Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dirty Little Secret: Violence and the Lives of Gay Men

Two decades ago, I was working as a counselor for a sexual assault advocacy agency. The years I spent in that job were eye-opening in many ways, but one thing that has stayed with me through the years is that sexual assault occurs more frequently against men than society is willing to acknowledge, and that too often these victims are young gay men. Additionally, when you work in sexual assault you end up working with victims of domestic violence - the two areas are inevitably intertwined. The worst part is, the numbers of GLBT victims of domestic violence are largely under-reported and under-acknowledged by institutions that might readily provide support and resources to hetero-oriented victims.
My novel Gentlemen's Game was born largely of frustration. I was horrified by the tendency of today's youth to eroticize rape in media, song, literature, on the internet. I have seen the face of rape in many a victim's eyes, I hope spoken to perpetrators - I know what it looks like from the inside - and I wanted to speak to that. At the same time, some little voice was prompting me to tell in book form the story of a violent incident between gay men who loved one another.  

Much of the controversy surrounding Gentlemen's Game, and the resulting conversations, has been the product of some people's discomfort with the themes of domestic violence between gay partners. The reality of domestic violence amongst gay men contains many of the same dynamics that domestic violence between hetero partners does: issues are gray, people do things they should never get away with, people forgive things they probably shouldn't forgive, "I'm sorry" isn't enough - or when it is enough, it never should have been. Things get complicated, answers are not easily found, and every couple comes with a unique set of circumstances. The novel is not about perfect people, it's about real people.

It is estimated that in the United States, domestic violence occurs in one of three to one of four gay relationships (compared to about one in four hetero relationships). This number is difficult to arrive at because the incidence is likely under-reported and/or under-documented by law enforcement. Although there are many dynamics that a violent gay relationship has in common with a hetero one - one partner who is controlling and who has developed a pattern of belittling the other verbally and emotionally, escalating to physical assault - there are many elements unique to domestic assault in a gay relationship that contribute to gay victims remaining far more isolated and lacking in support than do their hetero counterparts.

-  As is true with a hetero victim, the gay victim of domestic assault may be ashamed of coming forward (if I am so stupid as to be with this person, will anyone want to help me?), and may be conflicted by feelings of loyalty and affection toward the partner despite abuse. However, there is an added layer for gays: will reporting and seeking help be a betrayal not only to the partner but to the gay community? In a societal atmosphere where gay acceptance is a daily battle, will the image of a violent couple tarnish the reputation of gays and further the myth that gay relationships are inherently abnormal and unhealthy?

-  The gay community is often its own worst enemy. According to LAMBDA: "The lesbian, bi and gay community is often not supportive of victims of battering because many want to maintain the myth that there are no problems (such as child abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc.) in lesbian, bi and gay relationships." Consequently, resources within the gay community are scarce for victims of domestic violence. At the same time, there is a widespread failure of mainstream agencies to deal appropriately with gay victims. (See this article on a gay man seeking help from such an agency.) 

-  The gay victim may not have come out to society or family or all friends, may perceive reporting as being forced to come out with all the stress that entails; the victim may even be threatened by the abusive partner with being outed in retaliation for reporting or seeking outside help (this is unfortunately a common situation).

-  There is a severe failure both within the gay community and in greater society to understand how domestic violence occurs between men and how either one could be the "victim".  In the landmark publication Men Who Beat the Men Who Love Them (1991), authors David Island and Patrick Letellier state that domestic assault is second only to HIV and substance abuse, as the third most important issue to the health of gay men in the U.S. 

The authors  paint a vivid picture of the dynamics of an abusive relationship between men of equal physical strength. One partner, whose life and reactions have not been shaped by a history and comfort with violent behavior, succumbs to the partner for whom controlling patterns and striking out with a fist is comfortable and acceptable. The incident often happens quickly - before the victim can compose himself sufficiently to react or defend himself - and the momentary hesitation is enough to provide enormous advantage to the perpetrator of violence. Additionally, the state of mental confusion caused when a loved one physically threatens, is enough to give the violent partner the further advantage:

"...violence in the home can happen with lightning speed. Within 45 seconds, Patrick has been shouted at, threatened, pushed up against the wall, punched in the ribs, hit with a fist on the side of his head, and struck in the face and chest. And, the perpetrator of all the violence is his lover."

It is my experience that people - gay or straight - who have themselves had  their lives touched by violence more readily understand the story and thus the difficult themes of Gentlemen's Game, and are far less resistant to some of the starker realities it presents.  People who have not experienced domestic violence tend to ask, "Why doesn't she/he just leave?"  or "How can anyone forgive that?" But those who have experienced it know that these questions are far, far more complicated than that.

As awareness and acceptance of the gay community grows, society will be forced to rise to the challenge of fixing the holes in the net when victims seek assistance. The first step will be in legalizing gay relationships so that (1) victims have access to and support from, the same legal options that a hetero partner does - such as legal aid for victims of domestic violence, and (2) that gay partners who gather the courage to leave an abusive relationship do so with the security that assets combined or acquired during the course of a long-term committed union are equitably divided. 

A second important step will be stretching the societal mindset around issues of domestic violence to include the scenarios and unique dynamics of violence in gay relationships. This will mean that community resources, whether they be law enforcement, medical resources, or counseling/advocacy organizations, will need to offer their workforce training specific to working with gay victims. 

The other layer to the issues surrounding gays and intra-relationship violence is one of rape. Statistically (according to the FBI) almost all male rape occurs by other males, and often in a group. Male victims in general have added difficulties in dealing with rape when compared to women: foremost is a feeling that "allowing" oneself to be assaulted sexually, reflects upon one's masculine worth.  For this reason above all others, they often fail to report the assault to authorities or seek medical or legal assistance. But for a gay male it gets much more complicated.  The assault may cause him to deal with feelings of low self-worth on top of any feelings already present due to sexual orientation. There may have been homophobic verbal assault during the sexual assault. And as is true in domestic violence, reporting may bring up the choice of whether to out oneself or not.

The psychological damage to a gay male can be enormous. As is true with a heterosexual woman, his entire ability to trust men may come into question for years after the assault. And like a hetero woman, he may suffer semi-permanent or permanent fears around sexual contact or being penetrated, leading to severe difficulty with establishing healthy sexual relationships. The gay male victim of sexual or domestic assault (and remember that too often the two occur simultaneously, from the same abuser) may suffer the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for years after he has freed himself of the relationship.

Gentlemen's Game is the story of only one such situation. It is one young man's struggle to overcome violence and to somehow reconcile his life and his mind to its aftermath. His choices would not be the right ones for all of us, but in the real world these choices are not black and white, and each victim has to come to terms in a way that makes sense for him alone. 

We need to make certain that as the gay community gains societal power, we insist upon putting resources in place that help each victim of violence find his own path back to safety, reconciliation with the event according to his own values and needs, and sexual and psychological fulfillment.

Further reading and resources on domestic violence in the GLBT community:

Hear me speak about Domestic Violence in the gay community in this podcast:

 Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project:

(NOTE: Although I focused on male adult victims in this article due to the subject matter of my novel, issues surrounding lesbians and GLBT teen victims of sexual assault and relationship violence are equally complex and important, and we as a responsible society will be equally obligated to provide adequate resources for these populations in the future.)

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