Chris Leonard was sitting in on a domestic violence committee meeting when he noticed a word that kept being used: she.
“There was talk about ‘she’ as the victim,” he said. “Language is very important because the language enforces bias.”
The housing case manager at SunServe in Fort Lauderdale, Leonard knows that not only does domestic violence affect both men and women, but those partnerships are not always heterosexuals. While at SunServe, he has been working with the community to make it more aware of the plight of LGBT domestic violence victims.
Bisexual and transgender people report higher incidences of domestic violence and sexual assault, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Sixty-one percent of bisexual woman said they experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by their partner. The number is much lower for lesbians, 44 percent, and straight women, 35 percent.
“Domestic violence isn’t just about the physical abuse,” Chris Leonard of SunServe said. “It’s emotional, financial. Some people don’t recognize that it’s abuse, they just say, ‘Oh, I just don’t have a good relationship, or my relationship needs work.’”
“A lot of people don’t know how to react to it and don’t know how to handle it.”
SunServe had a domestic violence support group for some time, with weekly meetings helping each person to their own goals at their own pace, but a lack of funding has hindered the group from continuing.
“I would say that there are not LGBT-specific resources,” Leonard said. “What we do is at SunServe is we work off of community resources when it comes to domestic violence.”
For example, Women in Distress has a shelter with beds, not an easy find in the community. No More Tears is another organization that specializes in immigration issues that compound domestic violence cases. In return, these groups and others know that their LGBT survivors can find specialized care through SunServe.
Although there are common themes in domestic violence no matter the sexual orientation or gender identity — physical violence, emotional manipulation, and financial dependence — there are some issues that arise mostly in LGBT cases.
For instance not as many couples will have children, but their pets will create difficulty in a victim leaving an abusive situation. Many shelters do not accept pets, and the victim perhaps doesn’t trust their partner with the animal. Also, if there is a large age difference in the couple, the younger one may be less financially established and rely on their older partner. On the flip side, an older partner may be abused by their younger partner, who is responsible for their medical care.
Finally, if someone is HIV positive, they may be reluctant to out their status when reporting the violence, on top of coming out to a system that they perceive to not be welcoming to them.
Being an open part of the domestic violence advocacy community has helped these groups better serve their LGBT survivors. SunServe has hosted training workshops for groups to update their language and learn the special needs the LGBT community has when it comes to domestic violence.
For one, having signage that shows the organization’s alliance with the LGBT community can put a survivor at ease.
Also, language is important. At one committee meeting, as mentioned above, Leonard noticed his colleagues were always referring to the victim as “she.” He pointed out to them that men are also victims of domestic violence, and victims are not always in heterosexual relationships.
Changing mindsets is vital — there’s often a misconception that same-sex partners are on equal standing physically and fights are mischaracterized as a “cat fight.”
“Sometimes the biggest men have a hard time with…whether people will believe them or they have the internal shame of, how could they happen to me?” Leonard said. “I have heard about cases where it ended up being classified as regular battery versus a domestic violence charge, which does have a big impact.”
Want to get involved in ending domestic violence? Contact SunServe at 954-764-5150 or visit SunServe.org.