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Justice, like love: On intimate partner violence in queer communities

Ed. note: This is the fourth post in a series on intimate partner violence in queer communities. Read the first parts here, here, and here.

There came a point when I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between violence and love. 

I think somewhere along the line I was taught that love is the thing that would liberate me. Love and sex, sex and love. I think a lot of us are taught this, maybe especially folks socialized female. It is the thing that will give us fulfillment, purpose, reason.  It is the alchemy, it is the charm.

For the past few weeks, I have been thinking about abuse: How we as queer people experience it, how to recognize it, and what it means to be accountable for it. But here, I want to think about love. We can talk about abuse for a long time — learn its signs; learn processes of accountability — but the only way to actually stop violence in our relationships is to figure out how to have healthy relationships in the first place.

This means thinking really critically about our relationships to love, what we want from it, what we’ve been taught about it, and how love itself is not some transcendent force but an experience within systems that already marginalize us. I want to think about how love itself can both help us challenge social structures that marginalize us, but that also can be a tool of control.

I realized this the other day, when I was having that real-all-too-real sex-stinks conversation with my roommate: That anyone I love, any woman, any queer person, we’re gonna love each other in struggle. I mean, we’re gonna have our shit. It’s definitional. Having shit is the precondition of any love we can have, because any love we can have is going to be in some way, in some form, marginalized. This goes for lots of other folks who love in ways unrecognized and uncelebrated by social systems that valorize maleness, whiteness, ability, heterosexuality, and wealth.

You can’t have that heart-beating-so-fresh-so-scared-so-queer moment at fifteen, sixteen, seven, thirty-five and not feel always some tinge of adrenaline and fear hovering like a ghost around your kisses. Being queer can be hard. Loving queer can make it less hard. It can also hurt us.

What I have experienced — and maybe you have experienced this, too — is that sometimes, I have thought that love can solve the problems that injustice has wrought.

But sometimes, love is a digging in, a re-articulating of the wounds. Sometimes we think we are in solidarity, or think we are supporting each other, when we don’t have the resources — material, mental — to even support ourselves. Sometimes we learn hurt, so we hurt; and sometimes all the desperate, aching love in our bodies is not enough to make that hurt stop. Because the hurt isn’t, largely, interpersonal: It’s structural.

One thing that stuck out to me in my interview with The Network/La Red’s Tre’Andre Valentine a couple weeks ago was his mention of how abusive behaviors can look like loving ones, how we’re taught to equate control with love in a big way.

I combed my head afterward, thinking about what these behaviors might be, and there were just so many of them. So many things I think we’re taught to feel are romantic, whose stark similarity to some of the things we can experience as violent scared the shit out of me. Like:

  • Getting swept up, swept away, feeling like you’re in your own little world.
  • Seeing your friends less, not wanting to see any of your friends
  • Your love is the most singular experience in the world and no one else can understand it
  • You talk all the time, you need to talk all the time, you are not fulfilled if you do not talk all the time
  • Sacrificing yourself, things you like, your preferences for the sake of a lover
  • A lover showing up at your workplace unannounced
  • Feeling sad, anxious, nervous all the time
  • Feeling obsessed
  • “I want you,” “I need you,” “Never leave me.”

It scared me because it was so resonant, so real, and because this particular conception of romantic love seemed not clearly opposite to abuse, but on a spectrum with it — a spectrum where the rhetoric can get distorted so quickly.

I don’t quite know what makes healthy queer relationships. A quick Google search reveals some advice, some things to look out for, and even classes.

I think the best advice I have ever received on this front is in the form of one question: Does this relationship ultimately give me energy or take energy from me? Does this relationship better empower me to do things that are not this relationship?

Sometimes, the answer to that question is going to be no, but we’re going to value that relationship anyway — if we’re providing care for someone, say. But again, I come back to a question posted by Valentine: Whose life is getting smaller?

We can’t have healthy queer relationships — truly, deeply healthy relationships; relationships that are sources of real solidarity, deep solidarity, rather than recapitulated hurt — until we have healthy queer communities. And that requires a shit ton of real, hard, endless, structural work.

I think we are taught that love is the panacea, the cure-all, the thing that will liberate us from our queer bodies and our queer lives, our stigma and our struggle, that we will find ourselves in the nooks and hollows and bulges and fuzz of each other’s bodies, that we will kiss our true, clean identities from each other’s skin.

We won’t find that. We will find solace in each other’s arms and solidarity in each other’s kisses and wonder in the whorls of our fingertips. But we won’t find ourselves, and we won’t find an end to the stigma of our queerness, and I think sometimes we limit ourselves in love, or stunt ourselves, or leech off each other, because there is so much need and not enough love to go around, because definitionally anyone we love, we love in struggle.

I used to crave love. Partnered love. Sex and love. The big one. The everything. The woman who walked into the room and she was an event, a happening, woman with knowledge on her tongue, woman with the world in her body.

I think a lot of us crave that. We want it like religion. Twinning, merging, losing oneself, liberating oneself, the self floating away like smoke: Going. Gone.

It’s funny how much love rhetoric now sounds to me like the rhetoric of violence.

Now I crave justice. Deep justice. Justice that goes all the way down to the center of the earth and reaches all the way up to the sky. Justice with its arms to the sun.

Love needs to be the animating force, the illuminating force, the force that propels us forward. But when it comes to creating healthy relationships and healthy communities, love is not enough.

We need to fall in activism.

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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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