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A Hidden World of Violence

The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center launches a program to publicize and help prevent domestic abuse.

November 19, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although sexual orientation has little impact on the frequency of domestic violence, it can strongly affect how and when society intervenes. Now, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center has embarked on an expanded program to publicize and help prevent gay domestic violence.

Susan Holt, program coordinator, says a straight woman fleeing domestic violence may seek a women-only shelter that bars her batterer. A lesbian fleeing domestic violence may seek the same shelter--only to find her batterer there too.

A straight man trying to escape his wife's explosive temper can usually walk away safely. A gay male trying to walk away from his partner may find himself physically threatened. Should he manage to leave and ask to be placed in a shelter, he might, instead, be referred to a mental hospital or to a homeless shelter, where his lover could seek him out, Holt said.

And while a straight woman fleeing her batterer can reasonably count on police protection, a gay person often cannot, she said. Rather, police often view same-sex domestic violence as either a manifestation of "boys will be boys" or a "cat fight," sometimes doing little to ensure the victim's safety, Holt said.

For example, when one of mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer's male victims sought police help, the Milwaukee police did nothing. Such indifference is less pervasive in Los Angeles than in other parts of the country, Holt said. Nevertheless, police protection for battering victims remains separate and unequal, depending on sexual orientation, she said.

This is the hidden world of gay domestic violence, a world all the more dangerous because many people, both straight and gay, would rather ignore it. And yet, among both groups, 25% to 33% of all relationships may be marred by sometimes lethal physical violence, the center has found. Thus, says Holt, there are an estimated 1 million gay and lesbian battering victims nationwide.

To combat this violence, Holt has expanded the center's program, which counsels 250 people a month.

Most important, the center offers a counseling program staffed by 75 volunteers, both men and women, trained in how the dynamics of domestic violence are intensified by homophobia.

Batterers may threaten to "out" their victims to family and friends, preventing escape. They may threaten to reveal victims' HIV status to employers, jeopardizing their jobs. Or they may threaten to cut their victims off financially, leaving them penniless.

Batterers also seek both to intimidate their partners and to undermine their emotional and spiritual well-being. Their goal is control, virtually telling their partners, "I can make you do anything I want," Holt said.

Because victims frequently fail in their attempts to escape, Holt frequently advises victims that their safest short-term course may be to stay with the abuser, albeit with protective measures. Those measures include keeping an extra car key and spare change in a jacket pocket by the door.

They also include leaving a bag of emergency supplies at a friend's home, scouting out the closest pay phone or all-night convenience store and putting sharp objects in hard-to-reach places.

The center's program also helps batterers--who are referred by the courts or join on their own--to explore how their conduct pushes away their lovers, adding to batterers' isolation and self-hatred. Participating in therapy groups, abusers explore the causes of their conduct and develop alternative ways of acting on their anger.

Finally, the center is reaching out to traditional anti-domestic violence programs, with volunteers informing their mainstream counterparts of the often unique circumstances faced by gay victims. Center volunteer Robin McDonald uses her own experiences to illustrate her talks.

McDonald, 31, entered her first lesbian relationship nine years ago in a small Texas town. When her lover became violent, "I wasn't sure what to make of it. I had no base of comparison," she said.

McDonald's situation was especially ironic because she was a counselor at a battered women's shelter. In addition, her lover had told McDonald about having stalked her previous partner.

"As a crisis counselor, that would have set off alarm bells. But it didn't," McDonald said.

A couple of years into the relationship, the verbal abuse had escalated to slapping and punching, which in turn culminated in McDonald's partner pointing a gun at her. Forced at last to acknowledge her problem, McDonald told fellow workers of "a friend" seeking her help, and then described the "friend's" circumstances.

Had the batterer been male, the counselors would have advised the "friend" to leave the relationship, McDonald said. Because the relationship was between two women, the counselors merely asked if the gun had been loaded, then dismissed the incident.

When McDonald sought shelter at a Catholic psychiatric hospital after a nervous breakdown, "their preoccupation was with my sexual orientation," she said.

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