WARNING: This article contains material that may be distressing to some readers.
ALMOST one year ago, Jeff managed to escape an abusive relationship with another man.
“I knew at about six or seven months into [the relationship] that there was something not right,” he said.
“It started with needing to know where I was, needing to know who I was talking to, needing to know what time I’d be home, where I was going, if I wasn’t home, who I was with, just all that.
Over the course of several years, Jeff’s partner systematically took away every support in his life not connected to the relationship. Constant monitoring of Jeff’s movements made it difficult for him to hold down a job. Moving to his partner’s house in the country — at his partner’s insistence — isolated him physically. Jeff’s partner began breaking Jeff’s possessions in fits of rage to the point that Jeff began hiding things at friends’ houses. The few things he had left were taken away from him, along with Jeff’s income.
“It was always a bill that needed to be paid, or I needed to pay him money to live in his house,” Jeff explained.
“He would give things away like my fridge and my bed, and it wouldn’t even be in consultation, it would just be, ‘I’ve got a friend that needs to use the fridge, so I’ve told them that they can come and pick it up’, and it would be gone before I knew it.”
Eventually, Jeff’s partner became physically violent.
“He assaulted me one time I’d just started a new job. I was two weeks into a new job and I had to go to work with a two black eyes and a swollen face,” Jeff recalled.
When Jeff found the strength to try and get himself out of the relationship, he had nowhere to go and no one to go to. While his friends went in “guns blazing” to help him on his first few attempts to get out, Jeff said he eventually felt he lost their respect after, again and again, he would go back to his partner.
“I tried to leave so many times,” Jeff said.
“I’d be made to feel guilty, to come back, or he’d promise a world of change and acknowledge all of his behaviours, and then it would never change.
“It would always just be a shorter amount of time before it would all just start again… to the point that, at the very end, before I left, I didn’t even bother unpacking my car any more.”
Jeff did everything he could to empower himself to leave, and in a desperate attempt to have someone else involved his partner couldn’t get to, went to a counsellor, hoping confidentiality would protect him from his partner’s interference.
“I got to the point where I was so low, I had such low self-esteem, that I thought, you know what, what have I got to lose?” he said.
“We’d had an argument, and I just thought, you know what, I’m done, I’m out, and I just left and never looked back. I blocked every single number I knew he had. I changed my phone number. I got a new job. I left though with nowhere to go, because I’d lost so many friends. I was living in my car.
“I’m still in the process of rebuilding who I am.”
For the first time in recent memory, violence against women, domestic and family violence are receiving national media and political attention. Widespread, public outpourings of grief followed Adrian Bayley’s murder of Jill Meagher in 2012 and Greg Anderson’s murder of his son Luke Batty in 2014, drawing attention to a reality many have been living for a long time. Luke’s mother Rosie Batty was named Australian of the Year this year in recognition of her tireless campaigning against family violence after the murder of her son, and Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence is due to begin public hearings in July.
Despite this increased attention on domestic and family violence, the overwhelming majority of which is committed by men against women, at present it is impossible to know how common stories like Jeff’s are. There is very little research on violence in same-sex relationships, though some data suggests LGBTI people are as likely to experience domestic violence as non-LGBTI women. Some LGBTI people are at even greater risk of domestic violence, in particular trans* and intersex people.
“Violence plays out in particular ways in same-sex relationships,” ACON chief executive Nicolas Parkhill said.
His organisation has been attempting to engage LGBTI communities in conversations about domestic and family violence as part of the LGBTIQ Domestic Violence Interagency since the group’s founding in 2001. A flagship project of the group is Another Closet — a website and guide to understanding, identifying and responding to domestic and family violence in these communities.
“There can be outing, or threatening to out people to family and friends, or to their colleagues, even to the point that people can threaten to out their HIV status… We’ve heard stories about [withholding] medications relating to transgender status,” Parkhill said.
“That can be particularly accentuated for people that live in smaller, more close-knit gay communities, particularly in rural and regional areas, or more remote areas.”
Of course, identifying where and how this violence occurs is only part of the challenge. Even the admittedly limited research on the subject indicates LGBTI people are much less likely to report domestic violence or to seek support from mainstream domestic violence services, and when they do, are less likely to find services that cater to them. For example, gay men experiencing relationship violence may struggle to find mainstream crisis accommodation that isn’t women-only.
Both ACON in Sydney and the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) in Melbourne run community-focused counselling services capable of referring victims of domestic and family violence to LGBTI-friendly services, but there are virtually no services in Australia catering specifically to LGBTI people.
Parkhill argued there is work to be done in showing mainstream services how to be LGBTI-inclusive. But he also cautioned that it was vital to understand the good reasons why mainstream services are skewed towards women victims of men’s violence.
“It’s important to recognise that it’s non-LGBTI women who are disproportionately affected by this sort of violence,” he said.
One of the very few specific LGBTI services relating to domestic and family violence in Australia is a men’s behaviour change program called Revisioning, based out of VAC in Melbourne. While the group is specifically for same-sex attracted men, it is based on similar programs in mainstream services designed to address men’s violence, particularly violence against women.
“I knew it was an issue, but I didn’t think it was a priority to sort out. I had my own reasons for feeling the way I did, making excuses for myself, feeling sorry for myself and all that,” he said.
“[I was] someone that was short-tempered, someone that really wasn’t happy a lot of the time — I was just having a lot of really bad thoughts go through my head, and sometimes it felt like I was really close to living them out.”
Raph, who’s now in his 40s, was seeing a guy when he was back in his 20s, and the relationship became violent.
“It started with a fight we had, and he picked me up and threw me down a hallway, into a doorframe, and it broke bones in my back… he was a really strong man,” Raph recalled.
“I can’t remember now from that time where it just got out of hand. It started again probably a month or two after that. We got another place in Sydney… I think it was maybe a handful of times that he hit me, that I thought, fuck this, I’m going to fight back now.
“That became our relationship. Everything ended up in a punch-up.”
Before working with the group, Raph hadn’t really considered how his anger and history of violence might be connected to his sexuality — he had always thought of himself as a self-assured gay man. Now he thinks if he hadn’t done the course, his issues with anger might have led to him hurting someone.
“Beforehand I was like, I really don’t have a problem with myself… probably every day of my life is affected by that, the bad stuff growing up,” he said.
“It’s a lot easier for younger guys. But I had it a lot easier than guys who were a lot older than me. It gets easier and easier, but I mean, I’ve never talked about being gay with my father in my life.”
VAC counsellor Anthony Lekkas runs the Revisioning program for same-sex attracted men struggling with issues around violence. The template for the group has come from mainstream services dealing largely with violence against women, but Lekkas believes adapting men’s behaviour change programs to specifically cater to the gay community is vital — it isn’t just the wider community that doesn’t take this violence seriously.
“I think that there are a lot of myths around what being in a gay relationship looks like,” he said.
“Because the dominant narrative around family violence is that this happens to women by heterosexual men, there are definitely some people I work with as well that, they wouldn’t identify themselves as perpetrators or even victims, because this is not something that happens in the gay community. This is a straight issue.”
A lack of understanding from within the gay community about how violence operates in same-sex relationships — or even an acknowledgement that is happens at all — is a challenging barrier to overcome. Much of the work Lekkas does with the men in the group is to examine what patterns of violence can look like in heterosexual relationships, and ask whether that fits for two men.
“Some clients have talked about — and this is because of the dominant narrative around family violence — they’ve concluded that this is just the way things are in a relationship with another man, between two guys, it’s like a mutual fight,” he explained.
“Even though one person got more hurt than the other, it’s still a fight between two blokes.
“In fact this current group that we have here, there was a consensus from the men that violence against women was worse than violence against men in intimate relationships.”
Lekkas agreed with ACON’s assessment that mainstream domestic and family violence services need to be made more inclusive — he said a fear of not being taken seriously stops many men from coming forward to receive help around violence in same-sex relationships, from the police and from services. However, he argued that work had to go hand-in-hand with the establishment of services within the community. Both approaches are important.
“I think it does add a layer of safety for them to come and be respected, and feel that they don’t have to worry about assessing the service for indications that it’s okay to disclose their sexual orientation,” Lekkas said.
LGBTI communities may have a long way to go to understand how they are affected by domestic and family violence, but Lekkas argued that for many they are important symbolic spaces of safety and understanding.
But at a time when all domestic and family violence services are shouting for the money they desperately need to survive and address the extraordinary scope of this violence in Australia, Lekkas acknowledged that it may be a while before things change to the extent that they need to.
A year since he’d found the strength to get away from his partner, to get out of the relationship, Jeff wondered whether, if he weren’t a gay man, he might have been taken more seriously, or he might have found the support he needed to leave sooner.
“I would have called the police at least a dozen times in that relationship, and the police attended every single time, and it didn’t matter whether I had blood, scratches, whatever on me and he had nothing on him, nothing was ever done,” he said.
“I know it sounds so cliché and so stupid, but you kind of expect you’re the only person going through this, and you don’t want to talk about it to everyone because you don’t want to be embarrassed.
“You don’t want people to think less of you and that you’re weak because this is happening to you.”
NOTE: Some names have been changed for this story.
For details on ACON’s Another Closet, visit anothercloset.com.au.
To find out more about VAC’s Revisioning program, visit vac.org.au/revisioning.
However, if you are in a situation that requires emergency help, call 000 for police.
**This was first published in the July edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.