Police Attitudes to Gay Domestic Violence Research Paper

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In order to understand police attitudes and behaviors toward gay domestic violence, it is necessary to consider two issues from an historical perspective: first, the attitudes of police officers toward homosexuality; and second, the attitudes of the gay community toward the police. Against this backdrop, the implications for police response to gay domestic violence may be more readily understood. It is also important to note that the body of research pertaining to gay domestic violence in general, and to police attitudes and behaviors more specifically, is very limited. As the gay community becomes less marginalized, it is likely that future research will continue to explore these important but heretofore largely neglected topics.

Law Enforcement and the Gay Community

Historically, the relationship between law enforcement and the gay community has been antagonistic. In the past, law enforcement officers were known to hold what would today be considered homophobic attitudes. After all, consensual homosexual sexual activity was once illegal (the last of the state sodomy laws were overturned in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas), and police departments sponsored both crackdowns on public displays of gay sexuality and raids on gay establishments. Public perceptions of the immorality of homosexuality also colored law enforcement actions, as police were seen as being moral exemplars within society. Finally, policing, as a vocational field, has long been a bastion of masculinity and machismo, resulting in institutionalized homophobia.

Even gay law enforcement officers have found it difficult to permeate the boundaries of a patriarchal heterosexual occupational culture. While gay police officers are more easily integrated into their agencies today than twenty, or even ten, years ago, they still face obstacles and discrimination that a heterosexual police officer does not. In part, the inclusion of gay officers into the ranks of policing appears to parallel two similar social movements: First, the reluctance of the military to accept openly gay soldiers on grounds that it could harm morale, and second, the struggle for acceptance that female officers continue to face, as they challenge the male domination of law enforcement.

Homophobic attitudes and values within police agencies have resulted in a discordant relationship with the gay community. In addition to the routine style of arrests for gay sexuality and raids on gay establishments noted above (for instance, the practices in Philadelphia became legendary examples of enforcement directed against the gay community), one higher-profile example comes readily to mind. In 1969, the so-called Stonewall Riots inaugurated the modern generation of gay civil rights activism. The riots were sparked by a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay establishment in New York City, and served to galvanize the modern gay rights movement.

As noted below, the contemporary relationship between the police and the gay community is much healthier today than in the past. However, some homophobia remains within some police officers personally and organizationally, and it is difficult for gay citizens to forget the legacy of law enforcement’s anti-gay practices. The evolving nature of the relationship between the police and the gay community shapes not only the enforcement of same-sex domestic violence, but also enforcement against hate crimes and other crimes against gay persons.

Policing Gay Domestic Violence

In many ways, gay domestic violence is not that different from heterosexual domestic violence. The issues of power and control, the cycle of abuse, and the devastation to victims’ lives are products of all domestic violence, regardless of sexuality. The primary differences between gay and heterosexual domestic violence, as far as enforcement goes, are in the areas of outing, reporting, and officer attitudes.

Outing refers to the disclosure, voluntary or otherwise, of a person’s homosexual orientation. The decision for a heterosexual person to call the police in a domestic violence incident is difficult enough. Gay persons face the added difficulty of revealing their sexual orientation to the responding officer(s); the victim may be fearful of a negative police or public response, especially if he or she is not openly gay.

A fear of outing can prevent a victim from reporting an act of domestic violence to the police. While domestic violence often goes unreported, it may be more difficult for gay persons to report an incident because they lack confidence in the police department or the legal system as a whole, or because they perceive law enforcement as homophobic.

Accordingly, a crucial variable to consider is law enforcement officers’ attitudes toward both homosexuality and same-sex domestic violence. It is important to note the difference between perceptions of officers’ attitudes, the officers’ actual attitudes, and the officers’ behaviors when responding to an incident of gay domestic violence. Here, the existing research is in need of further development. The body of literature on officers’ attitudes and behaviors toward gay domestic violence is very limited; while some data suggest that homophobia remains as part of the police culture, other evidence suggests that discriminatory attitudes have faded. For instance, one 2002 study of police officers in a California city found that the officers did not perceive differences between gay and heterosexual domestic violence. However, another 2002 study of police officers (this time in a southwestern city) found that many officers believed that gay citizens would be treated less fairly than heterosexuals.

Furthermore, it is very difficult to draw conclusions about officers’ actual behaviors when responding to same-sex domestic violence calls, absent anecdotal evidence (some of which suggests that some officers are effective and polite, whereas other accounts are less positive). Of course, it is also important to acknowledge law enforcement’s historical reluctance to respond to domestic violence calls in general. This is in part due to beliefs in the privacy of the home, and in part due to officer safety concerns. In addition, officers sometimes are reluctant to view males as victims and females as perpetrators in domestic assaults. Victims of same-sex domestic violence may harbor these stereotypes as well, also serving to decrease incident reporting.

Even if all law enforcement officers were progressive and pro–gay rights, there is still the matter of the victims’ perceptions of the police. Accordingly, a strategy for improving police response to same-sex domestic violence must occur along two fronts: First, as necessary, individual officers and departments must come to appreciate the importance of enforcing laws against abuse regardless of victims’ sexual orientation or gender identification; and second, appreciation must be conveyed to the members of the gay community, to build their confidence in a legal system that has traditionally victimized them.

Fortunately, there is room for improving law enforcement response to gay domestic violence. There appear to be four keys to successful development of police response to gay domestic violence. First, interest group activism can stimulate attention to problems. Just as the women’s movement of the 1960s began to spark concern about domestic violence in general, gay interest groups may promote domestic violence as a concern to the community. This activism can be directed not only at police agencies, but also at prosecutorial elections and state legislatures. The focus on state legislatures is particularly important, as they have the power to define what constitutes domestic violence, thus shaping the laws that police ultimately enforce. In communities with progressive (i.e., nonhomophobic) police agencies, it is also important for gay interest groups to promote awareness of these sound police practices, stressing the importance of reporting domestic violence to law enforcement. Doing so can help bridge the gap that may exist between perceptions of the police and actual police attitudes and behaviors.

Second, police agencies should—and many increasingly do—promote an awareness of diversity (including, but not limited to, sexual orientation) and how it shapes both police and citizen behaviors and attitudes. Both sensitivity training and the presence of more openly gay officers within the police culture may help to erase the background of homophobia within departments. Requiring a college degree for police recruits may also enhance sensitivity toward diversity, because increased education is associated with tolerance.

Third, as gay culture continues to become mainstream, the social stigma of homosexuality may decrease. This could translate to lower levels of homophobia within the criminal justice system, and perhaps with a decreased fear of outing among victims. Police agencies have begun to demonstrate their recognition of sexual diversity by, in larger jurisdictions, designating liaison officers to gay communities. These officers can foster positive relationships between the gay community and the police, while also providing a nonjudgmental police resource to gay citizens. Some departments have gone so far as to recruit openly gay officers by advertising at gay pride events, in gay publications, and at establishments frequented by a gay clientele, such as gay bars. These openly gay officers can be liaisons between the gay and straight communities, and also between gay and heterosexual police officers.

Lastly, the police response to gay domestic violence will ultimately rest with the integrity of police leadership. Just as the initial efforts against domestic violence were more likely to be successful when supported by police administrators, so too will departmental efforts stressing tolerance and acceptance of gay citizens.


While not much is known about the actual attitudes and behaviors of police officers toward gay domestic violence, several observations are particularly salient. One, the gay community has traditionally had a difficult relationship with law enforcement, which shapes enforcement of all laws pertaining to gay citizens—not just domestic violence. Second, evidence suggests that police agencies are overcoming the institutionalized homophobia that was common not long ago. Third, with the proper organizational programs and leadership, it is possible to forge a positive relationship between the police and the gay community, which is likely to improve police response to not only gay domestic violence, but also to other issues of concern to gay citizens.

See also:


  1. Bailey, Robert W. Gay Politics, Urban Politics: Identity and Economics in the Urban Setting. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. (See especially Chapter 9, ‘‘Sexual Identity and Police Practices in Philadelphia.’’)
  2. Belkin, Aaron, and Jason McNichol. ‘‘Pink and Blue: Outcomes Associated with the Integration of Open Gay and Lesbian Personnel in the San Diego Police Department.’’ Police Quarterly 5, no. 1 (2002): 63–95.
  3. Bernstein, Mary, and Constance Kostelac. ‘‘Lavender and Blue: Attitudes about Homosexuality and Behavior toward Lesbians and Gay Men among Police Officers.’’ Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 18, no. 3 (2002): 302–328.
  4. Burke, Tod W., Michael L. Jordan, and Stephen S. Owen. ‘‘A Cross-National Comparison of Gay and Lesbian Domestic Violence.’’ Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 18, no. 3 (2002): 231–257.
  5. Faiman-Silva, Sandra L. The Courage to Connect: Sexuality, Citizenship, and Community in Provincetown. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. (See especially Chapter 6, ‘‘The Politics of Citizenship: Police-Community Relations.’’)
  6. Kuehnle, Kristen, and Anne Sullivan. ‘‘Gay and Lesbian Victimization: Reporting Factors in Domestic Violence and Bias Incidents.’’ Criminal Justice and Behavior 30, no. 1 (2003): 85–96.
  7. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
  8. Leinen, Stephen. Gay Cops. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
  9. Younglove, Jane A., Marcee G. Kerr, and Corey J. Vitello. ‘‘Law Enforcement Officers’ Perceptions of Same Sex Domestic Violence: Reason for Cautious Optimism.’’ Journal of Interpersonal Violence 17, no. 7 (2002): 760–772.

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