Over the last few decades, advocates, service providers and law enforcement officials have learned and taught others about the existence of domestic violence, its causes, signs and symptoms. Help hotlines, emergency shelters, mentoring programs and resource services have been established in Indianapolis and around the country for people to escape the cycle of violence and get the help they need to re-establish a healthy and productive life for themselves and, often times, their children as well. There have been great strides made to recognize that domestic violence can affect and create male victims as well as female victims.
The public persona of domestic violence is that it is a heterosexual or cisgender problem. But studies show LGBTQ couples are just as prone to include domestic violence. Unfortunately it's not reported, measured or identified as much in LGBTQ couples as it is in heterosexual/cisgender couples.
The truth is, domestic violence is just as prevalent in the LGBTQ community as it is in the heterosexual-cisgender community. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 50 percent of the lesbian population in American has experienced or will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Seventy-eight percent of lesbians report physical confrontations with their partners.
Two in five gay and bisexual men experience abusive relationships. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported 19 percent of those surveyed had been victims of abuse from a family member with the rates increasing when broken down by minority group (36 percent among Asians, and 35 percent each among African-Americans and Latinos).
"Nationally, LGBTQ domestic violence victims have been shunned by service providers and law enforcement [officers] have not treated them with equity," says Chris Handberg, Domestic Violence Network's director of programs. "There is a lot of distrust in the community."
That isn't surprising considering LGBTQ persons have been shunned in society in general. The civil rights of these individuals are not guaranteed like they are for other minority or targeted groups. Although several municipalities and counties in Indiana have adopted local ordinances adding sexual orientation and gender identity to their equality ordinances, the state legislature has yet to make those protections available statewide.
With several domestic violence programs being church-affiliated or religion-based, LGBTQ domestic violence victims can be overlooked by both the service providers as well as the victim. Handberg, who has worked in the field for about 12 years, recalled his disappointment in a service provider who expressed the sentiment of homosexuality being a sin in the eyes of God when discussing a gay victim. He says that happens more often than not. And it's that type of attitude that can and will prevent a victim from seeking help and leaving a threatening situation.
"A victim may not come forward under threat of being outed or the loss of employment," says Handberg.
Handberg says often in typical domestic violence situations, people other than the victims identify those cases, like a family member, a friend or even a neighbor who witnesses the signs of the abuse. But people who may be uncomfortable with LGBTQ people may be hesitant to get involved, adding to the issue.
And, just like other domestic violence situations, LGBTQ victims may not recognize or acknowledge themselves as victims.
"A victim might believe that's what they deserve because of the stigma against the LGBTQ community in society," says Handberg. "There are really no role model relationships [for the LGBTQ community] of what a healthy relationship looks like."
Models of healthy relationships — real or fictional — can be hard to find, especially for LGBTQ couples. Add to that the illusion from within and from outside of the LGBTQ world that it is a "family" that takes care of their own, and the concept of reaching out for help out of a bad situation gets buried.
Still, LGBTQ domestic violence is underreported and often reported as something other than domestic violence. NCADV reports 30 out of 50 states and Washington D.C. have domestic violence laws that are gender neutral and include household members and dating partners. Three states — Delaware, Montana and South Carolina — specifically exclude same-sex survivors of domestic violence from protection under criminal law. More often than not, LGBTQ domestic violence cases are reported as assault and battery cases if there is major physical abuse. Mental and emotional cases are even less likely to be reported or taken seriously.
In Indianapolis, more education and training is being done to educate police and service providers about domestic violence in the LGBTQ community.
Recently, the Domestic Violence Network (DVN) partnered with Indy Pride and the Julian Center to dedicate one of their e-training sessions with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) to the issue of domestic violence in the LGBTQ community.
"The training illustrated how domestic violence in the LGBTQ community exists and offered ways for officers to ask questions respectfully and without being offensive in situations," say Handberg. "It was great because we only get a few training sessions per year and to have one dedicated specifically and solely to this community is something."
Handberg credits IMPD for recognizing the issue and taking the steps to learn more and reaching out to outside sources for help when warranted. Handberg has responded before as "civilian back-up" to assist officers and victims in certain situations. He also credits community partners like the Julian Center, Indy Pride, Coburn Place and others for recognizing domestic violence as an issue facing the LGBTQ community in Indianapolis and working together in trying to find ways to educate law enforcement and the public about it.
Handberg also acknowledges that there is a lot more needed to assist victims and their families in breaking the cycle of violence and getting to a safe place. Resources are limited for all domestic violence victims, but especially for LGBTQ victims. His wish list includes an LGBTQ center that would offer resources specific to the needs of the LGBTQ community as well as a networking connecting it to existing resources and basic needs.
Handberg says regardless of the nature of the relationship, abuse is abuse and victims need help.
"Just like in heterosexual relationships, abuse in LGBTQ relationships varies by some degree but ultimately boils down to control," says Handberg. "And the hardest part in either situation is getting victims to recognize the abuse and finding the strength and resources to get out."