The flurry of rainbow flags can only mean one thing – the Gay Pride Parade is coming in San Francisco. Beneath those pride beads however lurks a taboo topic, which rests silently on the lips of the thousands of Castro Street party-goers who pour into the city for the yearly pilgrimage: The secret crisis of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender domestic violence.
So either LGBT relationships are pristine, devoid of the abuse estimated to affect 1 in 4 American families or, for some reason, nobody talks about it. The latest study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs indicates that LGBT couples might actually be in greater risk of abuse – nearly twice as likely. According to the coalition, in 2009 there were 3,658 reported cases between local LGBT couples, with an increase in domestic violence deaths of 50 percent over a three-year period. Incidents within San Francisco are underreported for various reasons, according to Maria Carolina Morales of Community United Against Violence. Factors include the fear of being outed, the disparity in services offered to LGBT victims, and the false perception that women don’t hurt each other or that a fight between two men is a fair fight. Perhaps more concerning is the assertion by local advocacy groups that there is an intentional hush-hush from within the community itself, fearing bad press will cause further stigma.
“There is tremendous pressure to have LGBT partnerships recognized as loving and committed – and some worry that exposing the high abuse rate will damage those efforts,” Morales said. “Compounding the issue is that many individuals don’t even realize they’re being abused.”
The term itself is a misnomer. Domestic violence historically focused on violence against women from their male partners, however gay or straight, domestic violence doesn’t necessarily mean beatings. The idea that violence is always physical is part of the problem. Emotional and verbal abuse leaves no visible scars, yet creates severe psychological wounds, which can lead to depression, unhealthy choices and even suicide. But without a bruise as evidence, many suffer in silence. The inherent isolation that many marginalized groups experience only exacerbates the problem.
“It is not uncommon for individuals to feel ostracized from their families or external community, so their partners become the primary figure of support,” Morales stated. “Isolation is fertile soil for abuse.”
Her organization encourages everyone to open a dialogue about the prevalence of domestic violence to help combat the myths that keep victims from coming forward. “There is one very simple thing you can do – talk about it,” Morales says. “With your co-workers or at a dinner party, if you hear something that raises warning bells, say something. This is a problem that also needs to come out of the closet.”
As the festivities of 2011 Gay Pride hit full swing, the community faces a paradox. If LGBT couples are truly equal, then those hard-fought rights and privileges come with the same painful price tag. Sooner or later there needs to be a “coming out” about the dark side of LGBT relationships as well.
Maggie Quale is a writer in Santa Cruz.