Domestic violence first became a focal point of public and professional attention in the 1970s, but issues impacting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT) have only slowly drawn the attention of domestic violence advocates. The growth of the lesbian and gay community in the 1980s, rooted in social activism and civil rights struggles, paved the way for a more concerted examination of issues of violence and trauma. In the 1990s, the lesbian and gay community expanded to include bisexual and transgender/transsexual people and their concerns. Understanding the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities that can be expressed and the potential avenues for abuse, violence, exploitation, and trauma that exist requires a broad range of knowledge overlapping two areas of study: sex and gender identity on one hand, and the impact of traumatic and intimate violence on the other.
Like heterosexual people, LGBT people are impacted by violence and abuse in intimate relationships, including physical battering, emotional abuse, and sexual assault. LGBT people are, however, more vulnerable to other forms of violence, especially bias-related violence and sexual harassment directed at them specifically because their sexual orientation and/or gender identities differ from the proscribed heteronormative expression. LGBT people are potentially at greater risk of physical and sexual abuse as children, especially if their gender or sexual expression marks them as different from their peers. LGBT people are at a disadvantage within the justice system, where their relationships are often unrecognized, and it may be harder to obtain respectful treatment or legal redress and compensation when they are victimized. Additionally, it has been harder for LGBT people themselves to recognize violence within their own communities and families, since it can increase the stigma of having a socially marginalized identity.
Complicating an already complex issue, few service providers specializing in trauma treatment, domestic violence advocacy, or rape crisis counseling are educated about LGBT people and understand the diversity of sexual and gender identities potentially expressed within LGBT relationships and communities. Assisting victims in finding appropriate services and addressing the specific areas impacted by traumatic sexual violence require a commitment to education and a broader knowledge base than most providers have been able to access. The following section will serve as a primer for understanding human sexual identity, which is necessary for understanding the impact of trauma in the lives of sexual minorities.
Understanding Sexual Identity
The terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably, though they refer to very different components of human sexuality. Sexual identity is used descriptively here as a general term to include all aspects of human sexuality, although it is commonly used to refer to what is more precisely called sexual orientation. Sexual identity has four major component parts—biological sex, gender identity, gender (or sex) role, and sexual orientation—that together form an integrated biopsychosocial sense of self. Each component part is explained in further detail later.
The first component of human sexual identity is biological sex. Everyone is assigned a biological, or natal, sex generally based on a cursory examination of the visible genitalia at birth. Biological sex is actually a complex relationship of genetic, hormonal, morphological, chromosomal, gonadal, biochemical, and anatomical determinants that impact the physiology of the body and the sexual differentiation of the brain. Sex is simply defined as the bipolar categories of male and female; intersexuality is a combination, or mixture, of these two poles.
Those born with medically diagnosed intersex conditions are a small but stable part of humanity, approximately 1–2 percent of the population. Intersex conditions develop in utero and are caused by numerous genetic and hormonal variations in fetal development. Although chromosomal sex differences are established at conception (XY and XX), the primitive duct systems of male and female fetuses appear the same, and the biological differences between males and females do not manifest until about six weeks into gestation. At this time, the gonads produce various hormones that stimulate the development of both internal and external genitalia and differentiate male and female bodies. The female developmental process is considered a ‘‘default’’ system because without sufficient male hormones, the XY fetus will not masculinize and will therefore appear female at birth. An overproduction of male hormone will also masculinize a female fetus.
Due to the complexities of establishing correct gender assignment, many people with intersex conditions are not recognized and/or are wrongly assigned at birth. Physicians have, until recently, routinely surgically operated on people with visibly intersexed genitalia, causing potential psychological as well as physiological problems with sexual and gender identity development. People with intersex conditions often experienced shame for their sexual differences, and family members are rarely prepared to address the necessary support and education their children need for healthy sexual development.
Like all people, those with intersex conditions may be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual in their orientation, and may or may not struggle with issues related to their gender identity. Intersexuality has been publicly invisible and stigmatized, and people with intersex conditions have often been isolated. They are, however, at the same risk for domestic violence and trauma as other people, as well as at an increased risk of abuse from the medical establishment, whose interventions to help may be experienced as abusive. People with intersex conditions are also vulnerable to abuse from family, peers, and intimate partners, who may view their physiological differences as reason for emotional or physical battering.
The second component of sexual identity is gender identity. Gender identity is defined as the internal experience of gender, how a person experiences his or her own sense of self as a gendered being. Gender identity is a core identity, a fundamental sense of belonging to one sex or the other. ‘‘Being a man’’ or ‘‘being a woman’’ is an essential attribute of self; almost everyone has an understanding of themselves as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. A person’s self-concept of his or her gender is called gender identity, and may or may not correspond with the person’s natal sex.
Gender identity is established early in life, between the ages of two and five, and is thought to be relatively impervious to change. The gender identity of most people is congruent with their assigned sex. This means that if they are ‘‘male,’’ they experience themselves as ‘‘men,’’ and if they are ‘‘female,’’ they experience themselves as ‘‘women.’’ For other people, however, gender identity—how they experience themselves in their bodies—is discordant with their natal sex and is in direct conflict with the biological facts of their bodies. Their gender identity is experienced as dysphoric, or dystonic, to their physicality.
Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe all gender-variant people. Transsexuals, some of whom are comfortable with the term transgender and others who are not, commonly ‘‘cross over’’ and are legally reassigned as a member of the ‘‘other’’ sex. Other transgender people live somewhere in the middle of this continuum and identify as bigendered, androgynes, or crossdressers. Some transgender people move back and forth from one gender expression to the other, experiencing their gender as a fluid and changing part of their identity. Cross-gender behavior is often present from a very young age. It is interesting to note that many intersex people also have stable male or female gender identities, even though their sex classification may be less easy to ascertain.
Like all people, transgender and transsexual people are at risk of domestic violence and sexual assault in intimate partnerships. They are also targeted for abuse through hate crimes and are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, bullying, and sexual abuse from prostitution. Additionally, they are rarely protected within the criminal justice system and experience employment discrimination, complicated custody battles for children, and abuse at the hands of medical and clinical providers whom they depend on for sex reassignment treatments.
The third component of human sexual identity is gender role, which is defined as the socialized aspect of gender, or how masculinity and femininity are expressed. It is through the ‘‘performance’’ of gender roles (consciously or unconsciously) that people communicate their sense of gender identity. The acquisition of gender roles is a social process; through clothing choices, mannerisms, grooming, voice inflection, and social interests, people enact their gender expressions.
Gender is a social construct, meaning that the attributes of gender vary from one culture to another and are somewhat arbitrarily imposed (i.e., only men can wear long hair or only women can wear dresses). Due to the influence of feminism, gender role behavior in modern Western societies has become increasingly more flexible; however, deviations from socially defined gender expectations can still result in ostracism or severe societal punishment.
Men who deviate from proscribed sex roles by wearing clothing assigned to women are often called crossdressers; women who dress in masculine clothing styles are often referred to as butch. Many young people are especially flexible about gender role expression, enjoy stretching gender behavior past its approved edges, and often refer to themselves as gender benders.
The relationship between natal sex, gender identity, and gender role is multifaceted, and although these parts of sexual identity often ‘‘match up’’ (males are masculine men; females are feminine women), there is a great range in human sexual expression regarding gender role behavior. Since gender role is a public expression of underlying gender identity, appearances can be informative about a person’s authentic identity; however, some people who appear to have conventional gender identities may be quite conflicted internally.
People who exhibit cross-gender expression in behavior, clothing, or mannerisms may be especially vulnerable to domestic violence and all forms of abuse. Partners of people who come out as transgender may be especially rageful and feel betrayed, increasing the possibility of physical and psychological violence. Young people coming out may be vulnerable to parental physical abuse, homelessness, prostitution, and medical misinformation regarding hormone and surgical treatments. Men who crossdress or are feminine in appearance, as well as women who present as butch or masculine, may experience difficulties in employment, which will impact their finances and their home lives. Males who defy traditional gender expectations may be targeted for particularly brutal physical violence, and both men and women who crossdress may be vulnerable to sexual violence.
The term sexual orientation describes both sexual preference and emotional attraction, which can be directed toward members of the same sex (homosexual), the opposite sex (heterosexual), both sexes (bisexual), or neither sex (asexual). Some people experience their sexual orientations as unchanging and essential parts of their natures, and others experience them as fluid. People with homosexual desires may not engage in homosexual sexual relationships, and people who do engage in homosexual relationships may not identify as gay.
Sexual orientation is itself a complex variable including physical preference, affectional preference, fantasy, and social relationships. Sexual orientation is particularly complex in a world where certain sexual expressions (i.e., homosexuality and bisexuality) have been despised and criminally punished. Due to the societal stigma surrounding homosexual behavior, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have to ‘‘come out’’ of the assumption that they are heterosexual, not only to others but also to themselves.
Sexual orientation and gender identity represent two distinct components of sexual identity, although aspects of these identities often overlap. For example, cross-gender role exploration is very common among lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Undoubtedly, some lesbian women express a more masculine identity than many heterosexual women, and some gay men express a more feminine identity than most heterosexual men. There is also a long history in the lesbian and gay community of ‘‘camp’’ or ‘‘drag,’’ where men and women crossdress for entertainment purposes, or in the case of females, for employment in traditionally male professions. Additionally, the question of ‘‘same-sex’’ relationships becomes confusing when discussing intimate relationships with transgender and transsexual people (i.e., if a male-to-female transsexual is in a heterosexual marriage, is that a same- or opposite-sex relationship?). Sex reassignment can change the configuration of an intimate relationship (i.e., a heterosexual relationship is now a lesbian relationship; a lesbian relationship is now a heterosexual one), and understanding how people experience their relationships requires respectful and informed dialogue.
Although the gay and lesbian liberation movement has made same-sex relationships more visible, bisexual people sometimes feel that their sexual identity is not recognized within the lesbian and gay community, especially if the bisexual person is in a heterosexual relationship. Additionally, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are often conflated, obscuring the diversity of sexual and gender expressions available. For example, men who crossdress or are more feminine in appearance (i.e., have a crossed gender role) are often assumed to be gay. Although they may be gay or bisexual, crossdressers are often heterosexual in orientation; concurrently gay men are often very masculine in their gender role and identity. Assumptions are often made that in lesbian couple relationships, one partner is more traditionally masculine and the other more traditionally feminine, mirroring a heterosexual ideal. Although some lesbian couples are butch and femme identified, it is not the only way to experience female same-sex relationships. In some lesbian couples, both are feminine, in other relationships both are masculine, and in most lesbian relationships, gender role is not an important component of their coupling. To complicate matters further, in some butch/femme relationships, the butch identifies as transgender, calling into question whether the relationship is functionally a ‘‘same-sex’’ relationship.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are at risk for all forms of intimate partner violence, as well as bias-related crimes. Due to lack of laws protecting same-sex relationships, lesbian and gay couples are at risk for abuse from the legal system in child custody cases, as well as domestic violence. In order for violence to be considered ‘‘domestic’’ (versus assault and battery), the jurisdiction must recognize domestic partners of the same sex. Transgender and transsexual people are at even greater risk for abuse and bias-related violence than LGB people. For the most part, they have fewer civil rights—basic rights like the right to remain married, to retain custody of a child, or to remain employed, are often nonexistent. Additionally, people who appear gender ambiguous or are in the process of sex reassignment or transition are at enormous risk for physical, emotional, sexual, and economic violence. Undeniably, LGBT people are at great risk for multiple forms of violence, battery, and assault and generally have fewer options for assistance from social service and advocacy programs, police, or judicial systems.
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in LGBT Families
Same-sex domestic violence has been estimated to occur as frequently as it does in heterosexual families; approximately 25–30 percent of all couples experience battery. Gathering accurate statistics on LGBT domestic violence and sexual assault, however, is complicated, in part because researchers do not adequately identify LGBT people, and also because LGBT people do not volunteer information about their sexual or gender identities. It is generally assumed that LGBT people experience most forms of violence in equal or higher numbers than their heterosexual counterparts.
Due to the nature of homophobia and transphobia within the social service community, LGBT people rarely seek out services. From heterosexist intake forms to ‘‘women-only’’ shelters, services are rarely developed with an awareness of the unique needs of people with sexual and gender identities that differ from the heterosexual norm. The basic treatment model extant in the domestic violence field was developed within a gendered paradigm, i.e., that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims. Although this is often the case in heterosexual couples, this model does not give treatment providers a way to recognize abuse in same-sex couples, let alone to understand the complexity of gender identities expressed by both men and women.
There are few services available for gay men who are victims of spousal abuse, and sometimes service providers have difficulty discerning which of the partners in same-sex domestic violence is actually the perpetrator, especially since batterers often present themselves as victims. Support groups often leave lesbian, gay, and bisexual survivors of violence feeling isolated; perpetrators often have no options for assistance, especially outside of a few metropolitan centers. Transgender people have even fewer options for treatment and advocacy, and training within the social service field has been unavailable. Even programs developed within larger lesbian and gay social service agencies have rarely created specialized programs or provided education focusing exclusively on the needs of transgender and transsexual people.
There are many mythologies regarding domestic violence in same-sex relationships that serve to keep LGBT people isolated within abusive relationships. It is often assumed that lesbian relationships are always based on ‘‘equality,’’ making it hard to recognize abuse. Violence in gay male relationships is often minimized and treated as if abusive behavior between men is just ‘‘boys being boys.’’ Abused gay men may feel ashamed to be victims of violence, since it reinforces society’s stereotype that gay men are not ‘‘real men.’’ Domestic violence impacts all LGBT people, not just those who frequent bars, are into butch/femme relationships, are prostitutes, or are involved in consensual BDSM (bondage/discipline sadomasochist) relationships. Domestic violence can take place in all LGBT relationships, regardless of race, class, economic stability, lifestyle, or sexual and gender expressions.
Domestic violence in LGBT relationships, as in heterosexual ones, can take many forms, including physical battering, sexual assault, emotional or psychological abuse such as name-calling, yelling, and blaming; it can involve stalking or isolation from friends, economic abuse, destruction of property, and threats to children or pets. When violence is present in intimate relationships, it tends to escalate over time and can become lethal.
In heterosexual relationships, men are more often the perpetrators of domestic violence because of the power imbalance between men and women. In LGBT relationships, there are other power imbalances that can generate abusive patterns. These can include differences in financial or occupation status; class, race, or ethnic differences; disability or HIV status; and variables such as age and legal relationship to children. Additionally, LGBT relationships are always impacted by societal homophobia and transphobia—both internalized shame as well as institutionalized heterosexism. For example, LGBT people are often isolated within their coupled relationships from family, friends, and coworkers. This may make them more vulnerable to being ‘‘outed’’ by an abusive partner, where their status as LGBT becomes the focal point of the abuse. In many states, nonbiological parents have few legal rights to their children, and risking social service or legal involvement may jeopardize their parental status, as well as make them unable to protect their children. LGBT people of color have additional concerns regarding the racism of the helpers and abusive treatment from police and the criminal justice system. Attempts to leave relationships often escalate the violence, and even when violence ends in death, the crime is often not recognized as intimate partner violence.
All forms of domestic violence, abuse, and bias-related crime leave people traumatized. Victims of violence who seek advocacy and treatment should not have to be revictimized by the social service systems developed to assist them. Sadly, this is often the case for LGBT survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and bias-related abuse.
Treating LGBT Trauma Survivors
LBGT people experience multiple forms of trauma as members of sexual minorities for whom basic civil rights are not necessarily a given. Coming out as gay or gender variant can be very stressful for children and youth, and creating loving adult partnerships in a homophobic and transphobic culture can be a daunting task. The experience of LGBT people has often been one of betrayal, rejection, and marginalization. When LGBT people experience violence directed at them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or when they are the victims of violence at the hands of family members and loved ones, the result is a compounding of trauma issues.
LGBT victims of trauma often feel isolated and afraid; they struggle with shame, financial fears, homelessness, and concerns for their children. Additionally, they lack safe houses, shelters, and professional advocates who can assist them through the transition. The silence regarding LGBT domestic violence and the absence of support and treatment programs make it especially challenging for people to leave abusive relationships. Few LGBT people are aware of issues of domestic violence and abuse or services that might be able to assist them. All victims of abuse can experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can struggle years later with intrusive thoughts and flashbacks of the events that impact their ability to establish another, nonabusive relationship.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex people, and all those addressing issues of being a sexual minority come from all races, ethnicities, class backgrounds, and walks of life and seek out services for themselves and family members at different stages of their life cycles. Few domestic violence workers, rape crisis staff, social work advocates, and clinicians have had training in sexual identity development, and there is a great need for quality and professional education and training of the issues impacting LGBT people.
Increased research regarding domestic violence, sexual assault, and bias-related violence in the lives of LGBT people who are victims, as well as those who are perpetrators, is also essential. LGBT people face a large array of social and environmental challenges, including a lack of employment protection, court bias in child custody decisions, lack of quality treatment by medical professionals when seeking routine medical care, and prejudiced treatment within the educational system from kindergarten through college. LGBT children and youth need educational policies that protect them within often hostile environments. Transgender, transsexual, and intersex people need medical and psychiatric social workers educated in gender issues who will advocate for them and their families during vulnerable times and recognize potentially abusive situations. LGBT people who are also dealing with mental illness and addictions present with complex challenges that are rarely addressed within clinical settings. Clinicians and law enforcement officials need increased training in LGBT domestic violence issues, and public policies must be developed that protect LGBT families impacted by all forms of violence.
Understanding the diversity of sexual and gender identity issues that LGBT people experience is necessary for the development of comprehensive service programs. Domestic violence workers, sexual assault advocates, and all psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and clinicians working with survivors of trauma need to be well versed in the diverse needs of LGBT people and their families to adequately offer educated assistance and quality services during times of vulnerability and crisis.
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