Combating and destigmatizing domestic violence

The murder of 22-year-old YouTube influencer Gabby Petito should have been a headline for this Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it isn’t. Although mainstream media spent weeks highlighting her story while she was missing, that same media has side-stepped the facts of her murder. On Oct. 12, Petito’s autopsy report was released. The cause of her death was manual strangulation. Petito’s fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who has been in hiding for weeks, has not yet been charged in her killing.

If the high-profile killing of a young and beautiful cis-het white woman who captured national attention can’t get the media to focus on domestic violence, what can?

Stigma surrounding domestic violence (DV) — also referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV) — keeps victims isolated and fearful. Victims often internalize the violence, excuse their attackers, and blame themselves for causing the assault. That was the case with Petito, as witnessed in the police video of the domestic violence incident she was victim of on Aug. 12. 

PGN has covered domestic violence within the LGBTQ community previously. Raising awareness is pivotal to combating both the stigma and the violence. Knowing the causes of domestic violence within the queer and trans community is also critical. 

Judy Morrisey, Director of Behavioral Health at the Mazzoni Center, told PGN, “LGBTQ+ people are vulnerable to myriad emotional, psychological and physical stressors, including intimate partner violence, that are influenced by mainstream, queerphobic, culture.” 

Morrisey said, “Experiences of prejudice, expectations of rejection, and negative self-image underscore how we feel about ourselves, our relationships and map our concept of happiness and satisfaction from life.”  

Dr. Jennie Goldenberg, who specializes in trauma care and is also a clinical social worker, told PGN that accessing help for IPV is crucial — and difficult. “There are many obstacles to finding a secure, safe base for LGBTQ folks fleeing IPV,” she said. 

“LGBTQ people suffer from domestic violence at equal or higher rates as do heterosexual people. As we know, people fleeing DV are at great risk of harm immediately after leaving an abusive partner. For LGBTQ folks, that risk is compounded by a tremendous fear not only for their safety, but of being ostracized from community and family members. Abusive partners very often try to increase the survivor’s dependence on them by increasingly isolating them.”  

Goldenberg elucidated some key issues, explaining that “For LGBTQ folks, these partners can also threaten to out them if they haven’t yet come out, or if they belong to an oppressive family or conservative religious community. In rural areas, the LGBTQ community can be quite small and insulated — everyone knows everyone else and there are only two degrees of separation, not the proverbial six. The survivor may not be supported or believed if their partner is more prominent in that small community, as we’ve certainly seen on a national scale in the mostly heterosexual #MeToo movement.” 

The data on LGBTQ IPV is shocking and bolsters Goldenberg’s argument. Statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) assert that 43.8% of lesbian women and 61.1% 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% of heterosexual women.

Men are also at risk: 26% of gay men and 37.3% of bisexual men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, in comparison to 29% of heterosexual men.

NCADV stats show that LGBTQ people are also less likely to contact law enforcement for help. NCADV states that “in a study of male same sex relationships, only 26% of men called the police for assistance after experiencing near-lethal violence. Fewer than 5% of LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence sought orders of protection.”

Additionally, NCADV notes that bisexual and trans women are at highest risk for abuse and that Black LGBTQ people experience abuse at a higher rate than their white and Asian peers.

Morrisey said, “Until recently, LGBTQ+ couples did not see their relationships reflected in a positive light on television or in the media. The absence of social modeling, along with longstanding social rejection, makes it challenging for people to feel deserving of help, let alone advocating for themselves in critical moments of seeking support such as in emergency rooms, with law enforcement, in courts, and so forth.”  

The National Domestic Violence Hotline notes that “While abuse among LGBTQ+ people occurs at the same rates and in similar ways as their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ+ people may face forms of abuse or barriers to accessing support specifically based on prejudices against their gender expression or sexuality.”

That was Terrell Johnson’s experience. Johnson spoke with PGN in 2019 about his experience with IPV and spoke with PGN again this week. Johnson, who identifies as gay, is now in a “safe, loving and supportive” relationship with another man. 

His prior experience with IPV, which included sexual assault, was, Johnson said, “brutal and it scarred me. It scarred me as a gay man and as a Black man. It made me distrustful and unsafe.” 

Johnson said, “My abusive partner used my vulnerability as a college student new to Philadelphia and newly out to isolate me. He used my deep feelings for him to manipulate me. It has taken me a long time to heal and to be fully open and allow myself to be vulnerable to a partner without fear.”

Dr. Bruce Lackie, who treats trauma victims in private practice and is also a clinical social worker, says that men have an even more difficult time accessing help than do women.

“It’s generally considered that men have a harder time disclosing sexual abuse,” Lackie told PGN. “Given the prevalence of homophobia, disclosure becomes even more of a dilemma for gay men. This becomes fertile ground for re-enactments, as isolation is amplified and shame further shades the covert abuse.”

Goldenberg said that internalizing the violence — as was witnessed in the Gabby Petito police video — is another problem that LGBTQ people face.  

Goldenberg explained that “racism, homophobia, and transphobia can all be internalized, leading to shame around identity. This compounds the fear and shame around seeking help getting away from the abuse. LGBTQ people very often carry trauma histories of bullying , intimidation, sexual abuse and hate crimes, which greatly impacts their sense of self-esteem, their attachment behaviors, and their belief that they deserve the love of a healthy relationship.”  

She added that “As a gay, lesbian, or trans person, it may be difficult to access services, especially in areas with limited transportation and resources.  In rural communities, for example, access to transportation is a huge problem, and abusers will deny access to vehicles, making it difficult for survivors to get away safely.” 

The onus cannot just be on victims of DV/IPV to find help, said Goldenberg. “Social workers like myself and other clinicians in the mental health and domestic violence field need to be more aware of the specific barriers LGBTQ people face when fleeing IPV,” she asserted. “We can all learn more, do more, and do better to support the LGBTQ people in our communities.”  

Morrisey said that valuing one’s self is also essential. She stressed that, “Everyone is deserving of help and there is no shame in asking for it.  As much as you’re able, develop a support plan involving people you trust. Learn what resources are available such as domestic violence centers, or therapists who are queer-affirming. Above all, be patient and kind to yourself.”

If you need help, call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.