LGBTI domestic and family violence: What to look for and how to respond
Introduction to the issue
Evidence indicates that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are as likely as non-LGBTI women to experience domestic violence, that’s about one in three who have experienced it in a past or present relationship. Research and data is even more limited for bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people, it is possible that abuse for people in these groups is even higher. Despite this LGBTI people are less likely to identify their experience as abuse, report violence to the police, or seek assistance from a domestic and family violence support organisation for fear of prejudice and discrimination.
Apart from a lack of data and research into domestic and family violence in LGBTI relationships, there is also a lack of funding in the area, a lack of media attention and very few people have been willing to talk about their experiences publicly – for very good reasons. It is important to keep in mind that LGBTI people have been historically systematically and socially silenced and still are to this day. When working with anyone who presents as LGBTI, it is essential that you create a space for dialogue, for listening and for learning. It helps to be aware of the barriers they most likely faced in getting to you to ask for help and then any further barriers that they may face, such as the significantly lower amount of services that are safe and appropriate for LGBTI people’s needs.
Tabitha is a 39 year old sister-girl (a term used by some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to describe someone assigned male at birth, who lives partly or fully as a woman, a brother-boy is the male equivalent) from the Northern Territory who has just arrived in Sydney for the first time. She fled the Northern Territory when her partner threatened to kill her. She has very little money, no job and no close friends, the only family she has in Sydney rejected her when she ‘came out’ as a woman.
Tabitha’s story shares many similarities with anyone else who is trying to escape an abusive relationship. However, Tabitha’s situation has some extra layers of complexity and multiple risk factors that would not be shared by the majority of heterosexual, cis-gender (a person whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth) women who are fleeing an abusive relationship. These complexities become barriers to accessing both formal and informal support and reporting to the police.
Firstly, not every service for women will take a transgender woman, she may not feel safe going to mix-gender services. Tabitha will most likely be afraid of having to face a high level of discrimination, by service providers, police and the general population. She is likely to experience discrimination and possibly even violence for being Aboriginal, for being transgender and for being homosexual (whether or not Tabitha identifies as heterosexual or homosexual, many people will read her as homosexual and treat her as such). Her life-long lived experience of discrimination may have resulted in a higher tolerance for abuse, an inability to recognise some forms of abuse and she is likely to be used to not accessing support for the abuse she experiences. Many LGBTI people have experienced disproportionate, life-long exposure to physical and verbal violence, sexual violence and discrimination which can exacerbate people’s vulnerability to, and the impact of, family violence.
Tabitha is likely to have a fear of being ‘outed’ or of having to be the one to educate professionals. The personal title, gender and name on her identification may not match her current name and identity, she would not want to have to correct people’s use of pronouns, explain her gender and sexuality or explain the gender and sexuality of her partner. It only takes one split-second look of confusion or curiosity from a service provider, or the slightest whisper overheard from another client to cause Tabitha so much discomfort, hesitation and hurt.
These barriers to accessing support are shared by many LGBTI people. There are very few, if any, domestic violence crisis services for men in Australia, it is especially hard to find accommodation services if he has children in his care. It is very hard, and potentially dangerous, for a gay man to ‘come out’ in men’s groups and men’s services.
Although women can access most mainstream services, these services may have little experience in working with LGBTI women and therefore may accidentally be exclusive, due to the language and terminology they use and may in general not offer the most appropriate support. There are few perpetrator intervention programs for women who use power, control and violence in their relationships. A lot of the time a woman will hide her sexuality from staff.
Similarly, for anyone who is gender-diverse, for example if they have intersex variations or identify as non-gendered, again finding appropriate help can be extremely difficult. Intake forms may only have two options: ‘M’ and ‘F’. Support workers may use incorrect pronouns for them and/or their partner and the therapeutic frameworks may be very gendered and have little flexibility in regards to diversity in gender, sexuality and types of relationships.
Even when someone who identifies as LGBTI can feel safe in a service, it is then no guarantee that the service offered is meaningfully inclusive and actually targets their needs. Often applying mainstream (non-LGBTI) approaches to survivor and perpetrator interventions is inappropriate and ineffective.
You can’t work with LGBTI people without finding a way to truly empathise with what it must feel like to live with a deep sense of exclusion, invisibility and fear of being subjected to hatred.
A sister-girl was deliberately chosen for this case study to draw attention to the diversity of the LGBTI community, which includes:
- young people
- people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
- people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities
- people with disability
- people living in regional and remote areas