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11 March 2020

Making the Invisible, Visible

I recently had a 24 year old man come to me looking for crisis accommodation. He told me that he had left his own home, which he owned, to get away from his partner of five years – his partner who had started abusing him, emotionally, physically and sexually about two years earlier. In saying that, my guess is the emotional abuse started even earlier, if you count grooming, gaslighting* and manipulation as abuse…which I do. This man, let’s call him Matt, had been trying to leave on and off for the last two years. When he finally did leave, just three weeks before writing this article, he went to a close friend’s house, this friend’s advice to him was: “Stand up to him, just hit him back”. Just for the hell of it, let’s call this friend Jason.

Domestic violence (DV) among gay and bisexual men has been under-researched, resulting in a lack of consensus on definition, range, scope and severity of violence.

There isn’t a lot of great research in the area, but I will refer to a recent NSW study Sorting It Out (2019) which found that 62% of respondents had experienced physical, verbal or emotional abuse in a past or present relationship. Now that number is a definitive statistic for what’s happening in our community, but it certainly raises a lot of questions and is worth exploring further.

According to this same report, 51% believe that sexual coercion and pressure are common in GBQ communities and 43% had witnessed GBQ friends in abusive intimate relationships.

The prevalence rates in this piece of research is much higher than numbers in other pieces of research. Estimates of gay and bisexual men who have been a victim of DV in at least one past or present relationship usually sits between 20% – 40%. This stat is a lot higher if you also happen to be trans, with one piece of research estimating as high as 80% of transgender people have experienced DV.

The thing is, all existing Australian research on intimate partner violence in relationships between men focusses on men who have been victims of DV, so what about the numbers of men who admit to perpetrating abuse against their male partners? Unfortunately, we don’t have data on this, but if around a quarter of men have been abused by their male partners, then we could assume that similar numbers of men have abused a partner. After all, someone has to be doing the abusing right? These numbers, by the way, reflect what is happening in heterosexual, cis-gender relationships, too.

As the data suggests, it is entirely possible that you, the reader, along with half of your gay or bisexual male friends have been in a DV relationship, either currently or in the past, either as victim or perpetrator. Sobering thought, right?

I have two sayings that guide the work that I do:

“Violence thrives in invisibility.”

and

“The standards we walk by are the standards we accept.”

Matt, who I have already introduced you to, described the impact of his friend Jason’s reaction to his “coming out” about DV as downplaying his experience and making him feel weak. This is because Jason denied the possibility that Matt was in a DV relationship, and excused the abuse as just being some kind of “typical” male behaviour.

An abuser will often isolate his partner, again making him invisible. David, a 27 year old man described the isolating effect of his abusive relationship: “Apart from my massive social withdrawal, the effect on my sexuality was really destructive. I became ashamed about being gay, about being sexually attractive and about having sexual desires. It was like going back in the closet.”

Which brings me to my second guiding saying: “The standards we walk by are the standards we accept.”

Jason accepted some archaic (and by archaic, I also mean absurd!) stereotype and standard about it being normal for men, even men who love each other, to hit each other. Jason even expected Matt to accept this standard.

I think if we are truly honest with ourselves, we could look more openly and objectively at our own relationships and the relationships that surround us, and be able to see times when we have accepted bad behaviour from our friends, our partners and ourselves. Maybe we have accepted these behaviours, despite knowing that someone is getting hurt. Especially when we understand that DV is not just physical abuse, it is almost always psychological and emotional, and is sometimes financial, sexual and can involve stalking and harassment.

DV is about gaining and maintaining power over another person, controlling where they go, who they see, how they behave so that the person being controlled feels like they are “walking on eggshells” and having to adapt their actions to suit their partner.

So why do I work guided by the two aforementioned sayings?

First, it helps me to see DV for what it is: That it is isolating for those experiencing it and for people in the LGBTQ+ community especially, it is still largely invisible. Invisible in the sense that we, the community, aren’t recognising it and aren’t talking about it enough.

It also helps me to see that it is a social issue, not a personal one. DV is no longer a private issue for the home, it is a crime and a major social problem, not just in our communities but nationally and internationally, the LGBTQ+ community is no exception.

Second, it gives me hope and a solution for the issue. If violence thrives in invisibility, then we need to make it visible. You can do this by arming yourself with information, looking for the warning signs and starting the conversations that our community needs to have. Once we recognise abusive behaviours, we simply can no longer walk by and thus accept them.

It isn’t easy to recognise abuse and then to know what to do about it. You can start by reading more on this website and by downloading our friends and family toolkit.

And in case you are worried about Matt, while he continues to be caught in the thick of his situation, he is now fully supported by the police, a counsellor and a friend who did believe him, and has given him a safe room to stay in.

As for David, he left his abusive relationship years ago, and has been in a healthy relationship for years now.

*Gaslighting: A common victim-blaming form of psychological abuse where information is twisted to favour the abuser, or false information is given with the intention of making the victim (and witnesses) question their own memory, perception and sanity. An abuser can twist information to friends and family and service providers and police to make the victim seem “crazy”.

Written by Kai Noonan, Associate Director at ACON.

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