Anti-gay violence is increasing by staggering percentages each year, domestic violence among same-sex couples is as pervasive as it is among opposite-sex couples and mainstream service providers for victims of violence are woefully undertrained in how to effectively treat LGBT victims who turn to them for help, according to a new study conducted last year and released in late March.
“Why it Matters: Rethinking Victim Assistance for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Victims of Hate Violence & Intimate Partner Violence” is a joint policy report by the National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The Coalition focuses on LGBT and HIV-affected communities. The Center isn’t LGBT specific but bills itself as the country’s leading resource and advocacy organization dedicated to helping victims of crime rebuild their lives. The groups collaborated to identify and raise awareness about the gaps in LGBT victims’ rights (find the report online at ncvc.org or avp.org).
“The collaboration was very deliberate,” says Sharon Stapel, a lesbian and executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, the group that coordinates the Coalition. “The NCVC membership had access to our LGBT expertise and the Coalition membership had access to the Center’s resources. It really began because we knew a lot of this information anecdotally but we didn’t have numbers or know why.”
The study, in which 648 responders from across the country in a variety of victim assistance programs participated voluntarily, found that their agencies lacked outreach to LGBT victims, lacked staff LGBT-specific cultural competency training, did not implement LGBT-specific victim services policies and practices and did not collaborate with those who had, and were under-resourced to correct the barriers to LGBT-specific services.
But how pressing is the need? According to Coalition numbers for 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, hate violence against LGBT people is continually on the rise having increased 26 percent from 2006 to 2008 with a 36 percent climb in crimes committed by strangers, a 48 percent increase in bias-related sexual assault and an all-time high rate of hate violence resulting in murder. Anti-LGBT bias-related physical abuse at the hands of law enforcement personnel increased a whopping 150 percent from 2007 to 2008, the Coalition reports.
It also cites several studies from the ’00s that show intimate partner violence affects LGBT couples at the same rate it occurs in straight relationships — between 25 and 33 percent of all relationships. About 11 percent of women reported being raped by their lesbian partners while another study found 39 percent of gay men reported some form of battery from their same-sex partners over a five-year period.
So even though the rates are about the same gay and straight, heterosexual victims tend to have many more resources at their disposal. Gay men who flee abusive partners often find shelters only admit women. Lesbians who turn to shelters are sometimes harassed by the straight women there or worse, discover there’s no barrier in place to prevent their abusive female partners from joining them at the shelter.
Kelcie Cooke is bi and provides trauma counseling at Boston’s Fenway Community Health Center, one of only 36 LGBT-specific victim assistance providers in the U.S. She says fundamental shifts need to happen before mainstream providers are equipped to help LGBT victims.
“The definition of domestic violence is really rooted in the feminist movement,” Cooke says, “which understood it to be about men’s oppression over women. That doesn’t make sense for an LGBT program and under that paradigm, we don’t even see LGBT examples when it’s all about men and women.”
Many other factors often prevent LGBT domestic violence victims from finding help or even reporting their crimes, the report says. Some fear being outed and perhaps losing their jobs if they’re in the military for instance. Others fear being excluded from their circle of friends if a restraining order is granted. Transgender victims face even further obstacles.
Jeff Dion, executive director for the National Center for Victims of Crime, remembers one case he worked on in Miami that illustrated the problem.
“Sometimes law enforcement and the courts don’t take these issues seriously,” Dion, who’s gay, says. “Miami even has its own special domestic violence court but I remember one lawyer advocate who said, ‘You’re going to have a hard time getting justice if a man goes to court dressed as a woman.’ So there are still major barriers to overcome just to treat people like people.”
Morgan Lynn, a local lesbian attorney who founded an LGBT-specific program at Women Empowered Against Violence, says there are further complications she sees daily in her work.
“The people I see are just going to have different issues,” she says. “We have custody issues that affect us differently, marriage and divorce, outing is a whole issue that’s unique to our community. These are just the kinds of questions that straight folks, straight women, just don’t have to be aware of. Like with divorce. There’s no residency requirement to get married in Massachusetts but there is for divorce. So what are you going to do? Move there with an abusive partner just so you can get divorced?”
Homophobia and heterosexism are also challenges, the study says.
“There’s a lot of heterosexism in domestic violence work in general,” Lynn says. “You think about the images you see. A straight woman, she’s probably white, cowering in the corner. Advocates like us try to work through those cultural stereotypes because we know not all abusers are men, or not all abusers are the more masculine person. People think the butch in a lesbian relationship is the abuser but that’s not always the case. I’ve even had some women leave abusive heterosexual relationships thinking there was no domestic violence among lesbians only to find their girlfriend is abusive.”
But there is good news. Many of the mainstream providers who responded said they’d welcome LGBT-specific training.
“We weren’t surprised to hear that but it was gratifying to see the numbers of mainstream service providers who were so vocal about really wanting to do this work but really needing the technical assistance to do it properly,” Stapel says.
Cooke, though, says it requires more than an afternoon training session.
“We’ve done a lot of training here in the Boston area with many front-line workers,” she says. “They’re very well intentioned, but they often don’t have the institutional buy in to really make the changes necessary to do the work correctly. There’s a lot to it. Forms need to be changed for gender variance, they don’t screen at shelters to keep same-sex perpetrators from finding their victims there … there really has to be structural change. It’s not just about sensitivity training.”
So what’s the answer? The study’s authors included several recommendations based on their findings. They advocate collaborations between LGBT-specific and mainstream victim assistance providers, advocacy for state and federal protections to ensure LGBT victims have equal access to protections, an increase of public awareness of the extent and impact of victimization in the LGBT community and increases of funding to see these objectives through.
The two organizations that performed the study are off to a good start — just last week they presented the report at the White House to several of President Obama’s advisers.
“It might take a year or so for this to get into the next round of grant solicitations and to develop grant programs but there’s an awful lot of buzz about this and people are interested and excited to see the report, particularly in this administration,” Dion says. “It’s really helped us quantify the anecdotal evidence. We can now offer the report to validate that and give us a platform to move forward.”