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Bar News - November 15, 2013

Family Law: Domestic Violence in LGBT Relationships: Barriers to Leaving Abuse


T Domestic violence, a systematic pattern of behavior where one intimate partner exerts abusive power and control over the other, occurs at similar rates in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) relationships as it does in heterosexual relationships. Those in the LGBT community face many of the same obstacles to leaving abusive relationships as do victims in different-sex relationships, such as threats to kill, to cut off finances, or isolate them from children. However, LGBT victims can encounter additional institutional and societal barriers, making it even harder to escape abuse.

LGBT victims may be subject to a unique form of control – the threat of “outing” the victim if s/he leaves the relationship. “Outing” someone is the act of telling about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to someone who does not already know. For HIV positive victims, these threats can also include disclosing their HIV status. For LGBT people who are not publicly out, the threat of “outing” is a powerful tool for control. It exploits a victim’s fears about losing family and friends and/or workplace discrimination. It can be used to further isolate a victim.

Isolation becomes more prominent in rural areas where LGBT communities are smaller. A victim may not want to disclose abuse for fear of losing ties to their community. A victim may also fear that reporting abuse could cast a negative light on LGBT relationships.

In a time when LGBT rights are starting to make progress, it may make it more difficult for a victim to come forward.

LGBT victims can face heterosexist biases and discrimination in accessing law enforcement, courts, legal aid, and social service agencies for help. Workers in these disciplines may not be trained on the unique issues that LGBT victims face, on how the law can protect them, or on how to create a welcome and supportive atmosphere in which victims may come forward.

Male and transgender victims may have fewer options of where to go when fleeing abuse. Most domestic violence shelters only accept women and may use heterosexist definitions of what it means to be female. Men or male-identified victims may not reach out for support from an agency seen as historically only serving women.

Law enforcement may not view same-sex domestic violence in the same way as different-sex domestic violence. As a result, victims may fear that police will discriminate, minimize or dismiss reports of these crimes. For example, a gay man may be expected to fight back and, if he does try to defend himself, the violence may be perceived as mutual. Transgender victims face mistreatment when asked to explain their gender identity given what societal norms require.

Because of these many barriers, LGBT activists have been working to improve and increase resources to serve the needs of LGBT victims. Earlier this year, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which includes new federal dollars that will go to building better programs to serve LGBT abuse victims. The law also provides anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for all programs receiving VAWA money. While this legislation is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to keep LGBT abuse victims safe.

For more information on this topic, contact the National Coalition of Anti-violence Programs at

Mary Krueger is director of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. She represents clients in domestic violence, family, housing, and public benefits cases. She graduated UNH Law School in 2006.

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