in any of a number of contexts (family, work, social circles, faith community), a queer person is by definition socially isolated. For example, by coming out to one’s family, one may risk homophobic hostility, emotional rejection, or being disowned outright. Any of these scenarios makes it difficult to return to one’s family for support in a crisis such as relationship violence. Isolation from family, coworkers, or other social networks can give abusers greater power and their negative comments more weight in the minds of their partners.

Social conditions that stereotype and isolate trans, bi, and queer-identified people lend themselves to abusive power and control. As an example with regard to transgender, an abuser of a gender-transitioning person may say that the police or shelter won’t help ‘‘a freak like you’’ or that s/he is physically or emotionally oversensitive due to the hormones s/he is taking (Allen and Leventhal 1999). Like transphobia, biphobia too can be exploited by an abuser. Sulis (1999) outlines power and control tactics used to target bisexual people. Outing is an especially effective tactic against a bisexual victim because the abuser may threaten to out the victim both to straight family members or coworkers and to the lesbian or gay community. As with lesbian or gay parents, partners of bisexual parents may threaten to expose their sexuality to the children’s other parent or other family members. In addition, a bi person’s partner may exploit internalized shame about being attracted to, or having relationships with, both women and men, and the surrounding community may justify the abuser’s violence against a bisexual person because ‘‘s/he slept with a woman/man.’’ If bisexual people’s partners identify or pass as straight, they may exploit their heterosexual privilege. Trans- and biphobia are used against lesbians and gay victims as well as transgender and bisexual people. For example, abusers might accuse their partners of not being ‘‘real wo/men’’ or ‘‘real lesbians’’ in an attempt to undermine their sense of self.

Victim and Perpetrator Roles

Domestic violence in queer, trans, and bi relationships poses a challenge to the ways victim and perpetrator roles are theorized and applied in dominant conceptions of domestic violence. Most mainstream accounts assume that each participant in a domestic violence scenario assumes one of two polarized and mutually exclusive roles: either ‘‘victim’’ or ‘‘perpetrator.’’ The attribution of these roles to participants is usually gendered—women as ‘‘victims,’’ men as ‘‘perpetrators.’’ These roles are functional in many, perhaps most, cases of domestic abuse, but clearly not in relationships that include some other arrangement or construction of gender identities than ‘‘man’’ and ‘‘woman.’’ Roles in relationships, including roles pertaining to violence, can shift over time, perhaps more frequently in queer relationships than in straight ones. For example, women can take on a multiplicity of roles in violent lesbian relationships, and these roles can extend beyond or even rupture the traditional victim–perpetrator categories (Marrujo and Kreger 1996). Among bisexual and gay men, too, ‘‘being the victim in one relationship does not preclude abusing in future relationships’’ (Johnson 1999, p. 217).

Service providers to queer, trans, and bi communities repeatedly confront situations in which law enforcement, the legal system, or service providers themselves misidentify the victim as the perpetrator or vice versa (Goddard and Hardy 1999). Gendered assumptions may lead advocates, police, or others to assume that the more masculine-appearing member of a couple is the abuser, which may not be the case. In some cases, the abuser may initiate or compound this confusion by calling in and identifying her/himself initially as the abused member of a couple. In response to situations where police or the courts have mistakenly mandated anger management or abuser treatment for the survivor, agencies have developed their own intake procedures to determine what the client’s specific role is in an abusive dynamic and channel that person toward the appropriate services (Holt and Couchman 2004). Goddard and Hardy (1999) offer helpful techniques for advocates sorting through the potentially confusing terrain of violence in a lesbian relationship.

A queer analysis of intimate partner domestic violence would argue that rather than mapping queer, trans, and bi people and their relationships onto the existing binary gender framework for understanding domestic violence, it is necessary to consider how construction of the victim and perpetrator roles frames understandings of relationship violence. The weight that these roles carry, and the gender assumptions with which they are associated, may discourage queer, trans, and bi people (as well as others) from seeking help and services when violence is occurring.

Interventions and Services

Fears that discourage lesbian and gay people from accessing services are also present, and likely compounded, for transgender people (Johnson 1999). Failure of law enforcement to protect members of LGBT communities and violence committed against LGBT communities by law enforcement have been particularly acute for transgender people and LGBT people of color (Whitlock 2005). Moreover, queer victims of domestic violence are not legally protected in several states (Fray-Witzer 1999). Transgender youth, particularly those who have fled or been kicked out of their homes, may have been particularly targeted for harassment, violence, and verbal abuse by law enforcement as well as by others. Transgender, bi, and queer individuals may be less likely to report abuse or seek support against violence, whether they are ‘‘victims’’ or ‘‘perpetrators,’’ because of their justifiable fears that criminal justice and service institutions will repudiate them or subject them to further violence.

Although a growing number of LGBT-led agencies now serve LGBT communities, these agencies tend to be located primarily in urban centers with large concentrations of LGBT people (Moore and Baum 2004). In many areas, mainstream shelters are the only resources available to anyone dealing with domestic violence. Many mainstream domestic violence programs do not serve gay or bisexual men, FTM or MTF transgender people. There is a long tradition of straight women-only groups in domestic violence service, and many women’s shelters struggle with how to effectively meet the needs of transsexual and transgender clients. Many programs designed for women inappropriately define transgender, MTF, and FTM people seeking support as men, regardless of how these individuals identify themselves or live their lives (Allen and Leventhal 1999), and deny them service on this basis. One battered women’s program admitted that providing motel vouchers to MTF transwomen was ‘‘the best solution we [could] come up with’’ (Crane et al. 1999, p. 130).

Bisexual women face numerous barriers in addition to the lack of data on violence, policing, and services pertaining specifically to them. Battered women’s programs have traditionally focused on heterosexual women in their services, outreach materials, and staff and volunteer trainings; many either have not offered services to openly bisexual or lesbian women or have not done the work necessary to make their facilities safe for participation by these women. This work would entail developing nondiscrimination policies, implementing procedures for interrupting homo/biphobic comments and behavior by staff or clients, providing comprehensive training to staff and volunteers on LGBT battering, and hiring lesbian or bisexual survivors of violence (Allen and Leventhal 1999). Even when programs are open to out lesbians, they may not be prepared to serve bisexual women. Bisexual women in relationships with women are not protected by heterosexual privilege when seeking help for intimate partner violence (Sulis 1999); yet lesbian support groups and lesbian-specific services often exclude them in part because some segments of lesbian feminist communities view bisexual women as ‘‘traitors’’ who can fall back on heterosexual privilege or relationships and therefore do not belong in lesbian groups (Crane et al. 1999).

Although some mainstream service agencies may consider themselves open to LGBT populations, queer, trans, and bi people’s experiences of being treated as ‘‘other’’ or even threatened can extend from the greater society into the shelter or service agency. Assumptions made and questions asked by domestic violence advocates, whether on the phone, in person, or on intake forms, can be problematic. Without asking preliminary (and sensitively phrased) questions, service providers cannot know how callers and their partners identify with regard to gender. Yet unless a domestic violence agency has specifically undertaken to provide comprehensive anti-oppression training to its board, staff, and volunteers, intake forms, procedures, and language can (albeit unintentionally) inhibit the ability of queer people to feel welcomed and accepted by the agency. Some mainstream programs have made strides by expanding their service approaches in collaboration with local LGBT communities. Some agencies have established relationships and collaborative programming with local S/M communities to promote community education about healthy relationships and the differences between consensual S/M and abuse (Crane et al. 1999; Margulies 1999).

Regarding queer, trans, and bi batterers, most mainstream and LGBT domestic violence programs continue to use models based on separate services for clients defined as survivors and perpetrators (Cayouette 1999; Garcia 2003; Goddard and Hardy 1999; Grant 1999). Some experienced LGBT service providers argue that it is crucial to determine who is the victim and who is the perpetrator in a given relationship in order to safely assign clients to appropriate support groups or other services. While some agencies view this system as the only appropriate way to deliver services, others have established mixed support groups in which participants include both survivors and abusers, although never from the same couple (Quirk 2004).

Some of the organizations that first organized against violence in LGBT relationships, such as The Network/La Red in Boston and the Northwest Network in Seattle, were initially founded with a focus on battered lesbians. Over time these organizations and others have expanded their conceptions of identity to include transgender, bisexual, and queer identities beyond ‘‘lesbian’’ (Burk 2005; NCAVP 2004). There are a growing number of LGBT-specific anti-violence agencies throughout the United States, but many are just beginning to tailor their work to transgender populations. A 2004 national meeting of these organizations featured panel sessions on transgender services, and agency representatives present acknowledged that their programs had not served transgender clients effectively in the past, mostly because they lacked the expertise and because of transphobia within LGBT communities (NCAVP 2004). Agencies in some local areas have tried mixed-gender groups; facilitators of such groups may find that they need to monitor gender dynamics to ensure equitable discussions (Johnson 1999).

Queering understanding of intimate partner violence requires acknowledging the experiences of queer-identified people, transgender and transsexual people, bisexual people, lesbians and gay men. These populations include people of color, immigrant people (documented and undocumented), working-class people, young people, elders, people with disabilities, HIV-positive people, and members of drag, leather, poly, and other subcultural communities. At a minimum, anti-violence agencies seeking to serve these populations must implement queer-, trans-, and bi-inclusive intake procedures, forms, and language. Making service agencies truly accessible extends beyond language, however. If domestic violence interventions and services are to interrupt cycles of violence based on gender, sexual, and other forms of oppression, service agencies must confront rarely examined assumptions and privileges associated with gender and sexual normativity.

In addition to service agencies in the nonprofit sector, community-based dialogues and strategies for intervention are a promising avenue for addressing intimate partner violence in queer, transgender, and bisexual communities (see Russo 1999). Emi Koyama (2005) points out that, contrary to what might be assumed, natural alliances do not exist among transgender, transsexual, bisexual, and intersex communities that defy gender boundaries; such alliances must be built. Community building efforts among queer, trans, and bi populations may yield productive innovations that challenge gender, sexual, and other binaries (including client/provider and agency/community) that inhibit successful interventions in domestic violence.

See also:


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