SunServe is looking to help victims and survivors

With her girlfriend’s hands wrapped around her throat, she knew it was time to leave.

“The choking — that was it,” Allison (not her real name) said. “It was like, ok, that was scary enough for me to say I can’t do this anymore.”

While it was the most violent encounter, it wasn’t the first experience of abuse between Allison and her girlfriend. Just three months into dating, she noticed wild mood swings that would escalate quickly into verbal abuse. It would continue for another two years.

About 44 percent of victims in abusive LGBT relationships were gay males, while 36 percent were lesbian, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The average age of victims are 30 to 39 years old.

Even though a large number of those in LGBT relationships will find themselves at the hands of abuse, it’s still an ugly topic that hides in the shadows. To combat this, LGBT social service and mental health agency, SunServe, is looking to start up a support and therapeutic group for survivors of intimate partner violence.

“It definitely is an underreported area,” said SunServe’s Miriam Guerrero. “As we progress and as we're starting to get more rights and the relationships are becoming more upfront and people are more open to say they're in a relationship… now we're able to start hearing more about domestic violence within the relationships.”

Guerrero is a social worker at SunServe as well as the chairwoman of the LGBT domestic Violence Coalition for Broward County. She is hoping that anyone interested to be a part of the group will reach out so they know what exactly would be the best way to serve survivors.

Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship, regardless of education, income or religion. However, Guerrero said that those who were brought up in an abusive environment or one that was not accepting of their sexuality may find themselves in a cycle of abuse. This was the case for her.

“When you're in the moment, you feel very lost, very alone, and you don't know where to go,” she said of surviving domestic violence. “I came from a family that had domestic violence growing up, and then I fell into it as an adult, so I understand how the cycle completely recycles.”

For Allison, she experienced sexual abuse as a child and then “minor” physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her ex-husband. With her girlfriend, her hold on her was making her believe that it was her fault. After episodes, Allison’s girlfriend would blame her for not forgiving her, hindering their relationship from moving forward.

“I was like a textbook victim. Something happens and you think the partner’s going to change, and you actually see changes, but it’s still abusive,” she said.

Also, Allison was celebrating six years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol, and failing in the relationship lowered her self-esteem.

“It was one more thing to put on my list of what a schmuck I was, or how weak I am, or how I should know better,” she said.

Background is a contributor, which is the same in heterosexual relationships, but in gay relationships the abuser can also hold their partner’s sexuality over their head as a threat. For those who have not come out yet being outed can be reason to stay or not seek help. Some are also afraid that admitting they’re in a failed relationship sends out a bad message to people who were not supportive of them in the first place.

“It's really important for the victims to admit that they're in an actual relationship,” Guerrero said. “We do have an issue still to this day when a police officer in a community that may not be so friendly where they don't take it seriously, they don't take the information as if they are a couple and they are family.”

But the problem with uneducated officers is improving. SunServe works with local police agencies to educate officers on how to work with domestic violence in the LGBT community and to be sure to treat it as they would a woman being battered by her husband or boyfriend a barrier in itself.

Finally, the greatest problem that transcends sexual orientation when it comes to domestic violence is simply coming to terms that one is in an abusive relationship — he didn’t mean to, it was an accident, she said it wouldn’t happen again. After Allison ended her relationship, she immediately went into therapy.

“I was in therapy to say the words, ‘It wasn’t my fault,’” she said. “It was also introduced to me the way a relationship is supposed to unfold.”

For about a year, her ex would confront her at work, find her in a parking lot, and even showed up at her mother’s home. However, Allison did start dating again and found a woman who was much more mild mannered. Twenty years later, she says it’s still a learning process to respect herself and discovering healthy ways to interact with other people.

From Guerrero’s experience, the mind can play tricks on you and you can convince yourself that you deserved the verbal or physical abuse, that you are the one at fault. This isn’t why it’s so important to run your thoughts against a professional who can give you a reality check — like Allison did with therapy.

Plus, with a group for survivors of domestic violence, more can be done to stop the cycle of violence.

“We want to give them that place where they can come, speak freely about what's going on with them, not have that stigma,” Guerrero said of SunServe as an agency. “It's going to be very scary and you're going to feel like you don't know what you're doing, but the most important thing is to break silence. “

Allison adds, “It’s the shame, whether they’re gay or straight. You’re closeted because of that. You can't tell another soul…. If [abuse] happens a second time, it’s going to happen a third time. Guaranteed. So you’re making a decision right now to stay in it.”

To find out more about the domestic violence support group or to give input, call 954-764-5150, ext.160.

Need Help?

1.       Call SunServe's domestic violence hotline at 954-764-5150, ext. 160

2.       Or, you can call your local police department and ask for their victim advocate.

3.       When filing a report, be sure to emphasize that your abuser and you are in a relationship – not roommates, not friends.

4.       Filing a restraining order is free of cost. SunServe can help you through the process.

5.       Find a safe place to stay away from your abuser.

Editor’s Note: Allison’s name has been changed for privacy.