Ottawa Police Services intervened in 36 cases of gay domestic abuse in 2007, according to statistics from the partner assault unit.
That’s out of a total of 1372 cases of domestic assault last year. Of these, 22 were in gay male relationships and 14 were in lesbian relationships.
The assault incidents that are reported represent a fraction of the number of incidents of domestic abuse. But given that the gay community is often skittish about police intervention in their lives, the total — less than three percent of the total cases last year — is probably skewed.
Officer Peter Jupp is the manager of the Domestic Assault Unit of the Ottawa police.
Jupp admits that what stops some gays from reporting violence to police is the fear that they will be treated with intolerance and prejudice.
“If they think they are going to encounter a prejudice, they are less likely to report” the matter to the police, says Jupp. “There’s a mistrust of the police.”
Richard Tomlinson is the co-ordinator of the Ottawa-Carleton Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at the Ottawa Hospital.
He says some gays might also be wary of disclosing their sexuality to services, especially since they are largely geared towards helping heterosexual women.
“You may have to out yourself to get help,” Tomlinson says, “And some people don’t feel they can do that. So the abuse continues. Fear of judgment stops people from seeking help.”
The assault center where Tomlinson works does not have a specific policy to deal with queer abuse issues, he says, but they do have a “non-specific mandate” which means the center is intended to deal with all forms of sexual and physical abuse regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.
If gays fear that the system isn’t prepared to deal with them, those worries aren’t irrational. Christine Baker is a sexual assault nurse. She has worked in the field of domestic assault for the last ten and a half years and now currently works in the assault center at the Ottawa hospital under Tomlinson.
“Our policy is that men and women can use our program regardless of the sex of their partner,” says Baker, but she admits there can be complications between staff who are not “aware” of the policy of tolerance, or who are themselves intolerant.
Baker recalls an incident less than a year ago where a gay male came into the unit having being assaulted by his partner, and was sent home by a male nurse who was “not aware of the policy.” The male nurse did not think, he said, that the centre treated cases of male partner abuse — only female by male. The nurse, Baker stresses, has since been retrained on the department’s policies.
Baker says one of the weak points of the system is the link between the police and the center. An officer may not recognize an abusive relationship between two men or two women the same way they would with a het couple because it may not be as apparent that the relationship is intimate. The domestic assault unit may recognize it, but the average patrol officer — who is usually first on the scene — may not, she says.
“If you have someone who doesn’t recognize it, then the issue doesn’t go any further,” Baker says.
The assault centre is called automatically called to collect evidence and document the case each time a domestic assault is reported by police, Tomlinson says. The purpose of the center is to collect data for legal purposes, but if an assault case is reported, a victim does not have to press charges. People can also come in on their own, says Baker, without charging the person or fully disclosing the nature of the incident. This is in order to keep records of abuse so that if they want to press charges, they have a selection of legal documents to back up their case.
“We will not say, ‘You have to press charges,” Tomlinson says, stressing the center works as more of a “legal middleman” between the victim and the police than an enforcing agent, “The person has to say yes and has to agree to this service. Same sex or not, every single thing you do with us is optional.”
Jupp says that, like the Ottawa Hospital, it is the department’s policy to handle same-sex domestic violence in “exactly the same way” as heterosexual domestic violence. Domestic violence is defined for the Ottawa Police by the Attorney General as an abuse in an “an intimate relationship,” between two persons, he says, although the government has never been explicit on what constitutes an intimate relationship.
Jupp wants the queer community to know that police services are accessible to them.
“We want to make sure the victims are assisted. If they are in an abusive relationship,” says Jupp, “whether they want to report or not, we have a number of referrals. We care. That’s what we want the community to know.”
Prejudice aside, many victims of same-sex domestic violence may not come forward for the same reasons victims of heterosexual violence don’t Baker says. A victim may not want to disclose the true nature of their domestic situation right away, either in order to protect the abuser or themselves, or because they are embarrassed. In many cases, she says, the average abused person will have to be asked eight times before they will disclose the nature of their situation to a counsellor.
Ultimately, people in abusive same sex-relationships may not seek help for the same reasons as those in abusive heterosexual relationships — they might be too proud or may not want to admit that their relationship is abusive, believing that, if they tough it out, they will “make it work.”
Baker says she wants the queer community to know that if they are suffering from violence in their relationship that the centre is open to them, and they do not have to be afraid of prejudice or be ashamed of their situation.
“There is a whole section of the population that doesn’t feel welcome or recognized,” says Baker. “And we want everyone to feel safe.”