The message on a popular gossip and advice website read:
I bought a house with my bf of a year. Everything was great. I knew he was hot tempered, but it never resulted in violence. Last week I had to miss 5 days of work because of the shiner he gave me over the weekend and because he cracked some ribs. It was like he was in a rage and I couldn’t stop him. I’m scared and a little lost as to what to think as this was a total surprise. Has anyone ever been in a situation like this that was a one time deal, or is this what I can expect if I stay in this relationship. I’m kind of vested in it now?
Violence and abuse are nasty parts of life for gays or for straights. Many bigoted people though try to paint gay life as being more violent that straight life, as an indicator of how “disturbed” or “sinful” we are. They’re right – but not for the reasons they cite.
Gay men stumble across violence and abuse in our families, in our schools, in the work place, between friends and sadly, between lovers. Most of this violence and abuse is done to us, but sometimes it’s something we do to each other. Understanding the realities of abuse and violence gives us the knowledge we need change things for the better.
In all the picture books and Christmas stories, our families are portrayed as happy and nurturing places and for most of us, it is. When it isn’t, when violence and abuse occurs in this traditionally safe environment, those on the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse are often gay kids.
While most of us have wonderful locker room fantasies and math-class first crushes, school isn’t always the care-free place we’d like it to be.
A recent survey by GLSEN, the Gay and Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that 1 in 20 high-school students self-identifies as gay. When you sit down and think about it, that means in most schools, every classroom has at least one gay kid in it.
Keeping that in mind, the same study showed that two thirds of all the students in those classes, both gay and straight, admit to using homophobic put downs and slurs towards each other. Calling something “gay” instead of “bad” is a frequent occurrence in most schools. Is it any wonder then that a third of all the gay kids surveyed – think of three class rooms right next to each other, each with a gay teen in it, then pick one of those teens as the one being considered here – reported actually being physically or verbally harassed?
When that harassment turns violent, as it did in October of 2004 for a student in a Texas high school, the resulting damage was serious and long lasting. He was beaten up by several other kids from his school, who, it was reported, during the attack, shouted anti-gay slurs at him. His injuries were so severe that he needed facial reconstructive surgery.
Abuse can even follow us into the working world. Government jobs, the “civil service,” is often seen as a safe, secure and sure-fire long term bet for a career. With good pay, little chance at lay-offs, and a great pension plan, there are definite pluses for working for the Federal Government. Over the last twenty years, gay people have been protected from abuse and harassment within its ranks. But even that can change.
In February of 2004, Scott J. Bloch, the Republican head of the Office of the Special Council, an office whose main task is protecting Federal employees from job discrimination, had references to that protections not only removed from its website but from informational brochures as well. Bloch was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that he didn’t know if federal workers were really protected from discrimination, despite a twenty five year history policy of safeguarding those protections and a 1998 Presidential Executive Order explicitly guaranteeing them. As such, his office would no longer defend workers who were the victims of workplace harassment. Dark times indeed.
Many of us love to zing back and forth words like “fag,” “sissy,” “bitch,” or some really creative variation on those, as a means of putting each other down. While cute and often wickedly funny, given that those words are the words hurled at us in our homes, in our schools or at our jobs as way of belittling us, ribbing us, teasing us, or even as a prelude to beating us, it’s fair to ask the question if it’s right to use those words at all.
Some make a case for “empowerment” by using these negative words in a non-threatening context. The words no longer hurt if “we” use them. But if using them in such a way “desensitizes” us to the pain these words cause, doesn’t it also desensitize others – straight people – to that same pain? Does it cheapen our collective gay history of victimization by continuing to use these words on ourselves? If we really love our friends, care about them, have fun with them, how then can it be O.K to use of a word that means the leftover end of a used cigarette floating away in a gutter – the 19th century origin of the word “fag?” No answers here, just something to consider.
Considering all of the kinds of violence we can encounter over our lives, the most tragic and unsettling kind is that which is done to us, by us. Domestic Violence (DV), the use of physical or emotional violence by one person in a relationship to control the other, is perhaps the most wicked kind of attack one gay person can do to another. In the safest place, with the safest person we’ve found, to be hurt in such a manner is the ultimate betrayal.
While there is no agreed on estimate of the frequency and occurrence of domestic violence between gay men, most efforts to quantify it range from being wildly optimistic in noting its infrequency to vastly inflated in recording its occurrence. One of the best studies though, by Gardner in 1989, noted that gay couples have incidents of DV on par with straight couples. Which, while nice to know that we’re no worse off than our straight brothers and sisters, that it happens at all isn’t anything to celebrate.
DV is inflicted through physical injury, forced sex, broken bones or burning. Some partners report emotional abuse and domination, often with threats by the abuser to “out” a closeted victim. Psychologists Johnson and Ferraro (2000) note that there are five kinds of abusive relationships. (Some of these terms may sound a little “high-falootin’” but it’s important to know and understand these terms):
Common Couple Violence – which happens a few times and is not usually used as a means of control over a partner.
Intimate Terrorism – where the abusing partner mixes the occasional physically aggressive act with an ongoing campaign of emotional abuse and control.
Violent Resistance – where, in response to a frightening or uncertain situation, one partner physically attacks the other partner. This is often a “one-off” event, doesn’t happen again, but is still a sign of deeper issues of concern in a relationship.
Mutual Violent Control – which means that both partners settle arguments, gain the advantage and generally live their lives constantly trying to beat the other one up. Both parties in this case can be considered the “abuser” and the “abused.”
Dysphoric-Borderline Violence – this is the kind most often portrayed in “movies of the week” or in popular thought, where the abuser shows great emotional dependence on the victim (“If you leave me, I’ll die”) and expresses his uncertainty and neediness through violence and rage.
If it seems as though this covers a broad range of situations and can apply to a simple argument where one partner escalates and decks the other to frequent physical fights
Given the kinds of violence we encounter it’s a minor miracle that so many of us come through fairly happy and well functioning. The main thing to remember is that we aren’t passive victims, forever at the mercy of tormenting jocks, elected homophobes, criminal bashers or violent partners. We’re people who, when faced with challenges, can rise to the occasion and meet them.
In New York, students, helped by the Long Island Gay-Straight Educators Alliance, are actively working to end homophobia in the school system. Verbal and physical abuse aren’t being tolerated, teachers and administrators are being trained how to recognize and deal with homophobia, and straight and gay student dialogues are being initiated.
In March of 2004, after a concerted effort by gays and lesbians throughout the federal government and with much reporting the gay press, Mr. Bloch and the Office of Special Counsel changed their stance and agreed to abide by the historical (and Presidentially ordered) protections for gay employees.
Regarding DV, if you find yourself in such a relationship, you can do something about it. Counseling is key to solving the problem. Both you and your partner need to go. Immediately. If your partner doesn’t agree, then you need to get out, go to a family members’, a friends’ or a hotel. Even if your partner agrees to go to counseling, it’s a good idea to find somewhere else to stay while working out the problem.
Find a therapist that has experience in working with all of the issues in domestic violence. Amateurs are not worth your time. Make sure the professional is Gay Affirming. It does no good to meet with someone who thinks you are “evil” because you are gay or who just doesn’t understand that your wants and needs are just as valid as a heterosexual’s.
It’s not really a good idea to go to counseling together as a couple, at least not at first. You both need your own space, your own place to vent and process and to figure out what’s going in your relationship – if its even worth it to stay together. Such decisions are best considered one-on-one, with the therapist providing a good sounding board for your explorations.
DV is a very, very serious matter – probably one the most important in your life. Considering that when left untreated, DV can end in death, you need to be as safe and cautious as you can.
Gay men have come a long way in the last 30 years. The violence that we encounter, whether it is directed at us or occurs in our relationships, isn’t the last word on the matter. While we aren’t responsible for the homophobic society we find our selves in, we are responsible for dealing with it and taking steps to improve it, not just for ourselves, but for all of those who will come after us.
The wonderful thing is, we can.