We Need to Talk About Intimate Partner Violence in LGBT Relationships

lesbian couple park bench

Most often when people discuss the impact and dynamics in domestic violence [DV] relationships, they assume the victim is a woman and the perpetrator a male. This discounts the experience of many people across the country and world who identify as LGBT or are male victims of intimate partner violence [IPV]. Intimate partner violence can occur in the context of any relationship pairing, although the media would lead you to believe only straight women can be victims.

Violence and coercion can exist in any relationship, whether that is a same-sex pairing or not. Recent statistics suggest IPV rates among LGBT people are similar to that of heterosexual couples. A recent study by the University of New Hampshire found that as many as 40% of LGBT college students in relationships had experienced intimate partner violence.

The dynamic of abuse in queer relationships can look similar to what we might expect in straight relationships. But the expression of power and control in LGBT relationships can be different.

lgbt power control wheel
This is a Power and Control Wheel for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Relationships (developed by Roe and Jagodinsky and adapted from Power and Control and Equity Wheels developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, Duluth, Minnesota).

This power and control wheel does not assume the gender or sexual identity of either partner. It is inclusive of all relationships because it doesn’t presume any particular gender is the abuser. This allows men, women and transgender people to be visible as either victims or perpetrators of abuse.

Surrounding the circle, you may notice the words heterosexism and external homophobia, which are more present in LGBT relationships. According to LGBTQIA Healthcare Guild, heterosexim is defined as “the assumption that all people are heterosexual and that heterosexuality is superior and more desirable than homosexuality or bisexuality.” External homophobia refers to the social dislike of and prejudice towards homosexuality and gay identity. In relationships where violence takes place, these underlying concepts may influence how one uses power and control. This may also impact the accessibility of support and help for the victim.

One common way for intimate partner violence to occur in LGBT relationships is the threat of “outing” a partner to friends, families or co-workers. If one partner is not out to everyone in their life, an abusive partner can threaten to disclose their sexual orientation — or “out” — this person as a means to get their partner to submit to their wants.

The fear of being outed and the potential loss of a job, family or other social relationships might be too great a loss to consider. This can lead the victim to agree to their partner’s demands.

Victims might also not seek out much-needed support. Internalized shame about their sexuality or gender and external homophobia are large barriers to speaking about surviving abuse and manipulation. This leads many LGBTQ victims to suffer in silence and isolation.

Abusive partners might also manipulate public perceptions of bisexual or trans people to control and manipulate a partner. As a therapist, I have heard many trans or gender non-conforming survivors say abusive partners have said they would never find anyone else willing to accept their trans identities, making them feel unlovable. This is an exploitation of both external and internalized transphobia and can wreak havoc on one’s self esteem.

Survivors often have to cope with multiple levels of oppression, according to a 2016 report on IPV in the LGBT community from the National Coalition for Anti-Violence Programs. For instance, transgender survivors are more likely to experience economic difficulties due to workplace discrimination. Abusive partners may use financial means as a way to abuse and manipulate trans partners.

LGBT and HIV positive people of color are among the most visible survivors in NCAVP’s annual report. Those who deal with barriers to care, systemic oppression and undocumented citizenship status are particularly vulnerable to abuse by partners who manipulate these circumstances to ensure compliance with their wishes.

How Therapy Can Help

Talkspace lgbt therapists

For those who are in abusive relationships, therapy can help rebuild a healthier sense of self over time. Therapy may also include safety planning and intensive emotional support. For those who recognize their own abusive tendencies, intervention programs are effective in changing abusive behavior.

For those in abusive relationships, it is important to note that the threat of serious harm is not only great during the relationship but is often at its peak right after the termination of the relationship. If you or a friend are currently concerned about your relationship, it is important to get the support you need.

For more resources on intimate partner violence, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Here are some other resources to consider:

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