fea_domesticviolence_illo_600Part one of Victoria Brownworth’s social issues series: When it comes to domestic violence, lesbians are far from safe.

The night was beautiful—starlit and sultry as only a summer night in the country can be. My lover and I were sitting by the lake. It was picture-postcard romantic.

Until we heard the screams.

We ran toward the sound and found a woman crying, her face bloody. We were at a lesbian retreat with no men on the premises. Who could have done this to her?

The woman told us her girlfriend had hit her repeatedly because another woman had been flirting with her.

That incident happened years ago, yet the details are still fresh in my mind—the screams, the blood, even how the lesbians in charge of the retreat acted as if the victim had brought the beating on herself, insisting to onlookers that it was nothing to be concerned about. That night, the abuser was allowed to stay at the camp because the whole thing was deemed, as it so often is, a she said/she said situation.

The safety of our women-only space was violated—not by a man, but by another woman.

Relationship violence is nothing new, nor is its appearance in the entertainment headlines (Tina Turner, Nicole Brown Simpson, et al.), but the issue led the news again earlier this year when pop stars Rihanna and her longtime boyfriend, Chris Brown, had a fight that resulted in serious injuries to Rihanna and Brown’s arrest.

Brown was charged with felony assault. Court documents alleged—and photos that were bandied about the tabloids and the blogosphere seemed to support the claim—that Brown had beaten, punched, bitten and scratched Rihanna while also threatening to kill her.

The incident led (ever so briefly) to a national discussion about relationship violence, but what that discourse really revealed was even more unsettling.

In 2009, we presume a post-feminist consciousness that has ceased to blame women for the violence against them. And yet, the Rihanna-Brown incident revealed that many women and girls think the Grammy-winner deserved what she got.

On an episode of Oprah devoted to the issue, several girls reiterated this position—it was Rihanna’s fault, because she allegedly started the argument that led to her beating.

If blaming women for being beaten seems retrogressive, that’s because it is. And yet, the prevailing perception—among women as well as men, according to many who work in the domestic violence field—is that young women are both more likely to be victims of relationship violence and also more likely to excuse their perpetrator regardless of his, or her, gender.

Roberta L. Hacker, executive director of Philadelphia’s Women in Transition—one of the oldest women’s service agencies for abused women and the first in the nation to offer a program for battered lesbians—admits that women are in abusive relationships at younger ages, and that young lesbians and bisexual women are facing nearly as much violence as their straight counterparts.

“We have been doing all these programs with younger women,” she explains, “and it’s just shocking how many teens and women in their 20s are dealing with abuse. For some, it’s all they have ever known in a relationship. More stunning still is that it’s not just male-female violence. We’re seeing more and more abusive relationships among lesbians and bisexual women. It’s a very sad trend.”

Lesbian-lesbian violence is no more anomalous than male-female violence—it just takes different forms, explains Lee Carpenter, the former legal director at Equality Advocates Pennsylvania and an assistant professor at Temple University.

Carpenter handles domestic violence cases and protection-from-abuse orders for LGBT clients. She also gives workshops on domestic violence, in which she discusses how to combat the most common forms of lesbian domestic violence: harassment, outing and stalking.

A factor unique to LGBT domestic violence victims, according to Carpenter, is a fear that revealing the abusive nature of the relationship to the broader culture will confirm already existing stereotypes of queer relationships as inherently pathological.

“We like to protect our own from outsiders,” asserts Carpenter. “We don’t want our dirty laundry aired in the straight arena. We don’t want to give them reasons to point fingers at us. So we pretend it’s all right, even when it isn’t.”

Carpenter emphasizes that the perception that women don’t hurt one another, or that battering is solely a heterosexual crime, adds dramatically to the isolation of lesbians who are in violent relationships. This in turn makes it even harder for them to escape. Many lesbians already feel isolated from their families or friends because their lesbianism is either a secret or a source of contention, Carpenter asserts. Seeking help is all the more difficult under those circumstances.

Jessica Barnes was one of those women. She did not feel she could ask for help when her girlfriend, Sammy, started to become abusive. (Names have been changed.)

“We met right after I started college,” Barnes explained. “I just fell for her immediately. I was so in love. I thought her jealousy was flattering—at first.”

Sammy was 20; Barnes, 18 years old.

“The first time she smacked me, I was really surprised,” Barnes acknowledged. “She shoved me, then she smacked me. Then she said she was sorry, put her arms around me and kissed me. She didn’t really hurt me, so I just let it go.”

One of the reasons Barnes said she “let it go” was because she was the butch in the relationship and Sammy was the femme.

“I thought it was kind of like with guys hitting girls—if the girl hits back it sort of doesn’t count,” she explained. “Except I never hit her or shoved her or anything.”

The abuse soon became habitual, according to Barnes. “We would go out and she would accuse me of flirting with other women when I wasn’t. And then she would shove me or hit me, or both. It became a really regular thing.”

Barnes said that the two were living in a small college town in New England, and that made it more difficult for her to imagine telling anyone about the abuse.

“I felt really alone. And I wondered if this was just the way it was. I’d never been in a long-term relationship before. So I thought, maybe this is what happens when lesbians are together.”

One night, Sammy shoved Barnes so hard that she fell over a chair and broke her wrist. She was in a cast for eight weeks.

“Suddenly I realized that I really was in an abusive relationship and I needed to get out,” Barnes said. “I told her it was over. I changed the locks on my door. I changed my cell number. I changed my email address. She wouldn’t leave me alone. I was scared for a long time. She sliced up the tires on my bike. She put cat shit in my mailbox. She told people weird stuff about me that wasn’t true. It was so painful. I still loved her, but I was too scared of her to be with her.”

Barnes’ experience is far from singular. “There is acculturation about what domestic violence is supposed to look like,” Carpenter explains. “It provides an easy out for the batterer: ‘I’m not a man. You weren’t abused.’ It’s emotionally crippling for the person being battered. It invalidates the reality of her trauma.”

“Lesbians in abusive relationships have a hard time reaching out, no matter their age, race or class status,” Hacker adds. “There are stresses on lesbian relationships that just are not present in heterosexual relationships. Homophobia, isolation, self-loathing, the feeling that you only have each other against the outside world—all of these things can play a role in an abusive relationship between two women. They also make it that much harder for women to seek help, or find it.”

Despite the increasing awareness of relationship violence, young women continue to fall prey to it. Abusive relationships among teens and young adults has skyrocketed by 40 percent in the past decade. While there are no clear statistics on how many teens are in abusive relationships, the estimate from public health officials is 10 percent. A 2007 Centers for Disease Control survey of 15,000 teens confirmed that 10 percent had experienced physical violence at the hands of a partner.

In January, the New York Times detailed a series of initiatives in high schools around the country to help alert students and their parents to the warning signs of “dangerous dating behavior” and what actions are not acceptable or healthy. Some schools are being mandated to teach about abusive dating relationships in grades seven through 12, but they only focus on male-female relationships.

In New York, teens in abusive relationships can file for protection-from-abuse orders just like adults, but through family court rather than criminal court, in an expansion of the domestic violence laws in the state. But new provisions only apply in male-female relationships. A lesbian teen in an abusive relationship with another teen would have no recourse for protection—even if she had the courage to seek it. Other states are considering adopting similar provisions, but, once again, they are likely to neglect the inclusion of a clause for LGBT teens.

Isolation is a primary issue for queers in abusive relationships—many are isolated already, simply because they are queer. “I just didn’t know where to turn,” Barnes explains. “There were all these LGBT services on campus, but none of them were for abuse.” Barnes said she finally confided in a friend who told her that she couldn’t possibly be the one who was abused because “I was the top. That just made it all the harder.”

Dr. Jennifer Goldenberg is a clinical social worker who specializes in trauma and has written on the subject. She said that battered women are often convinced that they deserve the abuse that they’re getting.

“[The victim] comes to believe that she is the cause of the abuse, that if she just got the dinner on the table faster, if the house wasn’t a mess, if whatever, if she had jumped when her partner said ‘jump’ she would have not gotten the abuse. So she becomes convinced over time that it’s her behavior that’s causing the abuse. That’s not every abuse victim, but it is a pattern that we see in domestic violence situations.”

Hacker agrees: “There are so many things a batterer will do to the person he or she is battering. The biggest problem for lesbians being battered is acknowledging what’s happening. It’s not in your head; it’s not any different than if it [were] a man doing this to you, and you do need to leave this abusive person and get help.”

Another factor, says Hacker, is even more sinister: “Many women internalize homophobia to such a degree that they are literally trying to beat the queer out of their own partner. Society is certainly to blame for homophobia, but we have to hold batterers accountable.”

Carpenter adds that for lesbians who split up after an abusive relationship, lines are often drawn—literally—in the community. “There are certain spaces that lesbians may have to eventually give to a partner, like community spaces, because the community is so small.”

The advice for lesbians of any age who are being abused is the same, say the experts and survivors alike: Seek help. It is never OK for someone to shove, slap or hit you. It’s never OK for them to isolate you from your friends or force you to have sex. It’s never OK for them to say abusive things to you or threaten you with outing.

Hacker adds, “If there is one thing I have said repeatedly to abused women over the years, it’s to remember that you are valuable. Abusers try to take your identity, and for lesbians who have struggled harder than most women to find their own identity, this is especially hard.”

Today, Barnes is in a new relationship. But she hasn’t forgotten what happened between her and Sammy.

“It really warped my view of lesbian relationships,” she says. “I was really afraid the first time I had an argument with my new girlfriend, so I told her about what happened with Sammy. She told me she would never hit me, no matter how angry she was. Now I just have to learn to believe it.”

Help is out there.

In many large cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, there are resources for LGBT people who are being battered. And national hotlines service rural, suburban and metro areas. Both (800) 656-HOPE and (800) 799-SAFE are national abuse hotlines that can either help immediately or direct you to services in your area.

Support your LGBTQI Media