A vibrant poster in Kathleen O’Connell’s office at the Parkdale Community Health Centre flaunts, “Pride in stopping violence!”
It’s not the usual expression of gay pride. The poster was created in a series of art-making workshops last year, organized by the Coalition Against Same Sex Partner Abuse (CASSPA). O’Connell is a member of the coalition, a group of counsellors and anti-violence activists working to raise awareness and expand services for lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) people.
It’s not an easy task. The obvious barriers of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism generally pop up when trying to access services outside LGBT communities, in this case with police, emergency personnel, shelters and counselling services. If who you are is seen as the problem rather than what’s happening to you, you’re unlikely to get the help you need, and even more unlikely to want to try again.
“Seeking help can mean coming out over and over again,” says Howard Shulman, coordinator of the 519 Community Centre’s Anti-Violence Program. “For some, that’s a big deterrent.”
As our support increases in Canada, it can be difficult to advocate that we also need some shelter beds set aside for those escaping same-sex violence. Trying to turn to family members for support is also hard, and feels like a contradiction to insisting that we’re not sick or dangerous, just queer.
“Access to services is a difficult issue,” agrees Mercedes Umaña, a mental health counsellor with Women’s Health In Women’s Hands. “Even more when there are layers of oppression such as race, class and language facility. Understandings of violence based on white, heterosexual, feminist models can’t be simply transferred.”
Take, for example, the fear of coming out, or being outed. The threat to disclose sexual orientation to co-workers, family or community can wield enormous power over a lover, and can be as simple as showing up at a workplace – a typical tactic of abusers or stalkers that can carry additional gut-wrenching distress when you’re gay.
Those who are entering their first gay relationship may be particularly vulnerable. Janice Ristock’s study in No More Secrets revealed a noticeable number of gay men and lesbians experiencing abuse in their coming out relationship.
“An abusive partner may be more experienced, with more connections in the community, and may claim more authority on what a gay relationship is like,” agrees O’Connell. “Someone just coming out can be vulnerable or dependent, and may feel grateful just to have their sexuality recognized.”
Issues also arise around HIV and AIDS. “An abusive lover can take control over their partner’s medication or access to healthcare,” says Shulman.
Stereotypes are no help either. A tough butch woman is not necessarily the aggressor. A femmey white fag is not necessarily the victim. But without the division of gender, the victim/aggressor roles can be hard to sort out, especially when both parties claim they are aggrieved, as frequently happens.
Shelter services, counselling centres, police and other service providers need to know not only that abuse exists between same-sex couples, is equally destructive and deserves the same attention, but should have an informed and sensitive understanding of the particular challenges and vulnerabilities that exist between same-sex partners.
And so should we, as a community. If we take pride in our relationships, our culture, lifestyle and our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirited or queer identities, then we should be open to recognizing unhealthy, destructive dynamics, and available and supportive to doing something about it.
“It’s tricky to intervene in an incidence of violence, especially if the couple are strangers to you,” cautions Hershel Russell, a psychotherapist. “You don’t want to make it worse. But, certainly, if it’s someone you love and care for, either being abused or abusive, there’s probably something you can do.”
The Anti-Violence Program of the 519 Community Centre (519 Church St): (416) 392-6878, ext 117 and firstname.lastname@example.org
David Kelley Lesbian And Gay Community Counselling Program: (416) 595-9618 Two-Spirited People Of The First Nations: (416) 944-9300
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: (416) 863-0511
Parkdale Community Health Centre: (416) 537-2455
Coalition Against Same-Sex Partner Abuse: (416) 925-9872, ext 2204
Education Wife Assault: (416) 968-3422 and www.womanabuseprevention.com
Gay Partner Abuse Project: (416) 925-9872, ext 2288 and www.gaypartnerabuseproject.org.