How we talk about domestic violence in queer relationships matters

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When Brittney Griner first came to my attention, I fell a little bit in love. Her swagger, her bravery, her athleticism, her style—I was enamored, and thrilled that queer women had a new role model. When I heard she started dating Glory Johnson, I was happy she had found someone. When they were engaged only five months later, I hesitated. 

There’s a quote from BoJack Horseman that summarizes domestic violence so well it pulls at my heartstrings every time I hear it: “You know, it’s funny; when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.” 

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I work with LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence, and, in the work that I do, a relationship that progresses too quickly is often a red flag. So many of my clients have spoken of whirlwind romances and being swept off their feet. In real life, the stuff of rom-coms is too often a warning sign. But I also know that the stereotype of U-Hauling lesbians is a stereotype for a reason, and so I dismissed any concerns I had about their relationship.

What happened next has been well-publicized, on AfterEllen and beyond. Even as someone who is well-versed in domestic violence, I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted my hero to stay a hero. 

Recently, Cosmo published an article in which Glory Johnson opened up about her relationship with Brittney, and AfterEllen published a response. As I read the Cosmo piece, everything Glory said about her relationship with Brittney reminded me of at least one client I have worked with. If Glory called my office and told me what she told Cosmo, I would have no qualms about saying she is a survivor of domestic violence and offering her services. But when I read Trish’s response to the article, I was angered and hurt by the suggestion that both parties should be supported equally.

As a community, we need to understand domestic violence—we’re affected at roughly the same rate as cisgender, heterosexual couples. Domestic violence is not just anger, and it is not just physical violence. It is one person exerting power and control over another. Power may be enforced through physical violence, but that is almost never the only way. Isolating a partner, financial abuse, disrespecting a partner’s boundaries—these are the foundations of domestic violence, and often the things that are the hardest to spot. Perhaps one of the most important things we need to understand is that abuse is never mutual. When we call an abusive relationship things like “an unfortunate situation,” we are placing the blame for abuse on the shoulders of the victim. Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody is responsible for their abusive partner.

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A friend of mine, who is also a co-worker and a survivor, told me that if she had heard that abuse is never mutual, it could have changed the trajectory of her relationship with her partner. She believed that she was also an abuser, because she fought back against a partner who regularly left her covered in bruises. Her partner played into these fears; told her that because she fought back, because she was bigger, she was just as responsible for the abuse.

Survivors, unlike abusers, often feel empathy for their partners. They feel guilty for inflicting pain, or might justify why their partner abuses them. Abusers don’t feel empathy, and will use their partner’s humanity to get them to stay. Many abusers will threaten to commit suicide if their partners leave them, banking on fear and guilt to keep their partner in the relationship. From what Glory Johnson said, like so many of my clients, she shouldered the responsibility of keeping her partner alive, stating that she cleared a room of sharp objects and decided to stay after a fight, “fear[ing] what might happen if she left.”

I understand the hesitation to call someone like Brittney Griner an abuser. A woman who is black, butch, and a lesbian is already assumed to be violent and predatory by much of society. And as a community, we are under so much pressure to appear perfect. We need to show that we are good citizens, good parents, good people, just like you in order to be granted our most basic civil rights. But if are claiming our equality with straight society, than we must also acknowledge that we are equally likely to be abusers and survivors.

LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence face more challenges than many cisgender, heterosexual survivors. One of the most basic challenges is understanding that the situation they are in is domestic violence. The PSAs we see about domestic violence, with a few notable exceptions, are nearly always about women who are abused by men. Women are told to never let a man hit them; we often feel safest with other women. I firmly believe that I would have come out as bisexual earlier in my life if I had ever seen representation of bi women in the media—without it, I did not even know my sexuality was an option.

Many LGBTQ survivors feel similarly—they may know that their situation is unhealthy, but think that domestic violence is something that happens to straight people. And abusers are often all too willing to exploit that. My same friend said that she “knew [her partner] was being abusive, but I wouldn’t have called what was happening to me domestic violence. I never thought of myself as a victim, and didn’t think there were agencies that helped queer folks.” (There are).

Too many of my clients have told me similar things. People have come to me, still hiding the marks their partner has left on their body, believing that no other queer people share their experience. Even the Cosmo article has difficulty naming domestic violence when both partners are women. The headline for Glory Johnson’s story says “Glory Johnson Surprised Herself When She Fell in Love with a Woman. Then Somehow It All Went to Hell.” Cosmo published at least three other stories about intimate partner violence (against straight,cis women) in 2015. Every one of those stories has the words “domestic violence” in the headline.

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Domestic violence happens in our community, and we need to name it. We need to create space for all LGBTQ folks, including survivors of domestic violence. We need to identify what they are experiencing. If we cannot do that, if we cannot create spaces for our own people, how on can we expect the shelters, cops, and court systems to do so?

I believe we need to call out domestic violence in our community. Not just to hold abusers accountable or to offer survivors support, but because survivors need to be able to see themselves. Because it is never mutual, and survivors deserve to know that.

My fear is that a survivor would read a piece that suggests both parties are at equal fault, and believe it. According to Glory, Brittney grabbed her by the back of her neck and threw her down. Studies have shown that strangulation is the most lethal forms of domestic violence—43% of women who were killed due to domestic violence were strangled within the past year.

I am not saying that Brittney would have done this—I have no idea. But I can’t help but think of my friend, of the people that I have worked with. If they are told that they share responsibility for something as serious as a partner grabbing their neck, by their own community, by the places that are supposed to be safe, how can we then ask them to leave?

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