A panel of experts in domestic violence – all members of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism – met Jan. 11 at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society to discuss the problem of domestic violence in the romantic relationships of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
In the hour-long discussion, the four member panel of counselors, shelter directors and a domestic violence court liaison officer offered a number of discussion points, including feminist models for examining physical, sexual and emotional abuse in intimate relationships.
In his opening remarks, moderator Moshe Rozdzial, a licensed professional counselor based in Denver, Colo., said that domestic violence is rooted in long-standing cultural beliefs that women are property – beliefs, he said, that influence all couples, regardless of sexual orientation.
“This is the fabric of our lives, and we don’t’ always know it,” he said.
Phyllis Frank, director of the Volunteer Counseling Services Community Change Project in Orange County, New York, agreed with Rozdzial. She said that her program, which works with male perpetrators of domestic violence, treats the issue as a social problem, not as a disease.
“The idea that batterers saw their fathers hit their mothers is a myth,” she said. “We live in a world where men have been taught they have power over women,” and gays have learned this attitude, too.
“We either have to acknowledge that we think domestic violence is indeed pathology, and if you believe that, what you’ll provide is treatment,” she said. “If you don’t believe that, how do you use your understanding of oppression in treatment?”
Jim McDowell, a court liaison in a program for male perpetrators of domestic violence in upstate New York, agreed that battering needs to be understood as a social justice issue.
“Since the initiation of domestic violence courts in our counties, there has been considerable improvement on the issue of heterosexual domestic violence, just by having a single judge see several cases,” he said.
McDowell added, however, that he would have some concerns for a domestic violence court serving men in same-sex relationships, particularly if those in the court had not received the kind of training about issues in these relationships as they receive before handling abuse in heterosexual relationships.
He also mentioned that tactics foes of gay marriage employ can often keep gays and lesbians out of domestic violence courts.
“One of its insidious side effects of the anti-gay marriage movement is disqualifying any same-sex domestic violence cases in court [on the grounds that] it’s not a real relationship,” he said.
In describing how to help gays and lesbians in violent relationships Rozdzial said people need to understand how domestic violence can be different for these couples than it is for heterosexuals. For example, social isolation, a lack of institutional support, widespread anti-gay discrimination and whether or not an individual is out to loved ones and co-workers can all be used as means to hurt and threaten gay partners.
Rose Garrity recounted some of her experiences trying to help partners of same-sex relationships at the New Hope Shelter in Owego, N.Y. where she serves as executive director. As the only “anti-oppression” shelter in conservative, mostly white Rockland County, New Hope, Garrity said, sees clients of all races, colors, national identities and sexual orientations – including gay men.
In keeping with the shelter’s mission to respond to the needs of diverse people, Garrity said volunteers are carefully screened for any “whisper of racism, sexism, heterosexism” or other form of prejudice. They are also taught not to make assumptions about the people they help, including their sexual orientation.
“If a woman calls, don’t assume that the perpetrator is male, for example,” she said.
She also said New Hope workers can act as gays by such things as reminding police not to let same-sex domestic violence cases go unanswered.
“The advocacy we need to do to help gays and lesbians is specialized, like telling a police program that we’re watching them as an advocacy group, to remind them that they know what they have to do,” she said.
The audience, which consisted mainly of therapists, counselors, and other providers of resources for survivors of domestic violence, asked the group several questions throughout the discussion. Topics included shame among male survivors, safety issues confronting lesbians in shelters, and the widespread view that domestic violence is only a woman’s problem.
“We’ve had a lot of problems around that,” said one volunteer with the South Valley Sanctuary, a West Jordan shelter serving men, women and children. “Many people say, “I don’t want to donate to your program anymore because I thought it was a women’s shelter, and men should be able to protect themselves.”
The Sanctuary will sponsor NOMAS’ 33rd annual Men & Masculinities Conference at the University of Utah from Aug. 21-24.