Nationwide, while the rate of violence in the LGBTQ community mirrors that of straight relationships, less than 25 percent of all victims report their abuse.
There are a number of reasons for that disparity, but largely, it’s a lack of resources — lack of support from family and friends, fear of further isolation and a lack of specific LGBTQ services. If a victim has not admitted his or her sexuality, utilizing existing services (such as a shelter, attending support groups or calling a crisis line) can mean lying or hiding the gender of the batterer to be perceived as a heterosexual. Or it can mean coming out, which is a major life decision. They may find that shelters are gender-specific, which makes it difficult for transgender or transsexual victims to find help.
Fortunately, here in Central New York, there are a fair number of resources available to those in the LGBTQ community who are subjected to abuse at the hands of their partners. Vera House’s LGBTQ outreach coordinator, Tiffany Braley, said the issue is making people aware that those resources exist.
“At Vera House, we’re open to anyone, no matter how they identify,” Braley said. “We want to make the programs we have more accessible to the LGBTQ community. Part of that is changing the language that we use so that it’s more gender-inclusive. We do have some materials that are more specific to LGBTQ relationships and the specific types of abuse to look for.”
In many cases, the kinds of abuse suffered by those in LGBTQ relationships are the same as those in heterosexual relationships, but there are some behaviors that are more specific.
“If I haven’t told my family or friends, my partner might threaten to out me. ‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll tell everyone about you,’” Braley said. “If I’m transgender, my partner may use homophobic slurs against me, or maybe they won’t use the right gender pronouns. If I’m transitioning, they might withhold hormones from me. Those are some of the bigger pieces that are specific to the LGBTQ community.”
As is true in heterosexual relationships, escaping an abusive relationship is never as simple as just leaving. That’s especially true in teen dating relationships when young people are still figuring out their sexuality.
“If I’m figuring out how I identify and how I feel and I don’t have the confidence to create boundaries, that’s a piece of the abuse,” Braley said. “If a kid isn’t out to anybody, they’re scared. They’re afraid of what their family is going to say. In some cases, they don’t have the support of their families. In a relationship, a lot of times, your first relationship, it’s nice to get attention. It’s nice to have someone like you. When issues arise, if my partner is abusing me, I’m likely to try to justify it.”
So where can kids turn in that situation?
One resource that local high schools offer for LGBTQ students are Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). Both Liverpool and Cicero-North Syracuse have GSAs, which aim to make the school community safe and welcoming to all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Liverpool’s GSA is advised by Kate Caveny, a special education teacher who is herself gay. She and her partner have five children.
“I make the kids aware of that so that they understand that I know where they’re coming from,” Caveny said. “I’ve been through what they have, so they can come to me and I can relate.”
However, Caveny said many students are reluctant to turn to an adult for help should they find themselves in an abusive relationship.
“A lot of the difficulties they face in a dating relationship are similar to those they find in their friendships and maintenance of those relationships, the stress and pressures on those relationships,” Caveny said. “Kids who used to be their friends are no longer their friends. They’re just trying to get through it. We try to get them to come to an adult and talk about it, but they think they can take care of it on their own. ‘I was bullied all through middle school. I know I can handle it on my own.’ They don’t know. They’re not equipped.”
Caveny said that GSAs offer that support system. The peer group in the GSA can help the student when he or she can’t or won’t turn to an adult.
“GSAs provide a great sense of support,” she said. “They encourage and foster healthy relationships. They know that they’re valued and they’re cared for and they have a safe place to go.”
Braley said that the Central New York area in general provided numerous safe places for the LGBTQ community.
“I think we do have a fair amount of resources,” she said. “The problem is getting the information out there. There are a good amount of resources for people who are LGBTQ. It’s about having the conversation. Things are changing. Here in Syracuse, we have the Q Center, which is a part of the AIDS Resource Center. They’re becoming much more available as a resource to young people. Schools are also becoming a really good resource as more and more are providing GSAs.”
Braley said the Q Center provides a number of resources to young people. It offers support groups, educational support, counseling services, social events, HIV/STD education and testing, opportunities for community involvement and support for Gay-Straight Alliances and schools.
“In my position [as LGBTQ outreach coordinator], I do outreach to the community to let them know that we’re a safe space,” Braley said. “I go to the Q Center and do presentations for teens and college groups and the trans group, and we have conversations about anything relating to healthy relationships.”
It’s important to provide that support to young people in LGBTQ relationships because they’re more likely to try to justify abusive behaviors.
“A lot of it, as a younger couple, you’re figuring yourselves out, and you’ve spent the majority of your life being told that you’re not okay and you’re not normal,” Braley said. “It makes it really hard to reach out. It makes it even more difficult to build those skills for a healthy relationship. It’s nice to meet someone who’s going to accept you. You don’t want to lose the good stuff, so you’re more likely to justify the bad stuff. If my society tells me I’m wrong and I’m not normal, I’m a whole lot less likely to reach out to somebody if something happens. How will they treat me? What will they say? That’s a big piece of doing outreach — getting teens to identify what the safe places are that you can go in those situations.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.