LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence speak out

Part one of a two-part series

It was supposed to be a sex game. 

It turned into a rape. 

Terrell Johnson was only 20, his partner, Matt, 26, forced him to have sex against his will. It’s an experience that, even five years later, Johnson has trouble discussing with all but his closest friends. 

Like all the victims/survivors PGN interviewed for this report, he agreed to speak under condition of anonymity.

“I want people to know this happens,” said Johnson (not his real name). “That’s so vital, so vital — that folks know they aren’t alone, that this is really happening and, no, you didn’t imagine it. And no, you didn’t bring it on. And no, you are so not exaggerating what happened. But I have seen what happens to sisters who come forward. They get branded as victims. I don’t want that. Not for me, not for anyone else.

“It’s a fine line you got to walk with this.,” Johnson added after a pause. “I am telling you my story because I want to raise that awareness. But I am not ready to be anyone’s poster child.”

When he met Matt, Johsnson had recently changed colleges. He had transferred from a liberal-arts college in the Midwest that he said proved a bad fit for him to a university in Philadelphia. Matt was a graduate teaching assistant in his department. They ended up at a campus party together, and Johnson said the chemistry between them was strong. They quickly started seeing each other “a lot.” 

“I was still new to the gay scene,” he said. “My family is religious. I had struggled with coming out. I was new to Philly. I was new all over. That’s what he saw in me — something fresh. He knew I wanted to explore. He took advantage. I was so open, and what he did shut me down for a long time.”

The face of the #MeToo movement in the USA is not young, black, gay men like Terrell Johnson. But LGBTQ people are as much the victims — and often more frequently — of sexual assault and interpersonal violence as their heterosexual and cis peers, according to recent research. 

The Williams Institute of the University of California School of Law has conducted and compiled numerous studies of the LGBTQ experience. In those studies of interpersonal violence (IPV) and sexual abuse among LGBTQ people, the results explode the myth that such violence is the purview of heterosexuals. 

Johnson’s story, while disturbing, is far from unique. The Williams Institute cites studies with statistics comparable to, and sometimes greater than, those commonly known for IPV. 

While these studies in no way invalidate the breadth of epidemic violence against heterosexual women, they illuminate a subset of violence that remains largely hidden — that of LGBTQ partners.  

Johnson said until he told another gay friend what had happened to him, “I really thought I was the only one. It was a whole new coming-out experience.”

Johnson is one of many gay men victimized by partners. In the Williams Institute study, among sexual-minority men, 26.9 percent of gay men experienced IPV in their lifetime and 12.1 percent experienced IPV in the past year, with about 5 percent of gay men citing sexual abuse and/or assault in their interpersonal relationships.  

In a study of male same-sex relationships, only 26 percent of men called police for assistance after experiencing near-lethal violence. 

The numbers for sexual-minority women are also surprising. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, bisexual women suffer higher lifetime rates of IPV than heterosexual women. 

In addition, bisexual women are twice as likely to report ever having experienced IPV than heterosexual women, although nearly 90 percent of those experiences involve male partners. 

But the reported lifetime prevalence of IPV among lesbians is also higher than heterosexual women. 

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 43.8 percent of lesbian women and 61.1 percent of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, as opposed to 35 percent of heterosexual women.

Chloe and Emily were both rising sophomores at the University of Pennsylvania when the violence started. What began as mild shoving in arguments turned into slapping — then punching. 

Chloe said she wasn’t sure what triggered Emily to hit her the first time, but it became a pattern in their relationship. So regular and repetitive that Chloe finally left their West Philadelphia apartment after a fight and spent the night in a Center City bus station, where she thought about returning home and quitting school.

“I have never felt so alone and isolated and totally without recourse as I felt that night,” she recounted. “You know I walked there? I walked into town — block after block. And I was crying. And shaking. I will never forget that night. No one should have a night like that.”

Chloe appeared dispassionate as she talked about her experience.

“It’s better for me if I stay outside the parameters of that story and tell it the way I do now, because that was the old Chloe. The new Chloe feels bad for the old Chloe and wants to hold her tightly, but not so tightly that she becomes part of me again, if that makes sense,” she said.

According to local advocates for domestic-violence victim/survivors, this is a common response as people heal from the experience of interpersonal violence. 

Added Chloe, “It was a very traumatic period of my life. I had a little breakdown. I felt suicidal. I was self-harming in various ways. I had to take a semester off from school. I almost lost my financial aid. I had to lie to my parents.” 

Chloe was not dispassionate when she spoke about the group she started off-campus for other young women dealing with violent relationships. 

“Therapy has been very helpful for me,” she acknowledged. “And I think telling my story is helpful because it didn’t take long for me to find out that nearly every girl I knew at school was having the shit beaten out of her, and none of us were talking about it. We were all just buying more concealer, wearing long sleeves and scarves and multiple bracelets to cover up the marks. It was, and continues to be, quite the revelation.”

The group is small — between 15-20 women. They meet regularly to, as Chloe described it, “talk it out, cry, get enraged and do a lot of work toward healing.” 

The group is not all women who identify as lesbians like Chloe, but a mix of heterosexual, bisexual and queer women. 

“We share one story,” Chloe said. “We were victims, and now we’re survivors.” 


In part two of the series next week, local advocates address LGTBQ  domestiv violence and survivors discuss how to heal. Also, how to spot warning signs. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.