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When is it abuse? On intimate partner violence in queer communities

This is the second post in a series on intimate partner violence in queer communities. Read the first part here.

Recently my roommate and I played a silly, terrifying game. I was having one of those days. You know what I’m talking about: one of those so-queer-so-horny, what-is-my-love-life, romantic-fuckup days. 

“What is it?” I kept moaning, listing failed fling after failed fling. “Why does love stink?”

“Okay,” my ever-patient roommate calmly said. “Maybe there are patterns here.”

Oh baby, were there patterns. Going back over my lady business, we discovered — with the kind of grim hilarity that comes from realizing you’re between a rock and a, well, structural patriarchy and heterosexism  — that I have never had a romantic experience with another queer person that has not been harmed by outness strugs, metal health strugs, or the effects of trauma.

Often, all three.

So, okay. Maybe we’re all just 22 and still figuring ourselves out. Maybe I have really bad breath in the morning. Maybe my vagina secretes a serum that, when tasted, causes all partners to utter the words “let’s just be friends [but actually fight a lot and never talk to each other again].”

Or maybe there’s some structural oppression afoot.

No surprise here: People have fucked up relationships. And queer people, at high risk for discrimination, mental health struggles, and abuse, are particularly vulnerable to unhealthy relationships.

In our conversations about our own experiences with romantic and sexual trauma, my friends and I keep stumbling upon some questions: When do toxic relationships become abusive?

How does structural marginalization — experiences of racism, ableism, classism, sexism, cissexism and queerphobia — both exacerbate unhealthy dynamics, and become tools of abuse?

And when we are experiencing relationship violence, how do we identify it?

For help in thinking about these questions, I chatted with Tre’Andre Valentine, Boston-area LGBT antiviolence org The Network/La Red’s (TNLR) Director of Community Engagement. Below are some of our exchanges.

RG: A lot of people who are abusive to their partners have themselves experienced violence of various kinds. How do you as an organization understand this?

TV: We see that everybody has privilege and everybody has some level of oppression, and while there are people who definitely have and do experience violence and have trauma, that does not necessarily excuse or is the reason why people are abusive.

There are many folks who have experienced abuse but do not abuse. So while we do take that into account, and say we see that, we hear that, that is not an excuse for the behavior that is happening.

RG: In models of intimate partner violence based on heterosexual relationships, we often neglect the complicated ways in which power is intersectional and assume that a man abuses a woman because he is more structurally powerful than she is. How can we understand situations in which a partner engaging in abusive behavior is the more structurally marginalized person in the relationship?

TV: I would never tell someone that they aren’t experiencing abuse just because the person who is their abuser has less privilege or is more oppressed. I think that can be used as an excuse.

But it’s not the cause. Using your oppressed identity as an excuse for abuse is only taking away accountability.

RG: What are forms of violence we might specifically experience as LGBT people, that non-intersectional models of violence may not recognize?

TV: Any behavior can be abusive. It’s about there being a pattern, it’s about an intent behind the behavior. Abuse can happen in different ways, physical, financial, emotional, sexual. For folks in the LGBT community, it’s about our identities, attacking our identities, and using our culture as a weapon against us.

Say for a trans woman: “If you want to be a woman you need to look like this, you need to dress like this, you can’t wear your hair short.” For someone who might be Spanish-speaking, it might be — and this is across the board, whether LGBT or not — “You can’t cook that food in this house, you can’t speak Spanish in this house.” Someone might say, “You’re too gay, or you’re not gay enough, or this is how gay people have sex.” People in our communities get their immigration status used against them, or their HIV status used against them. If they’re not out, people might threaten to out them to their coworkers or to their parents.

RG: On one of the TNLR website’s informational pages, there’s a section dispelling the myth of “mutual abuse,” or the idea that two people can abuse each other. Why is this a myth?

TV: The definition of abuse is one person trying to control another. So if abuse is happening, mutual abuse cannot happen. Abuse is not about two people who are trying to control each other. In those circumstances, it might be something that is toxic, that is unhealthy, so we need to look closer at what is happening.

RG: What’s the difference between a healthy relationship, a toxic relationship, and abuse?

TV: What’s a healthy relationship? How do we define healthy? Something that’s healthy for me may not be healthy for you.

We are complex people interacting with other complex people. Nothing is going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be work, it’s going to be hard. However, it being hard and you having to do work should not come at the expense of your own happiness.

Compromise doesn’t have to include sacrifice of someone’s happiness, and sacrifice of someone’s self. And I think that we’re raised to think that if you love something you will compromise, you will sacrifice. And that should be a choice. You should be able to choose it and not feel coerced or pressured into it.

RG: When someone calls up about a relationship, how do you as an organization figure out what’s going on?

TV; We have a screening process that we do. It’s not like a check box, it’s more of a conversation. What’s the intent of the behavior? We ask people to take us though a moment. What’s happening right before, what’s happening during, what’s happening after? We look for a full picture.

We look for things around fear or around empathy. Whose world is getting smaller?

RG: Why do I still feel so effing confused about all this?

Okay — so I didn’t actually ask Valentine this, but I will ask this of myself, because feelings, folks.

So, Reina, why do you still feel so effing confused about the subject of intimate partner violence in queer communities?

Well, Reina, I feel so effing confused about the subject of intimate partner violence in queer communities because the world is really hard, and being queer is really hard, and healthy relationships are really hard when you’re in a world that kind of doesn’t want to see you having relationships to begin with, and trauma is a little fucker. It bites you in the ass and by the time you turn around to swat it, it’s already yapping around your feet like a vicious terrier.

A couple weeks ago, some fab activists at my school organized Survivor Week. It was a series of events dedicated to validating and empowering survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. It was awesome, more LGBT-inclusive than any other event I’ve ever seen of the kind, and [trauma-terrier nips at feet] kind of scared the shit out of me. After one event, the glamorous folks at our LGBT center sponsored a safe space for queer survivors.

Which was so completely and utterly rad! Except, as a friend and I talked about the space — with great love and appreciation for its organizers, and great craving for the space itself — we shared another wry, not-entirely-mirthful laugh. We were thinking of all the people we knew who needed that space, who needed it so badly, and how in a community as small and loaded as ours, if every single person who needed the space used it, suddenly the space wouldn’t be so safe anymore.

It would be full of acrimonious exes, former lovers with whom things had turned sour, maybe even people who had abused.

So much pain, so much need, so much hard work to make us feel safe and loved, and so few resources.

I thought about how many dozens of spaces we would need to accommodate all of us. Hundreds of spaces. Thousands of safe spaces, in parks, in buildings, in treehouses, in parking lots — how very much space we’d need to keep any of us truly safe.

Honestly, I don’t know if, even after talking to Valentine, I could tell for myself what dynamics are toxic and what abusive, but I was so struck by what he said about abuse causing the victim’s life to get smaller, about how sometimes what we think is sacrifice for the sake of love is actually a violent diminishment of the self.

I also keep thinking about what Valentine said about abuse being a choice. About how lots of people experience structural marginalization — a whole lot of structural marginalization — but not all of us choose to engage in behaviors that are abusive.

And I think of experiences of violence I have had — upper-middle class, white, cis, elitely educated me — and of how quickly, how easily they caused me to slip into harmful behaviors. Given the right circumstances, it is frighteningly easy to choose to do things that we never thought we would do, that we never thought we could do. To other people. To ourselves.

So next week, let’s think about accountability. How do we hold people accountable for abusing? How do we hold the world accountable for making our communities so vulnerable to abuse? And how do we collectively practice accountability by creating communities in which every single person is empowered to make choices that are healthy, respectful, and just?

As always, message me with any suggestions.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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