November 25 is White Ribbon Day, a day when all Australians are encouraged to stand up and speak out about male violence against women. With on average one woman a week being murdered by male violence towards women, it's a significant issue that needs urgent and ongoing attention. I have written about the White Ribbon organisation, and domestic violence, a few times. Every time that I have, I've received comments and messages mostly from heterosexual women -- but there have also been some from women in lesbian relationships. Similarly, I have been contacted by some gay men. They want their stories told, too.
Their experiences always share the common theme of hurt, anger and fear, borne of domestic violence. But what I've been surprised to learn is that people from the LGBTIQ community face a unique set of challenges. For example, I did not realise until it was pointed out to me that while we have come a long way in opening up conversation about domestic violence, it has largely been targeted to towards heterosexual couples.
One man, James*, told the story of being controlled and intimidated by his partner, who used the specific threat of 'outing' him to his family and work colleagues, which he was terrified of -- and strongly felt it should be his choice to make. Sarah*, in a lesbian relationship, messaged that it had been difficult enough to get her family to accept her sexuality as a positive thing, so to admit to them that she was facing something as serious as domestic violence in that relationship, seemed an admission of the so-called "problems with that lifestyle choice."
Of course, domestic violence does not discriminate among economic class, education, ethnicity or sexuality, because DV as a term covers a spectrum of behaviours that anyone in any family situation can inflict on each other. But when we unthinkingly concentrate the conversation on heterosexual relationships, we risk further marginalising a group of people who already feel isolated from society.
They are less likely to report domestic violence to the police for fear of judgment. In conversations with the people who contacted me, I've learnt that they are less likely, due to discomfort borne of a fear of rejection, to attempt to access DV services, such as helplines, which are often run by non-accepting, religious-based organisations, and emergency accommodation, that is mainly aimed at heterosexual women experiencing violence from a male perpetrator, because it often uses gender-specific language.
Not including the full range of relationships in society also leads to something more dangerous -- that domestic violence is less likely to be identified as an issue among those in the LGBTIQ community. Not only is not always recognised by those in the relationship, but their friends and family often don't see the signs, and are thus unable to interfere and help.
I know from personal experience how difficult it is to admit to yourself that you are in an unsafe relationship -- and to admit that to the people who love you. But from what I understand from those who have contacted me is that it is difficult enough as it is to 'come out' regarding their sexuality -- so the violence adds another suffocating, secretive layer -- compounding the problem. This extra layer is recognised by the aptly-named LGBTIQ domestic violence support website www.anothercloset.com.au, one of the very few Australian resources that is not heterocentric.
I also know that Australia has come a long way in how we view and speak of family violence in the past decade, with much credit going to former Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty. We still have a long way to go -- but it's even longer for the LGBTIQ community. Let's hope that it doesn't take another decade to see real change -- because people want to be heard, and their lives are evidently at stake -- so we simply don't have that time.
*Name has been changed.