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Domestic Violence in the LGBT Community

Domestic Violence in the LGBT Community
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By Steve Weinstein

Two surveys on domestic violence have uncovered an ugly truth that has exposed an ugly underside to LGBT relationships. As The Advocate reported, the results showed that over one-fifth of those living in a gay male relationship, and over one-third of a partner in a lesbian one, have suffered from domestic violence. That compares with far less than a tenth of men and a fifth of women in hetero relationships. The surveys show once and for all that men can be Just as likely victims.

LGBT Americans have been loud and proud about the way they are forging a new, exciting path to the way people cohabitate. Unfortunately, all of those scenes of couples happily registering to be married at last is only part of the story.

The upside, such as it is, of this attention is it has forced the gay community to confront a problem many have played down lest it give aid and comfort to the enemies of equality. “We don’t have to be perfect to have our rights,” said Beth Leventhal, the head of The Network/La Red, a Boston-based organization dedicated to stopping same-sex partner abuse. “We don’t have to live up to a societal expectation to be treated like human beings. We don’t deserve to die.”

This is a problem that doesn’t have an age limit. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, “Many LGBT older adults are at high risk for elder abuse.” If anything, domestic violence is exacerbated by larger issues for older gay men, women and the transgendered.

As football pro Ray Rice’s recorded beatdown of his partner in a public elevator amply demonstrated, the response of first responders and prosecutors is still subject to personal prejudice. Police usually haven’t received any training in recognizing violence when answering a call from a same-sex household — or even acknowledging that such relationships even exist.

That’s only the beginning of the unique set of problems faced by LGBT elders. The only peer-reviewed article on LGBT elder abuse cited internalized homophobia, legal barriers and fear of going to the authorities. Jurisdictions that do not recognize same-sex relationships make it that much harder to recognize a domestic situation, let alone partner abuse.

A lot of the reason is cultural: This generation grew to adulthood before the modern gay liberation movement. Many stayed in the closet longer or never came out at all. Fear of being outed adds to their reluctance to report violence from a same-sex partner, according to Hilary Meyer, director of national programs for SAGE, the major national organization for LGBT elders. It also means they can’t turn to their families, clerics or others for support. Outside of major metropolitan areas, social service organizations often are on an ad hoc learning curve when confronted with same-sex violence.

Abuse can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter how long any couple has been together. But the longer the relationship, the greater the fear that leaving an abusive partner means giving up a whole social structure, Leventhal pointed out. Friends, bars, activities once shared now must be avoided, which makes it that much harder to break away.

Just as harmful is settling for a new relationship with a peer who has a substance abuse or severe emotional problems. Studies have consistently shown that such partners make up the majority of abusers regardless of age.

Unpartnered or widowed older gay men who experience acute loneliness may turn to the Internet, which provides an easy way to meet younger men. Except that it’s highly likely that that handsome, sympathetic man turns out to be a hustler, thug or rip-off artist, as Meyer noted. They easily ingratiate themselves as boyfriends before turning abusive.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane played the abusive caregiver to the hilt for grand guignol effect. But an incapacitated person really can end up living a very real nightmare. The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging recommends staying in touch with friends, family members, neighbors, or a cleric so that an interruption in communication will send off warning bells.

Most importantly, every older LGBT individual needs to be proactive in ensuring that they don’t become a victim.

“The soul selects her own society,” wrote Emily Dickinson, but most of us need other people. Isolation breeds desperation. Studies have showed that older people who are active and involved are much less susceptible to accepting abuse from a partner. Even in smaller communities, it’s not hard to find plenty of opportunities to become engaged with other people, whether it be volunteering, a religious congregation, or tutoring young people.

SAGE ( affiliates in two-dozen cities. There are LGBT centers in many more, as well as domestic violence organizations. Local agencies, both public and private, are there to help people, but they can’t do their job if the victims don’t know they exist. The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE. Because no one, regardless of sexual identity, should have to tolerate what is intolerable.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

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