Domestic Violence in Lesbian Relationships

There’s a story of two pandemics so far in 2020: COVID-19 and domestic violence. Travel restrictions, quarantines, social isolation, financial stress, and fear of illness have all provided the perfect conditions to worsen, or initiate, violence within the home. The media has primarily focused on violence within heterosexual couples, but those who identify as LGBTQ+ experience domestic violence. Often, there are obstacles to reporting abuse, including social stigma, fear of police, or uncertainty over what constitutes abuse.

Kay, 43, an actor and songwriter, experienced both physical and psychological violence within her relationship. She only felt free of the relationship in 2018, a year after she divorced her wife of four years.

Kay and her ex-wife were together for a year before they married in 2014. 

“She was previously in an abusive relationship with a friend of mine. There was a lot of conjecture around claims that my ex-wife was the abuser, and I chose to believe my ex-wife rather than my friend,” Kay says. “We do stupid things for love.”

Kay’s ex-wife cheated on her with an 18-year-old and openly displayed the affair amongst their friends and professional community of actors and directors.

“Her manipulation, story-telling and threats of suicide whenever I brought up her cheating finally took its toll,” Kay admits. “She’d openly flirt with other women in front of me and then fly into a rage if I reacted negatively. At the time, I tried to justify it by thinking well, nobody’s perfect, or, she’s going through a really hard time.”

Kay also tried to justify remaining in the relationship, based on the fact she was 12 years older than her wife. “I thought, I’m older, I’m more experienced, I should be able to handle this. I felt we had so much to prove to her detractors that I kept so much of what was happening secret because I was embarrassed. I’d lost friends when I sided with my ex-wife and also because I’d become so involved with my partner that friends had just lost interest in me.”

The National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, based at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, defines partner violence as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The physical abuse element might be pushing, shoving, slapping, kicking, or biting. It is the much more prevalent sexual abuse and psychological abuse that is likely underreported, perhaps due to embarrassment or shame that the victim is to blame, uncertainty over the legality or acceptability of certain behavior and the lack of available help, or stigma within communities.

According to recent research, there’s reason to believe intimate partner violence (IPV) occurs more often in the LGBTQ+ community than within the heterosexual community. Almost 75 percent of lesbian women reported they were victims of psychological abuse, with severe violence reported by almost half the bisexual women surveyed and 30 percent of lesbian women responding to the survey.

There are many states in the U.S. that address abuse within lesbian relationships in the same way they do heterosexual violence, however some states (including Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Maryland and Mississippi) only provide protective orders to heterosexual couples. 

Though Kay was seeing a therapist at the time of the relationship, she found herself making excuses for her partner and trying to justify remaining in the marriage. “There were a few episodes of slapping and hitting,” she says, “but honestly, the emotional abuse was much worse. Even with my therapist, I tried to explain that every marriage has problems and I was making excuses for myself, saying I hadn’t set limits. I was in denial.”

Kay shares that she is still in therapy, as she was before her relationship and throughout. This has enabled her to work through the fear, sense of betrayal, and grief stemming from both the relationship and its ending. 

Two years after her divorce, Kay shares that she hasn’t felt ready to commit to a new relationship, but that she is in a significantly better place than she was. “I want to be in a better place before I bring anyone else into my world,” she says. 

Womxn experiencing abuse, or who suspect they might be in an unhealthy relationship, have access to online, phone, or in-person support depending on their locality. Most states within the U.S. have dedicated LGBTQ+ support services, as do many other countries including Australia, the UK and Canada. Google “LGBTQ violence” or “LGBTQ support” along with your location for options. If you fear that your internet usage is being monitored, there’s information around limiting your footprint and keeping your searches and website use private via the National Network To End Domestic Violence. Remember to Clear Your Cookies and Clear Your Cache or Internet History if you suspect you are being monitored.

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